During the period he lived in New York and worked odd jobs, Charlie Kaufman once had a conversation with a colleague about Jews and height.
“I said Jews are small, she said Jews are tall. But I really couldn’t conceive of that,” he said. “I’m short, plus I had these uncles who had really shrunk and I knew that was my future if I lived that long. I guess I identified a lot with the Woody Allen version of being Jewish.”
Kaufman’s ingrained notions of Jewishness may have something to do with his highly idiosyncratic yet award-winning screenplays. He can’t say for sure, particularly since he’s no fan of definitive statements about his work or life.
“I don’t like to dictate how others should think,” he said. “Let people view things like a Rorschach test, and let them make up their own minds.”
Famous for penning those darkly comic and surreal films such as “Being John Malkovitch,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the 46-year-old Kaufman has recently branched out into theater, where he continues to apply his open-ended ambiguity.
His latest project, called “Hope Leaves the Theater,” kicks-off UCLA Live’s season on Sept. 14 and stars Meryl Streep, Hope Davis and Peter Dinklage, who perform without sets, costumes or even eye-contact.
“It’s a sound play,” Kaufman said. “And I had to be very conscious of writing a script that wouldn’t work as a movie or a conventional play.”
Collectively titled “Theater of the New Ear,” the UCLA performances feature both Kaufman’s play and a new work by Frances Fregoli. Both plays rely on a technician responsible for simulating numerous sound effects. There’s also live musical accompaniment composed by Carter Burwell, who conceived the “New Ear” concept, which combines music, sound and text with minimal visual effects.
In Kaufman’s play, the three actors play three actors getting ready to perform a play. Later, Davis becomes an audience member, who voices every thought running through her head and eventually leaves the theater. Streep and Dinklage then portray characters that Davis meets on the street.
“With this medium, you’re limited by what you can present visually, but there’s also a certain freedom,” Kaufman said. “The actors can go anywhere, even thought they never leave the stage.”
Kaufman grew up in Massapequa, N.Y, and later in West Hartford, Conn. While his family belonged to an Orthodox shul, Kaufman didn’t have an especially religious upbringing. Jewishness took the form of reading Kafka or laughing at the humor of the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce.
After graduating from New York University, where he studied filmmaking and acted in student productions, Kaufman spent the ensuing decade in a series of odd jobs that included working in the circulation department of a newspaper and in an art museum. After “turning 30 with no prospects,” Kaufman moved to Los Angeles and try his luck in TV. He broke into show business because of “luck and persistence.”
“An agent who repped a friend of mine had agreed to read a script I wrote,” he recalled. “I called him every week for a year to see if he had read it. Finally, his assistant read it.”
Several years and various TV gigs later, Kaufman hit it big with “Being John Malkovitch,” a film he did not expect to get produced but which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Some six years later, he maintains that his life “hasn’t changed all that much” and that his writing process remains the same.
“I don’t like to show my scripts to people when I’m working on them,” he said. “I get deflated very easily. I still spend a lot of time ruminating and getting stuck. I’m not the type of writer who has a routine.”
Kaufman added: “Rewrites are getting easier and yes, it helps to have taken someone’s money when you’re trying to finish something. It’s very hard to take yourself seriously as a writer when you have no way to prove it in some external way to people. So I guess it does make a difference that I know there’s an audience for my work.”
Kaufman, who’s married and has a young daughter, remains vigilant about keeping his private life exactly that. “You want to find out about my personal life?” he asks with a chuckle. “Just watch my movies.”
“Theater of the New Ear,” featuring “Hope Leaves the Theater,” Sept. 14-16, 8 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA. Tickets $38-$60. For information, call (310) 825-2101 or visit href=”http://www.uclalive.org” target=”_blank”>www.uclalive.org.