Laura Kepley maneuvers around a portable kitchen island placed near the middle of her living room. The extra counter space has been blocking the entranceway for a few days while the Cleveland Heights Tudor undergoes some minor renovations.
Her playwright husband George Brant has disappeared to the back of the house with a few metal exhaust tubes left behind from the laundry machine and dryer that the previous owner had in the space. While the artistic couple has lived here for a little more than a year, they're just now updating the kitchen by adding more cabinetry.
"We've been renters and apartment people for all of our adult lives," Kepley says. "It's really wonderful to put down real roots."
Yet, today, the natural disorder of their lives seems a little more chaotic.
As she walks toward the couch, Kepley notices a half-dead amaryllis sticking out of a green pot in the center of a table and quickly moves it off to one side.
"George and I actually bought the bulb this year as a way of starting a new tradition in our new home," she says.
A lithe blonde with a quick and determined gait, she pulls tightly on her heather-gray suit jacket and lets out a small sigh of relief as she sits.
The amaryllis, meant to bloom once around Christmas, actually bloomed twice this year, a sure sign that good times were ahead. For two people whose lives are built on literary devices, the symbolism seems too easy.
As artistic director of Cleveland Play House, Kepley is busy mounting the institution's historic 100th season, which opens in September, just four years removed from the organization's move to Playhouse Square.
Meanwhile Brant's play, Grounded, hits the stage of New York's Public Theater April 7 with Hollywood highflyer Anne Hathaway in the lead role and The Lion King's Julie Taymor directing. The one-woman show follows the descent of an Air Force fighter pilot as she struggles to raise a family while carrying out drone attacks from a windowless trailer in the middle of the Nevada desert.
"So much of your work ends up never seeing the light of day," says Brant, who has returned with a cup of coffee in his hands. "Then this one has gone on to do such amazing things."
In 2012, Grounded won the National New Play Network's Smith Prize, which honors the best work on American politics, and has been produced more than 30 times, including in Sweden, Australia, Israel and England.
The play is dedicated to Kepley, who helped him revise an early version of the script and incorporated it last May into the Play House's New Ground Theatre Festival. And as with all of his plays, Kepley was the first to read the script when he finished.
"In some ways, she's an action hero," Kepley says of the play's central figure. "Grounded is the most extreme version of trying to find a life-work balance — which we all struggle with, especially women."
Both artists are accustomed to dealing with turbulence.
Last year was Kepley's first full season as Cleveland Play House's artistic director, which included a turn directing Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes as the season opener — a play about a family torn apart by greed and betrayal. And for much of last year, Brant spent weeks at a time traveling, participating in workshops and productions for Grounded.
But as Brant's play takes off, the two are united by their love for the dramatic arts and are facing what might be the biggest breakthroughs of their careers. "This play has far exceeded any dreams I had for it in its trajectory," says Brant.
She fell in love with his work at first sight.
They were both theater majors at Northwestern University but never even met on the Evanston, Illinois, campus of 6,000. Brant, who graduated in 1991, was two years ahead of Kepley, who only knew him as one of the cool kids in a campus comedy troupe.
After graduation, however, they lived three blocks from each other in Roscoe Village — Chicago's equivalent of Ohio City — where they nurtured their passion for theater and acting in coffee shops, storefront theaters and bars.
"The Chicago of the '90s reminds me a lot — in terms of artistic opportunity — of what Cleveland is now," says Kepley. "There's great support. There are spaces and people. So if you have an idea and a passion, you can find like-minded people and make great stuff."
At 22, Brant worked out of the basement of Cafe Voltaire, a bare-bones space with minimal props and mismatched furniture. As a true underground theater, it meant plays could comfortably involve no more than three actors. Playwrights and directors had to make their sets from scratch. But unlike most venues, Voltaire didn't require an upfront deposit, taking a cut of the house instead.
It's where Brant premiered Lovely Letters — a satirical comedy in which a mailman becomes a messenger for a couple in a long-distance relationship and performs a ballet between monologues.
"Sometimes we'd lose a couple thousand dollars; sometimes we'd make a couple thousand," he says. "If you didn't lose money it was a triumph."
Making money meant there would be a next show.
In 1997, Kepley attended Brant's Tights on a Wire — a tragicomedy about two rival circus families: the Gambonis, a family of tightrope walkers, and the Habronkos, a family of cannonballers who threatened to bring new technology to the circus. Two of Kepley's friends had a part and invited her to a performance.
"George's early work was this really strange blend of parody and tragicomedy," she recalls, "almost like a theater of the absurd but with a little more grounding in reality and just with a lot of heart."
Kepley stuck around after the show to meet him. "He was cool and he was funny," she recalls. "But I was surprised by how warm and kind he was, because the play was a little wacky and irreverent."
They started dating almost immediately.
But there was already an expiration date hanging over their heads: Kepley had accepted an eight-month contract in Cincinnati to act in a pair of touring plays, one based on King Arthur's legend and the other on a series of excerpts from Shakespeare's work. With only two months to prepare, they made the most of their time, frequently dropping by the other's apartment and taking nightly walks, hand-in-hand, to Lake Michigan.
They were almost inseparable.
At the time, Kepley lived above the Damen Avenue Grill, a popular Roscoe Village neighborhood pub. She and Brant and a group of 10 to 12 friends would pick up copies of the same play from the library and stage dramatic readings in her living room.
"We were actors and we had a lot of friends who were actors," she recalls. "It was a great time of being young and being an artist. We did that a lot because it was cheap, and it was what we were most passionate about."
When Kepley left for Cincinnati, their love for their work sustained them.
Brant continued building his theater company, acquiring actors eager to perform and working with his friend, Derek Goldman, at the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, a then-fledgling professional theater and education center.
"I've kind of always had a sense that in his brilliant worldview lurked other kinds of material, like Grounded," says Goldman. "But for many years it was manifested through primarily comic works."
Meanwhile, Brant and Kepley had to count their long-distance minutes, since neither of them made enough money to sustain long phone conversations.
After three months of not seeing each other, Brant decided to surprise Kepley with a visit to Cincinnati. "My fingers were crossed that I would be well received," Brant recalls.
He says this, perched on the edge of their living room couch, his gray hair rising like wisps of smoke on top of his head. Kepley turns and waves him away, laughing, as if to shoo away the idea that she could have been anything but moved by the gesture.
At the time, she was starring in a play about Anne Sexton's poetry that required the actors to blend into the audience before the curtain rises. Seated toward the back of the 250-seat theater, Kepley saw Brant walking up the stairs toward his seat but, in character, she couldn't do anything.
"You don't want to think about how much you miss the person you love because you just need to focus on the work," she says. "But I think in that moment, when I saw him, I realized how much I missed him and how important he was to me."
After a year-and-a-half apart, Kepley and Brant picked up like an intermission between acts.
She moved into his Chicago apartment and over the next two years directed several of his one-man plays, including performances of One Hand Clapping in which Brant makes fun of himself onstage as a parody of one-person plays, and The Royal Historian of Oz, a careful, loving portrait of L. Frank Baum, author and creator of The Wizard of Oz.
Brant's talents earned him a job as head writer for Bix Pix Entertainment, a then Chicago-based stop-motion studio that produced animated shorts for the Disney Channel. He helped create shows such as Dinner Time in which a young girl interviews historical figures who emerge from a grandmother clock every evening.
"We were both growing as artists as our love for each other was growing," says Kepley.
They were engaged in 2000 and married in August the following year in Cincinnati.
Before the wedding, they had both applied to graduate programs suited to their interests.
And like in any good drama, they were accepted almost 2,000 miles apart — Kepley at Brown University's new collaborative MFA program with Trinity Repertory Co. in Providence, Rhode Island, and Brant at the Michener Writers Program at the University of Texas in Austin for playwriting.
"We didn't want to be separated in the first year of our marriage," says Kepley. "So, he made an incredible sacrifice, and he came to school with me."
For three years, Brant woke up every morning and drove Kepley to Trinity Rep for her 9 a.m. classes. Then he would return every evening between 11 p.m. and midnight to pick her up.
He spent his days working for a temp agency, getting placed in state jobs that ranged from a receptionist at a probation office to a day in a state mental hospital. But the assignments gave him opportunities to write when things were slow.
"My style definitely changed during that point," says Brant. "Things got a little less comedic and started moving toward drama."
As one of just two directors in a class of 16 actors, Kepley worked at least three hours a day directing plays. But she was still required to take 10 hours of acting and studio classes, eight hours of voice classes and six hours of physical theater every week. She loved every minute of working with instructors such as Oskar Eustis, who now runs New York's Public Theater, and Kevin Moriarty, who runs the Dallas Theater Center in Texas.
"That was such an incredible gift," says Kepley. "It really defined who I was as an artist."
In her third year, Kepley's vision began to crystallize during her adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. Traditionally, the opening act calls for an actress in a simple white dress to narrate the desolate scene.
"In one word, life — all, all life, completing the dreary round imposed upon it, has died out at last," the actress says.
In Kepley's version, the narrator digs her hand into a cow's carcass onstage constructed out of real bones, sponges and fake blood.
"The bodies of all living creatures have dropped to dust," the actress says, "and eternal matter has transformed them into stones and water and clouds."
Covered from head to toe in the viscera, she dislodges a rib cage and wears it like a corset.
"But their spirits have flowed together into one, and that great world-soul am I!"
Stephen Berenson, a professor of Kepley's at the time and now the residing director of the same program, remembers the performance. "It was extremely compelling," he says. "It was funny and frightening, and exactly what was appropriate for that moment in the play."
Rhode Island turned out to be good for Brant as well. In Chicago, the turnaround had to be quick. He would write a play in two weeks, and it would be onstage four weeks later. Without an acting company to support, Brant could refine his work.
"Your plays got more thoughtful and deeper," Kepley says to her husband, with the definitiveness of a director passionate about the product. "That thoughtfulness really opened up a lot of possibilities."
Terminal One, for example, revolved around Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who lived in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for 17 years. Another, called NOK, was about a mother who avoids returning home when she discovers the military is waiting to deliver news of her deceased son.
"Whatever world George is creating, he has empathy for all of the characters in that world," says Berenson, who would often give him feedback on his work. "There's never a villain in one of his plays and there's never a hero really."
As the curtain started to close on Kepley's time at Brown, she encouraged Brant to reapply to the University of Texas. She planned to follow him like he did for her, making Austin her base to work as a freelance director.
But on the same day he was accepted in Austin, she was offered a one-year contract as artistic associate at Trinity Rep.
"It was huge," says Kepley. This was why she went to graduate school, everything she'd worked toward: the chance to work and direct at a major theater. "That was exactly what I wanted."
This time, they decided Brant had to have the same opportunity she'd received. So Kepley stayed behind in Rhode Island, while he went off to Texas. After a year, her contract was extended. So for the next two years, they relied on Southwest Airlines gift cards from friends and family to visit each other during breaks and holidays.
"Something that somebody taught us about long-distance relationships is always know the next time you're going to see them," says Kepley. "So when you say goodbye to them at the airport, you know when you're going to see them again."
In Kepley and Brant's Cleveland Heights basement, two maps hang on a wall across from the images that plot the trajectory of his career. A deep-violet poster for One Hand Clapping depicts Brant in exaggerated expressions of comedy and tragedy. Another for Elephant's Graveyard, a story about the criminalization and execution of an elephant, which was produced by Brant's Illinois high school, mirrors the graphic design of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
On the maps, more than 30 silver airplanes mark where Grounded has been performed — San Francisco, Tucson, Arizona, and London — in the United States and United Kingdom.
"As a playwright, you are so involved in the first couple of productions, but then it goes and has a life of its own," says Kepley, before leading the way upstairs. "This is a way of sort of acknowledging that and making it real."
Likewise in Brant's second-floor office, more than 150 tiny silver elephants gallivant their way across the United States, often overlapping each other, for Elephant's Graveyard.
As his thesis at the University of Texas, the play was a massive undertaking. The story required more than 15 actors — the largest of any play he had done previously.
During the process, Brant was paired with dramaturge Erica Nagel to edit the play. The two painstakingly condensed the story, trimming the language and tightening some of the overarching threads. By the time they were finished, more than 5,000 words had been removed from the roughly hour-and-a-half play.
"In his more recent plays, Elephant's Graveyard and Grounded, there are very few stage directions," says Kepley, who directed Elephant's Graveyard's first production. "It's really up to the director and the design team to fill in and create the world."
Her production, for example, demonstrated a collision between the town, the railroad and the circus. Others have since taken their own liberties by including live bands and improvised acrobatics.
"His work has evolved in its theatrical sophistication and in its emotional generosity," says Goldman, who directed a production of Grounded at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore last fall and again at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland, last month.
"There's a wide landscape of forms, styles, issues and themes that his plays are addressing," he adds. "It's a remarkably diverse body of work."
As a playwright, Brant labors over his scripts on such a minute level that by the time the play is ready for performance, he's carved himself into every character.
During a writer's workshop in 2012, Brant worked with Kepley, Nagel and a group of interns to develop Grounded's plot carefully, looking at seemingly small choices of words and phrasing.
"It was really about going through and making sure that the character never uses a word that would be outside of her frame of reference and her vocabulary," says Nagel, recalling a 20-minute discussion on the placement of a "huh" and whether it deserved another.
"That was the level of microscopic detail that we were working on," she adds.
Though the play revolves around one woman, Brant conjures other characters through the pilot's monologue while remaining rooted in her thoughts.
It creates a cyclical, rhythmic movement that at times leaves the audience breathless as she describes flying in "the big blue" and tells stories of her infant daughter waiting at home.
"This is war in a way we've never fought it before," says Brant. "I was very interested in how that affects the psyche — to be at war 12 hours a day and then come home and strive to be an engaged family member."
Since Kepley arrived at Cleveland Play House as associate artistic director in 2010, she's wanted to tell stories that matter.
"They're smart, personal, provocative, thrilling and necessary," she says.
But there were other forces at play as well. Shortly after she arrived, Cleveland Play House partnered with Playhouse Square and Cleveland State University to relocate from its Euclid Avenue home near the Cleveland Clinic to the redesigned Allen Complex in Playhouse Square.
The $30 million project included the 500-seat Allen Theatre; versatile Outcalt Theatre, one of just three like it in the country capable of reconfiguring the stage and its seating; and the 150-seat Helen Lab, which hosts Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve student productions.
In 2013, Michael Bloom stepped down after nine years leading the organization, and Kepley became the ninth artistic director and second female in its history.
"The company was in many ways reinventing itself," Kepley explains.
In little more than a year since she took over, the Play House has grown its season ticket subscribers by 10 percent, and she's attracting attention for the momentum she's building.
"She's brought a very dynamic energy to the establishment," says Eric Coble, whose play Fairfield — which focuses on issues of race after Black History Month goes terribly wrong in an elementary school — closes out this season in May.
Of the 300 plays considered each year, eight are selected for full production. Kepley directs at least two of them.
"In every aspect of my job, I look for challenges," she says. "I always want to be exploring new ground."
This season, she directed the first production, Little Foxes, and will direct Coble's Fairfield, while teaching workshops and classes for the CWRU/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting program.
"If there is a compelling story that makes me scared and a little nervous, then I know that's the play I need to direct," she says. "There are things in that, that I need to explore, both personally and artistically."
In 2012, during her second year in Cleveland, she directed Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), which focused heavily on female sexuality in repressive Victorian times.
One year later, she chose to direct Coble's A Carol for Cleveland, about a father who's separated from his family on Christmas Eve and temporarily adopted by another.
"She brings what I call a 'no-fingerprints-kind-of-directing style,' " says Coble. "She doesn't do anything showy or flashy to draw attention to herself as a director. She just tells the story."
Coble's Fairfield originally caught Kepley's eye last year at a table-reading. She slated the Cleveland Heights playwright's new work for the New Ground Theatre Festival last May and is giving it its world premiere this season.
"Fairfield brings up tricky issues of race and diversity, and wraps them in beauty, humor and humanity," says Kepley. "Humor is the great equalizer, and if you can get people laughing, then you can make a real connection."
Starting in September, for the 100th season, she'll continue putting community center stage as she directs The Crucible and Steel Magnolias. And she's bent on bringing alumni back to Cleveland for the performances.
"This whole vision quest we've been on for about two years really comes back to our founding impulse," Kepley says, "to tell the stories relevant to our community and to really put onstage the things we're feeling in our hearts, our minds and our neighborhoods."
Behind Brant and Kepley, the street outside is quiet and covered in snow. The noises in the kitchen have died down and the unseen construction worker has gone home.
This is the longest the couple has ever sat on the couch in this room. But it seems appropriate.
It is Kepley's 44th birthday and just a week before Brant heads to New York to join Anne Hathaway in rehearsals for Grounded at Public Theater.
"They have a vocabulary that exists just between them," says Berenson. "They have their own set of rules they have either worked out or that have just come to be over time that allow them each their own individual careers while simultaneously always bolstering their partner."
"[Our relationship] started out long distance and seems to have continued," says Brant. The tone in his voice is one of comic relief, though it falters just slightly, as if to suggest he can't wait to return home after his travels.
And while it's no easy feat for the artistic director to be the face of an institution as well as a wife to a rising playwright, Kepley seems unfazed as they move toward the future.
"One of the things we really try not to do is take each other for granted," says Kepley, pulling her hair back over her right shoulder and glancing at Brant.
"So, when we are with each other, we can really be with each other and store that up in the reservoir, so that when we are away, we still have something in the reservoir."