Women of NYMF 2017

Throughout July and the beginning of August, we will once again feature women involved in this year’s New York Musical Festival. NYMF’s goal is to support the development of new and diverse works of musical theatre, and over the coming weeks we’ll be spotlighting a mix of the women involved: from actresses to directors, from those with Broadway credits to those just beginning their careers. The shows they’re a part of represent a range of styles and subject matters, and are all at different stages of development. We visited them at locations throughout Manhattan to find out about their shows and their thoughts on the theatre.

The Women of NYMF’s Student Leadership Program

Jane Silverstein, Alexa Spiegel, Brianna Barnes, Sumner Perera, and Jada Temple (and Lindsey Ruggles, not pictured).

Photography by Marisa Chafetz

For our final installment of our “Women of NYMF” series, we wanted to highlight the young women participated in New York Musical Festival’s Student Leadership Program (SLP). The program is made up of college students and recent grads who are interested in pursuing careers in theatre and gives them the opportunity to create an original concert that is presented as part of the NYMF lineup.


Brianna Barnes, 23
Graduated from CCM in 2016 with a BFA in Musical Theatre.
Composer in SLP’s United We Stand Concert

From your perspective, what do you think would make it easier for you to pursue the creative path that you want to pursue?
I think the biggest thing since moving to the city has just been a lack of mentorship. I wish that there were more ways to talk to people who have been in the business. I feel in school we’re taught a lot about the craft—how to act, how to dance—and not enough about the business—how to audition, how to find opportunities when you aren’t cast in things, and how to keep your creative juices flowing. I would love to see more mentorship for the young theatre community. And just more opportunities. It seems the field is growing so rapidly. The ratio of jobs to people that are trying to do this is just so much more intense now.

Do you have a dream project that you would like to do either in the near future or someday?
The two songs that I had in the show for United We Stand are from a show that I wrote called Let There Be Light. I did a fully mounted production of that at school my senior year. So a dream would be to see that come to fruition here in the city with a cast that I’m in love with. I just want it to have a wider audience, and see people affected by that original work that I’ve done.


Sumner Perera, 20
Attending Harvard University. Majoring in Chemical and Physical Biology and minoring in Theatre, Dance, and Media.
Performer in SLP’s United We Stand concert

From your perspective, what do you think would make it easier for you to pursue the creative path that you want to pursue?
It would be helpful to have mentors and people in the field who could extend some help to us young performers and motivate us and inspire us to do our own music, our own works, our own interpretations of existing plays or new plays. Having some sort of network with industry professionals and up-and-coming writers or performers would be extremely helpful. I also sing jazz, in addition to acting and theatre, so I think having some sort of combination of the two in concert form or theatre form would be helpful.

Do you have a dream project that you would like to do either in the near future or someday?
As of now, a dream project of mine would be to be in some sort of musical that has large jazz influences. So we have a lot of altos in the show—I think we need more altos in this business. Some sort of lovely show that is pushing boundaries and talking about the issues of today, in our world, in our generation, and that touches people and inspires them. I would love to perform in that.


Lindsey Ruggles, 21
Attending Harvard University. Majoring in Theater, Dance, and Media.
Director of SLP’s United We Stand concert

From your perspective, what do you think would make it easier for you to pursue the creative path that you want to pursue?
I think that what makes it easiest for any creative path is being able to find people that are willing to take risks and collaborate. I think that I was very lucky with my team for United We Stand, our concert, to be able to find a group of people that were so willing to say yes and were so willing to try things and take those risks. I think that kind of having opportunities where you feel like, “Okay, I feel like I have my group and there’s always room to grow,” are important. It’s really a gift to be in New York, but sometimes being in New York can also be a little overwhelming, so having opportunities like SLP to bring together groups of people to create something, even groups of people that might not have known each other well before, is just endlessly valuable.

Do you have a dream project that you would like to do either in the near future or someday?
I’m on this team for this concert at 54 Below. I’m the assistant director of a concert of Sam Wilmott’s work, which is incredible. In terms of the longer-term dreams, there’s actually two productions that are in the works right now. One of them is a site-specific production of Spring Awakening that is hopefully happening in affiliation with Planned Parenthood. The whole message of the show is about the importance of education in terms of our bodies and in terms of sexual and reproductive health. That feels especially timely now. The other one that I’ve been working on is a production of Sunday in the Park with George. It has a virtual reality take on it, and currently a team of other artists and computer scientists at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon and a whole bunch of other schools are working to develop the technology to find a way to let that sort of storytelling technology find its way into theatre while still keeping the humanity of theatre at its core. That is another dream for sure.


Jane Silverstein, 18 (almost 19)
Attending Brooklyn College. Majoring in Technical Theatre and Design.
Stage Manager for SLP’s United We Stand concert

From your perspective, what do you think would make it easier for you to pursue the creative path that you want to pursue?
I’m going in the technical design field, and it’s really hard trying to find shows and jobs for young technicians because usually—especially design jobs—they want more experienced technicians and designers. When you go through Playbill, all the actors have the options to audition for all these things, but for technicians it’s all about who you know, and when you’re in school, trying to find those people who will hire you to do their lights and design or to stage manage is kind of hard. So I think having more opportunities for young people and college-age students to do that kind of work would be helpful.

Do you have a dream project that you would like to do either in the near future or someday?
I don’t think I’ve seen my dream project yet because theatre’s evolving so much, especially in the technical aspects with projections and the way sound design is changing. So I think maybe we’ll see it soon, but then they all just keep progressing. I think that’s the beauty of my field right now.


Alexa Spiegel, 21
Graduated from Fordham University in 2017 with a degree in Communications.
Producer of SLP’s United We Stand concert

From your perspective, what do you think would make it easier for you to pursue the creative path that you want to pursue?
I am struggling to find a straight and narrow path that I want to pursue. I was reading this article by Jennifer Tepper that was in Forbes, and she was talking about how hard it is to not know exactly where you fit and trying to figure that out as a recent grad. I think that growing up, I didn’t really know many career paths that were not performing or directing or something in a creative position, which I knew I didn’t have the exact talent for. So I think it would be really helpful for me, and for other kids, to widen that knowledge and teach kids about different career paths like producing or being an artistic director or doing marketing. I think maybe knowing that earlier on might have helped me. Just widening the knowledge for people who want to go into theatre, and saying, “Hey, these aren’t the only opportunities. There are all of these other jobs out there.”

Do you have a dream project that you would like to do either in the near future or someday?
I’m really into supporting my friends’ work. I’m really just the biggest cheerleader in the entire world. So I think my dream project would be producing one of my friends’ works that was boundary-pushing, and something that someone else might not necessarily pick up, but that I really believe in. I would just love to see them succeed, and cheerlead their show and be a part of that.


Jada Temple, 21
Attending Pace University. Majoring in Musical Theatre.
Performer in SLP’s United We Stand concert

From your perspective, what do you think would make it easier for you to pursue the creative path that you want to pursue?
I’m struggling with figuring out what my creative path is. I’ve been really working on trying to figure out what it is within the past month, because the more I look into Broadway and its inner workings, I’m more and more disappointed by it. I’m not excited by it as much anymore. It pays the bills, but it seems to be practically devoid of any real creative artistry. I think at this point what would help me follow my creative path would be figuring out what I want to do as a person that makes theatre, as an actor, as a writer.

Do you have a dream project that you would like to do either in the near future or someday?
I have figured out, within the past week, that something that I really, really want to do, maybe ten or twenty years from now, is open up my own theatre and own a theatre downtown somewhere. Akin to the Public, maybe. Maybe one day I’ll be female Joe Papp. That would be amazing, but that’s very long term. Short term definitely is to be an actor and do meaningful work, and then if not, just make a lot of money so I can open my theatre.


Harriett D. Foy, Erin Leigh Peck, and Veronica Reyes-How of Motherfreakinghood

Harriett D. Foy, Erin Leigh Peck, and Veronica Reyes-How

Photography by Jessica Nash

“Rachael, wide-eyed and optimistic, is elated to finally put her party days behind and become a mom… #YAY! Angie has pre-enrolled her unborn child in the most exclusive all-girls preschool (definitely a girl, she already has a boy). After three kids, Marcia thought she was done. Is it bad that she doesn’t want to cancel her wine of the month club or stop having sex on her back? With a soundtrack ranging from rock to pop to funk and more, join these three unlikely friends as they bond in the trenches from pregnancy tests to empty nests, dominating the diapers and tackling the teens with unmotherly charm, one bottle at a time!”

 Starring Harriett D. Foy, Erin Leigh Peck, and Veronica Reyes-How. For tickets and more information, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Harriett: I hope that audiences understand and appreciate the depth to which mothers go to bring children into the world and rear them and raise them, even if they don’t have help. It’s quite a journey and a process and very empowering as an actor to see this process in this show.

Erin: As a mother myself, I hope that women who come to see this show who are also mothers, or thinking about becoming mothers, or have mothers, have new appreciation for the universality of the situations that mothers find themselves in today. And as mothers, to kind of let things go a little bit, laugh at yourself and not always try to be so perfect, which is sort of the antithesis of what my character in the show is doing.

Veronica: I hope that people really witness the community and the beauty of these friendships and women bonding together to get through these stages of motherhood. I myself am not a mother yet, but I think that’s the thing that’s been impressed upon me: this incredible community coming around each other. These three women have nothing in common other than the fact that they’ve met at the gynecologist office and are having these children at the same time, and the beauty of them deepening their relationships and their friendships to support one another through 18 years of raising these kids is so beautiful. And really, that stems from the story created by the writers. They were friends in college and have been friends ever since then, and just created this musical out of their own experiences. So we hope that beauty of women supporting women comes through.

Veronica Reyes-How

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Harriett: This process is quick, so you have to be on your game and on point. You have to go home and study every night because it’s quick, and next thing you know you’re doing the show. Meeting new people, working together, putting your mark on a new show and helping give birth to these writers’ show, that’s been a fun point for me.

Erin: What I’ve been very impressed with is how our director, Terry Berliner, is working quickly—as you have to, because we have an incredible amount of material and a very short period of time. But what Terry somehow magically managed to do is allow us to explore and invent and let things sort of organically evolve and let the show create itself, which is the way a new show should be created. But at the same time, she’s keeping us on schedule and on track and on pace, and being extremely specific about everything. It’s really the best of all worlds, and I think it’s the way this kind of thing should be done.

Veronica: I would second everything that they just said. I’m not a mother and I’ve never had any of these experiences, but I completely relate to everything that my character Rachel is going through, because I feel like that actually would be me in motherhood. Just bringing the reality, the truth, and the sincerity and the heart of it, as well as the comedy, has been such an incredible journey through the process.

Harriett D. Foy

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Erin: Make tickets cheaper.

Harriett: I think it helps too when you do community events, and have people come in and do more of those meet and greets with community events. Doing performances outside. Making the process more open so that people can come in and watch the development of it. And a great commercial.

Veronica: I think that material like this, that’s really accessible and contemporary and is based on relatable experiences that most audience members can understand, is the type of theatre that can bring in audiences from all over. This show could literally play in any city in the country. I listen to a lot of writers’ podcasts and have written my own things, and the one thing I love that I’ve heard over and over again from producers is that they love material that you personally have either connected with or something that you organically have lived through.

Erin Leigh Peck

What’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Veronica: Exactly what these women did. I go out for a lot of things and I’ve been really fortunate to have a career rich in a lot of different types of work, like commercials and TV and film and theatre. But what’s most fulfilling to me is creating my own work. Right now I’m working on a pilot about my mother, because my mother came over here from the Philippines and she started her own practice as a doctor. It’s so interesting to be in the 70s and to be a minority female and create that. Recently I booked an ABC pilot that Zach Braff was the star in, he was the director, he helped write it, and he’s the producer. Watching him on the days that I shot just move through and have this sense of ownership of everything was so exciting. It’s the thing that made me get really excited about creating my own material.

Harriett: I’ve had a really fun career and I look forward to even more fun things. But I find my mind is moving more to the producing end. So trying to find the finances to produce these new works and also give women more of a voice and empowering women in that. I have some side projects that I do that are for my girls that I’m always trying to figure out how can I help to make us financially stable. So I think moving into producing—and still acting—would be really great in the future.

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Harriett: We’re going through changes with the funding for the arts and all these types of things. I think in America we allow people to be who they are on stage. They can bring anything, and we’re willing to be open to that and give them a shot. So I think the opportunities here are great. I think if we keep committing to that, to producing these new works and supporting people in their journeys, I think it can only become even better.

Erin: I think as challenging as it is to survive as an artist and to make money on the producing side or the commercial side of theatre, I think we’re very, very lucky to have been born in this country as artists and Americans, because there’s very few places on the planet where someone could even attempt to make a living doing what we do. Not that it isn’t next to impossible, but the opportunities are here and the work is good and there’s always another audition tomorrow. I think we’re very, very lucky.

Veronica: I think the importance of what’s happening in the American theatre, especially in the political culture that we’re in right now, is that we need to continue to push for artistic expression and artistic freedom, and just being able to create and tell stories that are representative of all stories. And being able to protect the freedom to be able to watch and witness different kinds of lives. There have just been several stories of things being shut down because of the way that it seems to represent something. So for me, the importance right now is to continue to fight for freedom of artistic expression and being able to bring real stories to life.


Whitney White and Brynn Williams of Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical

Whitney White and Brynn Williams

Photography by Tess Mayer

“‘Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical’ tells the true story of activists who boldly challenged the legality and optics of the Jim Crow South by riding buses in mixed groups. It features Civil Rights icons Diane Nash, John Seigenthaler, John Lewis, Congress of Racial Equality’s original 13 riders, and other fearless activists of the Civil Rights Movement. ‘Freedom Riders’ is a soaring portrait of the fearless voices of the Movement who used nonviolent direct action to initiate change.”

Directed by Whitney White and starring Brynn Williams. For tickets and more information, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Whitney: I want audiences to walk away with a snapshot of people who were doing everything they could to fight for what they believed in, and that they get a glimpse of how much will and resolve it really takes to change politics. We live in a time where a lot of people are unhappy with what’s going on in our government and in our political climate, but it’s like, “What do you do about it and how do you act?” It can feel so impossible, but here is a group of people—some of them in college, some of them younger, men, women, black, white—and they just get up and they organize and they do it. I hope audiences are inspired by their will and their resolve.

Brynn: It’s exactly that. I want people to walk away with a sense of hope. Understand that we, as a community, are not where we should be in America or in the world, but neither were they. It’s important to celebrate all of the mini victories that we have. The desegregating of the buses was only one small part of the civil rights movement, and we’re still fighting that today, but look at all of the steps that we’ve made so far. We’re not completely lost. We’re not where we were all those years ago.

Whitney: That’s the amazing thing, that there is a lot of hope in the piece. Despite the fact that, as we all know, several characters that are in this piece are killed shortly thereafter, there are pockets of hope even amidst huge struggle.

Brynn: They weren’t void of frustration, which is what amazes me. The Freedom Riders did all of this peacefully, with non-violence, and it didn’t mean that they were passive. But they realized that the end goal was more important than the things that were happening to them right in their face at any given moment, and so they were able to keep it under wraps and look at the bigger picture. I hope that people take away that sometimes you have to put up with a lot of crap in order to make the bigger picture come together and create something beautiful.

Whitney White

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Whitney: It’s really interesting working with a large group of actors because a lot of times in our theatre climate today, a lot of the scripts that I get are for casts of four or less, and that’s because the business is very strained economically and in terms of resources. You start thinking, “Oh, if I want so-and-so to do my play, there can only be two people in it, and there can only be one location and nothing can change.” These guys that wrote this piece and gave me this piece to work on, there are 14 people in it and it’s in 10 locations. It’s breaking every rule that’s out there right now that’s like, “If you want your play produced, you do it this way.” It’s just fun to be reminded of what it’s like to work on a large-scale project. If you think of the old school Golden Age musicals, they were making these huge, huge pieces, and a lot of people aren’t making those today because it’s nearly impossible to get the production up. It’s been great to dream big.

Brynn: For me, the most interesting thing is the addition of Whitney. Whitney is my first black, female director and it is so cool. It’s a case of life imitating art imitating life, because Diane Nash [who I play] was central to the civil rights movement, and she was chairperson and she was organizing things and heading things. It’s so perfect and so poetic that Whitney is our black female director. She is very much the central, driving force of this piece, and it’s a really, really great addition to an already strong story.

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Whitney: It’s tough, because I always want to believe that it comes down to stories, and people love stories and people love being together and experiencing stories, so I think we just have to keep engaging audiences with the stories they need to hear. With a musical, you can cheat because people love music. I can play a song from the show and it’ll get you up and get you moving, so I think musicals can be a wonderful way to engage new audiences. This piece is dealing with period music—the actual freedom songs—and new songs. There are songs that sound like pop and there are songs that sound like R&B, so the piece is really able to galvanize lots of different age groups. I think for theatre on the whole, it’s challenging because there’s so many ways to digest entertainment these days, but the thing that live theatre gives you that nothing else can give you is the live part of it—seeing people living, breathing, in the flesh, doing a story that you are part of.

Brynn: That’s a difficult one, because there are ways to get people invested and to get people involved and interested, but then how do you still keep up that separation between the actors’ personal lives and the audience? The easy way would be to say, “Oh, put it on social media. Instagram our rehearsals, put up clips of us doing things. Do actor takeovers.” One thing that theatre has above movies and television is that all of the actors are pretty accessible. You walk by the stage door and they’re right there. You can see actors walking down 8th Avenue all day. I think maybe making people more accessible [could help], but then how do you go about doing that and then keep the artists sane? It’s difficult. How could you do that without sacrificing a little piece of yourselves? I don’t know that that’s an easy fix.

Brynn Williams

You are at different points in your careers and in different disciplines, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Brynn: More people wanting to take risks. Because there is such a protocol of how things are done, there’s an almost cookie cutter shape. If you’re going to do a musical, you need to start with a song like this, you need to end with a song like that. The character needs to have an “I want song.” There are so many things that you have to do or that you can’t do. I would love for more people to just throw all of that aside and say, “You know what, we’re going to take a chance. We’re going to cast someone who is not the typical ingénue. We’re going to make a story that is more than just the boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl.” We’re moving towards that, slowly but surely, but I still would love to see more of a rapid shake-up. Just one thing that is completely different, like a drastic colorblind casting, a drastic lead that is unlike anything that anybody has seen before.

Whitney: I think risk taking is huge too, as a director. Encouraging theatres to take a risk on a new director, employ a director of color, hire a woman. Hire different people to tell different stories. I think for directors, it’s always about access and someone letting you direct the thing, unless you make all your own work, which is really awesome to do too, but there is something about what Brynn said about risk taking and the people that are gatekeepers to keep taking risks on new talent. That will help us all.

Brynn: I can put myself out there until the Internet shuts down. I can post videos of myself singing and doing monologues and dancing, and I can write personal pieces and put them up in cabarets, but it’s a give and take. Theatre is about lots of people coming together and saying, “We as a community are going to put this piece up.” I can only go so far before someone else takes the baton and says, “All right, sure, now I’ll help get this to the next level.”

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Whitney: I think American theatre is bold. American theatre is new. American theatre embraces American stories, which means all the people in America. There are a lot of different types of people in America. I think the theatre has to be a container for all of that life. American theatre is a reflection of our country and how we relate to the world. American theatre is a container for ideas and people and voices and our stories—and we are a big “our.” We’re in a time where people are starting to see that. There’s not one red, white, and blue lens that we all look through. We have so much going on here and so does our theatre, so it’s kind of this beautiful, diverse organism that’s always going.

Brynn: It’s a community. You don’t have to be on the stage to be a part of it. There are tons of different ways to help. It’s a lot of people coming together. It’s really fantastic and it speaks to how America was built, when you think about it. All of these different people from different backgrounds coming together with one common goal, and for the founding fathers that was building America, but for us it’s putting on a show, whatever that may be. It’s community.


Mia Walker and Natalie Elizabeth Weiss of Camp Wanatachi: In Concert

Mia Walker and Natalie Elizabeth Weiss

Photography by Jessica Nash

“’Camp Wanatachi’ is an electro-musical that explores two girls’ journey of sexual discovery within the unlikely setting of an all-female Christian summer camp. Spirit-soaked and hormone-charged, this ‘hilariously subversive piece of theater’ (New York Magazine) celebrates teenage love with pulsing EDM beats and lush orchestral arrangements. ‘It defies all expectations of both coming-of-age tales and musicals. The result is refreshing and uplifting.’” 

Directed by Mia Walker and co-written and composed by Natalie Elizabeth Weiss. For tickets and more information, click here.

What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Natalie: That there’s no fear in love. I think true love banishes fear and I think we see some examples in the show of people having courage and choosing love over just keeping up with the norm and keeping up appearances. That’s really the message of the show.

Mia: I think it’s an exciting piece because it challenges what musical theatre can be. The music is totally nontraditional. It features beats by Machine Drum, who is a very cool music producer, and the vibe is almost like you’re going to a house party or an EDM party, and the topic is Jesus camp. The idea is that this is a world that Natalie actually experienced growing up and it was where she discovered self and love and sexuality. I want people, ideally, to walk away and see the humanity in the exploration, and feel like they want to dance, feel like they want to go to a house party and let loose.

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Natalie: I learned about a program called Ableton Live. I had a wonderful man make the beats and he handled all the Ableton sessions, and he’s in LA now and traveling the world, so it was up to me to learn the program, and it was incredibly empowering to be able to handle those files by myself and prep everything for the music director by myself. I’ve learned different technical tools. It’s also been really special working with Mia—just reading the script with her, talking about the characters, talking to her about the ending, because we changed the ending in this one versus a different production. If you’re dealing with little girls who are getting their period for the first time, she had an experience where she got her period for the first time, so it’s cool to have someone who gets that to be talking to. We have a lot of the same taste and that makes me feel comfortable.

Mia: The history of the show is that they did a production of it at LaMama downtown in 2011. A lot of the same cast is in the cast for this concert, so they’re revisiting the material seven years later. When they did they show, they were literally thirteen or fourteen, so they’re a little older now and a little bit more mature, but they’re able to channel those characters. For me, seeing these people who have had this show in their DNA for literally seven years be able to revisit it is incredibly inspiring. I think it’s a way for Natalie to deal with a very personal piece with some distance now and be able to re-visit it as a narrative and a new piece of musical theatre, and be able to look at it more objectively and craft it into something that we hope will have a future. It’s been kind of amazing. It’s a new musical, but it’s also been living in the world for years. To me, as a director, that’s an incredible spiritual process of reinvigorating something that already had a cult following.

Mia Walker

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Natalie: I think that people from the dance and music community have some interest in the music because of Machine Drum and his following, so there’s definitely people who are coming who get some of the sonic references in a different way than somebody from the musical theatre community, so that’s cool. It’s definitely getting people in the door that wouldn’t be coming to a musical otherwise. I’ve been playing in bands and DJing in Brooklyn for 13 years, and for my crew it’s a big deal for them to come out to 10th Avenue. I’m like, “It’s around the corner from the Signature,” and they don’t know what that is, but they’re coming anyway.

Mia: When we did our first site visit here at the Green Room, Natalie asked the head of the venue, “Can all my friend coming in from Brooklyn just sit on the floor?” They were like, “Hmm, we really need to think about that one.” But I loved that, because I think something about this show questions the very structure of musical theatre itself and experiential theatre and how we experience music. It’s going to definitely get those sort of indie rock, EDM fans in based on the name recognition of Machine Drum, and then most of the cast are in the musical theatre world, so there is something about it that still can charm the musical theatre lover. It appeals to both worlds.

You are at different points in your careers and in different disciplines, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Natalie: I’d love to see there be more grants for the development of new musicals that are not from non-profits and that are based around artists. Grants for musical theatre are generally centered around theatres as opposed to composers/producers. The stuff that’s directed toward individual artists or individual composers is generally not a musical theatre thing—it’s a sound art thing or a new classical music thing.

Mia: I’m passionate about film and theatre, and my goal as a director is to be able to do both, and television. When I first moved to New York, people told me, “You have to choose. You can either do one or the other, or do everything in a mediocre fashion.” I’m hoping as I get older and as more people are starting to explore various media, that we can stop seeing things as stage versus screen and we can start actually reflecting our generation and creating pathways and resources and opportunities that encourage people to explore all of that. That’s what I’m navigating right now: trying to do both and not be a dilettante, but actually study both crafts.

I also think that that question needs to be answered by people who haven’t been privileged, like me, to be able to pursue the opportunities that I have and the ways I have been able to make my voice heard. I feel like theatre is still limited. If I didn’t have support from my family after college, I wouldn’t have been able to live in New York City and assist for Diane Paulus for years. I think about that. I think about people who really have stories to tell and I just wonder, “How do they do this? How do they do this without privilege and family support?” I hope that in the coming years there’s a diversifying of voices and people represented in theatre and film.

Natalie Elizabeth Weiss

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Natalie: American theatre, to me, means the opportunity to do something well. In the rock music world, the time isn’t given that they give [in theatre] for tech and all of that. For theatre, the performances and the rehearsal process is taken more seriously. Theatre means organization and excellence. Because of my background, I have a lot of respect for it.

Mia: I think it’s an interesting time right now to ask that question, because my initial instinct is, “Oh, American theatre is the theatre of the free.” Freedom of ideas, freedom of opinions. We live in a country that has freedom of speech, so to me, American theatre is the theatre of the free. I don’t feel like we’re living in a period of time where that is 100% supported, and that scares me. My dream of American theatre is that we can remain the theatre of the free and of the outspoken and of the brave. I don’t know if we’re there right now, but I’m constantly inspired by what’s around me: what the Public Theater is doing and what all the theaters in New York City are doing. They’re challenging notions of what’s normal, what’s accepted. Also, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, that’s where part of my artistic home is, and I feel like, to me, that’s American theatre: theatre that’s pushing boundaries, which is their mission.



Jessica Tyler Wright and Zoe Wilson of Play Like a Winner

Jessica Tyler Wright and Zoe Wilson

Photography by Jessica Nash

“In the fiercely competitive world of girls’ soccer, how far would you go for your child? ‘Play Like A Winner’ is a satire of the soccer mom world based upon the award-winning play All About the Kids by Caytha Jentis. At curtain, Coach Nick lies dead on center stage, impaled by a corner flag, while a chorus of soccer players sings in his honor. Kathy, a soccer mom, steps forward to tell us the story of how all this began…”

Starring Jessica Tyler Wright and Zoe Wilson. For tickets and more info, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Jessica: The show is a comedy. It’s definitely funny, but through this rehearsal process, I think we’re absolutely finding some pretty deep themes that are really relevant right now, like how far you are willing to go for success. Then another one, which I’m finding parenting my three and a half year-old, is how do you raise a girl today to be strong, confident, and powerful, but not cross the line to be a bully or to be pushy? So we’re hoping people start to think about that while laughing and having a good time.

Zoe: I feel the same way. It’s a hilarious show. I hope that audiences will leave laughing and keep laughing through the show because it’s really funny, but not lose the message of the show: how far will you go for your kid or for success?

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Zoe: It’s a very fast process. We just started blocking and now we’re running the show. I love that we’re going so fast because it leaves more room for creating the art aspect of it rather than just doing what’s on the page. I feel like we’re diving deeper into it because we have more time to do that, because we’ve gone through this process so quickly. We actually just got a new scene. We’re adding more and learning more about the characters and more about how to shape the story. That’s exciting for me.

Jessica: We have a really supportive rehearsal room and it’s really collaborative. The creative team is open to hearing what works for us as actors because this is the first time it’s really being put on its feet, not just at music stands. It’s connecting new dots, and they’re very receptive to suggestions.

Zoe Wilson

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Zoe: I feel like we’re moving in the right direction with things like Dear Evan Hansen, Fun Home, and Indecent, and all these new works that are coming up out of the woodwork, but I feel like we can be more bold with our choices in the stories that we tell.

Jessica: My favorite theatre—it doesn’t matter if it’s got huge production value or if it’s a small production, as long as, at the end of the day, the core story is being told and the truth of the story is told—that’s really good theatre, and that’s the point of theatre. I think that’s when audiences latch on. Also, I will not disclose my age, but I’m just old enough that social media is something I had to learn how to use. That’s word of mouth these days. If a production is really good with the social media, that also is helpful. Then when the audiences come and see a really good show, the social media takes over and the buzz begins.

You are at different points in your careers, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Jessica: I guess I would answer that in a different way. If I had advice to give to somebody just starting out, be flexible and just remember you could have the highest height of your career followed by a point where you think everybody forgot who you were. As long as you really believe in yourself, and you stay true to yourself, and you know that little fire continues to burn, keep going, because things happen on a dime here, things change in this career.

Zoe: It’s definitely not easy. You definitely have to be flexible. I like a challenge. I don’t really want it to be easy. That’s why I’ve chosen this path, just to work with people who have the same goals as me to tell real stories. That’s why I got into this business in the first place, because I like to spread real, honest stories that need to be told.

Jessica Tyler Wright

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Jessica: I think we seem to be in a climate right now that’s into the biggest, the best, the latest, the greatest. Look at technology here in America. We line up around the block for the newest iPhone even if we have one that works perfectly well. I think in America, we want what’s new and the latest, greatest, and biggest. I think what American theatre should really strive for is to keep in touch with the storytelling. While big and bold and expensive is great, that’s not always the best. I think that’s what we need to make sure we continue to strive for.

Zoe: I feel like American theatre is the American experience, which today isn’t one thing. It’s all these stories, all these incredibly different people. I feel like we’re moving towards that, but we need to tell different stories to get all the different people out there and tell everyone’s story rather than just the couple stories that we’ve heard so far. I see that in smaller theatres, like Off-Broadway theatres and Off-Off-Broadway theatres, but people don’t get to see those, because a lot of times they’re either not publicized or no one knows about them because there’s not spectacle that people that grasp onto. I feel like if people get behind those kinds of projects, then we can tell those stories.


Ashley Brooke Monroe, Lauren Patten, and Ruby Wolf of The Goree All-Girls String Band

Ruby Wolf, Lauren Patten, and Ashley Brooke Monroe

Photography by Tess Mayer

“The year is 1938 and The Goree All-Girl String Band is the biggest new radio sensation in Texas. They also happen to be convicted criminals. The six band members teach themselves music from behind bars and earn a slot on a prison-based radio program. Through sisterhood, determination, and a little bit of luck, these women work (and play) together to fiddle their way to freedom. Inspired by a true story, ‘The Goree All-Girl String Band’ is a tale of redemption that features an ensemble of actor-musicians performing a brand new country score.”

Directed by Ashley Brooke Monroe and starring Lauren Patten and Ruby Wolf. For tickets and more info, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Ashley: I hope that they take away a feminist perspective on the story, and the idea that women can do anything and are just as good as men. The women of the story saw men getting something and knew that they could have that for themselves, even though it was sort of unheard of at the time. To be a radio star and a music star from prison is like the least likely thing for this group of women to think, “I can have that, I can do that,” and then achieve it to great success. Because it’s a true story, I think the impact of it is even greater. So I hope people leave thinking about the strength of these women and how anything’s possible. Also that they have a good time.

Ruby: It’s a redemption story, and I think it’s so nice to be telling a story about people who are not defined by the crimes they commit. People who are not one-dimensional felons or criminals—they’re actual women who made a mistake, or did something that they felt they were backed into a corner and had to do. And they’re not ultimately defined by that action. There’s a lot of redemption.

Lauren: There’s something extraordinary about it because it is a true story. I think there’s a unique story about the fact that these women taught themselves instruments and taught themselves how to sing in harmony together, all with the goal of knowing that there was this radio show where people were getting pardoned because their stories were being heard. So I think [people can take away] the feminist perspective and stories of redemption, of making something different out of your life after a mistake or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lauren Patten

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Ashley: I’ve been working on the show for a couple of years. It’s the first time staging a lot of it. It’s been really interesting to see what is all this theoretical knowledge from readings and concerts, and sitting down and rehashing draft after draft, on its feet and with a full fledged cast of people. So, I’ve learned a lot about the way the show moves and the physicality of it, and how it is to have extra instrumentalists acting and holding things and the opportunities and the challenges that presents. I’ve learned so much about the physical world of the show and a lot about the script. We have a million ideas for the next draft and the next production that we don’t have time to enact now. It’s been incredibly informative to make the show for real for the first time.

Lauren: I’ve done readings of it, and then we did a concert of it, and so much of the focus on that was figuring out music. Particularly for the concert, it was showing people how the story sings. I think now, putting it on its feet, there are two major things that have been really interesting about this developmental process. One is actually starting to play the instruments. I’ve never played in a band before—I’m very much the moody, on a guitar in my room, not doing it in front of people [type]—so actually having to form a band and play in specific ways that the music requires are huge challenges for me and really exciting. But then also getting to really focus on the book, because once you’re standing up and having to tell this story and be really present with it, and you’re not just behind music stands, it’s like, what is the story, what is the arc of my character, what are we telling? And so I feel like that has been the really cool part of this developmental process: to get to really sit with the book.

Ruby: I’m new to the project and coming into the room, the most exciting thing—having always wanted to be in an all girl band—was the opportunity to do that in a room full of amazing, amazing women. I feel lucky every day to be a part of that. In the last two years I’ve done shows in four states and I haven’t had a single female director until this piece. And that’s so telling to me. It is really an amazingly powerful and palpable thing to be in a room full of these incredibly talented women, helmed by an incredibly talented woman, and to be able to recreate the process that these women in this prison went through. That’s been an amazing process to be a part of.

Ashley Brooke Monroe

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Ashley: I can’t stop thinking about how theatre prices just need to be cheaper. On the Broadway shows I work on, the cheapest family/friends discount ticket you can get is $99. And I don’t understand how anyone is supposed to go to the theatre when it costs $175 a ticket and a night out is a $400 event. That just seems so impractical to me. I feel like we need to rethink the expenses of the whole thing and to find a way to make theatre affordable and accessible to more people—like a sliding scale of pricing based on how much money you make or something.

Ruby: I also think that theatre needs to be a direct response to social commentary of the time wherein it exists. And so I think a focus, as creators, also has to be how we best choose the art that represents the time we’re living in. I think, by and large, there’s so much amazing art that gets made that responds to the now, but it’s hard, when you know that you can sell out a theatre doing a revival, to be bold and brave and try to come up with voices saying new things about current issues. So I think that is a way to revitalize theatre to an extent. But again, none of that matters if it’s too expensive to afford.

Lauren: I think there are a lot of structural things that have to do with finances and financing and that need to really be looked at. I moved back to New York about two and a half years ago, and since I’ve been back here, I’ve been really fortunate to work on projects with women who are really outspoken about the structural things that are in place around large commercial theatre. When I think about Lisa Kron’s Tony speech or about what Paula Vogel has been saying recently about marketing, finances, and reviews, it’s really hard to deny that white male stories tend to get more of those things than women, women of color, and a lot of different minorities. To me, bringing more people to the theatre is about providing more stories. I think the stories are there, but it’s about providing access to the stories and taking risks. Shows that I’ve worked on, like Fun Home and The Wolves are two shows that I don’t think anybody would look at on paper and be like, “That’ll be a huge hit.” And then Fun Home wins all these Tony Awards, and The Wolves had an extremely successful run, even though it was a ten-person cast of all women, which most people would be like, “I can’t afford that. That’s too much money. How can I pay 10 cast members for a show about teenage women?” I think it is also about taking leaps with material.

Ashley: You mentioned finding alternate finances, and I’m really proud of our producer, Susan Casserly Griffin, who has formed this relationship between our show and Hopper House, which is a shelter for women in New York recently released from prison. We’re going to go perform for them and do sort of a “Goree Girls String Band Unplugged” version in the rec room of this homeless shelter for women who are basically having the experience of where our characters end up at the end of the show, where they get out of jail and it’s like, what’s next? So I’m really excited to bring a stripped down version of our show to that kind of audience.

Ruby Wolf

You are at different points in your careers and in different disciplines, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Ruby: Sort of piggybacking off of what we’re doing next Wednesday, one of the last projects that I worked on was a community tour in Delaware with the Delaware Shakespeare Festival. They do tours to homeless shelters, to prisons, to low-income community centers. Having had the opportunity to take Shakespeare [to those places] and to see the way that underserved communities respond to the art form was an experience that was very expository for me as an artist. If it costs people $400 to go and see a night of theatre, you’re excluding a huge subset of the population from access to important work that is the pathos of theatre and that allows you to reflect on your own life and your own identity and your own story through viewing the stories of others. It’s been the joy of my life, and so I think for me to want to do this for the rest of my life, it would be something that I think would sustain me more long term if I knew that I was telling stories to people who needed to hear them.

Lauren: When I think about my career, I’ve always been extraordinarily fortunate that I really haven’t done work that I haven’t wanted to do. I’ve worked pretty much exclusively on projects that have spoken to me and that I feel like have spoken to audiences in a unique and vital way. And I’ve been really grateful to work with incredible groups of people. When I think about that I’m like, “I’ve had it pretty easy.” And then I also think about the privileges that I’ve come from: I had parents who were able to partially support me until I was able to support myself, I had parents who were supportive from the time that I was a kid pursuing this career, and I don’t have mounds of student debt. I think that, in general, there are structures of financial and social privilege where I know a lot of my peers have not been able to pursue arts in the way that they want to because they have to pay their student loans or because they can’t afford rent in New York City if they don’t have a full time job, and all these kinds of things. There is no easy answer of like, “Ahh, if we just did this one thing, it would make doing this kind of work much easier.” It’s hard to know what each individual person needs to make the art that they want to make. But I do think that we need a more friendly culture around being able to have access to resources to make the art.

Ashley: I feel like my biggest obstacle in my career is finding a way for people to take me seriously in a professional sense. I have a lot of male director friends who have always been at the same age and career place as me, and I feel like they walk into meetings and there’s an assumption that they can do a good job. It’s like, “Oh, you’re a tall, competent white man. I bet you could lead.” Directing is such a funny thing, because they can’t see my direction in a meeting room. There is no way to audition it. It’s getting people to believe in you and have confidence in you purely based off of a conversation. I think for some of my male counterparts there’s this presumption that they’re probably really smart and talented. And I think because I look young and I’m sort of a bubbly girl, there’s this feeling of, “I don’t know that I trust you to lead this room, and I don’t know that I want to give you all this money that I have to make this show.” So I feel like my biggest obstacle is breaking down some of people’s preconceptions about women directors and age and who actually has the capacity to do the job that they want done.

Lauren: That’s so real. And how you present as a woman. There is also a notion of, “I don’t trust you to lead unless you’re a hard ass,” but then you’ll probably also be called a bitch. There’s really no winning. But there is that notion of, “You should at least have a predominantly masculine energy if I’m going to hire you as a woman to lead a group of people.” So to be able to come in as a young, vibrant, bubbly woman, and be like, “I can lead the production.”

Ruby: It happens for actresses to all the time too. I’m 24, but I could feasibly be a 16 or 17-year-old girl. My approach to the work that I do is incredibly intellectual, but I have had so many experiences with directors making offhand comments like, “You might not understand where I’m going with this.” And it’s like, “Why wouldn’t I?” That’s so frustrating to come up against time and time again in a room. I think of myself as an intelligent person, but people don’t see me that way. And there is this auditioning process of having to convince people, once they have given me a job, that I have a very sharp brain attached to my big child’s eyes. That’s definitely something that I identify with, and I can imagine, as a director, when you’re being put in charge of people, that is such a hard barrier to come up against.

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Ashley: I think that American theatre holds the same ideals that being American means to me, which has clearly been come up against right now, but the idea that it’s equality for all, and all stories are interesting and all stories are unique. I feel like American theatre is incredibly specific narratives about a wide variety of people. When I think of great American plays, they’re all super diverse and specific and unique characters.

Lauren: We’re in a very unique time where this is all being very challenged, which means that we need to be producing more great American theatre more than ever, really. We live in an incredible country where there is an extraordinary amount of diversity. What I love about American theatre is that there are great American plays that we think of by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill—like the great white American family plays—and then I think about a lot of the really great, non-white, non-family American plays that are being produced and written and created right now. I think that what is so amazing about American theatre is that both of those things can hold equal space if we let them. So that is what I think about American theatre—I can really go sit in a theatre and see and experience and learn about a culture and be put in somebody else’s shoes.

Ruby: If the face of America for the first 200 years was the face of a white man, that paradigm is shifting. And as it shifts, I think it’s really exciting to see the face of American theatre change with it. The interest in creating work that speaks to the time, and creating work that speaks to social relevancy is thrilling to me—to be seeing new work by voices that 15 or 20 years ago wouldn’t have had any sort of platform, to now be able to take up some space in the public eye. I think it’s still incredibly stilted, but I think American theatre is amazing because it can combat that and it can be a place where change is reflected or change is encouraged.



Lesli Margherita, Emilie Landmann, and Carrie Morgan of Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil: An American Myth

Carrie Morgan, Lesli Margherita, and Emilie Landmann

Photography by Jessica Nash


“‘Matthew McConaughey Vs. The Devil: An American Myth’ is a Faustian comedy that dares to ask the question, “How did Matthew McConaughey win an Academy Award?” This show recounts how the RomCom-starring stoner became an A-list award winner. Matthew has his loyal agent Penny, his best friend Woody Harrelson, and his beloved bongos. Now all he needs is to be taken seriously in his art. Enter a demon with a deal too good to be true. Friendship, love, and loyalty are all tested in this hell-raising adventure to win Matthew the Oscar…and save his soul.”

Starring Lesli Margherita, Book by Emilie Landmann, and Book and Lyrics by Carrie Morgan. For more information, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Carrie: We hope that they have a good time and I hope they don’t feel like they’ve wasted an hour and a half of just silly jokes. I want there to be a little heart. There’s a message.

Emilie: There’s a lot of messages. We have strong themes of friendship and success and what it means to be successful in your own way. I think we have some great things to say with a lot of laughs along the way. At least three good laughs, hopefully.

Lesli: The show does have a giant heart. It has this great message at the center of just the absurdity of Hollywood and the absurdity of celebrity—it’s so ridiculous. But then at the end you walk out and you go, “This is uplifting.” Who thought the Matthew McConaughey show would be uplifting?

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Emilie: This is our first time doing the show fully staged, so there’s so much we’ve learned about the story and who these characters are and how everything reads, just by watching the actors in rehearsal and then seeing the show come to life, element by element. I feel we’ve been able to grow leaps and bounds in just a few weeks through this festival.

Carrie: Jon [Quesenberry, music and lyrics], Emilie and I are really used to collaborating with each other, but having a director with his own voice and throwing in actors with their own distinctive take on the characters and the words that we wrote has really made us look at the strength of the writing and the clarity of the message that we’re trying to send. It’s been incredible to have that feedback in the rehearsal room to find out what works and what doesn’t work. We’re still learning, now with an audience, the final member of the ensemble.

Lesli: And they’ve been incredibly open. It’s always difficult when you write something to have someone else interpret it, because you hear it in your own head, and so I think, especially for you two that are new, it’s got to be a little jarring. I think the festival is great for people starting out that are just learning that as well—give and take, what works, what doesn’t. I love the festival because it’s new people trying to get their shows out, and it’s collaborative for us as actors, and you don’t always get that. It’s fun for us.

Lesli Margherita

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Carrie: Something that was important for Emilie and I going into this was having a really female-driven story and to have strong female characters. Part of the reason we started bouncing around ideas is that we were frustrated with the lack of opportunities for women in leadership roles and in creative roles, and women that weren’t just on stage as props for men’s storylines. So I hope that we can pull in more boss-ass ladies.

Lesli: Unfortunately, now it’s all social media, everything is online. That is how we’re going to get new theatergoers. So many young people have Snapchat and Instagram, and I think that’s going to help get them interested in theatre. But it’s a double-edged sword. You don’t want to put all your content online, but that’s really the only way to get new theatergoers. Other than that, it’s really difficult. It’s a constant push to get people to go, even to the regional theatres. That’s why this festival is so great, because it picks from everywhere, so you find new voices and that, in turn, brings new fresh ideas that will bring new theatergoers, and it just keeps going. It’s why things like this festival are so, so, so important.

Emile: Going into this, I wrote a show that I wanted to see. I love absurd, a little over the top humor, that’s also very dark, and so that’s what I wrote. I think it’s about finding these new narratives that we don’t usually see on stage, or taking an old narrative such as Faust and making it really modern and really relevant, because there’s only so many times you can see the same story and we know the ending. I hate going in to a show that I’ve already seen and I know the ending. What’s the fun in that?

Carrie: And what’s also really lovely about the festival is that we are learning so much and getting so many tools that we can take back to Portland, where we’re based. We come and we learn so much and then we get to take that elsewhere in the country.

Carrie Morgan

You are at different points in your careers and in different disciplines, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

All: More money.

Emilie: More resources. In Portland, it’s so hard just to even find space, because all of our theatre spaces are being taken away by developers and by prices and rent going up, so we’re not even given the resource of space. I think also more resources to be able to work, because a lot of times you want to pay your actors, you want to compensate them for all their hard work, and you’re not able to do that, so you’re not able to get the actors.

Lesli: Going back to getting theatergoers, it is support for what we do. It’s making sure that the arts are still relevant and supporting new writers, new theatre, and new ideas. That’s the only thing that’s going to make our jobs easier: if they don’t go away. There is no easy way, especially as women.

Emilie: If all female-driven ensembles weren’t just niche. You never hear someone say, “an all male show of Glengarry Glen Ross,” but they always say all female, and female should be the norm rather than the something special tacked on. The majority of people I know that pursue theatre and I want to collaborate with are women. Unfortunately, people are less inclined to see female narratives and I think that’s a systematic problem based on what narratives we’ve been allowed to tell. As two females writing this absurdist dark comedy about Matthew McConaughey, usually that’s not women writing that type of narrative, but we’ve just taken control of writing what we want to write.

Carrie: I’ve found that the festival is incredibly supportive.

Emilie Landmann

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Lesli: I think it’s just expression. I find that lately, our freedom of expression is being taken away more than usual, so the theatre, to me, has always been a place where that is still sacred, and that has always been a place where you can say what you want and you can express what you want. Theatre is the place that challenges us and the place that inspires us. It is the place to have expression.

Carrie: There’s something different about witnessing someone on a stage, rather than through video or other mediums. There’s just something so visceral about it. It’s an experience that you can’t replicate. Sacred is the word that I think of. Sharing the same air with someone else that’s really putting it all out there

Emilie: The thing that keeps bringing me back to theatre is community, whether its part of the creative team or the audience, you build the community when you’re in the show. You go to support your fellow artists. There’s just such a give and take. There’s no theatre without audience or people on stage, and just that coming together and being together to tell these stories is what I love. It’s so simple, but so honest and beautiful.



Tanya Shaffer and Samia Mounts of The Fourth Messenger

Tanya Shaffer and Samia Mounts

Photography by Tess Mayer

“What if the Buddha were a woman, living in our times? Mama Sid is a modern-day “awakened one” with a worldwide following. But a determined young woman seeks to unearth Mama Sid’s mysterious past, exposing secrets that could change everything. Epic and intimate, comic and profound, ‘The Fourth Messenger’ investigates what it means to be both enlightened and human.”

Book and lyrics by Tanya Shaffer. Starring Samia Mounts. For tickets and more information, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Tanya: I hope audiences take away a really rich experience and a sense of compassion and complexity—the complexity of different people’s viewpoints and callings and how sometimes they come into conflict and there’s no right and there’s no wrong. There’s just different perspectives. And I hope people come out wrestling with it, and some people thinking this character did the wrong thing and this character did the right thing, and others thinking the opposite. I hope it engenders compassion, and I also hope that they had a fabulous time and a rich emotional experience, and that they laughed and cried.

Samia: I echo what Tanya said. Compassion is one of the core tenets of my life philosophy, as is this idea of complexity and a gray area and how nothing is really black and white or super simple. I was attracted to this piece because of its true-to-life depiction of human beings who are looking for love and acceptance without trying to paint them as stereotypes or archetypes, but actually painting them as complex and real as human beings really are.

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Tanya: I think we’re in a somewhat different position than a lot of shows. Our show has actually had a lot of development for a number of years, and has had a couple of previous productions. For NYMF, our main goal in bringing it here was really to bring it to a wider audience. But every production is an opportunity for further development. And we had to make cuts because NYMF has this two-hour limit. I think that ended up being useful because it helped us to pare down, to figure out what is most essential. It meant cutting at least ten minutes out of a show that had been worked on a lot. But in the end, I think some of those cuts got it to its best, tightest self, and that was helpful.

Samia: For me, getting to play the character of Raina has really been an exercise in economy. She has to go through a very intense emotional journey that she can’t show outwardly for most of the show. So, learning how to have a poker face on but still have emotional life happening internally has been quite the challenge. It’s been a wonderful growing experience for me as an actor and as a singer.

Samia Mounts

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Tanya: I think Hamilton shows you that if you get a musical that feels relevant, young people will come out for it. I think it’s a question of writing musicals and making them feel relevant and casting them in a way that looks like the real world. But then the question is how do you get the word out to people so that buzz gets going, and that’s the million-dollar question. We’re all trying. We’ve got social media, you bring down ticket prices, you do what you can to engage young people and help them to see that, wow, theatre matters. So you have got to write theatre that matters, and you have got to get the word out that theatre matters.

Samia: I think there’s definitely a growing trend in theatergoing audiences where people are yearning for new, original pieces of theatre, and getting a little bit tired of all the movie adaptations and super commercially viable projects. I think people are yearning for stories that are more human and more intimate, which this piece certainly fulfills, and the response that I’ve gotten from my circles, just posting on my social media accounts, has been enormously positive. People just hear the Aida premise of this musical and they’re interested. Also, the fact that we have a female writing team, which you don’t see too often in musical theatre—that’s what attracted me to this project—a lot of my feminist friends hear just that, and they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to go support this.” The tides are starting to turn. A lot of young people are looking for new stories, more complex stories, more true-to-life stories, and looking to see diverse casting on stages. I think those audiences are there, and we are doing everything we can to reach them. But I think it’s growing. I think it’s a trend that it’s going to get bigger. I hope.

You are at different points in your careers and in different disciplines, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Samia: My biggest obstacle in the past was that I was either too ethnic or not ethnic enough. Because I’m half-Arabic. So I don’t fit token ethnic, but in the past, I was never considered for any of the leads in shows because I wasn’t all-American looking. That has changed in the last few years. For me, that’s already happening, but I’d like to see it happen more. I’d like to see more musicals like Aladdin on Broadway representing Middle Eastern actors. I’d like Middle Eastern actors to be more represented in general in theatre. And not just as terrorists. Or cab drivers.

Tanya: I think the biggest thing is funding for the arts, in general. As a playwright, things take me a long time to write, and if I’m having to chase other income and I have two kids [that makes it more difficult]. I was a resident playwright at Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco for four years; that was great. It wasn’t funding my life, but it gave me a place to work, and I developed this piece there over those four years. It was amazing because they would give me space and they would pay for actors to come in. Things like that are amazing. And they’re shrinking. Very few theatres have the opportunity to give that kind of support to playwrights. So that kind of support from the government and from foundations that allows the development process to occur and, ideally, can give the playwright some support in that process so that they can have the time and space to develop the work. And for women in particular, there tends to be the child issue. In our society, women do tend to be the primary parents, so that just increases that need for some additional support and some additional funding to allow playwrights to have the time and space they need to develop the work on their own terms, so that they can put forward something true, and not something rushed or something that they’re only doing for money.

Tanya Shaffer

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Samia: For me, the American theatre has always been able to capture such huge, epic emotions and has been able to put gigantic stories and characters into these wonderful pieces, both plays and musicals, in a way that really plumbs the depths of human emotion. That’s what it means to me. Telling the real stories and trying to put people whose stories are underrepresented in the public eye onstage is something that we’re really struggling to do right now in American theatre. You see all these new playwrights and productions and workshops and readings of shows that may never have gotten a second look, if all anyone was concerned about was making money. I don’t think that’s all anyone is concerned about at this point. I think more and more, you have people who want to make a positive impact with theatre and want to tell stories that don’t get told. I think a whole world is opening up in American theatre right now.

Tanya: I was thinking of the Brecht quote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And I think it’s actually both—it’s a mirror and a hammer. When I think of American theatre, I think of theatre that reflects the American experience, which is huge, diverse—it’s not one experience but many, many experiences—and I think that by creating art about that experience, we help to shape it. Anything created in this country at this time is, in some way, reflecting the creator’s perspective on what this country is, and by reflecting, also continuing to define it. The more it reflects the huge diversity that is what makes our country amazing, the more rich and vital and relevant it will feel.



Kyle Brown and Rachel Covey of Painting Faye Salvez

Rachel Covey and Kyle Brown

Photography by Jessica Nash

“’Painting Faye Salvez’ is a new musical about the family and friends of Faye Salvez, a teenage girl who’s been missing for three years. Faye’s mother, in an attempt to save her crumbling marriage, has commissioned an artist to paint a family portrait. This artist insists on interviewing Faye’s loved ones in an effort to truthfully capture her in the painting. When tensions build and memories clash, the family is faced with the question: is it the responsibility of an artist to present the truth, even if it’s not what an audience wants to see?”

Directed by Kyle Brown. Book, music, and lyrics by Rachel Covey. For tickets and more information, click here.


What are you hoping audiences take away from the show?

Rachel: I want the play to be as centered on this story about this family and this artist as possible, while also raising questions that go beyond them and the specifics of their circumstances. I’m hoping that people leave with a sense of the arc of the story, and also, in the broader sense, the questions that the artist grapples with about truth and responsibility.

Kyle: I think truth and responsibility are really essential right now. I’ve been finding that the stories that focus on people, and their own stories, that are created in the most truthful way, has been really impactful for theatre, and particularly American theatre and the American experience. We’re still shaping that as a country in a really interesting way. I think that this piece in particular is so based in the truth of one family. I’ve suffered a lot of grief, and I think getting to have this experience where we talk about our own truthful experiences, and our relationship to grief, and the responsibility of an artist in representing a very complex subject, is raising a lot of questions for audiences that are really interesting and relevant right now.

What about this development process have you found the most useful or the most interesting?

Kyle: Getting to work with Rachel has been the most amazing thing. She just turned 19, and she was 18 when I met her and when she sent the script to me, so getting to watch her work with the actors and develop her own voice in the room and in the piece has been excruciatingly beautiful to watch. I have such a deep belief in her and want to nurture it. It’s been one of the best experiences in getting to nurture that in and NYMF has allowed us to do that by giving us a forum, and it’s been so amazing.

Rachel: I was going to say something really similar. This piece had existed in my head for so long that having it become a conversation and a collaborative effort, I’ve learned so much and been given so much from that. Watching the actors breathe life into the characters and then ask questions. The other day in rehearsal, someone brought up how they felt about the ending and some questions that they had, and then before I knew it, it was a ten-person discussion. And it wasn’t just discussion of, “How should I act this.” People had feelings and ideas about the piece.

Kyle Brown

What’s something you think can be done to get different audiences to engage with theatre or get audiences to engage differently?

Kyle: I have a lot of thoughts on this. I think theatre is a very complicated thing, because right now it’s a really exclusive event because it’s live. There’s a lot of controversy that happens around theatre because it’s live and therefore exclusive, so it’s hard to get into. I think for me it’s about making it available to people. I think of Shakespeare in the Park, things like that. Getting our friends to come in and see this [show at NYMF]. My goal in theatre is to make it as accessible as possible, and I think that’s in making pieces that are as accessible as possible—meaning as specific as possible. Not limiting it to the people that we want to come, but actually making art that is as truthful as possible—that is daringly truthful—and just trusting in the fact that audiences will relate to the humanity in that. TV is an easy forum for theatre to be opened up and I think Broadway HD is doing a really beautiful job. I think those National Theatre viewings are something that are allowing audiences to find theatre in a new way and then seek it out. But I think theatre makers still have to really seek out those people and really work. I’ve done theatre in prison, and that was the most impactful thing I’ve ever done.

Rachel: And thinking about that, the funny thing to me about the nature of theatre is that by definition it happens behind closed doors. You cannot distribute theatre the way you distribute film. But it’s also the most relatable art there is. You’re in a room with other people, and that is such an equalizer to me. And what comes to mind in terms of raising that accessibility, besides the obvious like the prices, I think it has to do with the way we talk about the arts, the way we treat them in schools, and the way they’re supported. For me, growing up with theatrical parents and a school with hefty art programs, I never felt like I had to ask permission to get in there. It just felt like something I could dive in and do. And that is not the same everywhere, and that’s not the same for a lot of my peers.

Kyle: I think that’s a great point. We were both raised by parents that work in theatre and are passionate about theatre, so we both have access to theatre. I got to see every production at Trinity Rep multiple times, just because I was a child that grew up at Trinity Rep. So making that accessible in schools, and making Annie Baker, Will Eno, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the artists that are currently making art available, not just Shakespeare.

Rachel: Also, I think we talk about the arts in a different tone than we talk about other things.

Kyle: It’s so elevated.

Rachel: Yeah, and on one hand it does elevate it to this degree where you feel like it’s this prestigious far away thing, but also I think it’s not encouraged in the same way. I know a lot of kids who had these incredible artistic sides, but we’re really conditioned from a young age that that can be your cute, funny hobby, but when you’re serious in the real world, you don’t talk about it. You don’t even openly support it the way you might any other interest or passion.

Kyle: I think it’s so funny, because the disparity between how hard it is to make a life in the theatre versus how elite it is to see theatre is so disparate. It’s so separate and it makes it a very interesting conversation for how to keep making real art that relates to people who are spending $300 on a ticket. Or who are used to spending $300 on a ticket, because then a $20 ticket all of a sudden means that the caliber is less good.

You are at different points in your careers and in different disciplines, but what’s something that you think would make it easier for you to pursue your creative goals in the way you want to pursue them?

Kyle: The support of non-profit theatres actively investing in young artists, young directors, young playwrights, young stage managers, young music directors. We have an amazing music director, Fernanda [Douglas], and having worked in theatre pretty much all my life, it is mind blowing to me that I just found Fernanda and that I didn’t have access to her or didn’t know the forum in which to reach out to her. There’s not a bigger, more supportive community for the next generation. It’s a lot more associate positions and assistant positions, which can be a career in and of itself.

Rachel: Working backwards from the question, I think the times that I have felt the most confident and empowered in just diving into things were times that I was dealt with in a way that I didn’t feel I needed to ask permission. Times that someone trusted me enough to take command on a project without testing my credentials. I music directed a production my freshman year in college, and I said “I don’t know if I’m qualified for this,” and the team basically said, “We’re all students. We’re all here to learn, and we trust you.” That was a really cool personal growth experience, as well as a technique-based growing experience. So, as many opportunities and safe environments where we can trust new and young artists to take a stab at it, I think that would be the ideal.

Kyle: Particularly for women and people of color. As a woman, I learned from Liesl Tommy. Stop apologizing and believe what you believe. And I think to be wrong is actually okay. And the support of anybody who pushes you to take up that space and actually be wrong [is important]. Because the only way I’ve learned in this process is by stepping on my own toes, being told I’m wrong, and then figuring it out. But as a woman, you’re losing your power immediately by doing that, and that doesn’t help.

Rachel: I find myself doing those things. At one point, I had an opportunity to show a composer I really respect some of my work, and I walked in there and I was like, “I’m not going to apologize. I’m not going to apologize.” And, sure enough, I just got so nervous that what came out of my mouth was just anxieties and apologies. He said, “Stop. I give you permission to call yourself a composer. You are one, so, enough. Call yourself a composer and show me your work.” And that’s something I’ve tried to remember in the rehearsal room. Claiming your voice and calling yourself the director, the writer, the composer, whatever it is, is a really empowering thing.

Rachel Covey

Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theatre” mean to you?

Rachel: For me, I think it’s striving for this balance of stories between individuality and universality. The whole American motto about the spirit of the individual and the uniqueness of the individual experience is so crucial to American theatre, but at the same time, it’s the ways that it’s universal while paying respect to that unique experience and recognizing that it’s something that we all have inside of ourselves. I think it’s that balance.

Kyle: I think it’s all about the uniqueness and diversity that happens. The most exciting shows I’ve seen this year are experiences or plays that had nothing to do with my experience. I don’t want to see a play about a white girl who grew up in Brooklyn. I want to see play about someone who moved here from Nigeria. I need to see pieces that keep fueling and informing my view on the world. I think theatre challenges those views, and challenges them aggressively and unapologetically. And I think it’s why theatre can be scary. I think we haven’t completely unearthed what it is to be American, and I think that it’s something we are learning. That is something theatre challenges constantly. Rachel says it so beautifully in this show: “It takes more than one angle to get one point of view.” Because theatre is collaborative, because theatre is alive, all points of view are valid, and that feels very American to me. And the conversation also feels very American to me.