An Interview with Susan Bernfield

Written by Victoria Myers

August 18th, 2014

Susan Bernfield is theatrical. In the course of our conversation with her, she did multiple impressions and voices—she definitely made us wish we’d taken some videos—and referenced everything from the song “American Pie” to Katharine Hepburn. These traits are a theme with her (you’ll see!). It’s no wonder that she’s founder and artistic director of the highly theatrical, award-winning theatre company New Georges. New Georges develops and produces new work that is, oh yes, all by women. Needless to say, we were excited to speak to Susan about new play development and supporting so many female theatre artists, and she did not disappoint. Her passion and enthusiasm for theatre and new work is infectious, and helps to make some complex issues, like gender parity and the evolution of theatre, completely accessible. In addition to her role as artistic director, she’s also a playwright, or as we like to call it: double the fun. She is an absolute delight.

(i.) Theatricality

You’re artistic director of New Georges. One thing that’s really interesting about New Georges is you produce a lot of shows that are theatrical, and are supposed to be seen and not read. Could you tell us a little about that?
My own aesthetic interest is in something kind of magical, and about something big that is done kind of big-ly. Because we’re a downtown company, I feel like that gives us enough underground-ness that risk taking is just what we do. But I think those are just things that grab us. And things have always evolved at New Georges, which is why I think it’s still interesting for me to do it this many years later. The writing I’m attracted to is a very muscular writing with vigorous use of images, which might translate into bigger design decisions and a more collaborative process with all of the artists involved. And certainly, the things we’ve done over the years have been on the spectrum of theatrical—there’s been a broad range. I think we’re really trying to come up with ways that things can be presented in a metaphorical way rather than a direct way. I think that is what I respond to as an audience member and an artist. I want to be surprised into being moved by something. I’m interested in what the juxtapositions are and what sort of magic comes in.

It seems like in New York we have rather limited, not super flexible physical spaces. A lot of black boxes and a lot of proscenium arches. How do you think that affects what gets produced and how it gets produced?
I think they’re becoming more limiting because there are fewer spaces. At the same time, there may be some more interesting ones that are emerging, and I often feel that those limitations fuel creativity in interesting ways. Not all the spaces do, but some of them do. For us at New Georges, because we’re nomadic, it always feels like choosing the space is one of the biggest design decisions, and that’s always really exciting for us. And it has been harder, although it’s made us look farther afield. Like we did a show at Irondale that was very, very theatrical, and it worked on so many levels since that had a high ceiling. We just sort of have to seek out the places we need to do things. But the space problem is distressing and it is a huge, huge, huge aesthetic issue—and I think it is nationwide. Since there is that new play thing where the new plays always get put in the black boxes and the small spaces, when maybe what they want is to be more expansive. And I think when you have writers who are writing for that kind of space, then the plays become kind of tempered for that kind of space as well. Since we’re a downtown theatre, we get to not do that and it’s part of why we try to encourage a crazier theatricality.

(ii.) Development

It seems like we live in a theatrical culture of developing new work far more than producing it. But theatre is meant to be seen, not read. How do you balance that?
I think there are a few different ways that we do things that try to deal with that. We’ve actually changed some of our development things around so that there’s more long-term support of what we’re doing in development. All of the development things we do that are, theoretically, about a certain play, are really about developing relationships with the artists involved, which may come to fruition in, among other things, a production. That’s why we sort of operate as this community, or closed system through which all of our programing emerges. So that relationship based thing, I hope, is a way of making this investment in artists that will come to fruition in production as time goes on—that has borne out since we make these relationships and we often produce those people. And the other thing that we try to do is that we’re really interested in developing for production. We don’t produce seasonally. We produce project-by-project, so we can take a longer time developing the production itself rather than the play on the page and a lot of different disparate things. So part of the deal is, here is the project we’re going to take on, with the director and the playwright and the designers coming on really early, so that we create a project out of a play.

As an artistic director and founder, how do you pick what to produce? Do you feel your role is to curate based on your taste or based on the pre-existing mandate that you’ve set up?
I think because we don’t sit down and say, “We must find five plays, and this is what I’ve been reading, everyone present what you’ve been reading,” it’s mush more of an evolutionary method for us. I always say when we meet with artists that we’ll work on things in development, and some things bubble to the surface, and that ends up being what we produce. When you work with people on something, especially when it feels collaborative and the playwright and director are engaged in it, it kind of becomes self-evident what we need to get on stage now. Whether it’s this season, or two seasons from now, since sometimes we come to that decision much earlier than we’re actually going to produce it. We work project by project, which to me feels incredibly freeing, because you’re not making these decisions, and a lot of times opportunities come along. [For example] We have this Audrey Residency program, and we have eleven residents working on seven projects. One of the projects is this Ariel Stess play. She came into our office and said, “Hey, the Bushwick Starr has given me a place to produce my play next year—I just have to raise the money and produce it.” And we were like, “Well, we’ve supported that play, we’d love to produce it, and we’d love to work with the Bushwick Starr. Okay, let’s be the people who produce it.” So, essentially, that’s a project we love, an artist we wanted to support, a project we had supported for a year, and it was getting this awesome opportunity, but the opportunity meant the artist would have to take time out of her life being an artist to be a producer. This way, we could walk in and produce it for her. And so it feels a lot more serendipitous, and that’s fun for me. Obviously I have ideas, and there are things I don’t want to do. Often artists come to me and they’re like, “This project is ready,” and it doesn’t feel like it’s the right project for us, and I have to find a way to support them in another way. But because everything we do is based on relationships that are already existing and are going to continue to exist, I hope that it will feel like a continuum of artist involvement with New Georges, and so it’s not like we’re rejecting you. That’s not something that I’m comfortable with. I want to be a community, because it’s the community I need as an artist, and about relationships. That’s the goal.

Do you think working organically like that allows you to respond more to the times, or other things going on in the world, much more than if you had a set season planned out a year in advance?
I hope so. I still feel like theatre is so long term that it’s very difficult for it to respond quickly to events, and I think that’s a problem that is hard to work out. Especially in the development culture where things have to be ready—and what is ready? I find that to be really difficult. I wish we could respond more. But in our production schedule we sometimes just take on other stuff. For example, last year we did this show as part of the Women Center Stage Festival because someone wanted to do something about Guantanamo, and we were like, “Okay, go do it.” And being able to do those [socially relevant] projects as they come along is important to us, because that’s a conversation we want to be engaged in—that’s something we care about.

(iii.) Audience

We’ve noticed that there are a lot of people who are interested in other areas of culture; they go to art openings, film festivals, read the “in” novels. But they don’t seem to go to theatre. Why do you think that is and what do you think can be done about it?
I think that—and this may or may not be true—the kind of theatre that younger people would enjoy, or want to know about or feels cool or interesting, isn’t necessarily the kind of theatre that’s advertised or promoted in the same way that a cool new movie, band, or restaurant is promoted. The avenues of promotion are very old-fashioned, and aren’t going to get into the sector that might make real theatergoers of people. If you think about how many people went to Sleep No More that are potential audience members for more interesting theatre experiences, but they have no idea? I’ve spent so many years thinking about this. I wish I knew. But I do think that once people come [to the theatre] they are a little bit hooked. They do get hooked. It’s a very intimate experience. The stories that are told are not old fogey stories. One of the reasons I like highly theatrical work is because I think it does feel really fresh in a different way. I think in other cities it might be different than in New York, because even though people come to New York for all of this cultural stuff, I think there’s such a glut of this [new, different] work that it’s hard for people to know what to go to. I think people need a gatekeeper with theatre a lot more. And who are those gatekeepers? And are all of their friends in theatre? Or are their friends outside of theatre and maybe they’ll pull them in—that’s huge. One of the things we’re always trying to do is get people to pull in their non-theatre friends.

(iv.) Innovation

It seems like the infrastructure for producing theatre is pretty antiquated. There’s been no real innovation and it hasn’t taken advantage of new technology and so on. Do you think there’s a change in infrastructure that could make it easier to produce new work?
Because I’m an, “I don’t care what you’re supposed to do, I’m just going to do it my way,” type person, I’m pleased to be sort of under the radar. But I think that’s why a strategically small company is fun. I feel like we’re as much an incubator of organizational ideas as we are of theatrical ideas. I do think there is some attention being paid to this, because there’s so much desperation to not die out with the current generation that goes to see theatre. I think right now it manifests itself in season choices, but there has to be other ways for it to manifest itself. But the thing I don’t know is if things end up feeling institutional because they’re put in place by institutions, and they’re not part of a groundswell. Like Playwrights Horizons has had this photo booth (fun!) but if Playwrights Horizons puts it out, is it still fun? Does that feel like forced fun? If everyone is social media-ing from everywhere, is that going to feel organic or not? Is it going to feel unauthentic, and is authenticity important to that audience people desire? I think it’s a really good question and I don’t think anyone is answering it perfectly right now. I think there’s a lot of really interesting work happening in really interesting places, but no one is finding it who is not a theatre person.

(v.) Representation

New Georges only produces work by women, which is obviously something that’s very needed. But one of the arguments that’s used against women’s work is that women’s plays are niche. How do you balance that?
We don’t think about the women thing. And we don’t really talk about it. We just do it. And that’s always been what we’ve done. Audiences just want to see something that’s going to be an experience, that’s going to change them, that’s going to be good. I feel like in theatre, you’re only as good as the work you do. So you hire the women and then you do the work. You’re not thinking about it every day like, “Oh, let’s work with some women today!” We’re already doing it, so we never think about it. I’m just trying to do the work and have people come to it because hopefully, it’s cool and interesting. Obviously, the producing of women’s work is very important, and we love that work and that community, but then you put it in a box and put it away, and you make people come and just see some really great work so they’ll go to see the work of more women later. And I feel like if we did promote it [as women’s work], we’d be doing the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing, which is allowing the work to speak for itself. So we just do it. I think you just want people to have a really kick-ass experience of a play that is spectacular.

Producing theatre in New York is expensive. Just keeping the lights on is expensive. How much do you think the economic climate theatre is produced in affects women’s opportunities?
There are several arguments about that, right? One is that it feels more risky and it’s a huge economic risk to produce women. I don’t really live in that world enough to really know. I’m sure that does exist to some extent. I feel like a lot of this conversation is a new play conversation, because it’s so risky to produce new plays. Women are going to write new plays. Because women are [mostly] not canonical, you’re really talking about, are we going to have enough slots for the women playwrights, because they write new plays? And there are very few slots for new plays—there’s the new play slot. And there’s such a big risk with new plays, and women get sort of shunted into a difficult place within that. In addition to getting people in to see women, we have to get people into seeing new plays. I think, maybe, people don’t go to see theatre because they don’t think of it as new and that there are new plays. They don’t think of it as new in the same way that people do with other art forms.

You’ve helped a lot of female writers and directors at New Georges. Why do you, personally, think helping other women is important?
New Georges is very much about what makes me comfortable. That’s how its organizational structures have evolved and that’s how the work has evolved. I have so much respect and awe for the other women I work with that facilitating their work just comes so naturally to me. And we help each other. I would not be a playwright if not for the people I know who are new play people. I get as much as I give. Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes it’s hard, as an artist, to feel like you’re the helping part and that’s more than the “me part,” but it’s so worth it. It’s exciting. I think the most woman-y thing about our company is that it is set up to be a community of people who collaborate artistically, and outside of that. And the things I’m most proud of are when we create a culture that makes people not feel jealous of each other or not feel like they’re against each other. The greatest thing I’ve heard about The Jam, which is our early career theatre-makers group, is that you can listen to people talk about their struggles or success in that group and not feel like, “I hate them because they fucking got that gig!” You are in a community and a context and a culture where it feels like everyone’s success is also your success—and, to me, that feels like success. We allow that culture to thrive by programming based on what artists need, and making sure that their relationships are also strong and healthy.

(vi.) Writing

You’re also a playwright. Do you notice any themes in your work?
I think that my work is deceptively political, actually. I’m interested in very observational abstractions of political questions.

What other areas of culture influence your work?
I’m very, very interested in how we speak the language of pop-culture. My characters are usually very intellectual people who are also able to speak this language of pop-culture. They talk fast, they talk about a lot of things, and their references are quite far reaching. And I really like mixing it up to a place where those references, or the high and low, kind of matter together. My play [Stretch (a fantasia)] that New Georges did produce is about Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon’s secretary. It images her right before she died, and she’s talking to this orderly in her nursing home who is this meth head, so he and his buddy talk about SpongeBob. But there is this relationship between Rose Mary Woods and SpongeBob and what’s going on in the world, and his not understanding what’s going on in the world versus her incredible worldliness. I like to mash those things up, because I feel like pop culture is our language, and it is something that marks you in time with your friends or people you meet.

(vii.) Risk

What is your relationship like with risk?
I’m a very afraid person. I have a whole solo musical about things I’m afraid of, but artistic risks I have no problem with. I feel like the artistic stuff takes care of that, so in my life I feel like I don’t have to go on any ferris wheels. I don’t have to do any of those things [because I do them artistically]. I feel like some things I do have a degree of difficulty of a thousand, and I will really put myself out there and I will really expose myself. I have this house in New Jersey and it’s insane—there’s a hot pink hallway, there’s a lime green wall—and people walk in and are like, “You’re so brave.” Brave is the word they use for painting your house. Are you kidding me? Like what could happen? No one is coming to review it.

When did you first feel like a grown up?
Everyone says, “Never,” right? I felt much more like a grown up when I was younger than I do now. I was a very old young person—serious, afraid, boring. In the 80s there was no youth culture, and so I’m really happy that I was there and now I’m not. I’m back!

(viii.) Storytelling

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
This is really weird, but these two are combined in my mind. “American Pie” [the song], since I didn’t know what the fuck was going on there—I mean that is weird theatre because you don’t know the language, you don’t know the coding, but you love the story and you love the melody. But for some reason on this one trip I was listening to “American Pie,” and I also got to watch (and it used to be that things were only on TV once) Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The Leslie Ann Warren version of Cinderella, was on the same week as I was listening to a lot of American Pie. And I just thought that was amazing. Because she was great, it was great, it was very pastel, and it was perfect. So it’s a mash-up of American Pie and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the Leslie Ann Warren version in Technicolor.

Who were your heroes growing up?
Lady Diana was a hero. We had the same birthday and the same haircut and she was shy Di and I was very shy. She was a huge hero of mine, which sounds ridiculous now, but I really loved her. Oh, you know who was really my hero? And this is because this was who I was not but who I hoped to become. There was this show called Match Game and this woman was on it named Brett Somers, and she was a ballsy lady. She was like Elaine Stritch, who would be a latter hero of mine. She’d sit there and she’d tell stories like this [Susan does an impression. We’ll supply you with some YouTube of the real thing.]. She just told it like it was, and she was a ballsy old dame. And I wanted to be a ballsy old dame. There was something so attractive about that. Like why was I, as a child, watching this person? Well, because there was something that I wasn’t doing that she was able to do. And for the same reason I think people like Mary Tyler Moore were interesting—like these were the people who, you watched them and they had something else going on, and that was what interested me.

(ix.) Katharine Hepburn

What fictional character would you most like to be friends with?
Elizabeth Bennett. It’s the typical woman’s answer. Wait. I’d like to be friends with Carole Lombard’s character [Irene] in My Man Godfrey. No. Wait. You know the movie Holiday [with Katharine Hepburn]? I want to be in the playroom. That’s a metaphor for my entire life. You know, there are the stuffy people downstairs and then there’s the playroom. And you know Cary Grant’s friends in that movie, Nick and Susan Potter? I want to be friends with all of them, and the reason that they were all friends is because they were all in the playroom. So I want to be in the playroom with them. [Editor’s Note: I recommend going and watching Holiday now, but in the meantime, here’s some YouTube.]

What are your top five classic movies?

  1. Holiday
  2. My Man Godfrey
  3. Chariots of Fire
  4. All the Presidents Men
  5. Hannah and Her Sisters

Wait. Can I say The Philadelphia Story and Holiday?

There is no such thing as too much Katharine Hepburn.

  1. Holiday AND The Philadelphia Story.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Bring audiences to the work. Bring your friends. Have people see a variety of things. Make theatre relevant, because if it’s relevant it’s going to have women involved in it, because women are relevant. And if people are paying attention, they’re going to see that women are telling stories that aren’t niche based.