Sunday, April 05, 2009

9 Questions for Susan Bernfield (New Georges)

Angela's Mixtape by Eisa Davis begins performances at the Ohio Theater on Monday April 6th. The show is a co-production between New Georges and The Hip-Hop Theater Festival, so we took the opportunity to send 9 Questions to New Georges Artistic Director, Susan Bernfield and she was kind enough to take the time to send us these terrific, thoughtful answers:

1. What was the inspiration for forming New Georges?

Like lots of people, I formed a theater company right out of drama school (I was an actor). And we incorporated and did a few shows and then, again like lots of people, it kind of fizzled out. A few months later I took a commercial class (as in, for actors who want to be in commercials) which happened to have only women in it. An ongoing conversation started happening there about going in to audition for nothing but stupid bimbo parts, stupid other-stereotype parts... And it was right at that Anita Hill time, fall of 1991, the chick thing was just in the air. So I hooked up with a few people from that class, offering that first company's incorporation and bank account, and we decided we wanted to do something about women. We weren't sure what, though -- maybe produce plays by women, then maybe there'd be better roles for us? But it was SO HARD to find any plays by women! I'd go to the Drama Book Shop and comb the shelves, couldn't find a thing. So I thought, well, there must be women like me, who care about the kinds of things I do, who wanna write plays, so how do you find those people? I had no experience with new plays whatsoever, it was a completely different idea of theater than what I'd grown up with or thought I'd ever do. I'd never met a playwright in my life, could barely conceive of it (now I am one). And a lot of the resources for new plays or even the focus on new plays that there is now, I'm not sure it all existed then -- or it did, but not in the same way and certainly not in a way I had access to. I mean, I had no idea. But very soon I realized that producing new work and getting to know the people who made new work was the most creative, most interesting, most obvious path. Of course the company and its mission have evolved a lot since then, and so have I.

2. What is the hardest part of keeping a theater company going for 17 years?

The first 16 years! No, what's hardest keeps changing, actually, which is good. In the early years it was like constantly pushing a boulder up a hill, sometimes literally. These days, I have a bit more help and a bit more experience and I don't have to go out anymore and paint and strike and do all kinds of things I have no skills for, all by myself, and then not be able to and cry. That... was hard. Probably the reason I was doing everything is that I'm pretty shy, it was nearly impossible for me to ask for stuff, especially to ask people to help. And doing what we do can involve a lot of asking. I think that slowed us down quite a bit -- spending whole days staring at the phone but never quite picking it up is not productive! It took a long time to find good partners and to better assert what we needed. So maybe I'd say that's the hardest, always asking, especially during the times when I felt like I was pushing that boulder all alone... fortunately, that's a lot rarer now. But even today, asking is very very hard for me.

3. What is the best part of your job?

People, no question. Getting to know and to hang with cool and interesting and fun people, people who are doing something they care relentlessly about. Said another way, I probably mean community. It's incredibly meaningful to me, not just the community of artists at New Georges (where I woke up one morning and realized I'd created the community I so clearly needed myself), but also the community of my fellow producers, the downtown theater community... all kinds of loose and amazing networks of people that I get to be a part of. That I'm really privileged and fortunate to be a part of. There's no way I'd still be doing this if I didn't feel this tremendous structure of support from incredible theater friends, and I didn't have the opportunity to give that support right back.

4. What have you seen (other than New Georges work, or course) that you’ve really loved?

Recently, or ever, or do I get to pick? Recently I really loved TELEPHONE at the Foundry and THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY at the Vineyard and END DAYS at EST and THE GOOD NEGRO at the Public. Been kind of a good year, actually, that's not even all I liked! Oh, and HAIR, I'm gonna see HAIR for the third time, even though it may hamper my ability to send my kids to college! (To tell you the truth, I'm gonna take my kids to HAIR. So I guess that'll be instead of sending them to college. Which makes sense, I think they're gonna learn a lot.)

5. Your newest production, Angela’s Mixtape is a co-production with Hip Hop Theater Festival – how did that come about?

Eisa Davis, the playwright, originally developed the piece with Hip-Hop Theater Festival a while back. As soon as we decided to do it, Eisa said, "you have to get in touch with them and get them involved!" Which I was beyond happy to do. I love that we share the attitude that we're not in it just to put on a play, but to create an event. And we serve different purposes on the project -- New Georges is essentially producing the New York production, 'cause that's what we do, and they're interested in finding a touring life for the project once it's up, 'cause that's what they do. So we're all learning. I've loved getting to know Clyde Valentin and everybody there, and they bring so much to this project.

6. Have there been shows that New Georges has done that you loved and felt they didn’t get the response they deserved?

I'm usually happy with the response we get from people who get to our shows; historically, the problem's more about bringing attention to shows so that more people come see them and are then able to respond. Especially so that the artists (and potentially also the piece) can go further, so the production can actually make a difference in the artist's life. There's no worse feeling than when you've got a piece you think everyone should see (and the audience you've got agrees with you), but you can't for the life of you figure out how to access more audience. That's less of a problem these days, we have more time to work harder at it and we have a little bit more visibility, and this crazy Internet thing helps. But from back in the day, I wish we'd been able to bring more attention and people to TOMORROWLAND by Neena Beber, SELF DEFENSE by Carson Kreitzer, ANNA BELLA EEMA by Lisa D'Amour, to name just a few.

7. How do you choose projects?

We start by choosing artists, really. When I meet artists who interest me, I often talk about -- let's start a relationship, do some work, I'll see your other work, then we'll see if something pops to the surface. And that does happen. In the best circumstances, projects are just... obvious, make sense, fall into place. Actually I like that you're asking about projects, because that's how I think about it, too. A lot of companies choose plays, but most of the time we really do choose the project. We want to do what interests us as producers -- the question often becomes, can we make an event out of this? And I know when we can from the combustion I feel happening between potential collaborators. There are times I've just up and said "let's do it!" because I'm in the room with a playwright and a director and I can sense the energy they're going to bring to the work, how that collaboration will bring what's on the page forward in a way that's specific and exciting and something that I want to be a part of.

8. Now that The Ohio’s future is in question, would you ever consider having your own venue?

It would have to be a pretty special venue, just because the logistics and finances of having your own space seem, well, overwhelming to me. Right now, we just have a rehearsal space of our own, and that's almost too much to deal with. But you're right, as spaces disappear I do start to wonder whether we're going to have a choice on that. Sigh. It's definitely getting harder.

9. What’s next?

This fall, we're co-producing CREATURE by Heidi Schreck, directed by Leigh Silverman, with P73 Productions. And we're always doing things in The Room, our workspace. We'll keep you posted!

New Georges
Hip-Hop Theater Festival
by Eisa Davis
Directed by Liesl Tommy

Mondays through Saturdays 8pm
opens April 9 at 7pm

66 Wooster Street, Soho

$35 premium seating (reserved)
$20 general admission

For tickets: Click Here
or call 212-868-4444

No comments: