Apr 23, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 154: Susan Bernfield
Hometown: Palo Alto, CA
Current Town: New York City
Q: Tell me please about your play now being performed in Philly.
STRETCH (a fantasia) imagines Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon’s loyal secretary, observing the presidential election of 2004 from a nursing home in Alliance, Ohio. Talking to the people she meets there and having some very strange dreams. I started writing it in 2006, when that election seemed very fresh, and now I have to remind everybody that that election was decided by Ohio! It was, and Woods did die in Ohio two days after George Bush’s second inauguration, and that’s the coincidence – well, that and she struck me as such a great character – that inspired the play. I developed it through New Georges with director Emma Griffin and composer Rachel Peters, and it was in the Ice Factory Festival at the Ohio in 2007, and then New Georges produced it at The Living Theater in 2008. It’s exciting and amazing to me that it’s gotten to have another life in this second and totally new production at People’s Light & Theater, directed by Daniella Topol.
I’ve loved the time I’ve spent at People’s Light and everyone there has been wonderful, especially the terrific cast led by Alda Cortese (who’s also the literary manager, and pulled my play out of the pile!). To go and get to just be the playwright has been… wow, that’s very rare, and I've felt so welcome and lucky. And Daniella is a longtime collaborator and friend, we worked literally for years developing my solo musical TINY FEATS OF COWARDICE (also with music by Rachel Peters!) and she’s directed a lot for New Georges. We had a lot of fun, especially exploring the second production thing together – it was a first for both of us. I learned a lot from being at a bigger and far-away theater, it was interesting and helpful to revisit the play, and it's a beautiful production. The play is in part about political cycles, and we’ve been through several now since I wrote it, so it’s a nice surprise that people think the play's held up. The audience has been really responsive, which is nice. And they come to the theater in cars! Which feels very very weird to me.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I have a new play, BIG HUNGRY WORLD, which I’ve been working on a while and am excited about, and it’s about time for me to get on the stick and develop that further. It’s about Internet billionaires and movie people and global philanthropy. Have some ideas that haven't gotten much past the idea stage.... and am trying to figure out ways and places to perform TINY FEATS again. New Georges has been keeping me pretty busy – more below in “plugs”!
Q: You are the Artistic Director of New Georges. Tell me please about your theater. Has helming a theater affected the way you write?
A: Well, I wouldn’t be a playwright, I think, if I hadn’t started the theater. I was an actor, and the theater emerged kind of organically from not being able to find any plays to be in, then realizing that to find those plays we’d have to produce new work. After producing for a while and meeting playwrights I realized hey, I’m a lot like these people I’m reading and meeting, and I have stuff to say, and I should be writing too. It didn’t come out of nowhere, I’d written a lot and obsessively when I was really young, but gave it up by middle school for acting cause that just seemed, uh, cooler I guess, more social, and I always focused on writing in other capacities. So I had a slow start, but it’s hard to get mad at the theater company for stealing all my writing time, cause without it I don’t know if I’d be doing very much at all. My career has really been very serendipitous.
And yeah, being a producer -- and a producer of plays that tend to be very theatrical and design-heavy -- has definitely influenced my writing. I think about design elements a lot while I write, well, not think about them, consciously, now they just appear, as clearly as dialogue elements do, and they’ll shape the play. I surprise myself in how I’ve started to think visually, and about how sound will punctuate a moment, how lighting will give shape to a scene, where things should be on the stage, and it’s definitely shifted how structure finds itself in my mind. All that's mademy writing more active, more stage-worthy, I think. But y'know, most of my plays aren’t New Georges plays. STRETCH was, and I was glad it came out that way, and that’s why we produced it, but I'm not sure BIG HUNGRY WORLD is, for example. Maybe it’s on the cusp! New Georges just has a very specific aesthetic, plus as a producer I’m more interested in things I CAN’T do, things that amaze me and that challenge me as a producer, which is a different kind of challenge. For years people asked me why I didn’t produce my own plays, and really that was why. As an artistic director I’m not interested in my own aesthetic! Ha! Great idea!
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I fear I tell this a lot, but... like most of the moms I knew in the 70s, my mom went back to school. She got a masters in counseling psychology to become a career counselor, and she had this book called Values Clarification. In it there were a bunch of exercises designed to, duh, help you clarify your values. And for some reason she liked to work on this with me and my brothers, it was her homework but she got bored and turned it into a game, I guess. Which we LOVED, maybe just cause it meant she was paying attention to us! We’d beg her, please, please can’t we play Values Clarification, please?? Which is a little weird. But basically she would read us a very short story with some sort of dilemma in it, and there would be a choice of answers about what the characters should do – none of them the WRONG answer, this was about values after all, but oh, we always knew which one SHE thought was right! My parents were very values-driven people even before all this, and I think I am too. They’d made real choices, in direct opposition to their parents, and as a result their values were very different from their parents’, and they were always very very clear about how and why. And I think I tend to see conflict, obstacles, misunderstandings as resulting from a difference in values, both in life and in my work, that's usually the filter. When they’re strong in my characters, when they’re malleable, when they’re overly stated or pretentious... And I think my theater company has survived for, oh my god, 18 years because our values are also well articulated, they’re truly the foundation, we’re always on the lookout for people who share or complement those values, and as a result we tend to have a happy time. Of course it's also pretty hard to be an art-maker if you’re shaky on this subject. I mean, if you see your own value in the context of money…. well, it’s gonna be a problem!
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Frankly I find heroic any and everybody who still wants to do this goddamn impossible thing. And Joe Papp.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Good question, I want to be excited! It’s happened more than usual lately, and that’s encouraging. I kinda like BIG excitement, an experience, an event, especially lately. I want magic, whether quiet or loud, I’m looking for combustion. I want to be surprised, to see something I've never seen before, whether it's a production element or a point of view or… something that I don’t know what it is yet, since I’m looking for that surprise! I'm partial to spectacle. I don’t mind messy. I want to go inside, be included in the experience (though confess I stop short at audience participation!). I like to see things that are irreverent, that mix it up, that have serious concern for the wider world but find ways to talk about it that don't take it too seriously. But really all kinds of things have the potential to excite me, and when something I think isn’t gonna be my thing surprises me into loving it, well, that’s always awesome.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Find your own route. Take your time. Look for communities with which you have an aesthetic rapport. Find the right places, that is, for you, without worrying whether they’re “the best” based on some outside criteria. Meet directors and other collaborators who you can learn from and who will learn from you, so you can push each other and each others’ work forward into the world. Keep your collaborators, be consistent with them, so you have people who can get inside your work with you, so “the play” isn’t a thing on paper you hold close but is always in the process of becoming a living, three-dimensional thing. Learn to separate the good from the unnecessary when it comes to advice, especially dramaturgical advice; interpret it before you apply it, and listen just to the people you really really trust; more importantly, learn how to learn who those people are.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: STRETCH (a fantasia) runs through Sunday at People’s Light in Malvern, PA.
New Georges is associate producer of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL by Marielle Heller, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde and Rachel Eckerling, which is enjoying an extended run (thru May 1!) at 3LD Art & Technology Center downtown.
And our primary spring show, MILK by Emily DeVoti, directed by Jessica Bauman, starts performances Monday April 26 at HERE! Whew! That enough?