The French romantic novelist George Sand said:
One is happy as a result of one’s own efforts, once one knows the necessary ingredients of happiness — simple tastes, a certain degree of courage, self-denial to a point, love of work, and, above all, a clear conscience.
Though this quote dates back to the mid-19th century, it happens to aptly describe the courageous and indefatigable Susan Bernfield, artistic director of the NYC-based women’s theater company, New Georges. Inspired by the male pen names for Sand and another Victorian-era scribe, George Eliot, New Georges has been Bernfield’s passion, championing and supporting female writers and directors since 1992. You’d think that helming a revolutionary Off-Off Broadway company for 25 years would be accomplishment enough for one person. But you don’t know Susan Bernfield.
In addition to the “love of the work” that Bernfield relishes as New Georges’ artistic leader, she also loves writing plays. Her latest play, Tania in the Getaway Van, is part of a new pop-up theater project called The Pool. Taking its cue from the 13P model, The Pool is a temporary consortium of three writers. The model provides them with the structure to produce their own work.
Robin Rothstein: How did you get involved in theater? What draws you to the art form?
Susan Bernfield: I started performing in plays when I was nine. There was an incredible children’s theater in my hometown. I somehow ended up trying out for something, and that was that. I was a super shy kid with a very loud voice. Performing allowed me to put myself out there, and I found my people. I acted throughout high school and college, but decided to take that “If you can do anything else in the world, do it!” advice. I got a terrific magazine job right after college. It was in the heart of the theater district. I lasted two years, two months and two days. Then I went to drama school at Circle in the Square. I think I’m still drawn to [theater] for the same reason as when I was nine: the community that forms every time you get in a room to make something and the tense, exciting moments that happen when everybody’s going out on a limb together.
RR: What was the motivation to start New Georges?
SB: After graduating [from Circle in the Square], I almost immediately decided to produce a play with two drama school friends — like lots of people do. We formed a company that was kind of a precursor to New Georges called Theater Labrador Inc., which is still our legal name. We did a few shows, and then it fizzled out.
A few months later, I took a commercial acting class, which happened to only have women in it. They were always talking about how dumb the parts they went out for were — bimbos and stereotypical moms. It was the fall of ’91: Anita Hill time, Women’s Action Coalition time — we were on fire!
I invited some women from that class to be part of my dormant-but-incorporated theater company, thinking maybe we could do something about women — plays by women — which might have better parts for us. These were harder to find than we thought. I’d go to the Drama Book Shop (because, no Internet) and troll for hours — nothing. We thought there must be young women like us writing plays about stuff we care about. Let’s find them! I had no experience with new plays. I had never met a playwright, and didn’t know how to find or meet them (again, no Internet), but we asked around. Eventually, they started finding us. As soon as I discovered new work, and met all these cool playwrights and new-play directors, there was no turning back.
RR: How did the concept for The Pool come about? Why the name?
SB: I’ve known my “Pool” colleague Lynn Rosen since the early days, and a few years back I commissioned and produced her play, Goldor $ Mythyka. She had been talking to Andy Bragen about the company he formed to produce his work and others. He encouraged her to take on something similar, to produce her own work. She realized she wanted partners to split the fundraising and responsibility. She came to New Georges for some advice on that, which is a pretty frequent occurrence with our artists. I think we also had coffee, talked about the endeavor as she was envisioning it, and got into some nitty-gritty. At some point, she invited me to be one of the playwrights! I’d been spending a lot of time encouraging New Georges’ artists to produce their work independently, and we’ve stepped up our program to provide some resources and mentorship. So, I felt like I should put my money where my mouth is. Lynn kept asking around, and then Peter Gil-Sheridan jumped in.
We landed on The Pool because we’re pooling our resources and diving right in! Seemed like the right metaphor. It takes care of both the risk-taking and the camaraderie of the project. It’s also turned out to be pretty fun. We had a great time with “Dive in!” and all kinds of Olympian pool images when we put out our Kickstarter campaign last summer. Helps to have a theme!
RR: Talk about Tania in the Getaway Van.
SB: This is a play I never thought I should write. Though, once I found a way in, I had to keep going. It’s based on an experience people don’t know about as much as I think they do.
It starts in 1975, the height of the women’s movement, when my mom really did go back to school, and then got a job. I was a really shy kid, and she suddenly felt free to talk about anything to try to bring me in to all her openness and assertiveness training. I did not want to hear it. (Embarrassing!) So, I shut up. And then, I grew up to be the poster child for all the feminist goals she was talking about. So does the character in the play. The second part is set in 2012, and, while it gets fictional, it’s been interesting to explore my own blindness as to what’s not solved that I thought my mom’s generation took care of.
Ever since I first wrote the play, in the last five years, feminism has shifted a lot. Certainly second-wave feminism feels like ancient history — privileged, not intersectional and not relevant. But it happened. It did change the lives of women on the ground like my mom, and her friends and generations after them. It’s brought us closer to the place we are now so that finally, we can go further.
I think my hesitance for so long in telling this story was that people just weren’t interested in the women’s movement. Now maybe they are, but in a different way? The moment the play covers will either be interesting background and history or seem totally off topic for today. I’m super curious what the response will be — but I want people to laugh!
RR: Who are some of your heroines and why?
SB: Wow. I don’t know if I’m good at answering this question! Though, right now, I’d say that the artists I work with at New Georges, especially the early-career artists. They are true heroes to me. Coming to NYC these days, the world’s most expensive city, finding lives while making truly compelling work, undaunted in all kinds of places and contexts, pushing our art form forward — I am consistently amazed. It keeps me doing what I do. I feel lucky when I get to be even a little part of all the cool stuff they’re making.
RR: The website describes The Pool as a “temporary consortium.” So, there are no plans for this group to “pop-up” again after this run?
SB: Not for us three! But our great hope is to pass the name and concept along to three new intrepid playwrights who will do the same thing. They will have a head start.
RR: What’s next for you and New Georges?
SB: We are thrilled to be anchor partners at The Flea’s new theater complex in Tribeca and in residence all year long. The Pool will happen there, and will be hosted by New Georges as part of our Supported Productions program. In February, we’re presenting two incredible plays in rep. They haven’t been announced yet, but I’m super-excited about them. And I hope I’ll have time at some point to work on some of my other plays. My play, Sizzle Sizzle Fly, is an EST/Sloan commission, and I’ve barely had a chance to revise it since a reading in the First Light Festival last January. I was also on a bit of a roll presenting my solo play, My Last Car, in people’s living rooms all around the city. I’ve been on too long a hiatus from that. I want to get back to it.
RR: As an established artistic leader, which skills or habits have helped you stay the course and succeed?
SB: When I look back, I just think I was insane. I don’t know how I did it. It was hard! Maybe let’s call that tenacity. I think one important thing is that while I work at a small theater company that I love (we say “strategically small” and we mean it), I’m interested in the bigger picture, the field at large. I serve on a bunch of boards — I’ve been on the board of ART/New York, our service organization, for almost 20 years. It gives me a broader perspective on the whole, and on organizational structures and problem solving. I think this commitment to the whole is one reason I’m still happy in my little corner, running my small theater.