I was fascinated by Marina Abramovic’s statement that she is not a feminist artist. So I thought it would be appropriate to talk with Susan Bernfield, the artistic director of New Georges—a nonprofit theater company that produces feisty, imaginative and highly theatrical new plays by women in downtown venues. Would Ms. Bernfield agree with Abramovic and state that it is essential to separate art from personal identity? Or would she state that feminist ideology and the plays produced at New Georges are inherently entwined?
Natalie Bergner: How did you find yourself working in the theater industry? Was it something you envisioned for yourself from a young age?
Susan Bernfield: From a young age, yes. I did a lot of theater when I was very young, starting when I was 8 or 9 at a children’s theater in my town. I went to drama school after college. When I left drama school I started producing plays with some friends, because I wasn’t really going anywhere with my acting career per se. I realized that as a woman I couldn’t find that many plays to be in that were interesting enough. Because it was so hard to find plays with good parts, I thought: there must be women who are writing plays with more interesting characters. For the first couple of years I was in the plays and producing them at the same time.
NB: You state on your website that “by producing plays by women, we can create opportunity and herald a new perspective.” What does that statement mean to you?
SB: You have voices that aren’t ordinarily heard and so there may be inklings within the plays of something, that if our theater only produced plays by men, you wouldn’t get to hear. There is a great variety of what happens in our plays, some have felt more like “women’s perspectives” than others. But one thing I learned is how important it is to separate the work from this idea of what it means to have a woman writing it. Producing women’s plays is separate from what is in the work itself. Every perspective of every artist is going to be unique. The stronger their perspective is the better artist they often are. By creating this opportunity within and among women you are going to have very different perspectives. They might not be established “women’s” perspectives. I think the women that we work with are very interesting people and therefore their perspectives are interesting.
NB: Going off of that—remembering to separate the playwright from the play itself—last week I did a blog post about the performance artist Marina Abramovic. In a recent New York Times interview she said that she is not a feminist artist, she is just an artist. Do most of the playwrights at New Georges consider themselves feminist playwrights or simply playwrights? Do you have discussions with the playwrights about their feminist identities?
SB: I rarely find myself in those conversations. When I do have that conversation about feminist identity it’s more of a friend-to-friend discussion. I think Marina Abramovic has to say that she isn’t a feminist because there are so many expectations heaped upon her.
As the curator of the plays at New Georges, I am going to choose works that appeal to me as a feminist. Whether I say it or not, the works are going to be about something that I relate to. It [a feminist perspective] is reflected in the choice of the work innately because of who I am. The plays that I am attracted to are plays written by people who probably care about women and want to assert something about them. Although we try to separate the content from the author, oftentimes the plays are about women and have women protagonists. All these things happen, but it’s very important for us to allow these things to happen organically as opposed to our dictating what the work needs to be about.
I figured this out very early on. We started off with the idea that we were going to do feminist theater, producing feminist plays. The very first thing we did was this evening of one-acts. My sister in-law, who was an avowed feminist, came up to me afterwards and said that she didn’t think all the plays were feminist.
It’s so subjective. So if you state that you are doing feminist theater and producing feminist plays, you create certain expectations that are not necessarily useful in terms of putting the work forward. There is always going to be someone who doesn’t agree with someone else’s perspective on feminism.
You want people to respond to the works organically, not necessarily in a way that is political. So, categorizing the plays as feminist has been dangerous. That moment informed how we wanted to shape our mission as a theater company.
NB: So, after producing that first series of one acts, did you find yourself back at the drawing board, re-thinking your statement that your goal was to produce feminist theater?
SB: I think it was a gradual transition. We still called it feminist theater before renaming the company New Georges. Also, it was difficult in the beginning to find “feminist plays.” While many plays may have a perspective that comes from feminist ideas, not every play is going to contain subject matter that is overtly feminist. I didn’t necessarily want the theater to be overtly about “feminist issues.”
NB: How did you come up with the name New Georges?
SB: It is named after George Sand and George Eliot.
NB: Can anyone who identifies as a woman have their works produced by New Georges?
SB: That’s an interesting question. Yes, I think so. We actually had the opposite thing happen in the fall. Two years ago we were working with a playwright who began to transition into becoming a man. By the time that we were producing his play he wanted to be referred to as “he.” To us it is about our community of artists. The fact that when he began the process he identified as a woman didn’t matter to us; we had a seven year relationship with him as an artist. For us it was very simple; so much of what we do is about having a deep and compatible relationship with our artists. I mean, we get a lot of guys who write to us and say “my play is all about women,” and I always think, “I know, but, I don’t care.” [laughs]
NB: I remember seeing you in a one-woman musical, Tiny Feats of Cowardice, in 2009. Are you still performing when you’re not producing for New Georges?
SB: I am trying to. I am still trying to have more performances of that show and I am still writing plays.
NB: Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain subjects when you are writing plays?
SB: Kind of. I think I am interested in finding connections in pop cultural or historical events and figuring out how those connections stack up against each other. And they generally have women in them. [laughs]
I recently started writing a play about when my mother went back to work in the 70s. I think people know about the famous second wave feminists, but what was it like to be on the ground?
NB: Watching your mom transition back into the work force, how do you think we can still inspire teens and young girls today to be writing, to enter into that work force?
SB: I feel like there are actually a lot of young women in the field now. I have seen a significant change within the last five years in terms of the determination and youth of the people who are coming into the field, especially directors. There are more and more female directors.
NB: Why do you think there has been such an increase in women playwrights and directors?
SB: I think there are a lot of women coming out of programs at colleges, knowing that they want to be directors. And that’s amazing. There are so many more role models now. There are many more women who are actively working in the field and a lot of them teach at the university level, which has made a huge impression on the women who are coming into the field. I feel incredibly encouraged by the theater. I am blown away by these assertive 22 year-old playwrights that I meet.
NB: Last but not least, do you have a play that you suggest everyone read or go see right now?
SB: Clybourne Park. It’s a play written by a man, but directed by Pam MacKinnon, who is an amazing, strong and creative woman. The play is about race relations, change and Chicago. Hmm, what to read? Well, my interest is always in aesthetics. People shouldn’t see plays as this boring thing. I think people should read God’s Ear, which we produced. It’s a great example of aesthetics.
Photo from a production of Stretch (a fantasia), a play by Susan Bernfield