New Georges Founder Susan Bernfield Talks Empowering Women in Theater

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When Susan Bernfield was starting out as an actress in 1992, she realized there were not a lot of roles being written for her, or for women in general. She couldn’t even find plays by women at the bookstore. So, she founded theater company New Georges, which largely works with new and experimental plays and female artists. Since then, she has since produced 47 plays and other works including productions by Heidi Schreck, Marielle Heller, Lisa D’Amour, and Sheila Callaghan. Bernfield is also a playwright herself. Her productions — such as “Sizzle Sizzle Fly,” “Tania in the Getaway Van,” and “My Last Car” — have been presented or developed at various theaters around the country.

We talked to Bernfield about the current landscape for women in theater, starting New Georges, and what it means to be a feminist playwright.

New Georges’ next play, which will be its 48th, is “Leap and the Net Will Appear.” Written by Chana Porter and directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, it runs June 16-30 at The Flea Theater in New York City.

This interview has been edited. 

W&H: How would you describe the theater landscape for women in 2019?

SB: It’s very different from the landscape for women in 1992. There’s a lot more attention being paid to women who are writing plays, and there are just a lot more women writing plays. Plays are more assertive and artists are more assertive in terms of wanting their voices to be heard. Women are also more assertive and more driven, which is very much a millennial thing. I also think there are models we didn’t have when we started. A lot of playwrights who have come up in the last 15-20 years are teaching younger playwrights in MA programs. Women just don’t feel they shouldn’t do something, and there are so many more opportunities. Groups like the Lilly Awards and 50/50 have brought more attention to this topic in the last 10 years. The conversation has really changed and there are more women’s plays being produced than before.

Obviously, things are not at parity yet, but I consider it to be an incredible and positive time. Certainly, we [at New Georges] think about the individual pieces getting attention as a theater that launches careers, and there is no question about the power of the work and the fact that these artists are a part of the conversation and will continue to be throughout their careers. It’s very fulfilling to know that female artists are really being heard and are making some pretty serious inroads.

W&H: Is racial equity a topic you also follow closely?

SB: Yes. Everything is popping around the same time. I’ve been in a lot of artistic leadership conversations around racial equity. The works that we are seeing are so, so, so eye-opening and powerful and these writers are really nailing it in a lot of ways. It makes it so incontrovertible in a way.

It used to feel like plays by women didn’t have rising action like in a man’s play, and it was hard to understand what was happening. A lot of plays now are both highly theatrical and incredibly invested structurally. What women are saying is really hard to miss and this past year, in particular, has been a much more interesting theatrical landscape for audience members.

W&H: Tell me about your role at New Georges, where you have produced 47 plays since 1992. What was your motivation to start it?

SB: I was an actor, but not a very good actor. I couldn’t find any plays to be in. I wanted to produce plays in order to act. I was at a loss. I was in a theater company like so many people out of drama school. I was also in a commercial class, so I could do commercials, made of all women. It was right after Anita Hill, and everyone was upset with the parts they had to play. We were all really cranky. So, I decided to seek out plays for women. I went to The Drama Book Shop but it was very hard to find plays by women. So, I decided I had to find new plays and new playwrights. However, new plays were not my thing. I had never met a playwright. I thought if I met one playwright, I would meet other playwrights and have a whole batch of people to meet and get to know. That community or network didn’t exist at the time, so I decided that my company needed to be not only a producing organization but also a community for female artists.

Today it’s a very competitive field, so having a place where you have a home that un-quantifiably supports your work is really important for women, even if we are trying to launch more and more into any career you want to have — a career not as a woman playwright but as a playwright. We are not under anyone else’s eye.

W&H: What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theater?

SB: Read more and look at more plays. The Kilroys are doing a great job of bringing plays to people’s attention. We’re very interested in being sure that women director-playwright collaborations move forward, and we try to promote them as collaborators. We are also interested in giving women directors a lot of experience in order for their careers to thrive. Since directors do most of the hiring of designers and of the whole creative team, the hiring issue is something we are thinking about a lot. So, we have a database of women designers. We know there has been a lot of publicity about the few all-women design teams that have been on Broadway [like “Lifespan of a Fact”], and that is something we’ve been thinking about for a while. It’s making sure that our design teams feel good gender parity. It’s about having everyone in the room.

We’re also working on having more people of color in the room. It’s interesting because we have done this for so long and the focus is just in a very different place that lets us do more and do better to push women artists forward. For example, we’ve changed a lot of our social media game in order to promote women artists in our company and the artists’ community to give our artists the support that they need to know that they are institutionally supported.

W&H: Do most of the playwrights at New Georges consider themselves feminist playwrights or simply playwrights?

SB: When these women speak about themselves, most are playwrights. Our goal has been to push playwrights to have full careers, although most of the plays we develop and produce are feminist plays. Even though they don’t deal with feminist issues, they are coming from that perspective. It has always been complicated because by doing the thing we do, we need to push them forward without promoting women’s art in order for their play to be seen for their full value, as works of art.

We have spent many, many years hiding the women’s thing, never shying away from the “doing” part of the mission but putting it below in our press releases. We found when we moved it, we got better press, that it was actually less of a help than a hindrance to our artists and was putting them in a niche you don’t want them to be in. You want them to be out there making the work of American theater.

W&H: It sounds extremely positive in terms of the changes that have occurred.

SB: In the last couple of years, obviously, as there is more attention and when we look back at the people we’ve worked with who are now changing our culture, we’re in a different place and are happy to be a part of the conversation. It’s been a fantastic paradigm shift for us. It’s also much more of an identity-driven culture. So, that’s been very different for us, from a positive perspective.

W&H: What are you working on and who are some of the women to watch in the theater space right now?

SB: We do an aesthetically kind of weird play, so often the standards of success of a play are different than to a lot of people’s. We’re producing a play by Chana Porter that opens next week. We’re working on a play by Colette Robert, who is also a director. She directed a play called “Behind the Sheet” at the Ensemble Studio Theatre that we’re co-producing with The Movement Theatre Company. I’m a big fan of writer Sarah Einspanier, who just did a play called “Lunch Bunch” at Clubbed Thumb. The director of that play was Taylor Reynolds, who is also in our community and she is also fantastic. We’re also working with Kristine Haruna Lee, who had a piece at Bushwick Starr earlier this year. She is a world changer.

W&H: You’re also a playwright. Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain subjects when you are writing plays?

SB: The more I think about it, I do write feminist plays. I’m very interested in strong women and their stories. I’m working on two plays that are both about feminism. One is about how my mom went back to school in the 1970s. It’s about the women’s movement and my response to that. The other is about the first woman who was an engineer in the Apollo program [Frances “Poppy” Northcutt]. I feel like I don’t do it intentionally, but these are the subjects that are coming up for me.

W&H: What do you think of the shift that many female playwrights are making to TV?

SB: Suddenly we have so much more overlap than ever before. It’s great because we can put all these great female playwrights forward to be picked up by TV and film. It used to be you went into TV and were writing a completely different thing, but people are recognizing that TV is interesting and uses many of the same tools and that the writer’s room is a collaborative space that women are used to in the theater. We’re [New Georges] talking about creating a web-based channel to support our artists and get people’s work out there.