What do women theater artists want? Space to create, community of artists, opportunity for production. What do women audience members want? To see themselves, and the world they recognize, on stage. Who's been listening, and delivering, for eight years now? New Georges.
In the way paved by the old Georges, Madames Sand and Eliot, the Obie-winning New Georges theater company has become "ground zero for smart new theater by women," producing over 12 new plays--and countless short works, festivals, readings--written and directed by women. Meanwhile, they've created a community of over 100 affiliated artists, who just happen to be women who just don't feel the need to work behind a man's nom de plume.
Their latest production, number 13, is the world premiere of Juliann France's Imagining Shadows, playing now through March 11 at the Ohio Theater in Soho. Directed by New Georges veteran Jessica Bauman, the play is a lyrical portrait of a family in 1950s Memphis after the death of the family matriarch, all told through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl.
According to Artistic Director Susan Bernfield, New Georges started back in 1991 when a smart group of women actors couldn't find any smart roles for themselves. "It was impossible to find a play by a woman," she explains. "And the reason why I wanted to find a play by a woman was so that I could have something to be in that didn't make me feel really stupid. I thought, 'Well, there must be people like me, who write about things that I care about.'"
New Georges first production was Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom, the only non-new play they've ever done. "But as soon as I started talking to artists and dealing with playwrights, I realized that we're not going to find plays of any [particular] ideology and I don't necessary want to look for plays that are strictly of an ideology," Bernfield says. "I'm much more interested in the women that we work with for who they are and what they want to say much more than I feel like their stories have to make a statement that's bigger than, 'Hey, we're producing these women.' I'm interested in getting their voices out, creating opportunities for them."
And their efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 1996 New Georges was awarded an Obie citation for "finding ways to connect one work to another, process to product, and most importantly, artists to each other and their audience," a recognition of company's mission as a whole rather than any specific production. What makes New Georges stand out among downtown theater companies, besides their focus on women artists, is their commitment to artist and play development--from their very beginnings--as much as to production.
"The thing that was wonderful was that I was very welcomed as a young emerging artist," says Cusi Cram, who has been an affiliated playwright with New Georges for six years. "I had written a solo piece [Bolivia] and I called up Susan, and she said, 'OK, let's do a reading of it.' They liked it, and then produced it in a festival the following year." For young women artists, that kind of open-door attitude ("It's not a mysterious process," says Bernfield) is how work, and growth, happens.
"What distinguishes New Georges--and should be taken advantage of by every theater artist who wants to be active, and not just responsive about their career--is the opportunity to make things happen," remarks playwright Diana Son, whose play Fishes was produced by New Georges in 1998. "You can call Susan Bernfield and say 'I want to create an acting class that's just for playwrights' and she'll say 'Great idea. What do you need from me?' and try to facilitate your initiative." (Often what the artist needs most is space to work. Enter The Room, New Georges' multi-use workspace--rehearsal hall, play development lab, gathering place, and for an affiliated artist in need, life saver--located in the Flatiron district.)
The great-idea-what-do-you-need scenario is exactly what occurred when affiliated director Julie Bleha was interested in making sure New Georges' "new work by women" included opportunities for young directors, in addition to playwrights. With resources (space, some money, word-of-mouth) provided by New Georges, last year Bleha started The Roaring Girls, a workshop for women directors interested in exploring classic texts. "The Roaring Girls is an entirely unique opportunity because it's allowing me to work on a classical text, which is an experience that, as a young director, I wouldn't otherwise have," comments Roaring Girls member Allison Eve Zell.
And while New Georges' focus remains on new work, "The fact that New Georges is about conversation and dialogue makes conversation about classics make sense," notes Bleha. "Within the diversity of the group, there's a place for us." The Roaring Girls' December benefit was attended by over 90 people, who showed up just to talk about directing the classics. "Even if people have interests that don't synch with ours, they had an interest in this group as part of the community," says Bleha.
The willingness of New Georges artists to commune and converse--whether for a panel on directing classics or their annual Performathon (12 hours of ten-minute plays)--makes it all seem natural, yet the New Georges community is born of a conscious acknowledgement that relationships is how theater gets made. "I'm trying to codify the fact that relationships is how it works. Institutionalizing that helps our artists move forwards. I think that everyone's work gets better when they're a part of a community," Bernfield explains. "We're looking for people who share our culture, which is one of New Georges' most defining things: the culture. We get along artistically as well as people."
And New Georges' sense of community, which may often begin with matching up playwrights and directors to work together on a ten-minute play, has grown to have a significant impact on the professional lives its affiliated artists. "In New York there are certain places that are a home for me [artistically], and New Georges is one of it. And there is something about it being only for women that--without a huge agenda--naturally fosters a community," says Cram. Zell agrees. "Not only is it a challenge to put something together and sustain it, but the fact that she [Susan] is insisting upon the fact that it's a community and not just a producing organization, is even harder. And she's done it."
While the community, opportunities, and resources that New Georges has fostered are valued ends in themselves, they're also the means by which some very interesting theater, by some very exciting playwrights, is being created. Many familiar and emerging writers in New York's theater scene (Diana Son, Kia Corthron, Kate Moira Ryan, Theresa Rebeck, Neena Beber, Jake-Ann Jones, Karen Hartman, Jessica Goldberg) are among the 120 women in New Georges' loose network of affiliated artists.
Last spring 1,800 people came to Watch This Space, New Georges' eight-week festival with 43 performances, 11 productions, and 99 artists. (Time Out called Watch This Space "ambitious." Ambitious? To say the least.) "People were like, 'Oh, we shouldn't have taken on so much,' but you've gotta take on that much, otherwise, what's the point?" says Bernfield. "If you're going to do it, you've gotta totally do it!"
For the women of New Georges, totally-doing-it is working--giving women theater artists the opportunity to do their work, and giving women audience members the chance to see themselves reflected in the theater. The current object of Bernfield's enthusiasm is their upcoming production of Imagining Shadows. "I think it's going to be really beautiful. So much of this play happens silently, with stage directions. That just seemed a really interesting thing to explore, how relationships can be created from what the actors do. It's kind of a mystery," she says. "And one of the actors in the show was in a show that we did six and half years ago--those are my favorite moments. I love when that happens."