In 2013, Indigo Theatre Project burst on the scene in a big way. Cofounded by rising theater-industry rock stars Nick Gereffi and Rachel Sussman, the company's mission is to produce, along with nonprofit organizations, readings of acclaimed plays with strong female characters. In their first year alone, they staged readings of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel (a benefit for Donor Direct Action), Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others (for TDF Open Doors), and Craig Lucas' Reckless (for Safe Horizon). These readings weren't skimpy on the casts, either. Reckless starred Tina Fey and Michael Shannon, while the others featured the likes of Celia Keenan-Bolger, Merritt Weaver, and Tonya Pinkins.
The latest on the docket is a July 7 reading of The First Wives Club, Robert Harling's screenplay for the cult-favorite 1996 film, which will benefit the The Actors Fund's Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative. The A-list cast is led by Audra McDonald, Sherie Rene Scott, and Lili Taylor, along with stage favorites Will Swenson, Jeremy Shamos, Mary Beth Peil, and Rebecca Naomi Jones.
Gereffi and Sussman filled TheaterMania in on how they arrange these star-studded evenings and how their tenacity has led to their overwhelming success.
Tell me about how your first meeting and about the creation of Indigo Theatre Project.
Rachel Sussman: We met in 2011 when we were both interns at 321 Theatrical Management. About a year later, Nick approached me about wanting to put on a reading of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, and [I thought] that was a really good idea. But everyone does a reading. What could we do that would make us stand out? So we came up with the idea of pairing Intimate Apparel with Donor Direct Action, [an organization that] Lynn is on the steering committee of.
Nick Gereffi: When we first started talking about it, the concern that I had was how we would get Lynn, who we didn't know, to give us the rights to do this in New York. But we came up with the idea of telling her it would benefit [Donor Direct Action], so maybe she'd be more inclined to give us the rights. It started out as a bit of a trick and turned into the artistic mission of the company, which is amazing.
Rachel Sussman: It started as a one-off, but people were really taken with [it]. Lynn Nottage has become a mentor to us and is supportive of what we're doing in all of our readings. Our first year, 2013, we raised almost $20,000 for the three organizations over the course of the three readings.
Why, after staging readings of three plays, did you go in the direction of a screenplay and The First Wives Club?
Nick Gereffi: One of the big tenets behind Indigo has been doing work that empowers women and has strong female characters. I thought a reading of a screenplay would be a scary different thing for us to tackle, but the mission of the movie lent itself to the mission of the company.
Rachel Sussman: Nick and I are both self-defined feminists and if you look at our track record, all of our plays so far have themes of empowering women. At the end of The First Wives Club, they open a crisis center for women. It was a really big contender for us.
Was it difficult to obtain the rights for First Wives Club, given that the musical is still in development?
Nick Gereffi: This has been the hardest of any we've done. Usually we just reach out to the author. It's tricky when you're dealing with a screenplay, because the writer doesn't own the rights. It took three months to get the rights.
Rachel Sussman: We had to get permission from [screenwriter] Robert Harling, Paramount Pictures, the producers of the musical, and from the Olivia Goldsmith estate. Robert Harling has been so generous with his time. He has offered to rewrite parts of the screenplay to create stage directions.
One thing your readings are quickly becoming known for are the casts. You have Audra McDonald, Sherie Rene Scott, and Lili Taylor leading this one; you had Tina Fey and Michael Shannon in the last. How do you land such boldface names?
Nick Gereffi: The biggest lesson we've learned is do not be afraid to ask. When we talked to Tina Fey at Reckless and said 'you're so good on stage, you should do theater,' she laughed and said 'nobody's ever asked, but I wish people would because I love being onstage.' So we've learned to not be afraid and just asked. I'm shocked by how many people have been like 'yeah, I'll do it.'
Rachel Sussman: It's about being ambitious enough to go after the people you want. At the end of the day, it's all for a good cause.
Why did you choose The Actors Fund and Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative in conjunction with this reading?
Rachel Sussman: Part of the mission is to align the work with an organization related to the author or [theme].
Nick Gereffi: Robert Harling told us about how they did screenings of the movie as benefits for women's organizations, which is the same thing we're doing. It's in the same tradition, which is a cool full-circley thing.
The Indigo Theatre Project has issued the following statement on its Facebook page: "due to circumstances beyond our control, we must postpone our planned benefit reading of The First Wives Club on Monday night, July 7th." For the full statement, click here.