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INTERVIEW: Susan Pourfar Tells All About Tribes

The award-winning actress discusses her work in Nina Raine's acclaimed Off-Broadway play logo
Susan Pourfar
(© David Gordon)
Susan Pourfar has been a steady presence in the New York theater scene for the past decade, but it's her stunning performance as Sylvia, a woman starting to lose her hearing, in Nina Raine's Drama Desk Award-winning drama Tribes, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, that has changed her life. Her work has earned her an Obie, Actors Equity Association's Clarence Derwent Award, and the Theatre World's Dorothy Loudon Award, as well as rave reviews.

TheaterMania recently spoke with Pourfar about the play, working with director David Cromer and co-star Russell Harvard, what it's like to be recognized for the first time during award season, and her future dream co-star.

THEATERMANIA: What was your first reaction when you read Tribes?
SUSAN POURFAR: As soon as I opened it, I said "oh my God, this play is brilliant." Nina manages to get so much across about the characters without being expositiony. The longer we're in the run, the more I'm trying to figure out how she crafted it so beautifully.

TM: How does Sylvia differ from other characters you've played?
SP: This is the fullest arc I've had -- someone who goes from slightly losing their hearing, but able to function in the everyday world, to someone who loses her hearing so fully that her entire world shrinks to the size of one community.

TM: What is David Cromer's rehearsal process like?
SP: I never felt in rehearsal that David is thinking about blocking. He's thinking about relationships and the humanity of each of the characters. Somehow the blocking just evolves. The thing I find most impressive about him is that he is willing to let "I don't know" float in the rehearsal room for days, if not weeks. I think it's really valuable to create an atmosphere where "I don't know" is an absolutely fair statement.

TM: What has it been like working with Russell Harvard, an actor who is almost fully deaf?
SP: Russell has surprised me on stage more than any other actor. I had never worked on stage with a deaf actor before. I didn't know if he would be able to feel laughter and ride that out. Somehow, whether it's by instinct or by the small amount of hearing he does have, he completely blows my mind with how aware he is with what's happening in the audience.

TM: The production is set in England, but uses American Sign Language as opposed to British. How was that decision made?
SP: It's almost like if we're doing Chekhov; we wouldn't be doing it in Russian. We considered this to be a translation. For audience members who are part of the deaf community, or have family members in the community, there's extra enjoyment in terms of them being able to "read" the play in two levels, aurally and visually.

TM: How did you go about learning ASL?
SP: I had a coach in rehearsal, who was also Russell's translator. She would spend half the day in the room with everyone translating, and the other half of the day with me one on one. I did sign the song "Sunshine on my Shoulder" by John Denver in sixth grade, but I've never sort of delved-in before now.

TM: Looking back, what was award season like?
SP: It was fun! I didn't do this play with any expectations, other than hoping it would be well-received, and hoping to have a good challenge and a good artistic experience. This is the first time that a little bit of that light has shined over in my direction. Even so, I still have to go home and memorize monologues for auditions! I took my brother to the Obies, and afterwards I might have gone straight home, but he said "Don't you dare. You must go out after the Obies!"

TM: Where do you hope to go from here?
SP: The kinds of performances I've watched on television that I'm just astounded by make me want to work in that medium very badly. There are a couple of directors I want to work with still, and there are a couple of actors I want to work with. I'll just put it out there - if I can do a play with Bobby Cannavale, I'd die a happy girl.

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