Susan Miller was going through what she describes as a “rough period” with the theatre. Her play A Map of Doubt and Rescue, the winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, had not been picked up for production despite the prestigious prize and a developmental workshop starring Judith Light and Zachary Quinto. Something similar had happened with Miller’s play Average American: a promising development loop, a number of accolades, but no production.
Even for the veteran of the industry, it was crushing. “It broke my heart,” says the playwright. After a successful career spanning decades (her plays include the Obie-winning My Left Breast, For Dear Life at the Public Theater, and her breakthrough piece Confessions of a Female Disorder), she decided to move on to something entirely new and different: writing and producing a web series.
Maybe it was her background in television—Miller had worked as a writer and producer on The L Word in 2004—but the career change paid off. The web series Anyone But Me was a hit, winning Miller and her partner Tina Cesa Ward the Writers Guild Award for Original New Media and deals with Amazon and Hulu.
That success gave Miller the courage to start another play: 20th Century Blues. “I just want to write, now, what’s important to me,” says Miller, who sees middle age as “a vital time” for women. And this time, her play is getting produced.
20th Century Blues, now in performances in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center Off-Broadway, is about four women in their 60s. Directed by Emily Mann, the play offers a rarely seen glimpse into what life is really like at this age: there’s talk of relationships, of sex, of careers, and of new beginnings. It’s also a portrait of four friends and a testament to the way in which people who have long known one another can move seamlessly in conversation from the mundane to the familial to the deeply personal.
The piece is about growing old, but in many ways it’s about the passing of time in general, and how the very nature of time can obscure key moments of transformation. Considering Miller’s own relationship to the theatre through the years, this seems fitting. “Theatre is fleeting and mutable. But it’s also amazing. That’s what you have to grab onto,” she says. Which is why no matter how many rough patches she endures, she’ll always be back.