New Georges Is Approaching 30 Years Strong and Has a Message for the Theatre Community

Interview   New Georges Is Approaching 30 Years Strong and Has a Message for the Theatre Community
 
Co-founding artistic director Susan Bernfield looks back on the last 27 years—as well as forward, at the explosion of new artists on the horizon.
Polly Lee and Toni Ann DeNoble in rehearsal for <i>Leap and the Net Will Appear </i>
Polly Lee and Toni Ann DeNoble in rehearsal for Leap and the Net Will Appear Marina McClure

If a steadfast, clarity of vision is the key to longevity in the New York theatre, then New Georges is a prime example. The company's mission for the last 27 years has been to launch and sustain artists (who are women)—individually, as collaborators, and as a community. In a nutshell, this has translated to 47 world or New York premieres of new American plays (among them, Kate Benson's delightfully current [PORTO] and Hilary Bettis' dark sibling drama Alligator), 21 commissions for new works (18 of which were produced), 11 festivals of new work, and more than 240 affiliated artists.

Beyond simply supporting women, New Georges has an eye for artists of assertive imagination, and specifically, as stated in its mission statement, supports plays that are "exuberantly theatrical." This nod to the joy of making and experiencing highly theatrical work runs through each and every New Georges production, including the company's most recent: Chana Porter's Leap and the Net Will Appear, a story bending time and logic, in which a girl grows up wanting to be a lion, tuxes are worn, people transform, and we all eat cake. Intrigued yet?

Susan Bernfeld
Susan Bernfield Jody Christopherson

Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, Leap debuts Off-Broadway June 16 at The Flea Theater with a cast made up of Moe Angelos, Eliza Bent, Toni Ann DeNoble, Ron Domingo, Brian Demar Jones, Polly Lee, and Andrew Lynch. We chat with New Georges' co-founding artistic director and producer Susan Bernfield ahead of the co-world premiere.

What space does New Georges occupy in the ecology of New York’s theatre?
I call us a downtown theatre. Of course, the reality of having a physical “downtown” to produce in has diminished in our city, but “downtown” has always been more of an ethos anyway, at least to me. It just means we’re artist-driven, aesthetic-forward, looking to experiment, and to launch artists into the field, ultimately populating and influencing the larger eco-system.

Why “exuberantly theatrical” plays?
I hope it conveys something of the energy we want you to feel at a New Georges play. To me, that’s a play that defies expectations and uses all the tools of theatre (at least my favorite tools—let’s say wit, juxtaposition, heightened language, confident visual and aural imagery, adventure, expansiveness, and some structural mystery so you get to do some discovery on your own). I want to make those plays to push our art form forward and (more selfishly, as a creative producer) to do things I haven’t done before. Also, I realize one way to challenge prevailing narratives is not just to tell different stories, but to tell stories differently. That’s something I think our work always does—Leap absolutely does.

What is keeping you motivated to stay in the game?
Well, our artists. I just want to be in rooms with them, see what they’re making and hear what they’re thinking about. That said, every few years I look back and realize, oh, that's what we do, this is actually how we work! Then I re-articulate our mission and rewrite all our materials, and in the process discover why I do this all over again. I did that big time in the past year, so I’m feeling very re-motivated!

Moving on to Leap and the Net Will Appear. At what point in the play’s development did New Georges come on board?
Tara and Chana came by after a workshop of the play at Playwrights Horizons, looking for advice on next steps. They had such a great idea: since the play is all about pace and movement, it’d be best developed further in production; if that production is out of town, they could make these discoveries before bringing it home to New York. We basically said, leverage our interest! Find a regional producer and we’ll commit to a rolling world premiere! The Catastrophic Theatre in Houston produced it last February, we all learned so much, and it’s on to NYC.

Chana Porter
Chana Porter Stella Kalinina

What is it about the play that thrills or excites you?
I think I often take on plays I don’t quite understand, that I fall in love with for reasons I don’t quite understand, and this one just keeps revealing itself to me—what could be better? I finally fully saw, for example, how what the play does is it explodes its anticipated path—or really, exposes that path as a failure—in order to make room for new narratives.

What is something you admire about Chana Porter as a playwright?
She’s such an original thinker and she’ll truly go anywhere—difficult places, unusual places, niche places, she puts herself there. But always with striking generosity and compassion. Because of that, there’s such unexpected beauty in her plays.

What is something that you are particularly proud of since founding New Georges?
Keeping going! And by simply following the artists we love. And now I get to see those artists make huge advances in the American theatre and just about every possible medium in our culture. Our tiny theatre has had a mighty reach, beyond what I ever imagined.

Finish this sentence: The hardest part (from founding to now) probably was…
Keeping going! The beginning was all hard, I was pretty much a one-man band, I honestly don’t know or remember how I did it. I didn’t know anything about producing, I schlepped everything myself, I was terrible at asking questions or people for help so I’d be the only one showing up for strike feeling totally lost. It was exhausting and mostly probably stupid and it was before the internet so I have no idea how I talked to anybody or invited anybody or got anything done except lots of folding and stamping and putting things in the mail. Faxing? It’s hard now for me to contemplate that kind of tenacity. But I guess it was there, I just couldn’t let this thing drop. Looking back, I’m feeling pretty glad. Who needs to remember their 30s?

If I gave you a megaphone to reach everyone working in the theatre industry right now, what would your message be?
There is an explosion of new artists on its way, smart and savvy and eager to reinvent what plays talk about and how to say it. They are gonna make some adventurous events, and I believe that’s how we’ll all reach and excite new audiences. To support them and their work, we’ll want to listen and follow their lead, which may mean new models for making and presenting work, which may mean taking a critical look at the structures of how we make work now and getting flexible. Exciting!

Leap and the Net Will Appear will play through June 30. Visit newgeorges.org for more information.

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