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November 27, 2017
Q&A: Playwrights Susan Bernfield, Peter Gil-Sheridan, and Lynn Rosen on Their New Pop-Up Theater Company, The Pool

The quandary.  You are an established playwright with a great new play you’d like to share with New York audiences, showcase to New York industry people and use New York talent, but no established New York theater company or producer is knocking down your door offering to invest in your wonderful work and producing it yourself feels like a Sisyphean task.

The solution.  Join up with other likeminded playwrights and produce your work together by creating a company, sharing your communities and support systems, begin a Kickstarter campaign that is wildly successful financially, run your plays in rotating repertory at a New York theater and then pass this structure along to three new playwrights.  This is what playwrights Susan Bernfield, Peter Gil-Sheridan and Lynn Rosen did.  They formed The Pool, a pop-up theater company; their new plays are currently in previews at The Flea and they are reaping their rewards as playwright/producers in community.  And of course, the name of the company is apropos.  Not only are the three of them pooling resources, but their wider pool includes New Georges’ Supported Productions programs and New Georges is an Anchor Partner at The Flea.  With all these ripples in intersecting pools, Ms. Bernfield, Mr. Gil-Sheridan and Ms. Rosen in forming The Pool have managed to create a river of opportunity for themselves as well as many other theater artists.

I asked each playwright to answer the same five questions and reading their answers was like taking a crash course in playwrighting along with profound instructions on how to live authentically as a writer. Ms. Bernfield, Mr. Gil-Sheridan and Ms. Rosen responded to these five questions with humor, eloquence and passion.  Inspired, I got a glimpse into their processes and became even more deeply convinced how important it is for artists to create their own opportunities, work communally and get their art out into the marketplace.

Why create this pop-up theater company?  What was lacking in getting your work seen or out there that necessity became the mother of invention?

Susan Bernfield:  Why not?  Why wait?  I have a story I want to tell and a play that contains it.  It’s had some lovely opportunities and feedback and I feel confident about it, but with the wide world of plays that are out there that doesn’t mean a gatekeeper or institution is going to be as excited as I am.  More and more playwrights are becoming their own makers, producing their own work, it just makes sense to me.  Why not participate fully in the way your work is presented and seen?  It’s a collaborative art form, it requires collaborators and colleagues, and bringing them together and making decisions yourself can be super satisfying, at least that’s what I’m discovering.

Peter Gil-Sheridan:  I felt strongly that I didn’t want to stay in the Producer’s seat on a permanent basis. I was interested in mounting this particular play, especially as it was one that was quite different from what I normally do as a writer. Susan already runs a vibrant downtown theatre alongside being an accomplished playwright and Lynn, like me, was venturing into this self-producing model for the first time.  Playwrights can spend a great deal of time waiting for their work to be produced. Often plays are read and developed but there are so few spots in a given season so I think many of us are beginning to ask, how can we move past feeling like we’re in a holding pattern. How can we see our work realized so that we can develop our audience, showcase our work to industry who might be interested in us but not yet producing us.

Lynn Rosen: Washed Up on the Potomac began life as a one-act that was produced a few times. I then reimagined it as a full-length, with entirely different characters. In the process of expanding it I did A LOT of readings and workshops, which was necessary and appreciated. But at some point a play wants to be on its feet and requires a more lively and rigorous process that can only come from rehearsals.  The play has had many fans and a lot of interest over the years, but a production, and that accompanying rehearsal process I so desired, never materialized. I felt it would be harmful to the play to keep going down the development path.  At the same time, the economic constraints and a conservatism at many traditional theatres meant there were fewer production opportunities in NYC. Of late, I’ve had productions regionally, which I’m so grateful for, but it’s been a few years since I had a show in NYC. I wanted my peers to see my work. I wanted industry to see my work. I wanted my friends and family to see my work. Hell, I wanted to see my work without having to fly across the country. I wanted to get my work done in my own back yard, working with peers I know and love.

So I started thinking about self-producing, but was daunted by the prospect. Raising money? Finding a staff? How in the world? At the same time, I was accepted into New Dramatists and was inspired by the many resident playwrights there who were taking the reins of their own careers by self-producing. Their self-produced work is some of the most exciting theatre I’ve seen – daring and untethered from the constraints of traditional producing organizations. I love so much of what I see in our well-known theatres, but this self-produced theatre has a wilder, more epic, more theatrical vibe. It’s a vibe that my work shares.  However, many of these writers went down this producing path alone, and I knew that wasn’t for me.  Theatre is a communal experience. Collaboration (when it goes well) is one of my favorite parts of making theatre. I wonder if that’s the BEST part of making theatre – what I get to create in the room with so many other creative and fertile minds.  So I thought why not make my producing experience communal, too? It’d be less lonely, more productive, and certainly less scary. Then I asked Susan to join me. (I’ve been an Affiliated Artists at New Georges forever. In fact, New Georges produced my play Goldor $ Mythyka: A Hero Is Born a few years back.) Then we brought Peter on board, whom I met at The Lark. And thus, The Pool was born.

We began pooling resources, pooling ideas, and as we approach performance time, we are also hoping to cross-pollinate our audiences. This communal ethos gives the effort a festive feeling and a sense of generous reciprocity that producing alone would have lacked.  And it means our shows will be seen by a wider and more diverse audience. Along those lines, we plan to pass The Pool – the knowhow, the name, the buzz we hope we get – onto three other intrepid playwrights when we’re done. It’s a pretty exciting model. 

The Rafa Play. Photo credit: Daniel Rader

Describe your own playwrighting process.  How do you begin?  What do you do if you get stuck or have writer’s block?

Susan Bernfield:  I feel like I write cyclically; because my artistic director life is also so cyclical (sometimes super busy, sometimes less so).   At some point I had to acknowledge that there are times when I write and times I don’t, it’s just the way it’s going to be, and that I needed to stop kicking myself when months went by with no writing, I have to remind myself that time would come again, that it’ll happen again, and it’ll all be okay.  So to begin something new… I think I usually have to feel like I’m struck with an idea that I absolutely have to follow through on.  When I’m giddy about it: it happens. In my ideal experiences, I hook in and everything flows and it feels like the play is writing itself. Often that comes from hearing the voice of a character, I key into that in a very stream-of-consciousness way and let it play out, discover itself in my head, then other characters and scenes start to emerge...  Of course that flow kinda stops at some point, and there are harder moments, stuck points, just a grind where I feel like I go in circles.  I’ve been trying lately to find different ways to jog myself out of those moments, through research or trying to think less textually and more theatrically, or by giving myself permission to go off on tangents, see what I find out.

In the case of this play, when I was stuck I took a playwriting class, with Karen Hartman.  I’d never done that before (or since, actually!), I just wasn’t progressing and I wanted deadlines and someone to watch me do it.  It was so so helpful.  Every week we brought in 10 pages, a chunk I could get my head around.  Because I was constructing the story incrementally, with the expectation that I’d push it along a little bit at a time, I really focused in on every moment in every scene, and then I had time to think about what the next piece of the puzzle might be.  Even now the structure of the first part of the play is absolutely informed by working in chunks for that class.  It got me out of a serious rut.

Peter Gil-Sheridan:  Oh my. My process varies from play to play but I’m a strong believer that the only process that will work for you as a writer is the process that you organically develop based on your temperament. I would venture to say that there are really good writers with fraught processes and really weak writers with exquisite processes. That said, I begin usually by creating big messy lists of notes with scenes, moments, chunks of dialogue, thoughts in a big document. Eventually I start trying to start the play and usually after about 10 failed attempts, I find a runway that works. But then I usually find the first scene isn’t the first scene. And I start to rearrange and clip. I spend a lot of time on the first 20 pages because I think once I get that solid usually I’ve set myself up to fly. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced what I would think is writer’s block. I experience immense avoidance and usually that avoidance is wrapped up in fear of not knowing how to write the play or fear that I’m going to do all this work and I’ll never see it on the stage. That’s what I’m trying to remedy in finding alternative ways to get my work on the stage.

Lynn Rosen:  Usually there is a true story that sparks my interest.  Something that makes me wonder “Who would do such a thing? WHY would they do that?” Then I feel an urge to unpack and investigate that. Almost all my plays are based on a true story that appears to be stranger than fiction but is actually 100% based on reality.  Heightened events spark my interest especially. Usually they have to do with someone suddenly doing something completely unlike themselves (or unlike the person everyone thinks they are). Like a criminal committing a heroic and beautiful act, or a couple who seem meeker than meek pulling off an armored car heist. The stories, and thus my plays, usually have to do with both the fragility, and yet the immutability, of our identities. They investigate the double-edged nature of fantasy and hope, and they explore how art and artifice are essential to our survival. Then, once I make the story mine, I tend to jettison the real story so that, appropriately enough, fact and fiction are blended.  I don’t self-edit too much in my first draft. I throw it all against the wall and see what sticks. I find that the things that have been working on me unconsciously, elements that may seem odd and superfluous at first are what end up informing me the most about my play. I then get more rigorous in subsequent drafts. I do readings with actors I admire and respect, get feedback from people I trust, and I rewrite my butt off.  If I get stuck, I find a change of scenery helps. Something as simple as taking a walk or cleaning my dishes. (If my apartment is super-duper clean, then you know there’s a problem with my writing.) Sometimes I need to leave a piece for a long while and come back to it. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is it will come to me eventually and forcing it does not help. If it never comes to me, well, then, in my case, it was not meant to be. Or it’s meant to be, but in some other form.

Tania in the Getaway Van. Photo credit: Ilyce Meckler

What was the inspiration for this particular play that will be in rep at The Flea Theater?  Was there a catalyst for writing this play?

TANIA IN THE GETAWAY VAN by Susan Bernfield.

It’s 1975 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Laura’s mom Diane is discovering liberation, openness, possibility! Fast forward to 2012. Successful Laura looks like a model product of the women’s movement… or is she just the byproduct of Diane’s expectations?

Susan Bernfield:  This is a very personal story, so it’s always been with me… I think it’s an important story, something people know surprisingly little about, at least from an on-the-ground perspective, even if they have a sense of the history.  So that’s the perspective I always wanted to convey, but I really never thought I’d find a way in to it theatrically.  Whenever I even approached it it came out blah, literal, direct as a sledgehammer, and since I was very hesitant to take on the women’s movement, which already feels literal given what I do, I dunno.  I didn’t think it would ever be told and that was fine, whatever.  Six summers ago I was feeling just generally stuck, just wanting to start something, anything, feel like a writer again.  The first thing I did was buy a ukulele so I could write some little songs, write ‘em, perform ‘em, done!  Not like waiting around for plays to get produced!  The second was I took a look at a bake-off (a whole bunch of prompts and a short time to respond) that Clubbed Thumb had put out as the application for their biennial commission.  I hemmed and hawed about doing it, I looked at the prompts and it felt really daunting and like I didn’t have the focus and it wasn’t gonna work.  But I forced myself to look again and I saw something in them.  Whatever it was hooked right into this story.  The trick of including the prompts helped get me going and I found that way in.

THE RAFA PLAY by Peter Gil-Sheridan

Peter Gil, a legendary but retired playwright, is whisked away to Mallorca to a fantasy life by his husband, tennis superstar Rafael Nadal.

Peter Gil-Sheridan: Well, 5 years ago I was having a rough time in my life and I was just lost in a ton of escape fantasy. I kept having this waking fantasy that I was involved in a romantic relationship with the tennis player Rafael Nadal. But I wasn’t so much fantasizing about the sex or the romance so much as I was fantasizing about coming home to tell all my friends how well I was doing: that I was now rich and living in Mallorca. I was fit. I was happy. I imagined telling my friends Eva Patton and John Ort how I was and one day, I thought, you keep having this fantasy, why don’t you just write out the scene wherein you’re telling them about your new life. The play just kind of took off from that space. Eventually Rafa appeared and before long, we’re in Mallorca navigating this fantasy life together. The play taught me a lot about the things I was longing for and ultimately brought me to a place of appreciating what I already had.

WASHED UP ON THE POTOMAC by Lynn Rosen

As three proofreaders ponder their futures, they become haunted and inspired by memories of a coworker whose body may have washed up on the Potomac today. A dark comedy about the ways in which we try to stay afloat.

Lynn Rosen:  This play was inspired by my many years of proofreading at many different ad agencies with many different people. And though I often didn’t know my coworkers well, I also felt I knew them intimately. We were mostly artists who strived to do something beyond proofreading, though some of us were career proofreaders as well. Like so many office dwellers, we spent a lot of time with each other in close quarters, usually in ignominious rooms that had no windows or that had been closets at some point. Usually, beyond our cubicle walls no one even knew our names. We depended on each other to get through the day with our dignity intact, with our dreams (or lies?) about ourselves intact, with our pride and egos intact. As much as we sometimes annoyed each other, we also needed each other to stay afloat in a big, scary, expensive, often soul-crushing NYC-world. Small things like getting someone a coffee, a kind word of encouragement, a bowl of candy set before you – could make a huge impact on one’s day. Small things mattered in our small proofreading world. Small people mattered.  We were small, doing “small” work, though our dreams were quite large. But at least in that office, if not in the outside world, we mattered.  While working at my last proofreading job, I learned that someone I knew in high school did indeed wash up on the Potomac. I didn’t know her well, but I quite liked what I knew of her. Needless to say, her death made me sad. The fact that one night she just vanished from the earth was astonishing and frightening. Of course, when that happens, one starts to think about one’s own path through life, not to mention mortality. It made me think about the ways all of us can vanish from our own lives, and in different ways. Certainly we don’t all vanish in such a devastating fashion. But vanish we do, in small and insidious ways: perhaps it’s a dream we’ve given up on, or a hopeful part of us that’s been ground down to nothing as we navigate life. Either way, trying not to fade away into someone we no longer recognize is a struggle each of us faces every day. Having people around you who keep you afloat, even in small ways, is essential to one’s survival. This is where Washed Up on the Potomac began.

Washed Up on the Potomac. Photo credit: Jonas Gustavsson

What besides money enables theater to thrive? Where, in your opinion, is theater thriving in this country?

Susan Bernfield:  Creativity and imagination – which seem like obvious answers, though I’m not talking about what’s on the page but about how we think about the work. How we choose to reach people, how we choose to collaborate, new models for making work… I think it’s a tremendously exciting time right now in New York City, frankly.  There are more people than ever – or at least, from my perspective, in my experience -- who are saying forget it, I want to make my own work with and for the people around me. Sometimes in a playwright-driven way, like The Pool, often in a less traditional way. And sometimes that work is experimental and weird and that’s sooo great cause it pushes our art form forward and inspires more people to do it their own way.  The result is that more voices are being heard outside the mainstream or without some sort of institutional imprimatur. To me that means theater artists are operating like artists: doing what they gotta do.  It’s inspiring, and it certainly inspires my participation in The Pool. I want to be a maker too!

Peter Gil-Sheridan:  I think that generosity toward your collaborators is major.  I think that really asking people for help works, that maybe people care about you and your project a lot more than you might think.  I also think that generosity toward your audience and the community that you’re trying to speak to is key as well.  I think theatre is thriving in lots of places at all different levels. That’s maybe a bit of a cop-out but obviously New York is hopping. I love Philly’s theatre scene and Chicago’s. But even Bloomington, Indiana where I now live has a lot going on.

Lynn Rosen:  Being in a city where space is affordable certainly helps and NYC is not one of those places. That’s why making The Pool happen took three of us, hundreds of people via Kickstarter, a generous grant from The Venturous Theater Fund, and a fundraising party. And yet, it’s happening! I just had a show premiere in Chicago and was impressed, as so many people are, by all the buzz-worthy theatre happening there. It's anywhere and everywhere, and it’s very exciting. I think that’s happening, in part, because it’s more affordable to make your own theatre in Chicago.

However, artists here in NYC are amazing and, as you see, are finding ways to create opportunities for themselves in unorthodox and profoundly exciting ways, despite the challenges. I think the idea that there’s only one path to getting your work up is an old-fashioned notion that is getting the old heave-ho, and that’s good for the theatre community and good for audiences. I love so many plays I see in traditional theatres, but I think the kind of work you may see outside the mainstream will be thought provoking and entertaining in a different way.

Do you have any brief words of advice or encouragement to an emerging playwright?

Susan Bernfield:  Find the people who push and inspire you, your ideal collaborators, and make work together.  Maybe they’re people from college or grad school or a show with a special camaraderie or a small theater company you happened into. Just do it, get out from behind your computer and get that work up wherever and in whatever contexts you can, so that you can learn how your work operates and what interests you in a process and who your audiences is and what you need to see it like you want to see it.  So that you learn about collaboration, and the rich relationships it begets.  And so that if and when you get to the place where you are given opportunities and provision, you know how to talk to your producers, your directors, your designers, to be sure your vision is met.  Similarly, apply to stuff, but do some serious research on the companies, programs and communities that are out there so that you find the right artistic homes for you and your work and don’t waste time and resources on places for which they might not be a match. What we do is too hard, and a good experience is worth so much.

Peter Gil-Sheridan:  Fall in love with your plays. Become obsessive about making those plays an experience for the audience, even if they’re deadly serious. Remember that you’re a showman in addition to being a writer. You will be okay if your career doesn’t go exactly how you thought it should. Just keep writing. Write for the people you love and hopefully the rest will follow. If it doesn’t, being a playwright is not the worst way to spend a life.

Lynn Rosen:   I swear this is meant to be encouraging: You will fail. A lot. You will get tons of rejections. But I say this because it’s what happens. IT’S NORMAL. The people for whom rejection doesn't happen – that’s freaky, man! Not that they don’t deserve their rocket to success – they do. But that’s just not normal. So don't get discouraged. Or be discouraged for a day, then watch Netflix or eat some pasta, and then get back to work. Also, write what you’re passionate about, not what you think other people want to see. Nothing is worse than writing to please others. It’s just bad. And of course, rewrite your butt off.

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Written by: Navida Stein
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