Class of ’86 | In the fall of 1991, Susan Bernfield C’86 found herself awash in feminist rhetoric. On TV, attorney Anita Hill was testifying about sexist remarks from soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, while Bernfield’s acting classes were descending into group gripe sessions about the preponderance of bimbo and mom roles.
“I decided to funnel all of this collective frustration into women making their own opportunities,” she says.
Thus was born New Georges (www.newgeorges.org), a New York theater company giving voice to female playwrights and directors that has since embraced an experimental focus demanding unusual production and promotion methods. Against all odds, Bernfield is celebrating the 20th anniversary of New Georges, which now boasts numerous accolades, including an Obie Award, and productions reviewed regularly in The New York Times, Village Voice, and Time Out New York. She has also proven her business savvy by guiding her company through two recessions that toppled less nimble and values-oriented theaters.
“Running the theater company took hold of me,” she says. “I felt an overarching sense of responsibility to it once it started and couldn’t let it drop. It took over my acting efforts and became the monster that ate my life. Now we know a bit more what we’re doing, but in the beginning, it was like trying to roll a boulder up a hill. If I had actually thought about it, I probably would have stopped. Happily, it’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten more support.”
She survived by maintaining a flexible operation. Today, the nonprofit theater runs on a $350,000 budget and three-member staff, operates several year-round play-development programs out of a modest workshop space at 8th Avenue and 36th Street, and produces two full productions a year. Her newest one is a large-scale interactive play with a live rock band, AliceGraceAnon (by award-winning New York playwright Kara Lee Corthron), which premieres October 18 at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn. Bernfield promises a psychedelic buffet of intermingling themes from the 1960s, Alice in Wonderland, Grace Slick (who sang White Rabbit with the Jefferson Airplane), and Go Ask Alice (the film).
An even edgier example was the 2009 play Angela’s Mixtape, written by Eisa Davis—niece of political activist Angela Davis—chronicling her life in a radical family. The cast included Linda Powell, daughter of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Both actresses’ mothers had grown up in the same Birmingham milieu, so they brought a certain intimacy to the material.
“It was hyper-theatrical,” says Bernfield. “The people on stage were part of this history, which made it feel like more of an event than just a play.”
New Georges’ shows often feature non-linear storytelling and other stylistic innovations, including multimedia and music, while promotions utilize social media and viral marketing.
“I think I was drawn to experimental theater early on,” says Bernfield. “I like visiting dream worlds where anything can happen, more than watching characters in a room talk about their lives. When I began producing, we didn’t have a lot of money, so our aesthetic was spare out of necessity. I began to see how imaginative and exciting things could get when we didn’t deal with space in a literal way.”
One play, evoking the helplessness of a little girl who felt the world was watching her, utilized giant furniture with eyes that dwarfed the actress. “When you skip realism,” Bernfield explains, “you get a different kind of opportunity for emotional response—often quite unexpected—that comes from a cumulative, metaphorical, or visceral experience.”
At Penn, Bernfield majored in philosophy and minored in theater, while performing with Penn Players, Penn Singers, and Quadramics. Although she’d spent years with a children’s theater in her hometown of Palo Alto, California, she credits Penn with freeing up her personality and creativity.
“I was a preppy Californian, which made me a nerd in Palo Alto, but a complete novelty at Penn, which helped me socially,” she explains. “I was one of only 52 kids from California in my class. I was like a circus freak—but in a good way.”
After graduating, she moved to New York and worked as a research editor at House Beautiful magazine for a couple of years, then enrolled in Circle in the Square Theatre School. She then embarked upon the life of an aspiring actor: temping, going to open auditions, mounting productions with friends just to get stage time.
In early 1992—at the height of the recession—she formed New Georges, whose name was a cheeky play on the male pen names of two 19th-century female writers, George Sand and George Eliot. Its first production was by British dramatist Caryl Churchill. After that, the well of innovative female-written theater pieces seemed to run dry.
“We thought there must be young women like us writing plays,” says Bernfield. “That led us to focus on new plays and early-career women playwrights.”
She called Harold Wolpert C’88, then-company manager of the Manhattan Theatre Club, for names, and he introduced her to “my first two playwrights,” she says.
Bernfield’s efforts remind Wolpert, who is now managing director of the Roundabout Theatre, of the entrepreneurial spirit fostered within the creative community at Penn.
“If people auditioned for an a cappella group and didn’t get in, they’d simply create another group and perform there,” he says. But New Georges’ longevity is the result of a loftier goal.
“Susan created a theater to fill a need—to promote women artists,” he adds. “It wasn’t a vanity company. She gave it a clear purpose early on, and stayed with that purpose all the way through. She maintained a sense of humor and professionalism at the same time. It’s become influential beyond its size, because the company has found its place in the cultural life and theater community of the city.”
Most of the fledgling theaters started by Bernfield’s peer group have since fallen away.
“I didn’t know enough to know that it was the wrong time to start a theater,” she says. “Some of it has been persistence, and a lot of it, I hope, is that we do good work. I’m hands-on and collaborative. If we build good relationships, our projects can also be fun.”
New Georges has also produced a number of Bernfield’s own plays, one of which—STRETCH (a fantasia), shown above—was later produced at People’s Light & Theatre in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern.
“At Penn, I assumed I’d be an actor in existing plays,” she says. “Now, I can’t imagine not making something new. That old dream feels as foreign to me as becoming a lawyer or banker. The development process, in which all the collaborators contribute to moving a project forward, really excites me.
“Our goal is to take artistic risks, do cool things, and support interesting artists and their work,” she adds. “At Penn, I had a community of artists who felt comfortable with one another. When I came to New York, I didn’t have that anymore. Unwittingly, I created an atmosphere that people want to be around, because it’s what I needed myself as an artist. One day I woke up and realized, ‘Oh my God—I recreated college!’”
—Susan Karlin C’85