Interview: Suze Allen

Suze AllenSuze Allen is a playwright and Co-Artistic Director of 3 Girls Theatre. Her work has been seen on both coasts with companies such as Maine Playwrights’ Lab, Contemporary Art House, Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, Brava Theater Center, Intersection for the Arts, the Marsh, and the SF and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. She is the author of The Time-Starved Woman’s Guide to Emotional Well-Being with SD Shanti, advises writers through her company Manuscript Mentor, as serves as the San Francisco representative of the Dramatist’s Guild.  Suze spoke with Works by Women San Francisco about her artistic process and her passion for helping women have their say.

WORKS BY WOMEN SAN FRANCISCO: What’s the path that brought you to working in the theater?

SUZE ALLEN: Ironically, I found my love for the theater through my love of going to church when I was nine. There was a lot of pageantry and I loved the singing. We did little shows, and I was always in them. When I was in high school, I had this amazing drama teacher who became my mentor. She was a wonderful woman who just saw my talents. It started because my best girlfriend wanted to try out for Oklahoma, and she was like, “Come with me.” She got a walk-on part, but I got cast as Aunt Eller and from then I was completely hooked! I just felt like… in the theater I was home.

WWSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you?

SUZE ALLEN: I’ve always been a big fan of Dario Fo. I really like his approach, and the idea of bringing a message to the audience through humor. I love convention and devices in theater, where you can blend the spirit and the mind and the body. I fell in love with Paula Vogel and subsequently Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body, which I got to direct on the East Coast and that was so, so fun. Now, she’s an associate playwright with our company, starting next year!

WWSF: Describe your process as a playwright.

SUZE ALLEN: I usually start with a character. That’s how most things come to me. I’m really interested in people’s stories, and I love to work with ordinary people’s biographies. My first plays were really telling about things that happened to me. My fiancé hung himself and I found him and so…I just started writing this journal that was about a whole new learning phase for me about, then I realized, “I’m a performer, this needs to be a play.” As I talked to my friends, I realized that they were all on antidepressants, and I didn’t know about their depression.  So, a friend of mine was working at the local hospital in the day treatment program, and I went in and sat with women who were depressed, many of whom had tried to commit suicide. I did that kind of Anna Devere-Smith thing, and made a piece from verbatim interviews. I had them make masks of themselves. I found an amazing composer who wrote music.  And it became a one-woman show. I would become these other women, but it was also my story, of finding my fiancé, and coming into awareness…all that. And these women I had talked with and interviewed came to the show, and they were so luminous when they were there. They saw themselves up there and it just opened them up to the world of being bigger than what their illness was. It was a really beautiful and formative experience, and it helped me realize that I was a playwright.

WWSF: You co-founded and currently serve as Co-Artistic Director of 3 Girls Theatre. What made you want to start your own theater company?

SUZE ALLEN: I was working as the resident dramaturg for the Playwrights’ Centre of San Francisco, and when anyone got accepted for a developmental workshop or a staged reading, I would read their play and do a consultation with them. I met a lot of great people, and I loved the openness and dialogue I had with playwrights about their work.

When I met AJ Baker, who was doing a staged reading of her play, we just clicked, clicked, clicked. She hired me to direct the staged reading, and I really liked working with her. I hadn’t been directing for a while, because, with kids and going out at night… I got sick of the scheduling, I felt like that took away from all the artistry. Our collaboration just seemed right.  One night, we were talking about what we want to do, and I said “we should start a theater company.” I don’t even know where that came from, it just popped out of my mouth!  And having produced herself, and knowing what that means, she said “Really?!” And I said, “Yes! Let’s just produce our own stuff. I know another woman (Lee Brady) who’ll be perfect, we’d be a really good trio.” And it just exploded from there, in a way I never imagined… it’s gone so far, so fast.

WWSF: What kind of projects are you working on right now?

SUZE ALLEN: Our December show, 3 Girls Squared, is going into tech this week, so we’re just in the nuts and bolts of that. It’s an evening of 9 short plays, all written by local female playwrights. It’s going really well, our presales are great, and I think it’s going to be a good run. One of the plays we’re doing is an older piece by Lynn Kauffman called The Couch, that was produced at the Magic Theatre with an extended run 24 years ago! We’d decided that it would be a great revival, so that’s exciting.

Another part of 3 Girls Theatre that I’m proud of is our educational program called “Girl Wrights.” It’s a program for girls age 12-18 to find their voices through writing plays. I love working with young women and helping them have their say in a big way. And it’s also been really delightful that I’ve been more of a director and an artistic director in our company. Last year I directed both of the main stage pieces… it was insane! But this season, my plays are going up! And I’m also happy to sometimes be just the playwright in the room and to have someone else make the vision happen.

WWSF: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?

SUZE ALLEN: I don’t know why, but I think there’s sometimes this lag about the audience appreciating and figuring out women’s sensibilities, how to get inside that… The best example I can think of is that I was in an improv troupe for a long time and the men would be like…snap, one liner, one liner, badabing…and the women were slower to set it up, but we were just as funny when we got there. I remember feeling that there was an impatience from the male performers for the way we worked, less tolerance for our perspectives, our outlooks. Also, being a person who’s fifty now, I just think…that sometimes a woman’s middle-aged perspective is maybe not as sexy as a man’s middle-aged perspective to an audience. And I find that crazy.  I mean, why are we all obsessed with these fascinating young playwrights, all the newbies coming out of Juilliard? There’s this sense that they’re cool, they’re fresh! And you know, older women…we’re not fresh, I guess!

WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?

SUZE ALLEN: The whole gender parity movement gives me a lot of hope. When we were putting our theatre company together, we were aware that part of it is about creating our own opportunities, and also supporting women playwrights.  I truly think that many audiences are interested in women’s voices.  We had great ticket sales for our first season for virtually unknown playwrights, certainly unknown pieces, and that gives me hope. Women need to be heard. Our stories affects your stories affects these other stories… we’ve got to be heard. I feel like that’s starting really to happen, women are being heard, and that makes me really excited. I’ve long been annoyed at how few local playwrights and actors get to work in the Bay Area. For me, that’s part of it too… work where you live, and take a stand…find like-minded women’s theaters at whatever level and just start connecting the web.

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