Susannah Martin is a director, teacher, and theatre-maker who has worked with organizations throughout the Bay Area. Her work has been honored with three Dean Goodman Choice Awards, several Bay Area Critic’s Circle nominations, Shellie Awards, and Broadway World Awards. Recent projects include directing Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins for Shotgun Players (with whom she is a company member), and Laura Jacqmin’s The Ghost Bike for University High School. She will be performing in Mugwumpin’s upcoming show The Great Big Also at ZSpace later this month. Susannah spoke with Works by Women San Francisco about the nature of her directing process and her hopefulness about what the next wave of feminist theater-makers can accomplish.
WORKS BY WOMEN SAN FRANCISCO: What’s the path that brought you to working in the theater?
SUSANNAH MARTIN: When I was a kid, my mom would put me different classes, and I’d do them for awhile and eventually lose interest. I did soccer, gymnastics, ballet, but I didn’t stick with them. One day she said, “What about an acting class?” and my answer was an immediate “Yes!” I started acting in youth theater at age 11, and I acted all the way through middle school and high school, doing practically every show at school. But during my senior year, a very talented classmate of mine wrote a musical version of The Phantom Tollbooth, and he asked me to direct it. So there I was, on my way to NYU to study acting, and while directing this show, I realized, “Oh wait, this is what I’m supposed to be doing!” I did a year of hardcore acting training at NYU at Circle in the Square and then I transferred to Playwrights Horizon. I continued to study acting but I also started studying directing. Everything felt right with the world (and it still does) when I direct. When I direct, I have an opportunity to imagine and create a world, to delve into history (which I love), to fully express my opinions, to collaborate with everybody who’s working on the team, and to get really excited about what we can make together.
WWSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you?
SUSANNAH MARTIN: This is unoriginal, but definitely Anne Bogart. I learned composition from her and also from a choreographer named Marleen Pennison at NYU. During my sophomore year of college one of my classes was Compositions, and I was like, “What the hell is that?” What Marleen was actually teaching us was how to devise, how to make stuff from an image or an idea or a piece of text. It was terrifying to me. I had never been asked to do anything like it, and yet, it was also thrilling. Marleen and Anne taught me that you can generate everything. You don’t have to wait until you find a really good script. (Although, that’s not to say I don’t love a really good script. I do! And I wholly love and admire playwrights.)
In grad school at UC Davis, the amazing Della Davidson taught me more about choreography and composition – where to start, what kind of prompts to use. Bob Moss, who was one of my first directing teachers at NYU, taught me how to listen to my instincts. I was terrified of my instincts when I was young. The first assignment we had in his class, when we were beginning directors, was ‘theme’. In that class, we were directing things every week. But they’d to have no words, which was really smart. We had to find a newspaper article and stage the ‘theme’ of the article, and I failed miserably at it. It was my tendency to think big and he didn’t discourage that. But he did teach me how to focus my ideas. Local playwright Elizabeth Spreen, with whom I have collaborated extensively, has also been a huge influence on me. I have ten thousand million others, but those are the first people that come to mind.
WWSF: Describe your process as a director.
SUSANNAH MARTIN: I’m a very collaborative director. I do a lot of research, whether it’s a devised piece or something already scripted. When I’m working on a new play, I try and go deeply into the source material the playwright is working with, to understand how the material influenced them. I love it when designers and actors are doing research with me, figuring out together what’s important to us. On a scripted piece I do a lot of table work. Viewpoints and composition exercises also come into my rehearsals frequently, especially sensory composition exercises, where we explore how ideas in the text impact the play world emotionally and physically. Often, after we’ve done initial staging, I’ll try to take details that we’ve discovered in the scenes and turn them into physical action, behavior, and rhythm. I put the onus of figuring things out on the actor a lot. I give them really specific structures in which to do that, and I work alongside, constantly trying to improve the scenes. I’m not a fan of saying to an actor, “Just do this.” I’m always thinking of how to set actors up in an environment where they feel safe enough to try the unexpected. I really believe that every person working on a production regardless of their job, should be invested in the show from beginning to end so that everything on stage seems to be there with a purpose.
WWSF: That sounds like a lot of work!
SUSANNAH MARTIN: You’re right. I do put in a lot of work on every show. It’s why I can’t do what a lot of directors do and direct multiple shows at the same time, because I would have to shorten my own process on each show and that wouldn’t be satisfying.
WWSF: You founded and co-directed Paducah Mining Company for five years with Elizabeth Spreen. What made you start your own company and what made you decide to move on?
SUSANNAH MARTIN: Elizabeth and I were originally part of another theater company that she’d started with a woman named Gillian Chadsey, who’s now in New York. We parted ways with Gillian, but knew that we still wanted to work together. We’d already planned to do Fool for Love, which became the first production of our revamped Paducah Mining Company. Running the company was something Elizabeth was already doing, and I fell into it sideways because I really liked working with her. I just knew that I had found a partner. That’s the way my career has tended to go sometimes – I’m working on something and enjoying a creative relationship, and I think, “Why shouldn’t this continue?” It’s rare that you find people you really connect with. She and I also shared a common aesthetic, including a huge love of Sam Shepard. So after Fool for Love, we kept going. I really loved all the work we did in that company. We were focusing on American work. As an artist who is political, it made sense to me to focus on my own country. She and I were really tired of American artists paying homage to European artists. What about this vast history we have here? What about what’s happening right now?
We stopped making work through Paducah Mining Company because both of us wanted to go to grad school and because it was really hard. It was just the two of us…holding our vision and running the company. It became exhausting because you can only get other people to go so far. But we’ve continued to work together. I directed Elizabeth’s play Care of Trees at Shotgun Players in 2011. She’s writing six plays right now, so hopefully, we’ll continue to have opportunities to work together in the future.
WWSF: What projects are you working on or dreaming about right now?
SUSANNAH MARTIN: I am currently devising and performing in Mugwumpin’s upcoming piece, The Great Big Also. I’ve also been part of the devising process for the show since May of last year. I really love the people involved in the company and the subject matter we’re looking at: American prophecies and promises. I’m also part of a new theater collective called 2by4, founded by Paul Cello. For our first project, we are developing Caught, a new play by Christopher Chen. Its leaping off points are the Mike Daisy scandal from last year and Chinese dissident art. Paul and I are co-directing. I will be spearheading the development process through the summer, and then he’ll take over as lead director for the full production in the fall. I am also developing a new musical with Kate Kilbane and ZSpace about the Philomena/Procne story. That’ll probably be a 2-year development process. I’m doing a lot of developing! I have all sorts of projects that I’m hopefully doing at Shotgun Players in the next couple of years. I’m working with Shotgun in a totally new role this year as associate artistic director, so I’m trying to be a producing partner to Patrick Dooley. I’m serving as another pair of creative eyes in auditions and pitch processes, reading scripts for the next season, going to the TBA generals, things like that. And then I’m teaching, at California Shakespeare Theater this summer, possibly teaching directing at University High School in the coming school year. The life of a freelancer.
WWSF: What do you think are the challenges facing women in American theater?
SUSANNAH MARTIN: One is the challenge we face in any profession, which is that we have to work twice as hard as a man to get the same thing. We have to be twice as good. I see it with women playwrights, and I feel like it applies across the board in theater. I think that women’s work is judged differently, read differently, experienced differently, and also judged more harshly. So there’s this feeling that, “If I don’t do it perfectly, I’m going to be called out.”
And I think about this doubt in women about what we can handle. Whether it’s subject matter or size, size of the theater, size of the budget, size of the cast – the larger it gets, the fewer women are hired. You have to be even more exceptional to break though to the next level. That’s the biggest challenge. It’s also the speaking out thing and having a strong voice and dealing with the same old tired double standard: “If I speak out more strongly and ask for what I want, I’m more likely to be labeled ‘a bitch.’ But if a man does it, he just knows what he wants.” I really do feel that this double-standard affects us. And when things go wrong, which they always do – I mean, theater is hard – working with a lot of variables, with not a lot of money, things go wrong. You have to figure it out and get through it, but when you are a woman, your reaction to problems is watched very carefully. That’s the biggest defect. Along with the glass ceiling in terms of how far I’ve been able to go in my career here. While I don’t see myself as doing hugely experimental work as a director, I know my work is a little outside of the mainstream. I can think of two of my male peers whose work is also seen that way, as being less traditional, who are currently working at the houses that I’m still struggling to get into.
WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
SUSANNAH MARTIN: A few things. One is that this conversation about gender parity has caught on fire recently. Women theater artists are coming together and talking about this a lot lately. That is not to say that women haven’t been working tirelessly on this issue for twenty years, but it feels like we’ve had a resurgence of energy and activism recently, at least in the Bay Area. So that gives me hope.
I’m also really hopeful about this next generation of women theater artists coming to the fore – Generation Y or the Millennials. Because, even though I feel like there’s been a backsliding culturally in terms of gender roles in the past ten or twenty years, I also feel that I’m seeing this other surge of new feminism happening. I teach teenagers, so I get to have conversations with young women who are embracing feminism for the first time, which is really exciting.
And as time passes, there are more and more of us women working in theater, because we just don’t want to be told anymore that we’re not allowed in this profession, because it’s historically been a male profession. There are a lot of women working in American theater. I don’t know whether anybody’s calculated this statistic, but if you looked at the number of people working in professional and educational theater, if you were to tally the numbers of women working in all theatrical jobs (not just playwrights, directors, and artistic directors), I have the gut feeling it would be more women than men. Maybe theater is really women’s work! Maybe it will be seen that way in the future. The tide is in our favor. And it may take a long time, and I may not be alive to see it, the time when you go to the theater and it’s predominantly women’s voices. But I feel like that time is coming.