An Interview With Susan Merson

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Susan Merson is a playwright, producer, and the Artistic Director of 13th Street Repertory Theatre. Her play In the Evening will be featured at the In Her Name Festival, Saturday, April 16th, at 6:30pm at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre.

Q: This play is based on your relationship with your mother, can you walk me through the process of creating autobiographical/biographical work? What were some of the challenges? What parts really clicked together? 

A: I think that in some ways all work is autobiographical, as we dip into the imprinted experiences that drive us as people and as artists. The personal frame is without value if it does not have a universal appeal. There is a universal understanding of the love between a mother and daughter. My particular life has had its share of drama so rather than play coy, I write based on my own experience and then continue to expand the stories and their resonance to make sure that they are a story that is larger than my personal experience. This play is the story of love and its obstacle. This theme is one I explore often.

There are rhythms that affect me as a writer and in this piece the rhythm of my mothers nightly trek up and down the stairs and round the tri level house to try to find some peace with her illness, drew me in. My challenge in this piece is trying to keep it grounded as I am increasingly aware that we, as humans, exist in a much larger energetic field than our everyday life. So, the balance between now and then, here and there and inner and outer experience is something that I play with, and one that I look forward to exploring with my terrific director, Elizabeth Hess, and my very able actresses and wonderful friends, Julie Fitzpatrick and Carolyn Mignini.

Q: Are there any playwrights who inspired you while you were writing this piece, or who inspire you in general? 

A: There are so many writers that I admire. Leah Kornfeld Friedman has a fierce personal voice that has inspired me as a woman, writer and actress and she has been a big influence in my work.

And the many many plays I have read over the years as I have worked with playwrights as they develop their own work. Nuggets of bravery and truth affect me. Fireworks rarely does. Chekov, Arthur Miller and Shakespeare are my favorites.

Q: In the beginning of the play, there’s a quote from T.S. Eliot, “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” Lines from this poem make there way into your script as well. What about this piece, and about T.S. Eliot in general, draws your interest? 

 A: Affliction is a mystery. Why and how folks suffer and to what end is a mystery. And as we observe, participate and engage with “what is” one must have faith that there is some reason for it that we struggle to digest . Solving mysteries is not the reason we are here… but rather to learn faith, trust and being in the present moment. Not so easy. TS Eliot speaks to that eloquently.

Q: In addition to writing this play, you’re also one of the producer for the In Her Name Festival. What are some of the challenges of working as both writer and producer? What are some of the rewards?

A: To survive in the theatre one wears many hats. Each hat trains the wearer for the complementary one, I believe. And part of my job as an artist is to get my work into the world… so it makes sense for me to make sure it happens.

I learned this lesson from my friend Curt Dempster, the founder of EST, who often railed at actors and writers for complaining that no one else was supporting their work,… when they were doing nothing but waiting for someone else to make them famous.

Q: What are you most excited about for the reading in April? What are you most nervous about? What are you hoping to accomplish with your play specifically? 

A: I look forward to mining the material with my talented friends. Carolyn, Julie and Elizabeth are all committed to expanding the world that I have outlined. The excitement is watching a few words on a page grow, expand and find its life.

Q: Do you have any advice for playwrights who might be interested in biographical work such as this? 

A: Biographical work is not the issue. True work is the issue.

Write true, write beautifully and with fierceness and you will find gold.

You can get tickets to see In The Evening and other plays in the In Her Name Festival here.

Susan has a long history of supporting and developing new plays and playwrights as the Founder/Producing Artistic Director of New York Theatre Intensives (NYTI) and through her work at such theatres as New Dramatists, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lion Theatre (which she co founded) and the O’Neill Theatre Center. Her mentoring skills have been polished through significant time on Broadway, in regional theatre and in the Off-Off Broadway developmental world. Appearing as an actress in the Broadway productions of Zefirelli’s SATURDAY SUNDAY MONDAY and CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, she also co created and appeared in the original production of VANITIES, Off Broadway, in which she performed over 800 times. Recent television appearances on SCANDAL and in the upcoming Ellen Page/Julianne Moore film, FREEHELD. She is often seen on the stage of the Ensemble Studio Theatre in the Youngblood brunches and ASKING FOR TROUBLE series.Her first play REFLECTIONS OF A CHINA DOLL was produced Off Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theatre which seeded her ongoing relationship as an active artist and board member of EST on both coasts. In Los Angeles, Susan co-founded and served as moderator for the Los Angeles Writers Bloc with colleague Jane Anderson, which has supported the work of such writers as Donald Margulies,(Pulitzer), Noni White and Bob Tzudiker(Tony for Newsies), Irene Mecchi (Lion King), Janet Fitch (White Oleanders) and countless others since the 1980’s. She has served as Artistic Director of the Streisand Festival for New Plays, Associate Producer at the Fountain and Mark Taper Forum, Resident Playwright for the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project, Literary Manager of the Ensemble Studio Theatre/ LA and has worked as a reader for Fogwood Films, TNT, and Polygram and many others. She is currently Managing Artistic Director of the 13th Street Repertory Theatre in NYC. Her many plays have been seen at theatres across the US and Canada. In the last couple of years:DAMN EVERYTHING BUT THE CIRCUS: 2 short plays About the Circus  at the FOUNTAIN THEATRE in Los Angeles and Ensemble Studio Theatre/NYC in readings and a selection of the Sam French New Play festival 2014. BETWEEN PRETTY PLACES, a play with music written by Shellen Lubin, premiered at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Los Angeles and as part of the HERE ARTS Sublet Series in Manhattan in 2013. NYC has also seen WHITE BIRCHES at the Avant Garde Arts Festival, CARLA TELLS US WHAT HAPPENED IN THE BLUE BEDROOM at Berkshire Playwrights Lab, I BELIEVE IN MARRIAGE at the League of Professional Theatre Women’s One Act Festival and WHEN THEY GO AND YOU DO NOT at both the EstroGenius Festival and EST/6th Floor/NY and the Fountain Theatre in LA. HAIR: A REMINISCENCE a Heideman Award finalist at Louisville; and BOUNTY OF LACE, a 2008 Religion and Theatre Award recipient — will be included in a published collection in 2013. Screenplay nods have gone to SWIMMING UPSTREAM and DEATH IN VIENNA, both developed with Jimola Productions. As a fiction writer, her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. Her novel DREAMING IN DAYLIGHT and a recent collection of plays and memoir WHEN THEY GO AND YOU DO NOT: Writing on Transition are available on Amazon along with her book on solo performance, YOUR NAME HERE: An Actor Writers Guide to Solo Performance. She currently leads the programs of New York Theatre Intensives in association with the artists of Ensemble Studio Theatre, of which she is a member and the13th Street Repertory Theatre (Managing Artistic Director). She is an active member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, Actors Equity and Screen Actors Guild. Check out the website at www.susanmerson.com

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