�Yeah, Dammit!� Talking to Susan Bernfield about New Georges� Manfest

“Who gives who permission to write what? What happens when you defy expectations to write about people who aren’t like you?” (from the Manfest website)

From September 12th to 25th, the New Georges theater company will be presenting Manfest. The festival is two weekends of conversation and performance, centered around six plays — the results of six women playwrights being asked to “ditch the niche” and write from a man’s perspective. I recently talked to Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges, about what’s gone into the making of Manfest.

The festival’s aim is not to prove a point, but rather to explore and explode the implications of what it means to write, direct, and act from the point of view of the Other. “Manfest is about expectations and a perception that you do a certain thing and people find it very easy to label you. And this is just one way of bursting out of that bubble,” Bernfield says. This applies to both women writers and the New Georges company, a collective that was formed in 1992 out of the need to find more opportunities for women theatre artists to perform, create, and collaborate (see the interview with Bernfield and literary manager Emily DeVoti at theatre2k and the New Georges website for more on the company’s background and aesthetic philosophies).

New Georges is composed of a production team and over a hundred affiliated artists; the company works by matching together artists with whom they’ve cultivated relationships over time. The playwrights for Manfest are both new and old New Georges artists. “The person who first came to me with the idea of commissioning plays and the idea of Manfest is a director named Brooke Brod, and she came to me with a list of people who she wanted to have write for it,” Bernfield explains. “And some of the people were people who’d already worked with us a lot, and some were people who were new to me but I already knew about and was interested in creating that connection, and then I suggested a few more people who were more our regulars.”

I asked Bernfield what the writers’ initial responses were to such an open-ended, deceptively straightforward assignment.

“At first, I think people were just happy to be asked,” she said. “But then, as the process rolled along, people were kind of late with their plays. Initially, Manfest was supposed to be in June… and we just got our last one two weeks ago! I think what happened was it surprised people how difficult and how different an assignment it really was. And so it made me understand the assignment better, and me see that what we were really asking of people was significant. I’ve had playwrights say ‘thank you for making me do this, this is going to change my writing forever.’ And I look forward to talking more to the playwrights about what the assignment really was for them, how it really challenged them in a different way, in a way that isn’t just ‘okay, that play’s over, now let’s move on,’ but in a way where they’re like, ‘yeah, dammit!’ And that’s really the whole point.”

In a festival like this, like in all good theatre, there are no right or wrong answers. The plays are still in their last stages, and have been written and developed separately, but it’s evident that they share core themes. “We have one musical,” Bernfield says. “We have some very serious plays and we have some very, very funny plays. It’s a really good mix. There are several plays about men’s emotional life, and whether they are able to release their emotional life or not is the object of the play. And I find that really interesting that that’s where women would go; I guess most plays are about the emotional life of characters, but in some, it’s very evidently the topic. And a lot of them deal with ‘what is masculinity?’ …I do feel like women are really writing about masculinity specifically — the characters don’t just happen to be men, they’re also exploring what it is to be a man today in a really interesting way and obviously from a different kind of perspective. And men may agree, or disagree, and that’s a fun thing that remains to be seen.”

The festival begins with a kick-off event, “which is basically a party,” Bernfield explains. Six playwrights have joined together to create a play for the kick-off: three scenes, by three teams, where the men write the women’s parts and vice versa, handed off to the next writers after each scene’s completed. Balancing out the festival’s performances are a series of panels and round-table discussions (“I’m kind of using that term interchangeably,” Bernfield admits), on issues surrounding the festival’s themes. “Writing the Other Sex,” “Acting the Other Sex,” “On Authenticity,” and “On Collaboration” will open up a space for provocative questions, arguments, and ideas. There’s also going to be a “Shake-out Session,” featuring the Manfest playwrights, and late-night cabarets. One of the culminating — and most hands-on — events of Manfest is a drag king workshop with Diane Torr where “you get a new persona, basically, as a man,” Bernfield says, “and learn how to move through the world the way a man does. So a few lucky people will get to do that.” They’ll get to show off their new personas at the all-male cabaret during Manfest’s second weekend (the workshop sounds ridiculously fun, but requires registration, so sign up quick).

New Georges has put together other festivals in the past — two years ago, for example, they participated in a festival celebrating the novelist and playwright Dawn Powell, where eight playwrights were commissioned to create plays based on Powell’s work. The company has also had festivals of new work at HERE and curated six New Georges Perform-a-thons, all-day performance marathons. The company’s innovative and independent format allows them to ignore a traditional, set production formula.

“It’s nice to see something like this every year,” Bernfield says, “so even if we can’t do the Perform-a-thon, we’re doing this instead. And it may be that we’re looking for what’s going to be the annual thing, or biennial thing. We’re very fortunate in that — it’s something good about being our size organization, and in some ways it’s horrible, but in some ways it’s really good — we’re just under the radar. Enough that you can chuck the idea of doing a play and do something like this, and no one’s going to be like ‘oooh, what’s your fall season?’ No one’s asking you some question because you have to conform to someone’s idea of what your season is supposed to be. I feel like exploring this now; I see myself as a producer as being a creative person. Let’s explore this, let’s come up with different ways — theatrical and non-theatrical — that we can get this conversation going… so I’m glad we have the freedom to do that.”

New Georges has been rocking expectations of performance, artistry, and collaborative possibility for over a decade, and Manfest is the latest manifestation (pun intended?) of this. “I’m always looking for new models and seeing cool ways that people have explored things,” says Bernfield, and the plays and discussions of Manfest promise to deliver some cool explorations indeed.

The Manfest playwrights are Trista Baldwin, Kirsten Greenidge, Betty Shamieh, Sonya Sobieski, Alice Tuan, and Sheri Wilner. For reservations call: 212-868-4444 or www.smarttix.com or www.here.org. The OH, MAN! “NEW GEORGES’ MANFEST” PASS is $25.00 and gets you into everything except the Drag King workshop. Separate admission to events is $15.00 for each of the two programs of three plays; The Kick-Off! evening is $10.00; Late Night Cabarets, Panels and Round Tables are by suggested donation. Drag King workshop requires registration. Details for registration and admission price for this workshop: call 646-336-8077. Schedules and additional information will be available on the company’s website: www.newgeorges.org.

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