Works by Women

Supporting theatrical work written, directed and/or designed by women.

Interview: Heather Cohn

Flux Theatre Ensemble is one of the most dynamic collectives of theatre artists in New York City.  Its ambitious productions of August Schulenburg’s The Lesser Seductions of History, Adam Szymkowicz’s Pretty Theft and Johnna Adams’ The Angel Eaters Trilogy have received rave reviews and award nominations.  For its fourth season, the company has selected three plays, all written by women with two directed by women.

Works by Women will see the first production in Flux’s 2011 season — Dog Act by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Kelly O’Donnell — on February 8th.  The play’s performance schedule is February 4th through 20th at the Flamboyan Theatre at the CSV Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan.

We caught up with Heather Cohn, Flux’s co-founder and current managing and development director.  Heather is also a seasoned director, currently working on the third play, Menders by Erin Browne, in Flux’s season. A graduate of Vassar College, Heather’s spectacular day job is development director at Epic Theatre Ensemble.

1)   Flux Theatre Ensemble has produced nine main stage productions since 2005.  You’ve just announced your 2011 season with three plays – Dog Act by Liz Duffy Adams (directed by Kelly O’Donnell), Ajax in Iraq by Ellen McLaughlin (directed by August Schulenburg), and Menders by Erin Browne (directed by you!).  How did the company decide to tackle three new plays over the course of 12 months?

As an ensemble company, Flux considers many factors in deciding our seasons. We look at artistic opportunities for members, thematic connection among the plays and, of course, which plays demonstrate our aesthetic values.  DOG ACT, AJAX IN IRAQ, and MENDERS comprise Season 4: Don’t Look Away.  The three plays, each in its own unique way, all explore the cost of a society constantly remaining vigilant, in particular looking at the watchers and the walls that keep us safe.  While Flux has produced classics (Life is a Dream, 2007 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2008), we primarily produce new plays, and the three shows this season are all by contemporary playwrights. Dog Act and Ajax are New York premieres and Menders is a world premiere!  It was important to us that at least one play in the season be written by a Flux Sunday playwright.  “Flux Sundays” are our weekly play development workshops where playwrights, directors & actors convene to loosely stage new scenes written by working playwrights.  And Erin Browne is a Flux Sunday regular.  Prior to our membership re-design (which you can read more about here: http://fluxtheatreensemble.blogspot.com/2010/11/membership.html), there was a two part process to season selection: 1) the full ensemble would determine a slate of plays via a complex voting system and 2) core membership would narrow down the slate, voting on the final season.  And it was this process that resulted in the amazing season ahead.

2)   All three plays are written by women and two of the directors, yourself included, are women.  Was it a conscious choice to feature so many female theater artists in your season or is it something that’s organic to Flux as an ensemble?

The latter.  We did not set out to select a season written by women, but when we realized that the three leading contenders were all plays written by women, we were delighted.  Flux has been engaged in the current dialogue regarding the difficultly of making a living as a playwright (Outrageous Fortune, etc.), and the particular struggle for women playwrights.  Thus we are proud to be presenting three plays written by women.  My day job is with Epic Theatre Ensemble, and Epic is currently creating a pilot initiative to support women playwrights with young children called the Mother Voices Project.  Also in October, I directed a play for the EstroGenius Festival, a festival of works by and about women, and it was wonderful to be surrounded by so much talent.  As for the two women directors in Flux’s upcoming season, that’s somewhat separate.  Both Kelly and I are co-founders of Flux and we are the primary directors in the ensemble.  Gus (who’s directing AJAX) thinks of himself as a playwright first, and the rest of Flux members are primarily actors.  Though all Fluxers wear multiple hats, and we all contribute to every aspect of the organization.

3)   What drew you to direct Browne’s Menders, which was inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall?”

I’m a sucker for magic and I’ve been wanting to collaborate with Erin Browne for a long time.  Aesthetically, MENDERS is right up my directing alley – the characters are richly layered and complex; there are multiple storylines; there’s opportunity for simultaneous staging; and there’s a fairytale/magic aspect to the play.  I also see an opportunity to incorporate puppets into the production and I can’t wait!  Additionally, MENDERS is the one play in our chosen season that is not fully finished yet.  I love working with playwrights to develop their plays, and a big reason I was drawn to MENDERS is that I get to work with Erin and different actors on developing the play prior to production.  I had an incredible experience working with Gus and Flux members to develop THE LESSER SEDUCTIONS OF HISTORY, which Flux produced in November 2009, and I wanted that long-term collaboration process again.

4)   Flux is also dedicated to the development of new work from its earliest stages.  Tell me a little bit more about Flux Sundays, Food:Soul and ForePlay.

Well, I mentioned Flux Sundays a bit in question 1, but yes, we are committed to working with playwrights over time and we aim to share this development process with our audience as well.

It begins with Flux Sundays. Flux serves as a developmental home for around 70 theatre artists. This group of artists is our creative core, and all programming and audience development grows out of this community.  We have recently begun partnering with Judson Memorial Church, and they have generously hosted the last few months of Flux Sundays and will continue to into 2011.  Flux Artistic Director August Schulenburg writes up a brief summary of the highlights of Flux Sundays each week on our blog, fluxtheatreensemble.blogspot.com

For the next phases of creative development, we invite the audience directly into the process. The best scenes from Flux Sunday are shared over drinks in our Have Another bar series, giving our audience a first look at works-in-progress in the informal environment of Jimmy’s No. 43.  Plays we’re developing sometimes receive fully staged readings along with a potluck dinner as part of our Food:Soul series.  By bringing theatre out of its conventional environment, and linking it to the communal events of food and drink, Flux deepens our relationship with our core artists and audience.  We have held several recent Food:Souls in conjunction with Judson Memorial Church’s Bailout Theater program, and discovered an entirely new audience base for our work.  I directed our most recent Food:Soul, which was a staged reading of Bekah Brunstetter’s MISS LILLY GETS BONED.

Our ForePlay series are a little different than our other development work. ForePlay is a pre-production exploratory reading series in which we ask contemporary playwrights to write short plays riffing on a theme(s) from our mainstage show.  For example, in connection with our production of JACOB’S HOUSE last spring which was inspired by the biblical story of Jacob, we invited 16 playwrights to write plays based on various Old Testament stories.  This particular ForePlay was entitled “Divine Reckonings” and involved 4 directors and 24 actors in addition to the 16 playwrights.

5)   You were a member of the 2008-2010 Women’s Project Producers’ LAB.  What did you take away from that experience?

As a member of the Lab, I had the opportunity to get to know the work of many incredible women theatre artists who were my fellow Lab members.  This biggest takeaway for me is this network of collaborators.  For example, the reason Flux chose MISS LILLY GETS BONED as our most recent Food:Soul is that Bekah was in the Lab with me, and I had read an earlier draft of the play for the Lab and loved it.  Crystal Skillman, another fellow Lab member is now a Flux Sunday participant, and several other fellow Lab members have written short plays for our ForePlay series.  I also had the opportunity to work as a co-lead producer with Jennifer Conley Darling on the Women’s Project Lab site-specific project Global Cooling: The Women Chill.  I learned so much from her and may now get to work with her again, since I’ve been nominated to be on the Board of LIT (League of Independent Theaters), where Jen serves as Managing Director of Operations.

6)   What do you think is the greatest challenge facing female theater artists?

The statistics.  Women theatre artists continue to be under-represented, as demonstrated in the NYSCA study by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett: http://www.womenarts.org/advocacy/WomenCountNYSCAReport.htm and as discussed by Theresa Rebeck, etc.  But I think the challenge extends beyond the statistics and into action.  As a female theatre artist, I have to decide how much energy should I spend focused on the upsetting statistics and challenging them versus how much time should I spend creating great theatre.  I do think activism is necessary, but I want to believe I can demonstrate activism through the work I’m doing.  So my goal is to continue to challenge myself artistically because I see myself first as a theatre artist.

7)   What gives you hope for women in American theater?

The talent I know is out there.  I am constantly surrounded by incredible women theatre artists, and as simple as that is, it’s knowing that that gives me hope.

Dog Act by Liz Duffy Adams runs February 4th – 20th at The Flamboyan Theatre at the CSV Cultural Center.  Flux is offering 50 tickets for $12 for performances Feb 4, 5 and 6.  The code is SQUISH and the ticket link is: https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/3012.

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3 comments on “Interview: Heather Cohn

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  3. Pingback: On Stage in February « Works by Women

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