Supporting creative work by women
New York’s indie theatre scene is filled with some of the best people on earth. Shaun Bennet Wilson, an extremely talented actress, producer, graphic designer and so much more, is one of the most dedicated theatre artists in the city. She’s smart, talented, and a team player. She has lit up the stage in recent roles, including Steven Fechter’s Shakespeare’s Slave (Resonance Theatre Ensemble) and Mac Rogers’s Advance Man (Gideon Productions).
Shaun spoke with Works by Women about those two outstanding roles, why she love the League of Professional Theatre Women and what women theatre artists inspire her.
Works by Women: What have been some of your most memorable indie theatre experiences?
Shaun Bennet Wilson: One of my favorite indie theatre experiences happened just last year in the Estrogenius Festival at Manhattan Theatre Source. I was cast by DeLisa White (director) as a tough biker chick and it was so much fun! One of the things I love about indie theatre is that because there’s less money involved, people are more willing to think out of the box and make interesting casting choices. Directors and artistic directors have more freedom to work on pieces they’d truly enjoy seeing, rather than what’s cheapest to produce, what adheres to the status quo, and what will garner more income.
WBW: In the past year or so, you’ve been in some stellar plays — Shakespeare’s Slave and Advance Man. What was it like working on those projects?
Shaun: Shakespeare’s Slave was an amazing experience, and I was so honored to have the chance to bring “Grace” to life. Steven Fechter, the playwright, tends to write characters that are haunted by their own darkness and frailty, and then are taken on a journey where they must confront that darkness to find their own strength, beauty, and their power to transcend their frailty and become whole. He’s really an amazing playwright and was a blessing in the rehearsal room. Eric Parness, the director, was so wonderful in that he really gave David L. Townsend (Shakespeare) and I a lot of room to discover and explore. I’d have to say, without a doubt, that Shakespeare’s Slave was a formative experience for me as an actor. I learned so much from everyone involved.
One of my favorite parts of Advance Man was watching (director) Jordana Williams and (playwright) Mac Rogers, work together in rehearsal. They both have such a lovely confidence their vision and were constantly working to make the play clearer, stronger, and just generally better. It was also my first experience with Gideon Productions. In the first week of rehearsal, Sean Williams, one of Gideon’s producers and Bill Cooke in Advance Man told us that they’d chosen the Long Island City venue so that they could spend more money on the actors. I was sold. It was a really wonderful experience. That dressing room was full of laughter and love. There was a lot of healing going on, too. Ask Sean Williams about his wild appreciation of Arnica gel someday.
WBW: You have also joined Gideon Productions as part of the producing company. What’s that been like working with the Gideon gang?
Shaun: There are so many things I love about Gideon, but mostly I love their commitment to the theatre community. They have an incredible amount of love and support for one another and that kind of thing can’t really help but extend outward. I feel really grateful that I’ve been brought into that kind of environment. Sean and I think and operate in very similar ways. We’re straight out of the canon, ready to knock things down and Mac and Jordana are more deliberate, more careful. Sandy manages to be the best of both worlds in everything. I also love that at our first production meeting for Blast Radius the room was completely full of women. The stage manager, lighting, costume and set designers, director, producers were all women (Sean and Mac couldn’t make it). Gideon’s commitment to diversity isn’t just in words and intention, they live it out as best they can. I have a passion for working with people who not only want to do work they feel inspired by, but who also want to create work in such a way that they’re making the world a better place. If you think about it, that’s every artist’s burden to carry, really.
WBW: You are a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women. What have you gained from being a member?
Shaun: Oh man! Every single one of these questions has turned me into a gusher! I absolutely love the League and the women I’ve met in it! First off, I gained a lot of incredible role models. The League women don’t just talk about advocacy and strengthening the bond and numbers of women in theatre, they make it happen. The day after I joined my sponsor, Julie Sylvester (an incredible actress and producer) brought me into a programming meeting where I met women who were so savvy and together they blew my mind. It’s a vital place for networking, mentoring and relationship building for women. Absolutely vital.
WBW: What’s next for you?
Shaun: I’ve been invited by Gus Schulenburg of Flux Theatre to join their “Flux Sundays” weekly play development workshop, which I love going. I’m also a part of Erin Mallon’s Brooklyn Generator which turns out incredible 24-hour plays each month and performs them in the Brooklyn Winery on Sunday afternoons. Finally, I’m taking playwriting classes this fall at Primary Stages. I’m all about generating work this year and trying to find inspiring work and inspiring people to work with. At Gideon, we’re in the midst of planning our 2013 season so keep an eye out for that.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
Shaun: Two main challenges I can see are that the theatre world is still dominated by men and theatre itself is hurting for money. Industry people are less willing to take chances that may not be highly remunerative and the people making those decisions are usually men who tend to stick to the familiar. Women theatre artists, actresses in particular, also lose commercial value as they age which is ridiculous to me. As an artist in my 20’s I’d barely lived. I’d never fallen in love, I was full of insecurity, and I could barely look my own truth in the face much less the truth of others. Now, in my 30’s, I’ve grown a lot in those 10, or so, years and I approach the characters that I write and/or portray with so much more courage and love than I had the nerve to do back then. It saddens me that as a woman’s knowledge of herself, her loved ones and the world deepens, her value in the eyes of producers and the public diminishes. It’s like living a world where everyone only wants to see plays on opening night as opposed to several months in when the actors are comfortable and things are just starting to make sense. It’s so backwards.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
Shaun: What gives me hope is that there are women out there tearing it up! Nina Arianda, Katori Hall, Annie Baker, Lynn Nottage, Emily Mann, Patti LuPone, Eliza Clark, Pam MacKinnon, Sarah Ruhl and many others (it’s a long incredible list. I know I’ve forgotten some wonderful people.) I also saw a lot of terrific roles for women over 40 last year which made me really happy. We also have a lot of women in power positions who are making sure that women playwrights and directors have their place in the light. It’s a rough battle, but I think that despite the challenges and previous setbacks things are just going to keep getting better for us. We’re going to keep making inroads, we’re going to keep making ourselves heard. You have to believe that, otherwise you may as well stay at home.