The DJN talks with Rachel Sussman, a Metro Detroit native and 2019 Tony Award nominee for What The Constitution Means to Me.
Featured photo by Michael Kushner Photography
1. When did you first discover a love of theater?
I was always a ham as a kid. There’s a home video of me at 2 years old in the infamous “Rachel Show” singing gibberish songs and running around in circles, forcing my parents to applaud my every move. However, I really fell in love with theater when I saw the national tour of Les Miserables come through Detroit when I was about eight years old. The storytelling, the design elements, and the suspension of disbelief overwhelmed me (I remember being gob smacked by the turntable). I spent weeks singing “Castle on a Cloud” wearing my mom’s brown eye shadow as “dirt” on my cheeks so I could really get into character!
2. What was it like to be nominated for a Tony Award for What The Constitution Means To Me?
Honestly it felt surreal. I’m deeply honored to be a small part of bringing Heidi Schreck’s political and profoundly moving play to Broadway this season — most of the credit goes directly to Heidi for creating the piece and having the chutzpah and strength to perform it eight times a week at the Helen Hayes. I also need to shout out to our lead producers who are thoughtful and smart artistic leaders that have guided us along this journey.
3. How does it feel to “make it” in a very competitive and tough industry?
Oh, I feel like I’m still trying to “make it” every day — the work is never done and I still have so much I want to do! I certainly recognize that I’ve been lucky in my career thus far — I’ve had the chance to work on some remarkable projects with brilliant collaborators. That said, I also believe deeply in owning your ambition, thinking strategically, and being rigorous about the process, all while maintaining a sense of hope no matter the odds.
4. What keeps you motivated to continue to improve and produce high quality content?
I’m interested in telling active human stories that intersect theatricality with themes of social, political, and/or economic justice. I gravitate toward theatre that operates on both an emotional and intellectual level, finds universality in specificity and feels deeply relevant. When encountering a new piece, I consistently ask, “what is the story, who is it for, and why does it need to be told now?” I’m especially passionate about amplifying stories by and about artists of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community — these stories have often been left out of the mainstream narrative and I’m committed to using my position in the industry to help center those voices.
5. Tell us more about the MITTEN Lab and the inspiration behind it.
The MITTEN Lab is a nonprofit emerging theatre artist residency in Bear Lake, Michigan that I co-founded with fellow Michigander and my friend of 20 years, Katherine M. Carter. We chose to call it “MITTEN” because it’s the not only the shape of the lower peninsula, but it’s also an acronym for “A Michigan Incubator for Theatre Talent Emerging Now.”
The idea for the Lab came to us in 2013 when we were examining how our industry at large is cultivating the next generation of artists. There are very few residency opportunities for playwrights, composers, and lyricists who are still early in their career and have yet to reach a level of critical or public recognition. So, we conceived of the Lab to offer time, space, and support to emerging artists in an encouraging environment, not to mention one as lush and beautiful as Northern Michigan. We just recently closed submissions for the 2019 Lab, our fourth year, which will take place this September in partnership with Interlochen School of the Arts and Parallel 45 Theatre. (For more information on The MITTEN Lab, visit www.themittenlab.org.)
6. How important is it for you to do good in your personal life? (i.e. your work with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Victims Fund and March for Our Lives).
I try to give as much of my time and energy to the causes that matter to me. I believe the arts inherently give us the tools to access empathy and create space for community engagement. I initially began this work when I started The Indigo Theatre Project back in 2012. We produced star-studded readings that would benefit thematically-related organizations.
While we’ve been on hiatus for a few years, our last reading was Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter starring Keri Russell as a benefit for She Should Run. It’s become an outlet for me, being able to use my skills as a theater producer to raise funds and promote awareness for nonprofits that are working to better the world. I had the great privilege of being on the producing team for two live benefit events with MSD and March for Our Lives in 2018 and I have been involved with Covenant House International as a member of the Executive Committee for their Broadway Sleep Out for homeless youth for the past seven years. This charitable work is foundational in my life — I feel a personal responsibility to give back and I’m grateful for the platform I have as a producer to make that possible.
7. How did you become friends with Rachel Brosnahan?
Rachel Brosnahan and I met during welcome week in our freshman year of college at NYU Tisch over a decade ago and remain best buds to this day. We half-jokingly say it was beshert! Our friendship is truly one of the greatest of my life. Even with her rise to stardom (which I must say she worked so unbelievably hard for), she is still as staunchly loyal, generous, and compassionate as she was in our NYU days. I can’t wait to see what shenanigans Midge Maisel gets into next season!
RACHEL SUSSMAN is a New York City-based creative producer and a co-founder of The MITTEN Lab, an emerging theatre artist residency program in her native state of Michigan. She is represented on Broadway this season by the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award-nominated play, What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck. Other producing credits include: the Obie Award-winning production of The Woodsman (New World Stages/59E59), Eh Dah? Questions for My Father (Next Door at NYTW), and The Rug Dealer (WP Pipeline Festival). Upcoming: Love in Hate Nation by Joe Iconis (Two River Theater) and a new musical about the American women’s suffrage movement by Shaina Taub. A former WP Lab Time Warner Foundation Fellow, Rachel is a graduate of the Commercial Theater Institute and a University Honors Scholar alumna of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the recipient of the 2019 Geraldine Stutz T. Fellowship in Creative Producing, founded by Hal Prince in conjunction with Columbia University. www.rachel-sussman.com
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