Something Unfamiliar: An Interview with Kept Woman's Rebekah Suellau
I met Rebekah Suellau - writer, director, and now producer, of Kept Woman - in film school. She directed my very first piece of theatre. We wrote screenplays, met for tea, and learned (then forgot) how to run electric on a film set together. When I learned that Rebekah would be bringing Kept Woman, a play I first read more than four years ago, to an Off-Broadway stage this fall, I was floored. That’s no small feat. I called to talk more about it (as one does when your friend announces her anywhere-near-Broadway debut).
Edited for length, and also clarity (but definitely not language - #sorrynotsorry).
My hope is that, although I normally cover film on this blog, you’ll see the parallels between crafting a work for the stage and for the screen. And also, that you’ll see this group of women creating a work of art together, and be inspired by it.
I know I am.
Sunday, 7-ish PM:
I’m in my office/studio/extra bedroom with a cat in my lap. Rebekah is in Atlanta, sitting outside.
Alex (A): I think we should start with the obvious… I usually talk on the blog about film - maybe you could talk about, because you’ve been in film, what makes theatre different for you? And what’s different about your process?
Rebekah (R): Okay. Cool. … well it is process that is especially different from my end. And a lot of that has to do with the way rehearsal functions. So much rehearsal when you’re working on film, so much of your process with your actors, remains focused on product; on getting that one shot just right. In theatre, as a director you’re releasing so much more to your collaborators.
What I’m building is not a product, it’s an understanding and a process that they can then live through from night to night, with the expectation that there are small, moment to moment changes, based on whatever’s going on in that present moment, in that performance, with that audience.
You’re building more of an architectural framework, with allowances for the present. You don’t have as much control, which means you really kind of lean in and gain that understanding, in a process that can be replicated rather than [a singular] product. That has been what really drew me as a director into theatre from film, and continues to just really thrill me every time I do it.
A: That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way. But we’ve been doing this forever, why haven’t I thought of it that way? [Can you] tell me a little bit about the play… as the writer and then the director?
R: Kept Woman is the story of a couple who’s in a space between staying together and splitting up. Cyn is a visual artist/painter and has cheated on her partner of seven years, Barry. And although he’s forgiven her, she is basically paralyzed with guilt. She strips away, bit by bit, everything that led her to this act of infidelity, and to this betrayal. [Then] pares her life down to focus, almost religiously, on this partner. And when that doesn’t work - because of course that doesn’t work, right?
A: Ha! Yeah...
R: She asks him to literally even the score by bringing home another woman, and she wants to listen from the basement below them. And that’s just where the story starts.
A: I’m glad that’s not where it ends - because if that’s where it ended... that would be a different kind of thing. Maybe that’s just a porn? I think I just described a porn...
R: [LAUGHS] It’s a story that explores the gray space in a monogamous relationship - both the way we come into that kind of partnership and the way we try to extricate ourselves from [it]. It deals in guilt, shame, power, equity, what is actually fair and equal, [and] what is balanced in a relationship.
At this point, the cat moves from my lap to behind a shelf. There's a long pause, and I assume Rebekah wonders what the hell I'm doing. So I tell her:
A: I have a cat in my house and I don't really even know why.
R: Well, I’m glad that you have a cat in your house... I kind of wish I had a cat in my house, but also not, because it would be fucking with me.
A: Well, this cat is here because she’s just so antisocial she doesn’t even like her littermates, which is bizarre. So I was asked to bring her home [and foster her] because I don’t have any other cats [living here].
R: She's human-socialized?
A: Kind of. She’s very clingy when I’m holding her. She even likes the dog. But then, like, as soon as you move on with your life, she goes and hides. I think she’s just like terrified to be alone. Which makes me sad. I’m hoping she’ll figure it out.
R: That’s kind of what the play’s about.
A: Yeah, actually - a lot! She’s hiding behind a shelf [now], which is basically like being in a basement. So maybe she’ll paint something while she’s back there, and you know, make herself useful…
A: But why theatre? Why did you pick theatre for this project [and not film]? Because you do write both theatre and screenplays.
R: I would love to do [film] in future iterations, as the story continues to be developed and to grow through the collaboration of my cast and all of my teammates.
One reason I’m so focused on a stage version of this story is that it deals with a lot of sexuality; there is a lot of pretty point blank sexuality on stage. I’m very interested in exploring how to make that experience more empathic and less voyeuristic.
And I think that some of that can really be found in presenting it live in a way that the audience is very present and actually engaging. Even if they’re quiet. Even if the whole room is holding their breath.
There’s a palpable exchange that’s happening, and I think that’s really important in actually getting past the sexiness of sex, and getting into the actual emotional exchanges that are going on through these physical actions. That’s one thing that I think is particularly well suited for a stage version. You know we’re so used to seeing, especially the female body-
A: Yeah, on screen.
R: The camera’s gaze gives us so much distance and so much depth at the same time. And I think that’s fascinating, but I think that’s really familiar and gets taken for granted. So what happens when we shatter that? It comes down to direct exchange.
A: You’re actually putting them in Cyn’s position then. If she wants to listen, if she wants to be there, then your audience is also being asked to be there. We’re so used to seeing sex on film, but we’re not used to seeing sex in the theatre - as far as I’m concerned. You’re definitely giving your audience something you couldn’t give them through film. You’re putting them in her position exactly.
R: Right. They are in a place that they have chosen to be. They’ve also chosen to essentially be trapped there, right?
R: It’s a very direct sort of empathy that I think is cool. I also think that the play formally explores some non-linear time, and some shifting spaces, that again is really familiar on film. I think to do that version first would open up some lazy story-telling for me; there are such clear ways to do that in an edited world. I really wanted to do what I think is harder, what I think is less familiar, first.
Between the blunt sexuality [and this type of structure], these are things I think are particularly challenging to accomplish in a live experience, which makes it that much more magical. And that much more exciting to the collaborative team, working extra hard to build that experience in an honest and easy to receive kind of way.
A Point of Excitement and Connection
A: Because the production team is all female, and you’re a woman, and I don’t know - maybe it’s because [Cyn’s] a painter and I’m a painter, I feel inherently connected to this story as a female. What has it been like, and how has it been different for you, trying to produce something with a team of all women?
R: My main takeaway of working with an all female producing team on a very female forward, empowered project?
A: Yeah. That’s the right word.
R: It’s been unequivocally positive. We have been really fortunate. We’ve not encountered any kind of push back. Gold star, everyone.
A: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
R: That in itself is so exciting; to present an all female team as a point of excitement and a point of connection rather than any sort of diversion or separatist thing. It’s been met with incredible support from men and women alike. I think people are just excited. And, that’s amazing.
A: Yes, it is.
R: It’s absolutely thrilling. [PAUSE] But I think, you know, it’s tricky, right? You want to avoid your own sort of inherited assumptions.
A: I’m curious. I haven’t done it. I’ve worked with you [as a partner]. But there’s always been other dudes, and your team is so - there are so many women who are part of it. It’s really exciting.
I put together this list every month of women-made projects on tv and film, and it seems like it would be awesome. I get really excited when I find a project that’s not just directed by a woman, it’s written by one, too. And look - the DP [Director of Photography] is female! I get really excited to see it. So [personally], it’s really good to hear [a positive experience].
R: The highest hope for that is that people look at this and they see - Hi, Bill Murray! Sorry, Bill Murray just came outside.
Bill Murray is a dog who lives in Atlanta. He belongs to Rebekah's neighbor. He's a sort of tall, long-legged fellow - like an Italian Greyhound, but exceptionally large, and on the older side of life.
A: Oh, I like Bill Murray! He’s so cool!
I met Bill Murray a few months ago when I was visiting Rebekah in Atlanta.
R: He’s so cool.
He really, really is.
A Model of Just Being Possible
R: [We have] females in nearly every key creative position. We’re still filling out a few roles, and we’re by no means exclusionary. We just happen to know that there are incredible women available who we would love to work with. So we’re going to reach out because we’re excited about them as artists.
The big hope is that we can be a model of this being possible. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of [these] kinds of models throughout my career [and] throughout my education. Atlanta is full of female directors and artistic directors. When we normalize females in key leadership positions, we open up the playing field to normalize difference. You know?
R: I just want it to be normal. I want by the time I do my next project an all-female producing team to be a shrug and a given. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
A: Yes. Absolutely.
R: I don’t want that to continue to be a selling point. It’s amazing that it can be, and it’s beautiful that it’s possible. But I just want it to be something that you would never bat-a-lash at.
Relationship, Communication, and Trust
A: I’ve never talked about what it is to produce a play on this blog before, and I’ve certainly never experienced trying to produce something Off-Broadway. [What have] been the best parts and the worst parts thus far?
R: One of the big, gigantic challenges is that I am based in Atlanta, and the production is obviously in New York. What we’ve done as a producing team to keep that connected experience is [to have] partners on the ground. We have two producers that are based in New York and two producers that are based in Atlanta.
A: That’s smart.
R: We all get together and do our online hangouts once a week, which is kind of the joy of my week, honestly. We’re so excited to see each other, even through a screen.
[I mean, I’m] running in not only a new level of producing, in terms of scale, but also an entirely new community.
I don’t know where to get my coffee before tech rehearsal yet. That’s a petty example, of course, although coffee during tech is not a petty question at all, really. Those are long days.
A: Do you remember when we had shitty, shitty coffee in the theatre district and we just needed coffee, and we ended up in the world’s most expensive, silly diner, and paid like $8 -
R: Yeah, oh my God.
A: - for a cup of coffee.
R: That did happen.
A: Don’t do that shit again.
R: We were by the Museum of Sex.
A: Yes, I’ve never regretted a purchase so much in my life… But, continue, please.
R: All of the things that I thought I had figured out as a scrappy self-producer - [they’re] not total blank slates, but really have to be rebuilt from the ground up.
One great thing is that we have incredible formal and informal mentorship. So we’re producing Kept Woman under the umbrella of a program called the Araca Project: [it’s] sort of an on-the-ground educational outreach that supports alumni of a few theatre programs in producing a project at this Off-Broadway theatre, The American Theatre of Actors.
They [Araca] offer a week long producing intensive. This is a high level for us. And these people are working at a higher level than that. There are established Off-Broadway houses, people who are actually producing [on] Broadway.
We got to learn about what stays the same between, even a level below us from our very first project, all the way up to the very top. Those things are relationships, communication, and trust. Really. Those [three things] are the core of being a good producer at absolutely any level.
It’s been wonderful reassurance to recognize that our values are the same, that they’re going to guide [us] into a higher level and a higher caliber of producing. Those things don’t change.
We also have access to some alumni of the program who have been there before, who are checking in with us on a regular basis, making sure we don’t do any profoundly dumb things - or at least as few as possible.
R: So, it’s been wonderful because we don’t feel like we’re going [it] alone.
A: All the stuff you’re talking about in terms of environment and directing from far away - you know we were always directing film as students, obviously locally. We weren’t planning to produce something elsewhere. But most people are. Even when they’re working out of LA, they tend to be producing in Atlanta, in Vancouver, in Europe, you know - they’re elsewhere. So I wonder if all this experience [in producing] will inform a filmmaking experience, as well?
R: I definitely think so.
When we were prepping our crowdfunding campaign, so much of what we studied were successful film campaigns. The actual process itself from a producing standpoint is not terribly different.
Our line items are similar. We still have the same departments. We still need to fund the same departments, prioritize among them, and bring them into communication with one another.
[In] all of that, we’re still dealing in two media that are fundamentally performance based and collaborative. The overlap is so significant because of the hugeness of those two elements.
We're talking with our people, you know?
A: [In terms of crowdfunding], how do you feel about Kickstarter - because it looks like it’s working very, very well for you. Do you like it, do you hate it?
R: This is not my first time crowdfunding a project. I have worked with some other teams to raise smaller amounts of money through crowdfunding.
What really shifted for me this time was focusing so much more on who I’m talking to than on what I need. So, it’s weird to say, because I kind of expected it to be a three and a half week nightmare, [but] I think a lot of us treat crowdfunding as a necessary evil to independent artists today. I think it can actually not be evil at all.
The more personal I keep it, really connecting with people who share the values behind this project, and who share the interests and the creative tastes behind this project - the more we can fall back on those things, the more delightful the experiences, and the more one-on-one we can be. We can craft these very individual thank-you’s, because we’re talking to people who we get. We’re not just yelling to strangers or shouting from the mountain tops. We’re really connecting one-on-one with people who are our people, you know?
A: It’s a really fun campaign to follow. I can’t actually say that I’ve felt that, ever, with any other crowdfunding campaign. Not my own, and not anybody else’s. You feel like you’re participating.
R: I think that crowdfunding can be really, really beautiful if you use it to build relationships and not just a budget.
We really want you to be able to click on this campaign, feel inspired and empowered to go do your own thing, and if you have some money to send our way [and] you like what we’re talking about, absolutely back us. But if you can’t we still want you to take something away. We want to give just as much as we need to raise.
A: Just to clarify - you raised your minimum… what does Kickstarter call it?
R: Kickstarter calls it your goal. That's a funny word. But, yes.
A: You raised [that] initial goal in like… less than 3 weeks?
R: We did! We hit our funding goal, which is the point at which we actually collect the money. We reached that $8000 on, I want to say, day 20? Somewhere between week two and week three. A lot of that was actually do to Kickstarter itself.
A: Yeah, they put you in their featured projects, didn’t they?
A: You were picked up really quickly - but you were gaining so quickly in the first 72 hours, it would be hard for them not to take notice, I think. It was like every time I checked you guys were up another hundred bucks.
R: It was really amazing. It was sort of like, the first few days were just a giddy experience. I just camped out in front of my computer - because we [were] making personalized memes with quotes from the play for all of our backers in the first 3 days.
A: They’re fucking excellent by the way. They’re really funny.
R: Absolutely giddy with anticipation to see who's name would pop up next. And then go through all of their Facebook photos to find something that would make them laugh, or smile, or feel special.
It was phenomenal, the support that came through in the first 3 days. I don’t even know what to say about it, it just kind of blew us away. We’re really really really grateful.
And a lot of [that] is because it’s an all-female producing team. We received support from particularly female artists across multiple media. Lots of filmmakers, lots of actors, visual artists, and just women being so excited to see women taking the reigns. I think [that] really was a huge core of our support.
A: Well you got my mom. Honestly, I didn’t even really tell her [about it], and she saw the trailer and she was just like, Oh, it’s so inspiring and she went on, and on, and on.
I think the project itself is inspiring for a multitude of reasons, though. Just [seeing] that you can put something up Off-Broadway without somebody giving it to you - because I think that’s an assumption, [that it’s gifted].
To get somebody to show up to a theatre, you need the theatre to be in a specific place, a specific kind of place with a reputation. And to get Off-Broadway, can you just do that? I wasn’t really sure that you could. To see you do this in a self-propelled way, that’s exciting to me. Just as much as the all-female element.
It's All. About. Connections. Really.
R: I think also another particularity of this project, and the team, and the campaign - everything - is that we’ve been developing the play for 4 years. That level of time commitment,of investment, of energy built up over 4 years is just very… I feel like it explodes out of the screen when you hear us talk about it. You can feel all of that time, and past, and history, and effort, and it really does make it feel like a moment.
You can see the trajectory of how hard we worked to get here, how long we’ve waited, and how fucking ready we are.
A: [You have] a stretch goal. What do you need? How can we get you there?
R: Thanks! Our stretch goal is $13,500. We are currently just over $9000, so we have about $4500 to go in the next [three] days. [That’s] Friday night.
The best thing to get us there is obviously, yes, pledge and back if you can, that’s terrific. But it’s just as important to watch the video, and to be conscience of who comes to mind when you’re watching it.
If there’s anything about the story, about the team, about the project [in general] that makes you think of someone in your life, make a note of that, reach out to that person, share the campaign directly with them, and let them know why it makes you think of them.
This is more important than really any dollar goal because ultimately you’ll be hooking us up with likeminded people who will stay interested beyond this project. Who we can follow in whatever their passion is, and who we may ultimately work with some day. Use the visibility of this last week to introduce us to someone who you think might like us. That’s tremendously helpful.
When you say every dollar counts it sounds glib, I know. But literally, if you have one dollar to give, just that extra name, that extra backer - it bumps us up in the visibility on Kickstarter, it raises the confidence of people who [have] already supported or might be on the fence about supporting, so really and truly, a dollar pledge does matter.
A: I think the overarching theme of our conversation here and also of your play - it’s sort of brilliant how this has ended up - it’s all about connections. Absolutely every single part of this is about how people connect to other people. That’s what your play’s about, that’s what you’re about, that’s what your campaign is about. There’s something karmic about that.
R: Thank you, that’s so beautiful.
A: So is your play.
Kept Woman will play at The John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors from November 3-6, 2016.
Getting involved is as easy as watching the trailer and sending the link to someone else you think might like it.
Like The Ring, but with less than seven days remaining, and nobody dies. *WIN*
A special thank you to Rebekah for taking the time to talk with me during an exceptionally busy week.
The production team of Kept Woman is made up of producer/playwright/director Rebekah Suellau, producer/actor Madeline Hickman, producer Sarah Rose George, and producer Emily Kleypas.
*Yes, I'm an artist on this project. Visual artist, to be precise. Find out more about my contribution to the project here*