Yaisa, Ailema Sousa, Katelyn E. Appiah Kubi, Luz Ozuna, photo by Danielle DeMatteo.

Q&A with Artistic Director Danielle DeMatteo

A conversation with the SheNYC Arts leader

Written by:
Nella Vera
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SheNYC Arts, the off-Broadway company dedicated to producing plays, musicals, and adaptations by writers of marginalized genders, has launched its new season with a pair of intriguing new plays performed in repertory, “Fort Huachuca” and “Bloodshot”. We spoke with Artistic Director Danielle DeMatteo about the genesis of the company, the choice of plays for this fall season, and the ambitious decision to present them in rep.

Can you give us a brief history of how SheNYC Arts came about?

I started working on Broadway and in the New York City theater scene when I was in college and witnessed a lot of injustices in this industry, both to myself and to others around me. I’ve always been a problem solver by nature, so I thought, there must be something we can do to address this. The main problem that I pinpointed was that there are a number of barriers to entry when it comes to careers in the arts, and those barriers always favor men and cut out women, trans/nonbinary people, & people of color. 

With solving that “pipeline issue” in mind, I started brainstorming with the other young women I had met working in the industry, and together, we came up with the idea of creating a festival of plays and musicals by women, that was also fully staffed by women, and that had a blind, open application process. We started planning in 2015 for that first festival in summer 2016 – it was just a week-long event in a little theater in Times Square where we put up 4 plays and 1 musical. We truly had no idea if anyone would show up or care about this issue of gender equity in theater. But to our surprise and delight, we had lines out the door every night. 

We knew then that we had to keep this going and expand to a bigger space the following year. So, we moved to the gorgeous off-Broadway Connelly Theater downtown and doubled the amount of shows that we produced. We got hundreds of script submissions from across the country, so a year later, expanded to open a Los Angeles branch. Shortly thereafter, we added a program for NYC high school students, expanded to Atlanta, and now, we’re launching a Dallas-Fort Worth branch in 2024. 

You were only 23 when the organization was formed – what specific challenges did you encounter due to your age?

The very first year of the SheNYC Theater Festival, I was running around with a clipboard during a performance, and an older man who was an audience member congratulated me on my internship. 

Being a young woman founding and running a company brings plenty of challenges – that anecdote being a lighter one – but the number one issue that’s always been present is industry stakeholders not taking us and our work seriously. In an industry run by wealthy, older, white men, there is a constant built-in assumption that what we’re doing isn’t serious. I’ve watched male-led smaller theater companies and festivals get more press, perceived prestige, and industry-wide support – then also seen those other companies become unsuccessful or unsustainable while we continue to grow, thrive, and have real impacts on lives and careers. I’ve learned that we can’t possibly change this perception in one lifetime. So instead, we just keep our heads down and keep doing the work. We are having a huge impact on the community that we are meant to serve, and if the rest of the industry doesn’t want to learn from us, then it’s their loss. 

Ray Johnson and Ben Holbrook, Photo by Danielle DeMatteo.

What inspired you to produce “Fort Huachuca” and “Bloodshot”? And why did you decide to do them in rep?

Both playwrights are playwrights we’ve been working with for years, and it was clear from the beginning that they both have that magic touch as writers. The writer of “Bloodshot,” Elinor T Vanderburg, had done two other shows with SheNYC (and became our Art Director, designing all of our branding and logos) before we saw a developmental production of “Bloodshot.” It was particularly eerie because this play is about a plague, and we saw it in January 2020, right before the pandemic hit. As we all then survived through COVID, this play burned a hole in my mind – I couldn’t stop thinking about it and knew that it was going to be the play that encapsulated this crazy time that we all are living through, even though it was written right before it all happened. 

We first read the script of “Fort Huachuca” in 2019, and accepted it into the SheLA Festival in 2020. That Festival ended up having to become virtual, with a zoom-filmed performance streaming in July 2020. At that point, we had been discussing SheNYC producing a longer, sit-down run of a show after its run in our festival but hadn’t picked a show yet. On the night that “Fort Huachuca” streamed, our whole staff (including Elinor, the “Bloodshot” playwright) was on a group text thread. As soon as the stream ended, we all started gushing about how it was one of our favorite shows ever on this text thread, and we threw the idea out there: is this it? Is this the show we produce? 

Of course, that plan got delayed by 2 years of the pandemic before we could really move forward with it. At that time, we decided to do 2 plays in rep to experiment with a unique model. With the theater industry being horribly affected by the pandemic, and with audiences not feeling super confident about coming back to see shows, theater’s a riskier investment than ever. One way to mitigate that risk is to perform 2 plays in rep. Firstly, it allows you to produce two shows for (almost) the price of one. Secondly, it increases your potential revenue by giving audience members two very different shows to choose from, and encouraging those who see one show to come back and see the other. We hope that others can learn from this model and see that it’s a smarter way to do theater in this new world. 

Can you talk about Ailema Sousa’s work and why you were drawn to it? What is unique about her as a writer?

What I love about Ailema’s work is: it just makes you feel things. I think we’ve lost that in the theater industry recently. Everyone’s trying to do the play that will blow your mind, be the most interesting thing ever, tackle the biggest issues, et cetera, et cetera. In all of that, we’ve lost what makes people love theater so much in the first place: it just lets you live in a different world for a few hours, feel big feelings, and fall in love with characters. Ailema’s writing is very slice-of-life style, where we’re just getting to peek into someone else’s world for a while and go on an emotional journey with them. This play will make you feel loss, fear, make you laugh, and make you remember what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. It’s beautiful. 

Chris Yim and Ailema Sousa, photo by Danielle DeMatteo.

“Fort Huachaca” is set in the 40s but has relevance to today’s times. Can you talk about that? With regards to “Bloodshot,” it seems like a really interesting way to address the themes of the trauma that we have been through since the pandemic. Could you talk about what makes this play an interesting choice for today’s audiences and why do you think they will connect to the material?

These two plays take us on a journey through time from WWII to a not-too-distant present, turning American pride inside out from the perspective of BIPOC Americans serving their communities. In “Fort Huachuca,”it’s about Black nurses and a Japanese American soldier in the army; in “Bloodshot,” it’s about a Black coroner and police officer. Both are called on to serve their country in times of crisis, while they continually have the pressure of our unequal society pushing back against them. How do you survive every day while living in a system and society that constantly tears you down? Each character in these plays has a different answer to that question.

As Elinor puts it in “Bloodshot,” they’re both about “where we put people that don’t make sense to us. ‘Individuals unable to maintain a functional social pathology during The Great Wake’…People who’re too hot, people who’re too cold. People who’re too hard, people who’re too soft. Plenty of people who I’m sure would be just right if our Goldlocks society hadn’t gotten involved.”

While they may take place in different settings, the point of both shows is that these settings simply highlight how our country functions today. 

We don’t see a lot of successful thrillers/mystery on the stage – why do you think that is?

In my experience in the theater industry, theater practitioners really try to hold themselves to a higher artistic standard than film or TV. There’s this false idea that thriller/horror/mystery is a “cheap” TV thing, and not fit for the high standards of the stage. I think that’s so wrong – this genre is such a fantastic way to pry open the darker sides of life in a way that doesn’t feel endlessly heavy. 

Fedly Daniel and Kofi Asanti, photo by Danielle DeMatteo.

Elinor T Vanderburg is a fascinating writer, drawn to dark and apocalyptic themes. What makes her writing so compelling?

Anyone who sees the play will understand – Elinor sees the world in a very unique way. One of my favorite quotes from the show is when the Narrator announces the arrival of a wealthy celebrity character: “The revelers make way for a well-moisturized man in the nicest pajamas I’ve ever seen. He moves through the crowd like an upright stingray, silk rippling against his guests. The patent plump smile injected into his face…It is the one and only Victor Pistachio.”

Any other writer would simply say, A wealthy man named Victor enters. But only Elinor could give us this hilarious and spot-on imagery. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing these two plays in rep?

The first, like I mentioned, is simply learning that there is a better way we can produce theater that’s more financially sustainable and that actually cares for our audience members more. By producing shows in rep, we can give more representation onstage to artists who need it and give audience members better choices with what they can see. 

The second thing I hope audiences take away is that these two shows are simply incredible. When we work equitable practices into the theater and arts industry, this is what we get: the best talent, performing at the highest level, telling stories that you’ll never forget. Last night at our first preview of “Bloodshot,” two older audience members walked out of the theater and told us they couldn’t believe it; it was the best show they’ve ever seen. We can reach a much higher standard by changing the way our industry finds and develops talent. 

Fort Huachuca” and “Bloodshot” run in rep through October 14 at the Mezzanine Theater, NYC. Tickets and information at https://shenycarts.org/.

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