Rachel Sussman: How her Michigan roots led her to NYC and back to the mitten

Nothing inspires me more than seeing a lady from my native state, Michigan, kicking butt in the New York theatre community. And what’s even cooler than that? How about creating a program to bring new theatre to Michigan while simultaneously serving as the the Director of Programming and Artist Services for the New York Musical Festival. Rachel Sussman truly is a dream. An avid advocate for new theatrical works, she co-founded the MITTEN Lab, which looks to utilize Nothern Michigan’s landscape and talent to develop new theatrical work.

The MITTEN Lab has allowed Sussman to return to her roots. She hails from Metro-Detroit, where performance originally worked its way into her heart. She was a competitive dancer and a self-proclaimed theatre nerd. Performing was a family affair. “My family grew up doing a lot of community theatre, as an entire family,” Sussman says, “So my parents and my sister and I and our dog would all be in shows together.”

A few significant educators impacted Sussman’s life as a young theatre student. She recalls her elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Richardson as the first big influence on her life. “Do you know the song ‘Day-Oo?’” She says, singing a line from it and giggling. “She gave me that solo when I was in fifth grade. I was a huge teacher’s pet, so that was a big deal.” She also cites her high school theatre teacher, Mr. Rutherford as influential to her career. “We had a very intense, pre-professional style theatre program at my high school called the Groves Performing Arts Company (GPAC). Their support and encouragement helped me continue on in the arts.”


This led her to NYU’s Drama Program in the Tisch School of the Arts. Tisch’s Drama Department is organized into different acting studios, each one highlighting certain professional acting techniques. Sussman began studying Lee Strasberg’s technique before transferring into the Experimental Theatre Wing. “I went from one end of the acting spectrum which is very psychologically based to the end that is all physically based, you know, handstands and cartwheels and somersaults in acting class,” she says, spinning her hands around as if to mimic the motion of a cartwheel. “And in that process, I went abroad to Dublin, and that gave me just a wider perspective on the kinds of art that people were making,” she says. She found herself immersed in a totally different culture, where she learned from the way locals used art to respond to social, political, and economic turmoil that was happening in Ireland at the time.


It was also at NYU that she realized that she didn’t want to be an actor. She interned at Second Stage for a semester, and she loved it so much, that she continued interning there the next summer. “Chris Burney, who is the Associate Artistic Director at Second Stage, is a huge mentor of mine. It was that internship that really gave me the insight into the artistic and administrative side of the industry. I realized that I didn’t want to only interpret work after it was created; I wanted to be a part of the creative collaboration, so I [began] doing more dramaturgy and creative producing after my Second Stage experience and that path felt so right.”


Sussman used all of her college elective credits to do internships. She is now the Director of Programming and Artist Services for NYMF, which is the largest new musical theatre festival in the world. They produce between 40 and 50 musicals in various stages of development over a 3-4 week period each summer. Sussman is deep in the selection period right now. “The festival ended for this year on August 7th and submissions opened on August 17th,” she says, emphasizing the cyclical nature of her job. The submission process is double-blind. “It’s an incredible thing we have. We have a reading committee of industry professionals and the authors’ names are left off of everything so they’re judging based on the quality and integrity of the work alone. Then, we select finalists and those go to the grand jury which is very, very high level fancy Broadway people: directors, choreographers, agents, actors, producers, etc. and we choose approximately 10 shows. Those 10 shows receive $5,000 toward their production as well as dramaturgical support and a conference dedicated to helping them produce a show in the festival.” That’s just the first step of the festival. The rest of the festival is comprised of concerts, events, workshops, and readings of new musical theatre work, most of which is handpicked by Sussman. “The readings are always exciting because the work is often earlier in its developmental process and the focus is solely on the material alone; you don’t get the same design elements or production values that you get when you do a production.”


One of my favorite NYMF-produced shows is a concert called Women of Note, which Sussman called “a celebration of women, queer, and trans artists in music and theatre.” This year, it showcased 32 writing teams–so many that the concert had to be split into two concerts. “It was an opportunity for some of the incredible artists to be seen by the New York theatre community at large. It was people like Lauren Marcus, Georgia Stitt, Amanda Green, Shaina Taub, and everyone in between. We run the gamut there.”


She has used her skills most recently with the MITTEN Lab, which she co-founded. The name not only stands for “Michigan Incubator for Theatre Talent Emerging Now,” but is also an homage to the shape of Michigan’s lower peninsula. She developed the MITTEN Lab with her friend, who she met in middle school, as both of them were doing youth theatre shows together. Michigan has a rich theatrical legacy, the New York-famous Nederlander family is actually from Detroit; however, the urban Detroit experienced decades of dilapidation and is only now on the verge of recovering. “The city of Detroit had terrible troubles, but with this artistic renaissance and creative economic surge that is now happening post-bankruptcy, Detroit has become the place to be for so many artists working in all kinds of media. ” However, Sussman still noticed a deficit of new theatrical work being produced in Michigan. “Living in a place like New York City, there’s so much new theatrical work that it’s oversaturated. So the idea of taking some of that talent and putting it into a city or space that is hungry for it could be really helpful.” The founders also wanted to boost the connections between professional theaters across Michigan. “It’s not like New York City, where you have The Public and The Atlantic just blocks from each other. We are seeking to connect companies across the state to one another through the Lab, becoming a hub for them to encounter new talent and send their own artists. Our hope is that this can lead to meaningful collaborations and put more theatrical work into the Michigan pipeline.” The founders hope to use the new work and MITTEN Lab to forge relationships between Michigan’s many regional theatres.


As for what’s next for this creative theatrical extraordinaire, Rachel Sussman is producing a play at 59E59 Theaters in November and December called Don’t You F**king Say a Word, written by Andy Bragen and directed by Obie Award winner Lee Sunday Evans. “It’s a play about tennis and friendship and our obsession with competition and winning. We call it ‘God of Carnage meets tennis,’” she says, not revealing too much.


And what did this kick-butt lady boss have to say about this blog’s mission of promoting women in the theatre? “The thing I always push for is more women producing and more women in leadership roles in this artistic medium. I think that when you have more women in those roles, the more likely to be you are to expand boundaries and diversify what’s being made.”

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