Tony-Award nominated producer Rachel Sussman has made New York City her home for more than a decade, but her strong Michigan roots keep her close to her hometown.
A native of Bloomfield Township and a graduate of the Wylie E. Groves Performing Arts Company, Sussman headed to New York City after graduating from Groves, earning her drama degree from New York University. Since 2010, she has worked with Second Stage Theatre, RKO Stage Productions, the New York Musical Festival and most recently with Audible's Theater division. In 2012, Sussman co-founded The Indigo Theatre Project, producing high-profile readings of plays to benefit non-profit organizations. Three years later, she co-founded The MITTEN Lab, which stands for Michigan Incubator for Theatre Talent Emerging Now, a new artist residency located in Bear Lake.
"I was very involved at Groves and with the Groves Performing Arts Company. It's an amazing theater company that John Rutherford has run for years. It set me up for success in college and beyond. The program is that comprehensive that exists in our public schools.
"One of the things I say when talking about being a young person in the theater is that you think of it as on-stage where you get to be a star, and off-stage, where you have no idea what is happening. Mr. Rutherford really helped expand our minds. By the time I got to NYU, I felt I knew so much more than my classmates. When I started interning, I understood what a dramatist did. He taught us that there was so much more than what's on stage."
As producing artistic director for the New York Musical Festival, Sussman helped develop a new initiative focused on arts-based civic engagement. On Broadway, she is co-producer of Heidi Schreck's Tony award-nominated play "What the Constitution Means to Me." Some of her other producing credits include the Obie-Award-winning production of "The Woodsman," as well as "Eh Dah? Questions for My Father," "The Rug," “Talk To Me About Shame," and others.
Sussman's first experience with theater started before her teenage years, performing community theater with her entire family, including her dog.
"We did 'Fiddler on the Roof' together as a family," and I caught the bug," she said. "My sister now does comedy in Chicago and my dad is involved with the Birmingham Village Players."
Outside of the Birmingham/Bloomfield area, Sussman co-founded the MITTEN Lab with long-time friend and stage director Katherine Carter.
"We were having a conversation about what we are doing as an industry to cultivate the next generation of artists, and what we realized with residency programs is that they are catering to mid-level career, and it's difficult to be accepted into these programs," she said. "MITTEN Lab was born out of that idea – to support early career artists that show promise."
Sussman said it's a good time to be growing the theater industry, as there seems to be new momentum, in part due to the mainstream success of "Hamilton."
"Our palate as a culture is more primed for theater," she said. "I think that's true on a national level. People are engaging and using theater to spark conversation and think about what art means to them and what it is saying about the world around us. People go to the theater to escape their lives, and to learn more about their lives. That's true in Michigan, as well."
Photo: Laurie Tennent