When you find yourself writing about a play-making duo whose hit piece, Chimera, deals with a woman who absorbed her own twin in utero, you think: Is this a trick? Could these artists have spent that long on a play just so journalists would have a handy metaphor to describe their unusually intimate process?
That unlikely idea almost makes sense when you meet Deborah Stein and Suli Holum in person. They really do finish each other’s sentences, and they really do hand roles back and forth just as though thousands of years haven’t gone into solidifying the boundaries between actor, director and playwright.
Certainly their creative DNA has intertwined: performer Holum and playwright Stein are now actually Stein|Holum Projects, a New York City–based cooperative of (sometimes) two, intent on devising a new-old way of working that they believe will show a way forward for like-minded theatremakers. The formula is simple—it’s the collaborative devising process; plus an old-fashioned, craft-centric, writerly approach to material; plus time.
Intense, continuous gestation processes can sometimes do paradoxical harm, if not to the piece at hand (through overdevelopment), then to the creators themselves—so Holum and Stein have worked out a method that allows them to work intensely for short periods, while still allowing for a multi-year gestation.
As a solo playwright, Stein has a ferociously, unapologetically lyrical voice, and she is known for dense tapestry-plays like the punk-rock piece God Save Gertrude, which brought Hamlet’s mother out of her enseamed bed for a rock-and-roll comeback tour; and Bone Portraits, a dark-hearted vaudeville about the invention of the X-ray machine. In Minneapolis, she co-founded the Workhaus Collective, a 10-playwright organization beloved for its premieres of voices like hers and Cory Hinkle’s.
Around the turn of the millennium, Stein was the playwright collaborating and devising scripts at Pig Iron Theatre Company, the groundbreaking Philadelphia ensemble that Holum co-founded some years before. Their initial connection there was minimal—Holum was headed out on her own just as Stein was joining up. Holum went on to win a Drama Desk Award in New York, but her ongoing work—even her casual conversation—is still flooded with Pig Iron influences, especially the group’s focus on intense physicality.
Despite their individual successes, though, Stein and Holum felt they were missing something. A chance reunion at a show had them asking each other, “What can you still not do?” For one thing, the two felt they had never plumbed the depth of their connection. “So when we ran into each other,” recalls Stein, “it was a case of thinking, ‘You! Yes, you! I always wanted to pick your brain apart!’” They had also been at Swarthmore together, and Stein recalls being intimidated by Holum: “I mean, she founded Pig Iron as a sophomore! She was impossibly cool. So I had a little sister thing to get over there.”
As they talked about the frustrations of their post–Pig Iron working lives, Stein and Holum found themselves setting out the terms of a new way of working. Recalls Holum, “I so missed the collaborative work, but I was in a moment life-wise—as a wife, as a mother—when I needed to be able to control the rhythm that would work with my family. I knew it would take experimentation to find it—and what existing company would be able to figure that out with me?”
As for Stein, her success at finding work in what she calls the “produce a play” model had left her wistful for her collaborative days as well. “I had wonderful experiences at regional theatres, but I was limited in terms of the conversations I was expected to be a part of. I have playwright friends, and they’re so pleased to finally be able to just be ‘the writer,’ but I was dying to be thinking about things like casting, design, marketing. I felt like an untapped resource. I found myself missing being part of a piece that was a living, breathing thing, in which everyone felt equal authorship.”
The answer, though, wasn’t an uncritical return to the Philadelphia ensemble theatre model, which, Stein says frankly, never gave her the needed time to write. “To craft a script, to craft language, to make a structured, architectural thing that gets rehearsed and revised, rehearsed and revised, you need time to go away and do the work.” Chimera, a powerful solo piece for Holum that debuted at HERE Arts Center in New York, was the outgrowth of just these kinds of conversations—a proof-of-concept for the team-in-training’s new way of being.
Stein and Holum tried out all their “best practices,” like involving designers from the inception point (projection designers need time, too), and staying radically porous in their interactions with each other. There’s no sense of where one’s creative work starts and the other’s ends, which is reflected in the name of their company. “We needed a shorthand to communicate to people that we were the co-creators,” explains Stein. “If we were talking to someone in the devised-theatre world, they would assume Suli was the leader and I was scribbling after her; but if we were talking to someone in the produce-a-play world, they would assume that all the ideas were mine, and that Suli was my ‘vessel.’” (Both women groan.) “So we named ourselves. These pieces are us, they are ours—which is fundamental to both the why and the how.”
There’s a sense of intense, productive condensation in their talk about how to work. The elapsed time from the beginning of a piece to its end might theoretically be measured in years—but in-person, in-the-room time has so far turned out to a very affordable couple of months.
Currently, Stein and Holum have been hitting the rehearsal room for two projects. Their memory play The Wholehearted, which got a work-in-progress airing last winter at HERE, has turned the corner toward completion. Audiences will get to see the finished product at Boston’s ArtsEmerson Apr. 17–27. Another solo work for Holum, it tells a weirdly seductive story of a female boxer trying to break the thrall of her abusive ex-husband. As a result of her intense, ongoing boxing training, Holum’s musculature has changed completely since she first appeared in Chimera. The new work means to discuss how trauma is physically inscribed on the body; Holum is that concept’s living image.
They also are hard at work on Movers & Shakers, a large-ensemble musical about political sex scandals. A longtime collaborator, sound designer James Sugg, has been writing songs taken from incriminating Facebook chats, and the two women passionately discuss how these could fit into a classical musical structure. Meanwhile, Chimera continues to tour (it will be in Philadelphia Jan. 30–Feb. 2), and both are gearing up for their fall teaching schedules (Stein at NYU and Yale, Holum at the New School and Sarah Lawrence).
Isn’t all this exhausting? Wouldn’t it be pleasant to settle back into that “other people produce it for you” model? Nope, says Stein. “Finding alternative ways of making work is something that women are doing in large numbers now, because otherwise, you’re waiting around for someone to give you your turn. There aren’t that many turns, you know? So we’re making our own turn.”
Critic and arts reporter Helen Shaw is based in New York City.