When Melia Bensussen and Masha Obolensky first set out to write a play together, it would be three years before movie mogul Harvey Weinstein stood accused of sexual assault by dozens of actresses, writers, and models, inspiring women from around the world to speak out about their abuse at the hands of powerful men.
After years of on-and-off writing, Emerson Stage’s opening spring show Brazen is about many things: objectification, the cost of making art, the trade-off between patronage and autonomy, and yes, the dark side of powerful men. But it’s also a very different play than when it started out.
“The climate changed [during the writing period],” said Obolensky, MA ’06, referring to the #MeToo movement, “and what we were writing suddenly felt validated, and this made our writing more fearless.”
Brazen, directed by Performing Arts Chair Bensussen, is the story of Cameron, a photographer who uses her daughter, Miranda, as a model in her fairy tale–themed pieces. In an effort to break away, Miranda joins a feminist punk band and finds herself under the wing of an affluent producer.
“We were intrigued by this notion of an affluent man who’s helping support a young woman, [and] who promises financial stability,” Bensussen said.
It’s an entirely original piece, but takes as inspiration the French “Bluebeard” folktale, in which a rich man marries a series of women who are found dead in the castle by his last bride—a metaphor for female curiosity and sexual knowledge.
Bensussen and Obolensky met when Obolensky was studying Theater Education at Emerson and took a couple of classes with Bensussen. When Obolensky wrote a play for NewFest, Bensussen was encouraging, and led Obolensky to turn her attention more toward playwriting.
Obolensky went on to become a playwriting fellow with the Huntington Theatre, and her play, Not Enough Air, was directed by Bensussen and named to the Boston Globe’s “10 Best of 2010.”
In their collaborations over the years, Bensussen said she and Obolensky had shared a “type of porousness in our thinking,” so when her former student suggested the two try writing a play together, Bensussen agreed.
The play came together gradually, in fits and starts, as life intervened. The women edited on a Google doc, making edits and cuts and leaving notes.
“We’ve lost track of who’s done what,” Bensussen said. “It’s a genuinely egoless writing collaboration, I think because we’re both fundamentally theater-makers. I think she’s much more of a poet than I am, and I’m much more of a director.”
About a year ago, during planning for this year’s Emerson Stage productions, faculty had been talking about how much students get out of performing and producing new work. Bensussen said she had intended to direct one show anyway, and thought it was a good excuse to finish Brazen.
As much as the social climate changed the play, she said, the students themselves have made it their own, offering suggestions and taking risks.
“We’re all working as equals, which is the great gift of what theater does,” Bensussen said.
Jane Reagan ’18 plays Cameron, the photographer/mother.
Reagan said because Brazen is a new play, the playwrights are so closely involved in the production, and the process has been so “intimate,” actors, designers, and stage management all feel like the stakes are that much higher for the show.
“In a George Bernard Shaw play, as close as I can get to the text, it’s still not a play that is mine,” Reagan said. “It’s not as precious to me as this play that we’ve all put our hearts and our voices into in the rehearsal room.”
Obolensky credited much of the play’s vitality to its co-writer and director. Students wrote original songs, learned musical instruments, and created a world.
“Something that’s amazing about Melia is she creates an environment where creativity thrives and everybody’s bringing their best,” she said. “It’s very ambitious but it speaks to allowing everyone in the room to shape the work and getting everyone invested.”
Attending graduate school at Emerson was an “exciting” time for Obolensky, and brought her a number of firsts, including writing and directing plays, and set her on her path of becoming an artist.
“I really am very energized by being back at Emerson,” Obolensky said. “I just really appreciate this particular group; they’re really positive.”
Brazen also stars Carolyne Leys ’20 as the daughter, Miranda; Alex Hanscom ’19 as impresario Ike; and Julia Getz ’19, Mia Miller ’19, and Destini Stewart ’20 as the bandmates.
The play runs Thursday, February 1 through Sunday, February 4, in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. For tickets and show times, visit emersontheatres.org.