Head's Forum 2022: “Dramatizing History”

A taste of New York theater came to 91st Street, as two-time Tony Award-winning producer Jill Furman ’86 and award-winning songwriter and performer Shaina Taub joined a panel of Spence juniors and seniors for this year’s Head’s Forum, “Dramatizing History.” The program, organized  by the Performing Arts Department, offered insights about Furman and Taub’s collaboration in bringing the hit musical SUFFS to stage this spring. Since its world premiere at the Public Theater in March 2022, SUFFS is the latest in a series of successful ventures for Spence alumna Furman, whose groundbreaking Broadway productions also include Freestyle Love Supreme (Special Tony Award), Hamilton (Tony Award) and In the Heights (Tony Award). Attendees also got an inside look at the complexities of producing a successful show, as the program delved into the challenges of balancing commercial and artistic merits, as well as the opportunities of identifying and supporting theatrical voices. 

“The purpose of tonight is really ‘Not for school but for life we learn,’” said Head of School Bodie Brizendine, invoking the School’s motto as she shared the history behind Head’s Forum, a program she created 14 years ago to provide a platform for discussion on provocative and timely issues amongst juniors, seniors and their teachers and families. “There is no test, there is no quiz; it’s just pure learning,” Brizendine shared. 

Introducing “phenomenal women” Furman and Taub, Jayde D. ’22 reflected upon their creative partnership: Furman as the producer and Taub as the composer of SUFFS, who is currently starring in as Alice Paul, “the young, unafraid suffragist who will not take no for an answer.” “Ms. Paul, alongside other leading suffragists––not only white women, might I add––take the audience through a journey of seeking the passage of the 19th Amendment which made it legal for women to vote,” said Jayde. 

Taub opened the Head’s Forum program performing three songs from SUFFS, and reflecting on how the history of women’s suffrage inspired her music. “One of the things that saddened and shocked me, when the 19th Amendment was passed…it was signed in the dead of night by the Secretary of State…and some of the suffragists called and had wanted to attend,” shared Taub before performing “I Wasn’t There,” a song she wrote for the show. “I just thought, wow, immediately the erasure began of all of the activists who worked so hard to get this bill ratified, and I wanted to dramatize that moment.”

Kay G. ’23, Salma H. ’23, Maren L. ’22 and Jayde joined Taub and Furman as panelists. “We are so excited for this conversation about a creative life,” said Head of the Performing Arts Department Carrie Lewis who moderated the panel conversations. 

Recalling her passion for theater “stemming from Middle School drama classes and blossoming through my involvement in the school plays,” Salma wanted to know about the pivotal moments that launched Furman and Taub on their career paths.

Furman shared that her love of the performing arts started young, when her father, a banker whose specialty was media and entertainment, would bring home Variety magazine and take her family to movie screenings. At Spence, Furman built upon her passion, working behind the scenes of the Spence stage alongside her best friend. “We directed a Dorothy Parker compendium our senior year, which is another thing I did that made me realize I really liked being in this world,” said Furman. 

“I remember my mom took me to go see Cats,” shared Taub. “I remember being so captivated by it, and on the way home, I kind of thought it was spontaneous combustion, that all these people…did it on the spot, but my mom explained that they practiced and it was what they did with their life. And I was like, wait, you can do that?”

Reflecting on how she was asked to both compose music for and act in the Spence spring play, Kay asked Taub how she balances wearing many hats in a production.

Taub emphasized the importance of “carving out the time to write, like an appointment or a meeting…and teaching yourself and the people in your life to take it as seriously as anything else.” “You have to show up in a constant, regular way,” Taub added. “I can’t control the result. I can’t control how people will respond. But I can control how hard I work.” 

Maren was curious about how to gauge whether a concept is worthy of an entire show. “How did you know SUFFS would make an amazing musical?” she posed.

“I just felt this was an important story to tell,” said Furman, recalling Taub’s “infectious enthusiasm” when she and creative partner Rachael Sussman approached her about the project in 2016. Furman further reflected on the stakes of being successful, noting that even for a sold-out show like SUFFS, the path to Broadway poses challenges that require thoughtfulness and support. “I’m always looking for things that make me get goosebumps, that feel different in some way… but I am a commercial producer, so it is a business, and I have to feel like something can be commercial and have a long life, and I felt like this did in spades,” said Furman. 

Taub noted that she had been looking for a while for a project that would “light a fire” in her, and she found it with women’s suffrage when Sussman presented the idea to her in 2014. Then, when she read Jailed for Freedom by suffragist Doris Stevens, Taub felt immediately connected to her story. “My whole life has been about groups of girls and women coming together, working really hard to try and get something difficult done, and the joy and camaraderie of that,” Taub said, adding: “These stories really haven’t been dramatized. The suffragists are not really part of our national imagination. We haven’t been asked to empathize with them or humanize them. They’re just sort of a sepia tone photograph to us.” 

So, how does one dramatize historical figures? Jayde, herself a lover of history, wanted insights into Taub’s research process as she crafted SUFFS.

“I take in as much as I can and look for common patterns and also discrepancies,” said Taub, noting the importance of “journalistic skepticism” and “being able to question the account and realize that there’s no one exact way it happened.” For example, Taub shared, “for the 1913 March, I read both secondary sources and primary sources…from the women who actually went through it.” 

During the audience Q&A portion of the evening, students asked myriad questions, from how to deal with creative rejection to what opportunities they should pursue in performing arts.

“Say yes, radical yes to everything,” Taub shared, emphasizing advice she received from a mentor: “We do not control the speed with which our work has an impact on the world, only the depth. Dig deep.”