A Conversation with ‘Suffs’ Producer Rachel Sussman ‘12: Her Journey of Bringing the Suffragists to the Stage

Friday, Mar 8, 2024

As a middle schooler in Detroit, Michigan, Rachel Sussman ’12 (BFA, Drama) developed a strong interest in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She took it upon herself to learn more about the fight to win the right to vote for women in the United States, a battle that began in the early 1900’s and in some ways still continues to this day. Sussman wondered why this story—one of positive change and inspirational women—wasn’t being told more broadly to young people. This curiosity laid the foundation for what would later become a significant part of her professional life.

An avid performer and the President of the Interational Thespian Society at her high school, Sussman’s love for Drama brought her to NYU Tisch. Her interest in the suffrage movement took a backseat to her love of Drama—but not for long.

Rachel Sussman '12 | Michael Kushner Photography
Rachel Sussman '12 | Michael Kushner Photography

In her sophomore year at NYU Tisch, an internship at the Second Stage Theater introduced her to the world of theater producing. As she began to entertain the idea of a career as a theater producer, the story she had so diligently researched in middle school bubbled back up to the surface. In 2014, Sussman shared the idea with friend and fellow Tisch Drama alumna Shaina Taub ’09, and together the two of them went on to create the Broadway bound production, Suffs.

Suffs tells the story of the suffragists—“Suffs,” as they call themselves—and their relentless pursuit of the right to vote. Showcasing an all female and non-binary cast (including Tisch Drama alumnae Kim Blanck ’10, Nikki M. James ’03, Grace Mclean ‘06, Ada Westfall ’08, and Hawley Gould '18) with costume design by Paul Tazewell '89 (MFA, Design for Stage & Film) and lighting design by Lap Chi Chu '88 (MFA, Design for Stage & Film), the show is brimming with Violet Pride.

Suffs opened at the Public Theater in 2022, selling out performances and gaining the attention of Senator Hillary Clinton and activist Malala Yousafzai who are now producers on the Broadway iteration. 

In honor of Women’s History Month, NYU Tisch Alumni Relations sat down with Rachel to learn more about her experience with the show, her take on key issues today for the women’s rights movement, and what it means to be a Suff in 2024.

Join us on March 27th for a Broadway NYU Alumni outing to see Suffs! Get your tickets here.

Rachel Sussman, Senator Hillary Clinton, Shaina Taub, Jill Furman

Rachel Sussman, Senator Hillary Clinton, Shaina Taub, Jill Furman

Alex Manges: You were a Drama student at NYU Tisch. Did you always know you wanted to be a theater producer, or did that evolve over time?

Rachel Sussman: I started out studying to be a performer—growing up in Metro Detroit, I was theater obsessed. Like next level nerd. I used to memorize when shows would come out and who is in them, just to really give you a sense of who I was.

I had this incredible public high school education and my theater teacher really opened my eyes to what was available offstage, not just performing in the spotlight. I was doing dramaturgical analyses on shows when I was in high school, so when I got to college, I knew I liked other things. It was through internships I did at NYU for elective credit that I began to really expand my thinking.

When I was a sophomore, I had an internship at Second Stage Theater and I got to be a fly on the wall for the development of a new play. I had this epiphany moment of ‘oh, I want to do that’. I want to ask all these big questions about what we're doing, and who it's for, and why now. That really helped me shift directions and consider producing.

AM: Did you meet Shaina Taub during your time at Tisch? Or was that afterwards?

RS: No, I didn't know Shaina in school. I knew Shaina's husband, who is also at Tisch grad, but I met Shaina after school. We moved in a bunch of the same social circles. I saw her perform at Joe's Pub and at Rockwood, and all these sort of concert venues, and I was really enamored with her musical sound.

AM: I read that the Suffs journey officially began when you gave Shaina a copy of “Jailed for Freedom” by Doris Stevens. Did you already know at that time that you wanted to produce the story as a musical?

RS: The idea for this musical is something that I had when I was in middle school. I became really interested in the Women's Suffrage Movement and why the story, a story of intergenerational change and protest, was being kept from girls like me and other young people. When I decided that I really wanted to pursue producing in college, the idea came back to life.

[When I gave Shaina the book] I had no idea what [the show] looked like. I had some images in my head of women commanding the stage. But beyond that, the thing that was interesting to me was Shaina’s music – her sound is so contemporary, and I was interested in that sort of tension between the old and the new. Really, it’s a show about now. It’s about young, rebellious, people versus the Old Guard.

Shaina Taub and Rachel Sussman in Washington DC outside Cameron House, one of the Suffs Headquarters, located right across the street from the White House.
Shaina Taub and Rachel Sussman in Washington DC outside Cameron House, one of the Suffs Headquarters, located right across the street from the White House.

AM: The show starts in 1913, setting the stage for the fight for women’s right to vote. Over 100 years later, there are still many things that the women’s rights movement is fighting for. What do you think is one of the primary focuses of the women’s rights movement today?

RS: I think two major fights have come out of the suffrage movement, one of which is, of course, the continued fight for women's equality.

Alice Paul, who's the protagonist of our show, wrote the first draft of the Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, and she died when it was out for ratification. She never knew it didn't pass. Over the past few years, there has been so much renewed interest in fighting for the ERA’s passage. There are many groups that have been focusing on that.

That’s one thematic element that I think resonates today. The other is, of course, voting rights. We continue to see gerrymandering and voter suppression in such an intentionally discriminatory way, in particular in counties that disadvantage people of color and those of lower economic status. So it's very interesting how the show is exploring these issues, and maybe compelling folks to take some action or think about it a little more deeply, especially as we're in an election year. It feels like the country and the promise of democracy are at stake.

AM: Speaking of, I understand the show makes a point to address aspects of the Suffrage movement that historically excluded women of color. Although the movement succeeded in its goal of getting the women’s right to vote by 1920, native women wouldn’t fully have that right until 1962, and black women until 1965. Can you talk a bit about the significance of including that side of the movement in Suffs?

RS: It's a really great question. When Shaina and I started on this journey a decade ago, it was just, wow! This is such an exciting story. How do we stay as historically accurate as possible? Which is really interesting if you're obsessed with the history, but is not as dramatically compelling.

As we know, the suffrage movement has been historically whitewashed in a lot of ways. In Suffs, we portray Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who were two very prominent black activists, suffragists, and both co-founders of the National Association of Colored Women. They help to shine a light on the fact that this movement had blind spots.

The complexity of it was also their relationship with each other, and also the way they had different means of achieving the same goal, just like so many of the other Suffs. So we see that different Suffs have different human motivations throughout the show.

The Nineteenth Amendment in many ways was the beginning of this ongoing fight for equality. It didn't achieve everything that Alice Paul dreamed of, it was just one step in a much longer road.

Ida B. Wells played by Nikki M. James ’03

Ida B. Wells played by Nikki M. James ’03

AM: After a sold-out run at the Public Theater, it was announced that the show was moving to Broadway with Secretary Hilary Rodham Clinton and Malala Yousafzai as producers. How did they become connected with the show?

RS: Both Secretary Clinton and Malala saw the show at The Public, and when Jill [Jill Furman, Rachel’s co-lead producer] and I were thinking about who we would want to have on this team, we wanted to help elevate the show in a really exciting way. And also in a way that felt really authentic to the show. We have a value system about what the show is and what it stands for, so we wanted to find ambassadors who aligned with that. We reached out to Secretary Clinton and Malala, thinking it would be so great if one of them said yes to being involved, and we're so lucky. They both said yes!

They’ve both been incredible. Secretary Clinton came to our first rehearsal, and Malala is going to be in town during our tech process. They have been not only great cheerleaders for the show, but actually embody so much of what it is to be a Suff in 2024. So it feels very organic to have them, and we couldn't be happier.

AM: In your opinion, what does it mean to be a Suff in 2024?

RS: Well, first I have some light education to do: 'Suff' is the shorthand for suffragist, which is what the Suffs called themselves. Suffragist is the actual term of the folks who fought for women's suffrage in the United States. But the media coined this ‘suffragette’, and it was meant to belittle and demean their monumental efforts.

To be a Suff in 2024 is to stand up for what you know is right, even if it's hard. And even if it's going to take a lot of work, it also means knowing that you can't do that work by yourself. And no matter what, you still have to fight for it with all your heart. ♦