I recently spoke with Susan Fenley, executive director of Staten Island’s SunDog Theatre, at The College of Staten Island’s Springer Hall. The cast was performing the Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol,” for more than 900 students, and I wanted to learn more about this innovative, local theatre.
Sundog was incorporated in August 2002, and since then has transformed from the collective dream of six dedicated people, (Fenley included), to an important partner of the art and education communities in Staten Island.
The theatre tours nationally with actors from all over the country, commissions original plays about Staten Island from local writers and is the driving force behind 70 theatre, dance, visual arts, music and literacy programs in schools across the city.
THIS WAY ON BAY: Congratulations on the 15th anniversary. Looking back on this impressive milestone, what are some of the highlights of past productions?
SUSAN FENLEY: There was one year when we had playwrights write two different endings and the audience was able to pick the ending and the audiences loved that year, it was really a huge hit. Also, during every performance of “A Christmas Carol,” we pick a child from the audience to play Tiny Tim. We can’t tour with a child, so the next best thing is to have a child come to us. Last show it was a girl, Grace, from St. Peter’s, this time it’s Matthew from PS 609 in Brooklyn. They have one line that they say twice and it’s, “God bless us, everyone!” They get to sit on stage and watch the entire production until they are taken by their stage parents to participate in the scene. It really pulls the audience on stage because all these kids feel like they are participating too.
TWOB: When you started the theatre’s annual playwriting competition, Scenes from the Staten Island Ferry, 15 years ago, did you ever think it would end up as big as it has?
SF: No. It started out as a 24-hour play process, so the whole thing was created and rehearsed and memorized within 24 hours. The playwrights would write the plays on the boats going back and forth and then we would produce the show somewhere else. Actually, we were the first show at the Muddy Cup when it was the Muddy Cup. It was truly guerilla theatre.
TWOB: Why the ferry?
SF: You know, anything can happen on the ferry, and it has really. People have been married, they have kids, they’ve broken up, life events have happened to them on the ferry, or they encounter a stranger who changes their life, you know anything, its totally open to anything, the ferry is its own little world.
TWOB: There is this stereotype about Staten Island being the forgotten borough, that we aren’t as cultured or creative as the people who live in Manhattan. What do you think coming from your experience running the only theatre here?
SF: One of the reasons it has a stigma from people in the city is because they haven’t been here. I know so many people who diss Staten Island and who have never ever been to Staten Island. When they come here they marvel at the open spaces and the beautiful campuses and houses. It’s truly like a suburb, a small city. It’s not dense and compact like Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s a neighborhood borough and sometimes it is sort of a bedroom community, but I think that people talk about it who don’t really know what it is. They see Mob Wives or Jersey Shore and they think that is what Staten Island is. Yea, those things take place here, but it’s not Staten Island.
Staten Island is made up of so many different people, things, and cultures. It’s very diverse here, especially on the North Shore. When I look at the newspaper or listings in the arts councils and see how many events are going on here each week, it’s phenomenal! There are so many artistic events happening, whether it’s hosted by an organization, individual artist or street artist. There is a lot going on here, more than people who don’t live here know.
TWOB: What are some of the benefits of operating in a smaller community like Staten Island?
SF: I don’t feel we have any restraints, we can do anything we need to do. We aren’t an “edgy” theatre, that’s not what we do, there’s plenty of those in Manhattan. We are very well rounded, we do all kinds of different things, we have tour shows, we have literacy programs in schools, our main stage productions and acting classes on Saturdays. We have a little bit for everyone.
TWOB: What’s your wish for Sundog for the next 15 years?
SF: That’s a good question. My wish for the next 15 years is to expand into more schools, especially with our literacy program. We have a program called 3D Literacy which increases reading scores from 3-11 levels in second graders. We are in 11 schools this year with this program, in addition to our other programs. One of my dreams is to have an elementary school of the arts here in Staten Island, where the arts are incorporated into every subject because we’ve had so much success with kids’ academic and socio-emotional growth. A kid can be good at academics but if they feel they are too shy to speak up, it hampers them academically and can make it hard for them to make friends. It affects everything and the arts really have a lot to do with bringing kids into their true selves. Theatre is not a panacea for everything, but it affects kids tremendously, it’s transformational, and transformation is what we do.