The Muse Project Puts Women’s Stories First in the American Theater

Founder Jocelyn Kuritsky is flipping the script on traditional power structures.

Jocelyn Kuritsky and her muses. Clockwise from top left: Vanessa Aspillaga, Jocelyn Kuritsky, Kyra Miller, Lynn Cohen, Jessica Frances Dukes, Déa Julien, and Zainab Musa. Photo by Erin Reynolds

“When you flip a system like this, you’re flipping power,” says actor and filmmaker Jocelyn Kuritsky. She’s the founder of The Muse Project, a program that puts women actresses front and center in theater production.

She starts by asking actresses what role they want to play, then builds a creative team around that vision, pairing them with directors, writers, musicians, dramaturges, choreographers, co-stars — whatever they need to tell the stories they’re most interested in telling. She calls these performers “muses,” neatly redefining the term.

Kuritsky has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next phase of this program, a festival that will present five “muse projects” conceived by five actors and, she hopes, spark a larger conversation around how to better represent women and their stories in the American theater.

She created her own muse project in 2015, partnering with a playwright and a director to produce Stet, a play about an investigative journalist who accepts an assignment about campus sexual assault that quickly unravels. It was loosely inspired by Rolling Stone magazine’s misreporting of a sexual assault case at the University of Virginia in 2014.

Now, Kuritsky has partnered with The Flea Theater in New York City to put on a festival presenting work from five muses, including Lynn Cohen (Munich, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Vanessa Aspillaga (The Jim Gaffigan Show, Flesh and Bone), and Jessica Frances Dukes (who’s appeared on The Good Wife and NCIS: New Orleans).

Kuritsky’s goal with The Muse Project is to put power and agency into the hands of women actors, and to show that another model for making theater is possible. By showcasing the ambitious, experimental, and risky new projects the muses develop, she’s out to prove that the current power structures in the American theater suppress the original and innovative stories that could be told by and about women.

“If all the world’s a stage, we should not settle for women actors being mere players,” says Kuritsky. “We should rebuild the stage, make space, and ask women where they want to stand.”

Here, Kuritsky talks about what The Muse Project is working on now, what it’s like to create a new work of theater from the ground up, and what’s next for the project.

— Rebecca Hiscott

Kuritsky rehearses with actor Jeff Hayenga in a Mini-Muse workshop

Kickstarter: You’re working with five muses — Lynn Cohen, Jessica Frances Dukes, Déa Julien, Kyra Miller, and Vanessa Aspillaga — to present their work at a festival in October. Give us an example of a story you’re working on.

Jocelyn Kuritsky: Lynn has ideas for miles. She’s nearly 85, and I was so interested in her expansive experience. I think her first major film role was Manhattan Murder Mystery, which she did when she was in her 60s, and then she became known for Sex and the City and The Hunger Games. She works all the time — she is the busiest actress I know.

In the workshop, she presented these three amazing monologues that she also interstitially narrated. She got up on stage, she would present a monologue, and then she’d talk about it and her relationship to it, why she wanted to do it, where she was in time and space when she found it. It was really riveting. Lynn was so vulnerable during that process. She was almost shaking, giving this presentation.

I feel like The Muse Project questions this idea of what makes “good” acting. Part of what made Lynn’s presentation so riveting was that we knew how important it was to her and how vulnerable the whole moment was. It was fresh. It was raw. Everybody’s eyeballs were glued to her. There are all these weird ideas in acting, like you have to relax your body. But that’s not a relaxed situation.

So you’re creating space to question even these very basic assumptions about what theater is, what acting is, and what it can be.

Jessica Frances Dukes presents her Mini-Muse project at Theaterlab. Photo by Anna Lathrop

Yeah. When you flip a system like this, you’re flipping power. The actress isn’t necessarily “in charge” in whatever aggressive way that people think of “being in charge,” but the place that the ideas are emanating from — there’s a big head spin when you allow the actor to take charge.

When you’re a woman actor, you’re objectified on so many levels — not only your physicality, but the way you act. The way you act is subjected to severe scrutiny — the way you speak, the way you move your eyes. It can get broken down into these very compartmentalizing things. I think women especially are drawn to performance and acting because it’s the opposite of compartmentalization. Acting engages your body and your mind in a very full, cohesive way. We’re allowing actresses to return to what made them interested in acting to begin with. I think that’s where the real stories are, and the real magic.

What was it like to work on your own muse project?

It was really hard. It’s hard because it’s so vulnerable, because you’re putting this thing out there. You’re trying stuff out.

The first round, the Mini-Muse, was great. It was super exciting to have a writer and a director who are trying to figure this out with you, where you know that what you’re after is a huge priority for everybody in the room. It changes the power dynamic, and I think it changes your own level of respect for your work.

Getting to production was really tough, but I got to see how a project could go from zero to 60. There were things I wish I had done differently or changed, but ultimately I was like, “Wow, I did that!” It wasn’t perfect — but that’s the other thing I’m trying to get rid of, the idea that if you get onstage and something bombs, your life is over. It’s hard for women to get away from that, because women are scrutinized and criticized so heavily. So how do we get rid of that? I think we bring attention to it, and we talk about it, and we have systems like The Muse Project.

What kinds of stories do you think can be told with this model that aren’t being told in the current theater landscape?

Actors Birgit Huppuch and Déa Julien work on Déa’s Muse Project at Theaterlab. Photo by Anna Lathrop

Well, for example, with Stet, we were examining this woman who was caught between her professional ambitions and her moral code in a way that I don’t think has been shown on stage before. It brings up all these questions about “shoulds,” how women should operate in the workplace and with other women. It shows how women can be pitted against each other by structure alone, by the structure of a company or a system.

People say that all stories have already been told, you just tell them differently. I don’t know about that. We don’t know, because 51 percent of the population hasn’t had the opportunity to really dive into what their stories could be.

“People say that all stories have already been told, you just tell them differently. I don’t know about that. Fifty-one percent of the population hasn’t had the opportunity to really dive into what their stories could be.”

Why did you bring the project to Kickstarter, and why now?

I wanted to run a Kickstarter campaign because I think this is a very political act, what we’re doing with The Muse Project. I wanted to actually campaign. I want to create a situation where I’m talking to other artists. That’s why I’m having discussions on Facebook Live as well. It creates an awareness around what’s going on.

Also, with a Kickstarter campaign, you’ve got a limited amount of time. People understand the urgency. And it is urgent. We’re in a time and place right now where people are going, “We have a problem. We have a lot of inequality we still need to work through.” People are listening, so I wanted to take the opportunity to run a campaign, have conversations with people, and also put money at the forefront. To say, “We need this.”

Money can be a force for good. You can put money toward things that are really important to you, and with Kickstarter, that’s such a big opportunity. You can have a direct effect on these projects. I think so many of our current quandaries and problems would be solved if we were putting our money into creative initiatives that are grappling with these inequalities.

“Money can be a force for good. … So many of our current quandaries and problems would be solved if we were putting our money into creative initiatives that are grappling with these inequalities.”

So having this project on Kickstarter and out in the world is also carving out a space for a bigger conversation about how things can look different.

Yes, I think so. I’m a rabble-rouser! But I’m very pragmatic about it, and I’m thoughtful; I can talk to all kinds of people. This conversation needs to happen more in the theater, but it needs to happen around practical pathways. For progressive change to really happen, you have to have structures. You can’t just talk until you’re blue in the face and hope for things to change. So The Muse Project is a structure. It’s a model, it’s a pathway. It’s experimental, but it is an actual framework, which beats just talking about it. It provides the framework for the conversation, and for more development of the framework.


The Muse Project is live on Kickstarter until September 8, 2018.