- Sasha Eden (on left)
- 31 years old
- Grew-up on East End Ave in Manhattan; now lives on Upper East Side
- Co-Artistic Director and Executive Producer WET (Women's Expressive Theater), and actress
- Victoria Pettibone
- 30 years old
- Grew-up on the Upper East Side; now lives in "good ol' Murray Hill"
- Co-Artistic Director and Executive Producer WET (Women's Expressive Theater), and freelance casting director
Sasha & Victoria's world:
What brought you two together to start WET?
Victoria: We started WET in 1999. Sasha and I had been friends back in high school but had lost contact. We found each other in New York in 1999, and we both had a passion for creating theater. We were both frustrated by a lack of really interesting roles for women and really interesting plays being produced that were written by women. We felt that what was out there was not necessarily representative of ourselves and all the fabulous women that we know. So we started talking: what can we do to change that instead of just complaining about it? We were both inspired by women like Anna Deavere Smith who really created their own opportunities and forged ahead and produced the work they believed in while also bringing amazing artists together to collaborate. We were very inspired by that, and it fueled us to proceed in theater and create a company and create a mission that we could really stand by.
You say you had lost contact after high school. How did you find each other ?
Sasha: I was working for Bernie Telsey Casting. I'm also an actress, and while I was looking for a new agent, I took an internship there. Working there helped me actually figure out all of what I felt I had been missing. I knew something had been missing in my life as an actor but I couldn't identify what because things were going quite well. But while I was at Telsey's ,there were all these scripts coming in, and there was all this stuff that happened way before an actor came in for a role that I knew about, but I didn't realize how much I was missing it. That is when I became interested in producing.
I ended up working full-time there, becoming their office manager, and one of the projects really needed some hands-on help because there was so much coordination. It was the Anna Deavere Smith project. Anna Deveare Smith is just an amazing, brilliant female artist who produced and created her own work, and she was most inspiring to me. I had seen her play Fires in the Mirror a couple years back and said, "That's what I want to do. That's who I want to be like."
Anna was so busy, and she had this assistant who would call the office all the time – she was super organized and meticulous. She wanted to make sure that everything was perfect. There was a knock on the door one day, I opened it, and it was Vicki -- who was the assistant.
And you recognized her right away?
S: Oh totally. We were best friends growing up, and then I went to college first and was really bad about keeping in touch, and then she went to college and I came home. But we look the same. Especially Vicki. Vicki is ageless.
V: We went to two different high schools but we were in a singing group together so we would meet for iced coffees at 7 o'clock on Tuesday mornings.
S: I would talk about boys, and Vicki would talk about skiing.
V: Yeah, I would actually listen to Sasha because Sasha was more mature – not older, more mature – and I was always fascinated because she would always have such fabulous stories about all the boys she was going out with. I would just listen and be in awe.
How did you, Victoria, come to work for Anna Deavere Smith and how is it that if Sasha was working at a casting office, you became the professional casting director instead of her?
V: I was at Stanford, and Anna was a professor there. She asked me if I wanted to be her assistant, and I said I would love that because she was so inspiring for all the same reasons that Sasha has said. One day when I was bringing her coffee, I went to the Telsey office, and Sasha and I were reunited.
Then Sasha was leaving to go to BBDO advertising to become a commercial producer, and she said, "It's so great to work here at Bernie Telsey's. You should intern here because I loved interning here." Anna was moving back to D.C., and I wanted to stay in New York City, so I started interning at Bernie Telsey's, and shortly thereafter was hired as a casting assistant, and then I moved up as a casting associate, and then I became a casting director. I'm still a casting director, but now as freelance.
Why did you feel there was a particular need for a company like WET?
S: Although huge strides have been made, it's really surprising to see how few women playwrights are produced, and still that we're in this place where if you listen to female actresses or directors or producers, they talk about a lack of work and a lack of opportunity. I almost feel like you would think in the world of theater which is so liberal that that wouldn't be the case at all. So when you see the statistics, it's actually a little shocking.
V: We've found a gold mine of female playwrights particularly in the city and they are not being produced enough. They're awarded left and right, so they're obviously very very great playwrights.
With all these women writing, and so many small theater companies, festivals and empty performance spaces, why is there the dearth of female representation in the arts that required the creation of a company like WET?
S: There are not so many producers. There are a lot of companies out there, but there's not a lot of producers. And you have these really super hot playwrights meaning they went to Julliard, they went to Columbia – they're trained to be these extraordinary literary forces. But there's not so much money. People are afraid of taking the risk. Theater is really being reinvented I think, or the theater audience is being rediscovered. So there's so many more writers than there are producers in the first place. And these writers just keep creating plays whether they're going to be produced or not. And they keep creating them and they keep sending them to these production companies and these theater companies, non-profit.
So where does the complete focus on women end? You have a show coming up with a male director, composer and sound designer so obviously you don't solely work with women.
S: I think one of the things that's very important for Vicki and I in terms of communicating our mission and our movement is that we're not interested in creating a company that is solely for women, and we're not interested in creating work that is solely created by women because then we are just creating a niche that doesn't represent human. It's also doing a disservice to the writers themselves because they're not being considered as writers or directors or artists -- they're being considered as women playwrights; and women becomes a prefix that goes along with whatever they create.
Your audience is made up of men and women. Our world is made up of men and women. And we created WET to remind people that women are equal to men. That a woman's perspective is as valuable a story to humanity as a man's perspective, and the only way to do that is to mix and match through our company so that you're not telling a woman's story, but you're telling a human story through a woman.
So where's the line? How do you decide that for this or that show, you're going to go with a male voice rather than one of the multitude of unemployed female artists?
S: We try to just focus in on the playwright, starting at that place and then taking the script and finding the correct director for it. It's not about if it's a woman director or a male director, but how do we serve the playwright? Because the playwright in theater is key. It's the beginning.
There are 12 women playwrights who I could name for you right now that are changing the form of theater and that have voices that you've never heard before. Yet they are completely accessible and remarkable. And these playwrights need a director to tell their story that compliments their vision. It's our job as producers to find that right director, whether a man or woman. So we find the best person for the job. But ultimately, the story that is being told is written by a woman, so it's going to have a woman-centric perspective, and it's important to balance that in the best way possible.
Still, the more women we can employ, the better. It's generally the opposite. It's generally that women are working in a man's world. No matter how elevated and progressive we have become – and we are in this city especially – it's still a man's world. So in the world of WET, it's a woman's world that a man gets to come and play in.
Speaking of that acronym, do you ever find that calling yourself what some people might call such a provocative moniker gets in the way of your purpose? Gives people the wrong idea? Makes people think that you're doing ….
S: That we're porno producers?
Well, that's one possibility. But no. Are you ever concerned with giving the wrong idea to some people? Are you worried that of all things your company name could potentially scare people (and sponsors) off?
V: We appreciate that it starts discussion no matter what that discussion turns out to be because it opens up a door that I think no other name that I've come across does quite that way. And that's what we're trying to do – open that thought and open that discussion, and if somebody has a negative response, well that's really valuable so let's talk about what that's about. Ultimately we have a sense of humor about it, so if somebody really gets upset, it's like, Lighten up.
S: I feel like our name represents that women can be intelligent and powerful and sexual and creative and funny. They don't have to be one way. And I think that the reason we started this company was we noticed not only that there wasn’t anything that represented us. There weren't roles or pieces that were representing us was because women are portrayed as stereotypical images. There's not a lot of flexibility.
When I would go out and audition for parts, for example, you really get it because you're categorized for a type. And the brunette is not usually pretty, unless her hair is straight and she lacks ethnicity. The brunette is usually the sidekick, the best friend, and the best friend can be funny.. So the whole point is to create work where you're seeing fully-fleshed out women, which shouldn't be such an outrageous concept. But it is. And so the name is intended to represent, Hey look we're fun, we're sexy. It doesn't mean we're not cerebral or humorous or creative. One does not preclude the other.
You mentioned ingénues: The WB just wrapped-up a reality series called The Starlet, a sort of American Idol for female actresses which is supposedly trying to find not the next "star," but the next "starlet." Of course, all the finalists were made-for-TV pretty, the show seemed to focus on promoting other WB series rather than really testing the contestants acting range, and all the classes and "screen tests" were a bit unrealistic. Is it this kind of mass media directed as 12-25 year olds that inspired you to start the "Risk Taker's Film Series"?
V: I think that's exactly why we started the outreach program. There is so much media out there, and the statistics are really rising on girls getting plastic surgery. I mean not only are girls anorexic these days, but they're putting money into changing their bodies before graduation. Graduation presents. Cutting is on the rise, and all sorts of ways girls are hurting themselves …
S: They're manipulating their bodies, and they don't have to. You don't have to spend that kind of money., I guess it goes back to the WB's definition of beauty, and I guess the obsession that our culture has with celebrity. I mean what I noticed on The Starlet is that none of these ladies have been asked to act. I saw them doing lap dances. They were doing sexy dances to see how they could get into their bodies, and they were voted on who did what. I've never been on an audition like that. I've never seen an audition like that. And I'm like, Are you kidding? Who are you training these girls to be?
Where did the idea for the "Risk Taker's Film Series" spring from? What made you think to bring together girls from around NYC to discuss their issues especially as relating to images of girls and women in film?
V: Sasha and I both went to all girls schools growing up. I went to Brearley and Sasha went to Chapin. So both Sasha and I came from this background of being always told we could do whatever we wanted -- very empowered, really believing in ourselves. However, we also saw that growing up at a Brearley and Chapin we were very sheltered, and we learned so much after getting out of that environment and communicating with girls from different backgrounds. So these were ideas that were starting to churn in our heads from the very beginning, and we always knew that we wanted to do a program with girls.
As we went along we started thinking of what kind of form that would take. And the clincher for me was when I went out to Sundance with the movie Camp, which I cast. While there, I saw Thirteen, and there was a talkback afterwards. Normally in a talkback, filmmakers get up and they're asked, "What kind of film did you shoot on," or "What was your budget ?" Very technical questions. But at this talkback, it happened that there were a number of teenage girls in the audience, and girl after girl got up and wanted to share her story with the filmmaker and the actresses, and girls really wanted to have their own voice in response to what they had seen. I was so inspired by that, I started thinking along those lines.
Do you try to get a broad range of participants from schools all over the area so you have the girls from Brearly and Chapin along with the girls from a public school in a less affluent part of town?
S: That's our goal. We found it very challenging to get into the private schools. They were very protective of their students. But we did make headway this year, and we do have private school girls in the program. Right now the majority of the girls are from public schools because the public schools are much more open to outside programming because they need it. There's not enough programming that is supported in this city. So it was much easier to get access. Although it was challenging to get access to anybody.
Then after the event in May you go on summer vacation, but then you don't come back until January?
S: This year we're not going to come back until January. The second year won't take as long, but we still want to have some time to prepare. We need to be able to get into more schools and get the applications and line up the talent, and we have a huge production, and we don't have enough money to hire … everyone who is working on this project is doing it voluntarily. So it takes five months longer than it normally would to prep this project because it's unfunded.
V: And the other thing is that because of summer break … it's really a lot to do with getting the girls to apply to the program . We wanted to do a longer application process this year. We want to be able to interview the girls about being involved in the program. We want to get the applications out to more schools and try to get more girls involved. And we really want to give ourselves some time to do that in the fall.
Do you still have day jobs?
S: We don’t have day jobs. Vicki casts other projects – she's a casting director. And I act and go on auditions a lot, and have been known to do some freelance producing for commercials. And I'm also a little boy hand model.
V; We definitely have to supplement our income because … we have to. We do have to get outside work. But the more this company progresses, the stronger the work is getting and the more time we have to fundraise, and the more people who come on board to support us and help us in fundraising or publicity.
The one good thing about the casting for me is that it does connect to what we're doing with WET. It's always good to establish relationships with agents, and know the actors who are out there. Hopefully it will be feeding into what we're doing with WET as well.
Do you find that your tastes are very similar, or do you find yourselves often arguing about material? How do you decide on the projects you'll pursue?
S:. A lot of time I read a lot of the , and if I love something I say this is why I love it. And then she reads it, and either it clicks with her or it doesn't, and if it doesn't we'll talk about it, and then we'll both go back and read it again. If it still doesn't click with her but it clicks with me, then it means that our audience will not be wide enough. There won't be a wide-enough perspective.
V: And usually if we're both on the same page, then we're like, OK, it's a do. We do have different aesthetics, but they compliment one another. It's not as if they're divergent. So if we find something that satisfies both, then it's amazing. But if it satisfies one, but the other person is interested, then that means something too, and we figure out why.
How else do you think the two of you compliment each other aside from the fact that you're great friends and have the same goals, are there responsibilities that each of you handles more than the other?
S: Vicki's really amazing. She handles the database. If it was up to me, our database would be a rolodex. Or maybe like five rolodexes. She watches our budget, she handles our bank records, and this is not stuff Vicki really wants to do.
V: I'm the accountant, and I hate it.
S: Vicki is very practical. She has a very practical, rational vision of things. But she's so great, because she keeps us so organized, and that's just not my area. My area definitely consists of marketing and PR and I work more on the artistic direction of the plays, finding the playwrights. We both do that, but I go and meet with the playwrights and develop the work a lot.
V: In choosing the scripts we both read all of them, and then we talk about which ones we like together and figure out which scripts we want to produce. I think that Sasha brings a great knowledge of advertising -- because of her work at BBDO -- that really pushes everything we do. So the importance of marketing and how we brand ourselves, I know that I've learned so much from her. As a casting director and someone involved with that, I bring a lot of that to the table.
I think we have an amazing way of communicating with one another that is very unique, and I don't see other companies having that. It's where I think our strength is. We balance each other out. And we push each other forward. When one person is feeling really nervous about something the other person is really feeling confident about it. It's amazing how we keep each other moving forward.
S: OK, want to hear something very cheesy?
V: Sasha's the cheesy one.
S: One night at one o'clock in the morning I couldn't sleep, so I turned on Bravo, and I was watching The West Wing. Somebody asked the President (Martin Sheen) what to do in case, when he's giving the State of the Union, the whole room blows up. And the guy who's the head of agriculture was the guy left in charge. He would actually become the president if the whole room where the State of the Union was being delievered blows up.
And the president says, "Do you have a best friend?" And the guy says, "Yes." And the president says, "Do you think this best friend is smarter than you?" And the guy goes, "Well, yes." And the president goes, "Would you trust this best friend with your life?" And the guy replies, "Yeah." So the president says, "That's your Chief of Staff." And I thought, That's your business partner! The person you would trust with your life, and that you would think is the smartest person in the whole world, and that is your very best friend who you've known forever. And that's my Vicki, and that's me for her.
Ten things to know about Sasha and Victoria:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
Sasha found this awesome, retro kitchen table, decorated with four-leaf clovers, that was perfect for our St. Scarlet set, and she convinced the selling it to let us borrow it for the run of the show.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Victoria: Sorry to be boring, but my landlord, definitely. There’s really nothing left over to go to any other city establishment!
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
Well, we're born and bread NYC, and as they say, you can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl.
V: More obsessive!
S: Definitely Obsessive. I am 100% native Manhattanite, through and through.
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
S: Barney’s and flourless chocolate cake from Jules’ Bistro.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
V: In my last apartment, it was a good bottle of wine on my little terrace, lying in the chaise. I no longer have a terrace or a chaise ,and I haven’t actually had a moment alone relishing solitude in I don’t know how long, so I have no good answer to that!
S: I go sit in the big stained glass sanctuary in Temple Emanuel around the corner from my apartment. It is an awesome place to find quiet and peace.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
V: Order in sushi for lunch as a no-big-deal, regular thing. And it's excellent sushi. My out-of-town relatives think that's just crazy.
S: Sitting on a stoop on a spring evening, when the city smells refreshed, and everyone is wearing spring clothes, and feeling excited about the coming summer. Cherry blossoms blooming in the park.
Also, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Since I have been teeny tiny, I have gone to the parade with my Dad. It is fantastic. The floats are huge, the air is crisp, Central Park is packed, and both children and adults are lined up along the streets in awe of the giant balloons and the floats with odd stars rolling past. The energy is infectious. After the parade my dad and I have breakfast and do a recap of our favorite. We were there when Kermit went down. Or was it Clifford?
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction
V: just on the phone with Verizon about every time I call their customer service -- an oxymoron at that company.
S: Actually the same goes with my phone company, Trinsic. And yes I am the only one who has Trinsic as a phone company.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
V: A hot tub.
S: A yoga studio with a running fountain and a washer/dryer machine.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
[We've] never tried it.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
S: Vicki and I were producing our June Benefit last year. It was in celebration of WET’s 5th birthday. We were excited -- it was going to be a luau to help kick start the summer.
We had chosen to do it at the lounge/club where we had produced our previous Valentine’s Benefit -- ANJU. The club was the right size and the ambiance actually would work well for a luau. The promoter of the space was setting it up for us, and as we had worked with him only a few months before, we knew we could rely on him. Contracts were signed, postcards designed and produced, and invitations emailed. We were assembling an all star benefit with amazing gift bags plus three liquor sponsors were on board, and luau food was ordered from the caterer. The party was going to be fabulous.
On the Sunday before the benefit (the event was Wednesday) -- Father’s Day in fact --Vicki and I were both away for the day. I received a message from our friend Victoria Maxwell, a fellow producer and advisory board member, which I did not get until much later in the evening: “Ah, Sash, hi. I am walking by Anju right now, and there is a sign on the window that says, ‘This property is closed by a court order from the city of New York. EVICTED.'”
I couldn’t sleep all night. I kept playing the message over and over. Oh my God. What were we going to do? The invitation had already gone out to at least 25,000 people over email, and forget about the postcards that were all over the city.
The next morning, I called Vicki at 7 AM, and called and called and called until she picked up: “VICKI, CODE RED. Anju was shut down, closed, evicted. I called our promoter, but we have to go to the space and fix this somehow. Otherwise we have 500 people showing up at this location on Wednesday at 7:00pm.”
After Vicki shut me up, we went over to the space, where Vicki spent many hours speaking to the management office and the landlord of the space. She found out that the people who owned the club -- not the building -- were some of the many shady club guys who don't pay their bills, unbeknownst to us. Our promoter was on a plane back to NY from Miami, completely unreachable for a few hours and unaware of the situation.
We camped out at Chef & Company, which was two blocks away from Anju, and very kind to us as always. We called every single party promoter we knew, and then we called their friends too. We needed a space big enough for 500 people, donated for Wednesday --it was Monday -- that would allow us to serve catering, to decorate, to charge at the door, and serve three sponsored liquors from7-9. The space really needed to be near Anju so we would not lose anyone who went to the wrong location.
We called everyone we knew who might know someone who might have a friend who could help us. By noon that day, every restaurant, club, bar, store, and lounge in the flat iron district knew about WET. We promised ourselves we would throw this benefit. We would not be able to reschedule, and we needed to raise money for our residency at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
By 4:00 PM, we were offered four different gorgeous locations in the area we needed for the exact party we were producing. We were able to keep every piece of the planned event. We chose Eugene, which was comfy, spacious and beautiful, and the manager, Neal was awesome.
We then sent out hilarious emails to our 25,000 person database telling them about our New York Story, and inviting them to the new location. We had our interns lei-ing people at the old location and redirecting them two blocks over to Eugene the night of the benefit. Eugene was better than Anju would have ever been, and we had a rockin, successful 5th birthday benefit for WET.
WET's next theatrical production Big Times starring and written by Mia Barron, Maggie Lacey and Danielle Skraastad and directed by Leigh Silverman will open in June in Tribeca. The final two Risk Taker Film Series events of 2005 will take place on 4/23 featuring Camp with special guest, producer Katie Roumel and on 5/21 with a screening of Until the Violence Stops. WET's 2004-05 season is supported by Visionary Sponsors Deco Lav, Inc and Chef & Company. For more specific information on upcoming WET productions, events, benefits and the Risktaker Film Series, visit their website at wetweb.org.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei