Susan Winter wrote and co-created the cable drama, The Hive, with David Skinner for ShadowCatcher Entertainment, now in development. Her independent feature, Pousse Café, received critical acclaim, screening at festivals including Victoria International Film Festival (winning Best Picture), Seattle International, Vancouver International, SXSW, NY Women’s Film Festival, and LA Outfest. She directed Pousse Café lead, Dominic Hamilton-Little’s one-man show, Fey Ways: Diatribe and Reminiscence, in hit performances at Court Theater in L.A. and N.Y. comedy venues. Her award winning, experimental film shorts, Protean Bed, Going Up Going Down, Aviary and Angle of Return screened at numerous festivals including Sinking Creek (Nashville) Film Festival and The Ann Arbor Film Festival’s national tour. Susan has been on festival panels including guest speaker for the WGA Screen Writer’s Salon at the Seattle International Film Festival. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America.
IN PROCESS: Talking with Susan Winter
SCE Commissioned Work: In 1860s Paris, a 29-year-old intersex makes an appeal for universal compassion as they retell the story of their life from Catholic school girl to cause célèbre as a redesignated male.
TP: Can you describe how you got into writing and give us a little background on your life and career as a writer?
SW: Well, my father was a master at telling hilarious, improbable stories and I’m sure being raised in Florida with its curious mythology had an impact. My folks were designer-builders so I grew up around the "making of things." I started in poetry, music and the visual arts, did graduate studies with Will Hindle, one of the pioneers of American avant-garde film. Creating 16mm experimental shorts was a slow move toward independent film narrative and still influences how I approach storytelling. My feature, Pousse Café, focuses on a crossroads moment between a gay, NY performance artist and his retired, game show host father who’s writing a book on the history of cocktails. Their relationship evolves as a stylized, postmodern homage to American 30s-40s “cocktail comedies,” —that particular vision of the American Dream. Currently, I'm working on a novel, and a dark comedy, Orange City, about growing up with my war-vet father during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And now, this generous commission.
TP: Before we get into HERCULINE, you've been active in developing the television series The Hive with SCE Executive Producer/Co-Creator, David Skinner, and Executive Producer, Jane Charles. How's that experience been for you and any status updates you can share on the project?
SW: David saw Pousse Café and a doc I was directing about my friend, blacklisted film/theatre director, John Berry, who began at the Mercury Theatre and directed Obie-winning Boesman and Lena with James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee. That led to the offer to co-create and write The Hive, set in Santa Fe, a place both David and I have strong connections to. It’s been a great opportunity to work on an episodic story, exploring issues I care about: immigration, the environment (I’ve been a beekeeper), how we navigate these complicated times. Sold producer, Jane Charles, came on board bringing her great creative and development skills to the project. Since we began, The Hive has become timelier, with its story of a woman who risks everything helping young, undocumented border crossers, while her sanctuary community navigates uncertain federal policies. We’re excited to now be in development.
TP: With HERCULINE you're moving from screenwriting and The Hive to writing for the stage, a new medium for you. What is it about this material that inspired you to want to tell the story theatrically rather than cinematically?
SW: I was given the commission to reconceive my film script, Herculine, as a theater piece. Shifting to a medium that was flourishing at the time of this story is very interesting to me, so I’m diving into the creative possibilities unique to theater. The alchemy between live audiences and actors has always held a bit of the miraculous to me, particularly in productions like Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, Laurie Anderson’s United States, Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. In searching for a new direction, I’m inspired by hybrid theater. I’m exploring a contemporary interpretation of string quartets and salon songs popular in 19th century Paris, when Fauré, Ravel, Saint-Saëns were composing to the (then) avant-garde poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine. Theater's bandwidth for using language, music and visual drama seems the perfect vehicle for telling this story that's intimate as well as mythic. And I’m circling back to elements of my early experimental film, poetry and music roots, which is exciting.
TP: Can you share some biographical and historical info on Herculine and explain what drives your passion to share this story with audiences?
SW: HERCULINE is inspired by the memoir of a 19th century, French intersex, Adelaide Herculine Barbin, later Abel Barbin, who was identified female at birth. Educated in privileged, all-girl, religious schools, they experienced their body developing as masculine at puberty. The presiding nuns kept their student’s transformation secret, and at twenty, Herculine fell in love with a fellow (female) schoolteacher. Concerned they were exposing the school to scandal, Herculine went through the French courts for gender re-classification, a legal precedent at the time. They gained the freedom to live as a man, but lost the love of their life. Newspaper stories of their gender change followed (the now) Abel to Paris, where they became a cause célèbre. Before committing suicide at thirty, Abel wrote an extraordinary account of their life, leaving their memoir with their body. This testament was later discovered in a Paris hospital file by writer, Michel Foucault, who had it published in the 1970s.
Reading the memoir for the first time, I was moved by the voice of this person who embodied the all of who we are as humans. Considering the times, the love and support Herculine/Abel did receive was as enlightening as the hard story of their social marginalization. I was inspired to make a pilgrimage to the places that were touchstones for them, and discovered they crossed paths with an ancestor of mine. Being in their environment, they came alive and fueled my desire to write the script. Now, years later, one can’t ignore the similarities in the political/social climate of their times and our own. For me, it makes this 176 year-old story all the more relevant and needing to be told.
TP: There's been an encouraging wave of awareness and acceptance of queer, intersex, and trans issues and enlightened attitudes toward gender and sexual fluidity in recent years, but there's still a lot of fear and misinformation. How does your interpretation of Herculine's story reflect or contribute to contemporary conversations we're having around these subjects today?
SW: We’re living in highly schizophrenic times. On the one hand, you can point to genuine strides in LGBTQI social/cultural/biological understanding and inclusion, and on the other hand, we’re in the midst of a troubling backlash against a movement that champions full rights and dignity for everyone. When I first started the project, Herculine was little-known. Since then, they’ve become an iconic figure for many in the LBGTQI community, with their 19th century story being interpreted through the contemporary lens of sexual/gender politics. As a storyteller from outside this community, I’m inspired by Abel's passionate voice speaking from the heart on what it is to be human, to be viewed as “other.” In forwarding Abel’s call for universal understanding, I’m reframing their own question: In a world that’s often driven by hate, why is the message of love and acceptance so controversial? This stage interpretation will explore that question through the story of a remarkable character who is All of Us.