Speaking with Aubri O’Connor and Angela Kay Pirko is like listening in on a conversation with two old friends. They finish each other’s sentences, agree on certain things as strongly as they disagree on others, and share that special, indefinable something that connects two people unlike anything else in the world. They are the two core staff members of Nu Sass Productions, a self-described “female driven company” whose No Exit runs through November 22.
The company’s name reflects their vision to put women at the forefront of their work: Nǚ is the Chinese word for woman. The “sass” was added, “because to be perfectly honest, we’re pretty sassy!” O’Connor jokes. Nu Sass had their start in the summer of 2008, with an all-female production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, “and then we just kept doing plays,” O’Connor says. Pirko took the position of co-producer in 2014. Together they make up the official staff but there are many artists they consider “conspirators," frequent supporters and collaborators on individual shows.
O’Connor confesses, “There was definitely a moment right before Angie joined me where I was genuinely considering letting [Nu Sass] go. But I talked to other producers in town and resoundingly the response was that Nu Sass is filling a space no one else is filling in a way no one else is filling, and if we were to leave, it would be felt.” Pirko agrees, “The idea of a theatre that pushes for the right of women to take up space is an important one for D.C., and that’s why [we are] starting to get traction.”
Nu Sass’s mission is to provide women with the opportunity to explore roles in theatre that they don’t normally get to explore, both onstage and off. Pirko explains, “If there’s a role that we feel can be played either by a woman or by a man, and an actor and an actress go out for that role, and we like them both equally, we’ll give the role to the actress.” They resist the phrases “gender blind” and “affirmative action,” but agree that those are the easiest ways to describe their approach. O’Connor adds, “I don’t like calling it “gender blind” because we’re fully aware of what we’re doing. We want to know how the art or text changes when a woman acts in a role that has traditionally been determined as a masculine one.” She continues, “On the production side, we are actively working to recruit women to fill those roles, because it’s hard for a woman to get ahead in the old boy’s club.”
Nu Sass also seeks ways to extend their core mission to support other underserved artists, specifically artists of color and members of the LGBTQ community. “We want to create a space for anyone who’s not getting [cast] for any kind of arbitrary gender, racial, or personal identity reasons,” O’Connor offers. They acknowledge that the Washington theatre scene is evolving to be more representative of the community it serves. O’Connor cites the work of companies like Pinky Swear Productions, Taffety Punk Theatre Company, and Brave Spirits Theatre. She admits, “Happily, Nu Sass is filling a smaller void than we used to.”
The company has implemented initiatives to ensure the continued presence of women with a mandatory 60/40 women-to-men ratio for every production. O’Connor explains, “If we can’t have more women working on a show than men, we gut the project.”
As a case in point, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was written for two men and two women, but Nu Sass’ current production is cast with three women and one man. The show is the second installment of the company's “Small Batch Audience Series,” an initiative to create intimate spaces for audiences to be completely immersed in the world of the play. It’s a practice that highlights Nu Sass’ growing interest in immersive theatre and magical realism. O’Connor explains, “I love taking everything we know and pushing it one step further.”
She hopes people leave No Exit “knowing that this is a female-powered engine,” and adds, “For people who know women can do it but aren’t given the opportunity, I want them to feel empowered by it and to go on and do it too, and I want for the people who are skeptical to see that there can be meaningful, powerful, intense, in-depth work being presented by women.”