Suli Holum was playing the role of Emilia in a production of Othello at the Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia when the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns began. After just two preview performances, the entire crew packed up and the curtain fell. The show never officially opened, and Suli was suddenly left wondering what to do when her work prospects suddenly and indefinitely went dark.
As someone who seems to have no lack of creative energy, she decided to use the time to enroll in the Creative Writing MFA program at Goddard College, bringing with her a career in devised theater making.
Suli Holum embodies the active learner. An accomplished playwright, stage, film and television performer, teacher, and mom, she is continually immersed in projects that involve group process and exploration. In devising theater, her craft is in collaboratively constructing drama for the stage with designers, actors, and researchers.
For her MFA in Creative Writing thesis, she is focusing her craft on a project seven years in the making.
The project began with a curiosity about the experiences of women out in the oil fields of North Dakota. Suli was offered a residency through North Dakota State University in 2016. She partnered with the Women’s Studies Department and the Theatre Department at North Dakota State University and oral historian Nicki Pombier Berger to interview women living and working in the shadows of the booming fracking industry. She also had the opportunity to interview Professor Michael Yellow Bird, Director of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Studies Program at NDSU who helped her frame her collected interviews- and her own settler colonial identity- from the perspective of members of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation.
Suli then created a one-woman show entitled The Bakken that was presented as a work-in- progress at Here Arts Center in NYC, but there was more work to be done. Suli realized that the story she wanted to tell was more than one body could hold, and this kindled a desire to deepen her craft as a writer. So when the pandemic shut the doors on theaters around the country, Suli jumped at the opportunity to roll up her sleeves and get to work at the writing desk.
“I knew that I needed a low-residency program, as a working actor, member of the Wilma Theatre’s resident HotHouse company, and a mom. I needed something that would be flexible. And I knew that the ethos of Goddard made it a place where I would feel at home- where I would be supported and challenged in equal measure.” she said.
“It’s been amazing that I’m going to come out of this period, which has been a fallow period for many theater makers, with this play that I’ve been wrestling with for so long.” She said, “It was the only program that I could find where I would be allowed to explore other genres. Being able to work with writers across genres, and using hybrid forms, has been exciting.”
The rigor of the program seems to not have taken its toll on Suli, who exudes a vitality and the heightened awareness of an actor’s physicality as she speaks. “Every residency we have a ten minute theater festival called Take Ten, and students across genres write for it and we all gather to read. Super fun. But also to have access to a poet’s brain like this is to have their perspective on what a play is and what it can be.”
The culture of support and collaboration is appreciated by Suli. Goddard’s MFA in Creative Writing is “not about brinkmanship, or competition, or protecting status”, she says.
“I am swimming in the craft of other writers. It’s a deluge. And it makes my creative process very considered. You are inviting other writers to be in conversation with your writing which is motivating me to finish my draft so I can turn the kind of critical eye to my own work like I’m doing with these other writers. That is something that I’m really learning and looking forward to.” she said.
Suli took to the challenge of immersion into critical theory and writing about the process of creation wholeheartedly. While some students may dread the thought of annotations, the MFAW program’s requirement did not intimidate Suli. “I love that charge, it’s super practical. You read something that’s amazing then demystify it. Just break it down until it’s a nuts-and-bolts craft gesture that you could apply into your own play tomorrow.”
Conflict makes great drama, and in critical discourse it is important that your ideas are given a rigorous test drive. In speaking critically with her Goddard advisor and playwright Rogelio Martinez, she says, “We often disagree. Which is awesome!”
Admitting that the critical theory writing she’s done for the MFA in Creative Writing program was daunting at first, she now feels “fired up about it.”
One of Suli’s current guiding questions is: “What is a play?”
“Theater makers are trying to figure out ways to remind the audience that this is a fictional world. Remind them that the play is happening while the world is happening and how fun that relationship is to play with.”
How did she find herself at Goddard? She recalled a visit she made to Goddard College in the 1990s as an artist-in-residence, and she’d been hearing about the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program from theatermakers in the Philadelphia area where she lives.
Suli’s daughter Coralie has helped her manage her time around her studies. Coralie is enthusiastic about her mom’s creative writing practice at Goddard. “Not that I’m writing 20 page papers in the 8th grade, but the mindset is similar and I think we help each other. I love to talk about her creative work as well, it’s fun to brainstorm ideas together! She is definitely getting more confidence in her writing, and learning a lot. What I would say to another kid who had a parent going into the program is: it will be awesome to learn from each other about how to learn!”
As with every Goddard program, the MFA in Creative Writing involves reading, and the students’ individualized reading list includes suggestions from advisors as well as those selected by the student. In her recent studies, Suli has been enraptured by The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D., Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, and Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Her last critical paper was a deep dive into the evolution of the screenplay for The Revenant, and how screenwriters collaborated with Sahnish and Pawnee cultural advisors to develop a more nuanced and fully realized story of the encounter between two worldviews- the Indigenous and the settler colonial.
Her play, The Bakken Play (working title), will incorporate the voices of women living and working on the Bakken Shale formation, within the greater theme of the decline of a culture built around the extraction economy. The greater theme looms large- “What will life be like at the end of carbon-based capitalism?” Suli posits.
The story of the play, she said, continues to push out at its own boundaries, expanding and growing. “I keep thinking that I’m on the edge of knowing what the story is about, and then I have another encounter and another. Part of the formal experiment I’m working on is: How big can a story be? How necessary?”
She adds, “It’s a matter of our survival that we begin to learn to hold these stories, and learn how we can belong in them. And how can we take down the blinders, how to stop the terror and denial, and confront the real story.” She shares an instigating question borrowed from social justice activist and community facilitator Lauren E. Turner: “How will we answer the call to belong to a story that is greater than the one we have been told?”
“As a teacher, I want to teach my students how to be listeners.” Suli says, “Goddard’s program reinforces that. I’m not in lockstep with an advisor who is the expert. I’m in a chorus of writers. And even down to the reading list. I can pick up this writer and that writer and have a sense of agency and self-direction. It’s all available to you.”
One of the best parts of this program, she says, is the culmination of the entirety of work you’ve made. The creative work, the critical work, the responses from advisors, your own self-reflections, all there to act as a guide as you move forward in your craft, Suli notes.
“You’re going to leave Goddard with a record of your journey, which is an elegant idea. It’s such a gift.”
Suli Holum is a Philadelphia based theatre performer and creator. Currently a member of the Wilma Theatre’s HotHouse Company, she was a founding member of Pig Iron Theatre Company, and Co-Artistic Director of Stein | Holum Projects, whose works include Drama Desk-nominated Chimera, and The Wholehearted. She recently launched Suli Holum/The Work, a Philadelphia-based incubator for live performance. A recipient of a Drama Desk Award, a TCG/Fox Resident Actor Fellowship, a Barrymore Award, an Independence Fellowship, and a NEFA Touring Grant, she is also an accomplished playwright, choreographer and director whose work has been supported by the Orchard Project, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Playwrights Horizons, New Dramatists, the Playwright’s Center, The Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep, and HERE, and presented by FringeArts, The Public Theatre/UTR, La Jolla Playhouse, Center Theatre Group, Z Space and The Gate (London). She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College where she was the recipient of the 2020 Engaged Artist Award. Upcoming: HBO’s Mare of Easttown. Her website is https://www.suliholumthework.org/