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How Grief Helped Bring the Daughters of Two Theatre Luminaries Together

By: Carey Purcell
Date: Oct 02, 2019

Playwright Lily Houghton and director Kylie M. Brown discuss their world-premiere collaboration


Artists often channel their grief into their work, and that's just what playwright Lily Houghton and director Kylie M. Brown have done with of the woman came the beginning of sin and through her we all die, currently running Off-Broadway. Throughout the development of this world premiere, both women have been mourning the loss of close family members, and they say collaborating with someone who understands that pain firsthand has been healing and cathartic.

of the woman centers on four clothing store employees (Ianne Fields Stewart, Carolyn Kettig, Kirsten Harvey and Sabina Friedman-Seitz ) who form a cult intended to celebrate female empowerment. Spells are cast, pledges are made and confessions are shared in this supposedly safe space. But despite the declarations of sisterhood, their harmony is short-lived as they clash over the expression and commodification of femininity in today's complicated gender landscape.

The play was inspired by Houghton's stint at women's bohemian fashion brand Free People, where chumminess with colleagues and customers was required.

"We were told to call people 'love' and 'babe' and all of those things," Houghton recalls. "It was a totally new vocabulary for me. There were these sort of forced friendships with people you would never chill with outside. I was trying to relate to these women who I was working with at this store in this very heightened way."

Religion, witchcraft, the patriarchy and various incarnations of femininity are all heated topics of discussion in the play. Brown has found the latter particularly illuminating to stage.

"I get the privilege of exploring femininity and processing my own life through these characters," she says. "We are taught how to be feminine by the world around us, and the femininity we've become comfortable with is a binary performed femininity. But there are all these other types."

Houghton agrees. "Femme can mean so many different things," she says. "It's exciting to me to tell these stories about these characters and not diminish them."

Houghton's father, Signature Theatre Company founder James Houghton, died in 2016 from stomach cancer just before she started her senior year at Bennington College. She recalls her desire to "ugly grieve" being at odds with how she was supposed to comport herself publicly as a young woman.

"I was expected to cry in a pretty way," she recalls. "I was put on stages in black dresses. There's a part of me that did that as a daughter and that's fine. It's a role I felt like I had to portray. But the root of grief for me was never pretty."

When Houghton connected with Brown over "an epic coffee," they bonded over grief. Brown, the stepdaughter of Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, lost her stepbrother to suicide in 2014. The two women also shared a vested interest in the theatre industry's increased focus on gender parity. Fittingly, save for one actor who appears briefly, of the woman features an all-female or nonbinary-identifying cast and creative team.

That's a major shift from the theatrical environments in which the two women were raised. Houghton grew up around playwrights, most of them white and male. "That's what I associated playwrights with -- I never really thought it was something I could do," she says. Meanwhile Brown was "surrounded by magical theatre people" as a child, but with so few women hired to direct for the stage, even today, she finds her career path "very scary."

In order to retain control over the production, the two are mounting of the woman with producer Leigh Honigman and the theatre company Normal Ave, where Brown works as a literary manager. Normal Ave's mission is to "nurture an inclusive community of fresh, diverse voices," and Houghton and Brown felt they would be supported there as artists and as individuals.

"The privilege Lilly and I had growing up -- we had access to a playground," Brown says. "This is an extension. We get to have an idea and extend it into space with others, and be there for each other in loss and pain."


Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at

Top image: Lily Houghton and Kylie M. Brown. Photo by Dion Lamar Mills.

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Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications. She recently published her first book: From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.