Broadway is the stuff of legend in American theater. We have songs about the difficulty of making it there, like “On Broadway,” first made popular by the Drifters in 1963. And we have movies, from 42nd Street to The Producers and All That Jazz about life on the Great White Way, as New York’s theater district has long been known.
Now a 28-year-old graduate of South Eugene High School is making her Broadway debut — as a playwright. Selina Fillinger’s new comedy POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is set to open May 9 at New York’s Shubert Theatre.
Directed by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman (known for such shows as Crazy For You, Contact, The Scottsboro Boys and The Producers), the cast features the likes of Vanessa Williams, Lilli Cooper, Julianne Hough and Rachel Dratch.
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she works as a writer for the Apple TV+ drama “The Morning Show,” Fillinger says she had the good fortune to grow up in a creative family in a creative town. Her father, Jan Fillinger, is founder and director of design at studio.e architecture in Eugene; her mother, Teri Reifer, is director of operations at the firm.
“I definitely was raised in a family that values art and values creativity and encourages that,” Selina Fillinger says. “So I was really lucky in that way. The sweet thing about Eugene as well is, it’s a small town, but I think creativity and art is really encouraged and made available.”
While a student at South, Fillinger learned about drama and theater from Pat Avery, who ran the drama department. But it took her two years of auditions to actually get a role in a play there. Her rather modest theater debut came in a 2011 production of Bridget Carpenter’s Up at South. She played the pregnant 16-year-old girlfriend of the protagonist’s son.
But the real turning point came for her later that summer, when she attended a two-week theater camp for high school students at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. “You work with creatives in the ensemble — the actors, performers, directors, administrators — and you learn about how a theater company works. And you see all the shows. It was life changing. It was amazing!”
The big lesson she took home from Ashland was that professional theater could actually be a real-life career, an idea she had not previously entertained.
“I’d always loved theater and I’d always known that I wanted to go into it, but I think I was afraid because everyone told you, you know, that it was so hard and you couldn’t have financial stability and you couldn’t have a family,” Fillinger says. “And so to be there at this festival and see these couples who had been married and had been there for 12 years and were raising kids in Ashland and who worked in multiple capacities: It was a look at what the working artist’s life was. And that was incredibly moving for me.”
She called her parents and told them she thought she had to go into theater as a career.
“And they were like, ‘Yeah. We know!”
Fillinger’s youthful rise through the theater world reads like something from a fairy tale. While she was a student at Northwestern University in 2015, her one-act play Three Landings And a Fire Escape won the Judith Barlow Prize, which came with a $2,500 award and a staged reading in New York.
Her 2019 play Something Clean, which ran in New York in a basement theater that seats 62, was called “a beautifully observed, richly compassionate new drama” by New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley.
This spring she was named one of “50 Women to Watch on Broadway” by the Broadway Women’s Fund.
Fillinger began working on POTUS six years ago, inspired in part by the budding candidacy of Donald Trump.
“I started when he was campaigning. We were just in that new cycle of men in power and their abuse of power. It just very quickly became about so much more. It was like, you have Trump, you have Weinstein, you have Epstein, you have Kavanaugh — and you have all these people in quick succession.”
Fillinger says she needed to laugh to survive, but the material POTUS deals with is dead serious.
“I was not particularly interested in writing about those men or what they did, but I was fascinated by the systems that enabled them and the people who are complicit,” she says. “I was trying to see if I could write something that was a celebration of all the things that I love about women, while also holding us accountable for the ways in which we uphold patriarchy in our own lives and allow things to continue, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.”
Busy with other projects, she worked on POTUS when she could squeeze in extra time. “It was like my lover on the side. I was just sneakily writing this play that was just for me, a play that I didn’t owe anybody. It’s obviously changed over the years as the world has changed, but the core of it has really remained the same.”
POTUS was actually accepted two years ago for a tentative Broadway production, but the pandemic derailed the show. At that point, Fillinger says, she wasn’t sure whether it had a future, but producer Greg Nobile (Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Escape to Margaritaville) decided now was the time to bring it out. “He said we need to laugh now more than ever, and we’re gonna make this happen. And he made the magic happen. And here we are!”
Did you go out and party for three days when you found out?
“No, I did not go out and party for three days. I did a lot of internal partying in the safety of my apartment. I mean, I’m an introvert.”
Now, Fillinger says, she’s continuing to work her day job on “The Morning Show” during the week, making tweaks and additions to POTUS in the evenings as requested by the director, and then flying to New York on weekends for rehearsals. There is, she notes, a bit of pressure. “I think most plays have a production off Broadway, and then move to Broadway. This one is going up cold!” she says.
And she can be a perfectionist where comedy is concerned. “I try not to, you know, hover, but at the same time, the difference between a laugh and no laugh is like a split second of timing. Can we shave that second off, or can I add an extra syllable? And then that line is much funnier. You know, things like that. That’s where comedy really lives.” ν