With Halloween four days away, it is probably most appropriate to introduce SCAD alumnus Topher Cusumano as a New York-based writer currently writing a play about witches. He is working with real pagans, Wiccans and self-identified witches to make the piece as authentic as possible.
“I’m hoping to include real witchcraft in the final production,” Cusumano said. “It’s gonna be wicked cool.”
That punny, whimsical flair is reflected in Cusumano’s work as a playwright, content creator and storyteller. Originally from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, New York, Cusumano graduated from SCAD in 2015 with an M.F.A. in dramatic writing.
“I studied theatre during my undergrad, and after graduation, I started booking gigs as a stand-up comic and solo performance artist,” Cusumano explained. “After some time producing work around New York and Philly, I realized that all of my goals hinged on my skills as a writer.”
SCAD’s dramatic writing program made an impression on Cusumano because the program’s curriculum was interdisciplinary. One of the biggest developments Cusumano’s writing experienced in the classroom was the transformation of structure and its use to tell an effective, compelling narrative.
“Exploring different structures of dramatic writing really helped me to expand the range of styles I felt comfortable working in,” Cusumano said. “I think my worked improved at SCAD because everything laddered up to this idea of fostering creativity. The design of the buildings to the classwork [and] even Savannah itself is inspiring. I found that SCAD really taught people how to make creative connections with the world in their day-to-day life, and I find I’m still using those skills today.”
He certainly is; Cusumano has kept himself busy since graduating from SCAD two years ago. During the day, he serves as the head writer of social and digital content for a category of eight Marriott International brands.
“I’m privileged to have an awesome day job where I get to do all kinds of cool projects,” Cusumano said. “I recently got to interview Andy Cohen on Facebook Live. Soon after, I produced and co-creative-directed a photoshoot and interview with football legends Rashad Jenning and Justin Tuck.”
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble commissioned Cusumano for his new piece, “The Cult Play,” which will be performed in a serialized format, according to Cusumano. The play follows the rise and fall of The Soul Scouts, a yoga cult led by a character called Mama Pearl. Audiences will be able to experience the show over a period of three days or come to a “binge watch” event to view the entire piece in one night.
Cusumano collaborates regularly with fellow SCAD M.F.A. alumnus David Ayllon on producing digital content. Cusumano also contributes written interviews and articles on culture for Werrk.com.
Cusumano’s husband is also a SCAD alumnus who used to teach in the Performing Arts department. When they moved back to New York, they founded Gnome Haus, “an independent theatre company that produces work with diverse artists in the driver’s seat.”
“We like to focus on performances that are imbued with magic,” Cusumano said. “That’s why we call ourselves Gnomes. We recently added a new Gnome to our permanent ranks, Erik E. Wade, another SCAD alumna. She’s currently one of our resident playwrights. Other than Erika, I try to work with SCAD alumni as much as I can, both on personal and professional projects. Outside of them being my friends, they consistently bring a level of skill that amazes me.”
With no shortage of projects, Cusumano knows how to meet deadlines and create his own opportunities thanks to SCAD and his professors. To those interested in pursuing a career in creative writing, Cusumano advises students to be open to different kinds of projects and think of themselves as a writer, never “just” a playwright or “just” a filmmaker.
Cusumano always felt he would return to New York as a writer, but he never imagined the scope of where his work would take him. With that in mind, he said his best advice to current students is to work towards their passions without planning every step of the journey.
“What I wish someone told me as a student is taking care of yourself is really important,” Cusumano said. “I know you have midterms, scripts to write, people to hook up with and you still have to work and eat and sometimes sleep is cool — but listen to your body. Creative burnout is real, so when you need a break, take a break.”
Written by Emilie Kefalas.