For twenty years, photographer and filmmaker Suzanne Heintz lugged two mannequins—one her husband, Chauncey, and the other their daughter, Mary Margaret—around the world for her popular Playing House Project, which was originally conceived as a humorous way to challenge societal expectations for women to get married. Heintz’s project was featured on Narratively in 2015, before forming the basis of a 2019 documentary film about her life, Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz.
Several months after the release of the film and Heintz’s recent decision to officially end her project, Narratively talked to Heintz about the impact of her work and what’s next for her.
Narratively: You’ve said that you started the ‘Playing House’ project as a way of challenging outdated assumptions of what a successful life — marriage, kids, the whole gamut — might resemble for women. Over the 20-year lifespan of your project, did your views on these assumptions evolve in any way due to your art?
Suzanne Heintz: What changed for me over the course of 20 years was the awareness of just how many people resonate with this issue. I was shocked at the reactions I got from people all over the world, who thanked me for vocalizing, with humor, what they couldn’t. The point of making a self-portrait series was to indicate that it is fundamentally an issue that must be considered internally. Measuring one’s success, worth or happiness is not something that can be done against an external standard.
Narratively: Quite hilariously, you also share that it was, in part, your mother’s initial insistence on marriage that inspired you to purchase your mannequin family. How did your mother respond to the project?
Heintz: I was surprised at how positively she reacted. She’s been very supportive of the project’s success and, even more remarkably, she fully participated in THE VOWS (a wedding-themed performance piece, photoshoot and short film). She even sewed her own dress for it! But what’s funny is that she doesn’t even remember making the comment that set me off: “Suzy, nobody’s perfect. If you want to settle down, you’re just going to have to pick somebody.” I’m sure she meant it in a benign way, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
Narratively: How have other people in your life responded to your project, and do you think it made them rethink the assumptions you tried to dismantle?
Heintz: Some people in my circle roll their eyes at the over-the-top theatricalities of it, and others applaud its boldness and humor. Do I think I changed the thinking of the people around me? I don’t know, but no one bothers me anymore about why I’m not married. Yet it seems that I’ve encouraged those who resonated with the message to challenge those assumptions in the people around them. Changing public opinion is something you start and never finish. Other people have to finish it for you.
Narratively: Why did you use humor as a means of delivering your message?
Heintz: It was a conscious decision. In the early experimental phases of the series, it took on a serious tone, using weighty symbolism and colored lights. As the project evolved, so did the complexity of the humor and the images. I started thinking of it as though I was writing a screenplay: I began aiming for targets that needed to be hit, to make it a progression of thought and emotion, rather than a gimmick that just repeats the same point.
Narratively: What were some challenges that you faced that you didn’t foresee, and how did you address them?
Heintz: The police, the press and the pain.
[The police] considered my shoots a public nuisance and a terrorist threat. My high school French came back to me quickly, when I had to joke my way out of getting kicked off the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries Garden, and the Champs-Élysées. Sounds funny, but it’s not when you just spent thousands of dollars, and all of your vacation days, in order to get the shot.
The press coverage was galvanizing for me at first, and then became the thing that made me want to end the project. Until your work goes viral, you simply can’t comprehend the power of worldwide press coverage. When the BBC calls you up at 2 a.m. on a worknight to be on-air in an hour, you just don’t say no. It got out of control. I started doing things just for publicity that, frankly, made me uncomfortable. I was aware that part of the reason for the press attention was the assumption that I was a spinster, that I actually lived with mannequins out of pathetically desperate loneliness. I thought it would pay off in more opportunities in the long run, but it actually ended up feeling as though it was bankrupting the integrity behind the work.
The pain was fun and a challenge at first, and then became too much. Not only for me, but for my friends. If you take a look at any of my films, you can see first-hand how painful, in a literal sense, it is to take mannequins around the world for photoshoots. They are heavy and awkward, their wigs and limbs fall off, and they do not do what you want them to do in a windstorm. I don’t have a production crew — I have my friends — and when you’re asking your friends to work for free and struggle along with you, without any of the glory, it tends to put a strain on the relationship.
At first, it was the thrill of the dare, to see if I could meet these crazy challenges. Almost like a test of my skill, strength and commitment. But eventually, the thrill faded, as the financial and emotional stresses took their toll on my energy reserves. When it started to feel like an obligation to social media and publicity, I knew it was no longer a positive force in my life. I needed to acknowledge that and move on — kind of like getting a divorce.
There are a lot of ironic familial metaphors like that with this project. For example, 20 years is about as long as it takes to raise a child. Art isn’t DNA-based like parenthood, but it is creation all the same. You birth it, rear it, and then it leaves you to take up a life of its own in the outside world.
Narratively: A movie about your life, ‘Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz,’ was released last November. That’s so exciting! How did the project come about, and what was it like to be featured in a movie about you?
Heintz: I met the director, Karen Whitehead, while speaking on a Women in Film Panel at the Festival Premiere of my film, THE VOWS. We chatted beforehand and she asked me: “I understand you make films about yourself. What do you think of letting someone else take a crack at it?” Her British accent and tone of voice made me laugh. That was the spark that, 5 years later, resulted in IMITATING LIFE.
Narratively: What is it like having a movie made about you?
Heintz: Thoroughly uncomfortable. This coming from someone who uses her ‘self’ as a tool to tell stories. But being reinterpreted through another filmmaker’s eyes and perspective, using my own footage, was a real struggle for me. Eventually I let go of wanting to express the authenticity of my experience, and I began to understand that this film was no different than hanging my work on a gallery wall, and letting the viewer interpret, for themselves, the meaning it holds for them.
Narratively: I recently read in this piece that you decided to end the ‘Playing House’ project earlier this year. How does it feel to wrap it up?
Heintz: It’s strange. Consciously choosing to end the project feels cathartic, yet I also feel an awkward void. Those mannequins were extremely fertile metaphorical vehicles for social commentary, and they worked very well. I could say a multitude of things fairly easily with them. Plus, it was a sort of click-bait freak show for the press, outrageous enough to stand out from the crowd. But it was time for me to extend beyond that tool I’d become so accustomed to using.
Narratively: What’s next for you? What kinds of projects do you have in mind?
Heintz: The blurry line between society and the ‘self’ is my sweet spot. Having an impact on people’s thinking about themselves and their jumbled relationship with society is what makes the gears in my mind turn. I’d like to continue with photography and short films, but at the moment, I need some space from The Playing House Project. 20 years is a long time. So while I let some new ideas bubble up, I’m pursuing funding options for an interactive installation piece to do with judgment and the need for approval. I want it to be presented to the observer in an exigent but outrageous and humorous way.
Sound familiar? Every artist has a style, don’t they?