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How the new play Mothers is challenging audiences -- and artists -- to rethink how we parent
There aren't any flesh-and-blood children on stage in Mothers, Anna Moench's shattering new play at The Playwrights Realm about raising a family in an unstable world. But there were plenty of tykes running around the rehearsal room. That's because Mothers was chosen to launch the theatre company's Radical Parent-Inclusion Project (RPI), which offers support for moms and dads working on the show, including scheduling flexibility and an open-door policy for kids.
"I became a single mother by choice almost two years ago and I started seeing so many barriers, especially for freelance artists in the theatre," says Roberta Pereira, the producing director of The Playwrights Realm, a 12-year-old company that spotlights emerging dramatists. "Our goal is to be an inclusive space and I wondered, what can we do about this?"
Pereira quickly got artistic director Katherine Kovner on board and enlisted the expertise of Rachel Spencer Hewitt, founder of the Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL). The question then became, what play should they choose to pilot the program?
Pereira felt strongly that it should be by a parent, and when Kovner handed her Moench's script for Mothers, it felt like kismet. "I wasn't even expecting a play about mothers," Pereira says. "I love that the mother characters get to do so many different things. The first half is sitcomy and the second part is like a horror story, and both feel accurate to me as representations of motherhood."
Although Mothers is a one-act, it's divided into two distinct sections. The first is a satire of modern-day competitive parenting, with three disparate moms (Satomi Blair, Jasmine Batchelor and Maechi Aharanwa) at a Mommy-Baby Meetup passive-aggressively judging each other while ignoring the nanny (Tina Chilip) and daddy (Max Gordon Moore) in the room. But halfway through, the situation and tone change drastically, and suddenly the grown-ups have much graver concerns than whose tot bit whom.
Moench wrote Mothers while earning her MFA in playwriting at the University of California San Diego. Her classmates were all in their early twenties, but Moench was a bit older, having spent a number of post-college years in New York honing her skills in programs such as the Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater, Youngblood at Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Jam at New Georges. She was also married and a new mom, further setting her apart from the other students.
"I was in a different place of life," she recalls, adding that she tried making mommy friends outside of school but that "it didn't go great." Initially, Mothers was inspired by Moench's struggle to connect with other parents, but as she was writing she started asking herself, is that all there is? "I was testing out dialogue and trying out characters and I realized I didn't really want this to be the whole play," she says.
Then one night, during a 2am breastfeeding session, Moench read an article about the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar recounting the devastating story of a mother, whose baby was ripped from her arms and thrown into a fire. Something clicked.
"I thought, what must it be like to be in that kind of situation?" the playwright says. "Of course I am so far from that woman in that village; our lives are so massively different. Yet on a human level, what was her life like before this happened? What were the things she was worried about on a day-to-day basis? We pay attention to the things in front of our faces, and that's how we make crazy situations feel normal, that's just what we do to survive. Writing this after the last presidential election, I felt really torn between the immediate needs of my baby and what feels like a pressing national emergency unfolding around us. If and when some kind of massive upheaval were to take place, a lot of us would look around and say, 'How did we not see this coming? Why were we focused on inane little things?'"
Working on such heavy material, Moench and the other parents involved with Mothers have appreciated how much RPI eases their burdens -- certainly the kids dropping by brightens everyone's day. Thanks to the initiative, the Los Angeles-based playwright was able to bring her family with her to New York, which is where she discovered she was pregnant with child number two.
"I just think it's a really exciting model," Moench says. "The thing that I have found really inspiring about it has been the way The Playwrights Realm has looked at a system and asked, why does it have to be like this? Is there another way? Can we have weekends off so we can see our families? Can we have more money for childcare so parents aren't losing money while they're working on a show? It's just so nice to be in an environment where there's no shame in asking for what you need. I hope that can be the culture of this moving forward." To that end, The Playwrights Realm is documenting everything about RPI to share with other companies, including best practices, what worked and what didn't, and how to raise the necessary funding.
In addition to Moench and Pereira, Mothers director Robert Ross Parker, the stage manager, three designers and one cast member are all parents. RPI has also supported two artists who are the primary caregivers of their elderly parents and, now that the play has opened, the program is being extended to the audience as well. On Saturday, October 5, there will be a special matinee of Mothers that comes with free childcare, so moms and dads can see the show while their tots take a music class. "The performance is at 4pm, which is after naptime!" says Pereira. "It's exciting that the parents and the kids will experience different kinds of art at the same time."
Top image: Satomi Blair, Tina Chilip, Jasmine Batchelor and Maechi Aharanwa in Mothers. Photos by Daniel J Vasquez.