Mothers Courage: Brooklyn Theater Mamas
Addie Johnson Talbott
with Michi Barall, Tanya Barfield, Autumn Dornfeld, and Laura Eason
Theater moms may be the most incredible group of cats you ever tried to herd into one place at one time, to use a phrase my own mother might. Juggling feedings, naps, rehearsals, writing deadlines, playdates, and partners in life/work/crime, these are women at the top of their game, and deep in the thick of the demands of an artistic/familial/urban layered existence.
So when my husband Daniel Talbott and I came up with the idea to interview some of our favorite Brooklyn theater moms, we quickly realized that there was no way we were going to all get in one room. Or even on the same Skype call. So, over the course of three days, several emails, and three phone calls, I conducted one extended conversation with some of the most extraordinary theater artists and women we know about, what they’re up to, and how they’re pulling off what can seem like an impossible task of blending full time parenting with an all-encompassing artistic life.
Addie Johnson Talbott – actor, producer and artistic associate of Rising Phoenix Rep (son Bailey, 5)
Autumn Dornfeld – actor (daughter Maisie, 20 months)
Tanya Barfield – playwright and literary manager of the Juilliard School Drama Division (son Tez, 8, and daughter Zeri, 3)
Laura Eason – playwright and sometime director (daughter Ellee, 10 months)
Michi Barall – actor and playwright (daughter Josie, 2)
Addie: So here’s my first question and it’s pretty generic: How has motherhood informed or changed your work? For example, have there been noticeable changes as an actress playing mothers onstage pre- or post-parenthood, or writing mother or parent characters before and after?
Autumn: I haven’t played mothers since I’ve been a mother, although I am definitely looking forward to the opportunity one day. But for some reason I was pregnant several times in plays. I also did The Grapes of Wrath, where you go through labor onstage and it’s written into the script that there’s a lot of screaming and it’s very upsetting to the people outside. But of course now having had a child, I know that usually you’re not screaming—which is like the standard, understood, public view of childbirth. So it’s interesting to me now thinking about that—as well that as experience and what I think the world envisions. That is not at all what my physical experience was of having a baby.
Addie: What about you, Tanya?
Tanya: Yeah, I think before I was a mom, my plays were—if there were parents in them, it was all from the daughter or son’s perspective. Even if it was an adult daughter or son it was never particularly from the parents’ perspective. I realize now that I might’ve been a little unfair to parents…[laughter] in my plays before. And my most recent play, it’s going to be at the Intiman Theater next spring, and it’s about international adoption—it’s about becoming a mother and a woman’s struggle with certain aspects of that. So I’ve definitely begun to explore that in my work in a different way. What strikes me now that I am a mom is how—I think exactly what you were saying, Autumn—how few real stories, truthful, honest, three-dimensional stories, there are that have parents in them accurately depicted. It’s limited in that the kinds of stories we’re told in theater are about young people, or about relationships early on. There are a few—but now we’re getting more mid-life crisis plays. Relationships falling apart plays. And there aren’t that many—I mean there are, but not that many, about families.
Autumn: I’ve thought a lot about that too lately because there are so many things that are so surprising to me about the reality of being a parent, and I have wondered how much of it has to do with what you’re saying—that we just don’t see, even in movies but especially onstage, you just don’t see real families or some aspect of that real experience, of what it is to become a parent or to have your life changed in that way. Is it just because it’s too boring? Like everyone does it so no one really wants to know about other people’s experience?
Tanya: I feel that being a mom has informed my humanity in a way that I just couldn’t understand before I was a mom. And I don’t mean like, “Oh, I’m so much more compassionate than I was before,” or anything like that. I just mean that I’m a more well-rounded person. As a mom, you do certainly discover horrible things about yourself [laughing]. Your lack of patience. And tolerance. And, you know, temperament. There’s all sorts of parts of my humanity that I’ve discovered being a mom that aren’t just, you know, the beauty of it. And there’s that too, of course. But what I’m saying is, I am a more three-dimensional person now so I can tell more three-dimensional stories.
Laura: I definitely feel like the next round of ideas for plays are being really influenced by having a child now. And I’ve definitely written parents in other plays but it’s really been much more observational, of course, as opposed to living in it and what that feels like, so I think that’s one thing. And then there’s just the practical thing of figuring out how to do the work and be where I need to be and juggle the childcare, making sure she’s covered, making sure I’m not away too much. So there’s both sort of the creative influence and the practical influence. I also feel like my standard of how good I want my work to be, knowing how hard it is now to get out of the house when you’re a parent—I just feel like, you always want your work to be good, but now I’m like: My stuff has got to kick-ass, ’cause if people are going through what I’m going through to get out of the house, I’d better make it worth their while.
Michi: We started the adoption process in 2005, so by the time she came we had been waiting and hoping for her for a long time, yet I was still shocked by how deeply I felt about her instantly. I say this to Chuck [Michi’s husband, playwright Chuck Mee] all the time. In terms of my emotional life, my day-to-day emotional life, it does feel like the margins have gotten wider. The extremes are bigger. And with a two-year-old you’re living with someone with major mood swings all the time. And it can be really exhausting and really hard. There’s never a minute I wish I could pass it off or I think I don’t want to do this but there are points in every day where I think nobody told me how hard this would be [laughing]!
Addie: If they had, you wouldn’t have believed them. I think about that.
Michi: You do?
Addie: Yeah, somebody could’ve told me, “You literally will be wiping up another human being’s poo every day for three years. Every single one they make. That’s something that’s accumulative, and weirdly emotional, you know what I mean? And yet to say that in a sentence it doesn’t actually mean anything, or it sounds silly, or it’s whatever. It’s funny.
Michi: And to a certain extent in theater we’re so effusive. Everybody’s so constantly like, “That was awesome! You’re doing so well!” and here you are every day and the feedback is just shocking. You kind of muster up all this energy of like, “Okay, do you want a banana? Let’s go outside!” “NO.” To just get shot down like 52 times in a day. Just trying to sell everything all the time. “Let’s get in the stroller!” “NO.” You just have to learn: okay, how do I deal?
The other lesson in parenting is that you can’t be perfect and some things you can’t make better. Some things you can only try to keep working on. In the theater we have this idea that you can kind of repeat stuff and it gets better. You rehearse things and you create the thing. And here I’m stuck in this endless repetition, and it just doesn’t seem to be getting any better! I don’t know, I still can’t get her coat on. [Laughter].
Addie: I’m curious, Autumn, based on what you said earlier, one of my questions is: What has been the biggest surprise about your adventures as a parent, and a theater artist, and those two things sort of coming together?
Autumn: I feel like I am a better artist, but of course I’m working a lot less so that’s very tricky. And then I do feel more, I guess, yeah, “well-rounded” is the way to describe it. Also interested and open to other people’s work in a way I don’t think I was before. Like I feel much more generous about things that I see.
Addie: Why do you think that is?
Autumn: I think maybe it is partially because of the sort of exploration of self that happens, and like Tanya was saying, realizing the bad things about yourself too—that sort of made me be a little more open minded about it and less judgmental toward my fellow artists. But also I think you don’t have time for the sort of pettiness that maybe crept in before. You just have to be so efficient with your energy as a parent, and especially as a parent trying to be an artist, that I think the energy that is spent being jealous or overly critical is just so useless that you can just get rid of it, which has been really liberating.
Laura: I think I knew this but there is a real support in place. People that have been through it that have kids that are also in theater are just instantly like, “What do you need?” And it’s wonderful, ’cause you do feel like you’re crossing into this unknown land of, “how is this going to work?” And, unlike people in other professions, we’re not investment bankers, we don’t all have the resources to have a huge amount of childcare, so how to balance that reality with wanting to continue to work. And I think the biggest surprise was how open and supportive the other people that have gone down the road of children have been to us. And the biggest negative surprise is the response I’ve gotten from people who don’t have kids who have been really, like, “Your situation is really kind of a pain in the ass. It’s inconvenient.”
Addie: Inconvenient for them, meaning.
Laura: For them, yeah. And you know, “It’s too bad that the housing situation we can offer you is a one bedroom apartment and I’m sorry that your husband can’t come with you and you have your baby alone for a week and your parents need to come help you and so you all have to somehow manage to sleep in a small one bedroom apartment, but you know that’s what we can offer you. Sorry.” And so I understand I have to figure out how to make that work, and there’s not a lot of luxury in our profession, we’re all kind of cut to the bone and I understand that but it’s a little…
Addie: What is the worst bit of advice anyone’s given you about parenting, or parenting as a theater artist? The best?
I can start by telling you my worst one. When I was pregnant I was in a panic about finances, and I had a day job, and I joined a few online chat forums for pregnant parents and new moms, and I was pretty naïve about those things so I went ahead and put it very honestly: that we were artists and expecting our first child in a couple of months, and did anyone know of any grants, programs, or supportive things in the city or have any suggestions for things to look into or try. And the first response that came back, almost immediately, was just one word: condoms. [Laughter]. And, still, when I say it I feel my throat tighten up because it cut so deeply into my own insecurities about what we were doing, and it was so angry, and so much a part of what I see in the city that’s so difficult about class and parenting in New York and it still ... I’m actually shaking now just telling you.
I didn’t even defend myself, I don’t think, and other people did come on very quickly to my defense, saying that’s totally inappropriate, etc. But even the kinder responses were things like: well, you’ll have to just stop your art for a while, and get a day/money job (and I already had a money job), and put it all on hold. So even those were quite dissatisfying as answers. And I think it’s important to say that the real answers to those questions are absolutely out there and they’ve come to us in incredible ways since then, through conversations with other theater artists, and other mothers in similar situations. But that was the worst piece of advice, for sure.
Autumn: Along those lines about getting a day job—When I was pregnant, and during the first few months after I gave birth, I had a job with a computer company paying way more than any theater job I’d ever had, and had health insurance and all of that, but I was done with the part of becoming a parent where I couldn’t be acting. Obviously I wanted to get back to acting but I was panicking about, “But how irresponsible is it for me now that I have a child to give up this lucrative job and health insurance to be in the mix of trying to get the next acting job?” And Michael, my husband, came home one day and just said, “Part of your job to be a good parent is to look after yourself, and we are storytellers—this is what we love. This is what you care about and this is your passion and it’s not going to make you a better mother to give all of that up—the things that you love.” That was as important as health insurance—whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but that’s what we did.
Addie: It is! I think so.
Laura: I want to share this anecdote ’cause I think it’s really amazing. Emily Mann came and talked one night to the Playwright’s Lab at the Women’s Project that I was a member of for the last two years. And someone asked her the question: How on earth did you balance being a mom and a playwright and an artistic director? And she said, “Well, you know what I would do, is I would know what time I needed to schedule to be with my son and I would just say that I was busy. Because,” she said, “you know what men don’t do? Men don’t say: oh, you know, Thursday afternoon’s bad for me because I have to go have sex with my mistress. [Laughter]. They just say, I’m busy Thursday afternoon and everybody goes, ‘Oh yes you’re busy.’” It’s like a fact. So she used to just say, “I have a standing appointment at 3 o’clock, so 3–4 is bad for me.” So they just made a schedule around it. Well, she was picking her child up from school. But nobody ever knew that, and nobody needed to know that, and I think that there’s this thing where we can often feel apologetic.
This has just come up for me where I was responding to an e-mail that was like: oh, can we work 10–6? And I was like no, I can’t work 10–6 ’cause with the travel time and the breast feeding I can’t be away from the baby that long, and if it’s that long she’ll have to come see me twice, and it’s too much to ask in the winter in Chicago. And I was writing this big, long, apologetic e-mail about like, “Oh my baby and I’m so sorry.” And then I was like, “You know what, fuck that, I’m going to write. I can do a straight six [hours] and I need a 20 minute break. That’s what I need.” Send! And they responded: “Oh okay, that’s fine.”
Addie: Are your kids involved in your work? Do you take them backstage?
[To Laura] Ellee might be a little young for this one, although I know you’ve taken her on the road, right?
Laura: Yeah, she’s been on the road with me, we had an amazing experience at Hartford Stage—a world premiere adaptation that I was commissioned to write of Tom Sawyer— so I really wanted to be part of the process ’cause we’d never done it before and I really needed to be there. And when everything was planned and the show was scheduled I didn’t know that I was going to be having the baby, ’cause it was about a year and a half out. So she was six weeks old when we started rehearsal and Jeremy Cohen, the director said, “Just bring her, it’s going to be fine, we’ll figure it out.” So my stage manager set up a little corner in the rehearsal room where I had a rocking chair and a music stand and she was with me in every minute of rehearsal. She was either sleeping, eating, or sort of hanging out, and she was incredible. I’m not exaggerating that she kind of only cried on breaks.
Addie: True theater baby!
Laura: Yeah, and my husband was in the show so it was kind of this amazing experience that we were only six weeks into having the baby and we were back in the rehearsal room together working on a new thing of mine so that was really amazing. And then other than that, she’s been on the road with us. We’re just on the road going where we need to go for work and she’s been rolling with the punches in a really amazing way.
Addie: I love that, and that’s always been Daniel and Bailey’s and my M.O. also. There’s a moment in that amazing documentary Broadway’s Golden Age where Martin Landau talks about doing that, and you sort of pop everything that you own out of a big trunk, like the traveling Walenskis or whatever. That’s, I think, a huge advantage of being a theater parent. You can be mobile and present in a great way.
Michi: In general, I’d say I’ve actually managed the whole mom/work balance really poorly [laughter]. Right after we came home, I went into production for my show. ’Cause there was no control over when we were going to get her. We were told the match had been made (which was actually a surprise—we didn’t think we were going for another two years so it was just random in a way). And I basically e-mailed my producers [Michi’s daughter Josie pipes up in bed in the background] oh, yeah—I don’t know. We’ll see, I may have to call you back.
Addie: That’s okay!
Michi: And I said, “We’re going to go get our daughter and I’ll be back in time for rehearsal. And I don’t know what I’ll be able to do but I’m really going to be there!” And the first day of rehearsal was the first time I tried—it was an evening and I tried to leave her with my best friend and her husband and Chuck. [Listens to Josie] Oh she’s just talking—I’m just listening a little bit ’cause she’s not crying, she’s just talking. [Continues] And she lost it, and I lost it, and I got in the cab and I said, “Okay, I’ll call you in ten minutes and if she’s not okay I’m coming back.” And she was not okay. So I just got back in the cab and that sort of set the tone. I listened to the rehearsal on my cell phone. I listened to it on speaker and that was about as good as it got, really. I really became the playwright who was not in the room and I think it was really hard for the actors. It was hard to explain to some people, and I sent like a really elaborate e-mail and I said, “Here are the issues and I just can’t leave her. I just can’t.”
In the end, I felt like it was actually good for the show, weirdly, in the sense that I telecommuted. They sent me notes and I addressed everything by email and it sort of forced the actors to kind of own it for themselves and that if I wasn’t providing satisfactory answers they just kind of had to…deal.
I think I had some Pina Bausch fantasy, you know, ’cause Pina Bausch used to bring her son when he was very little to all her rehearsals, and I thought: you can do this, you can bring your kids. And I just think I didn’t have that kind of kid. I got a kid who just, like, wanted to run! And so being in rehearsal with her was just not an option.
Tanya: I just wanted to say that getting your e-mail and having this conversation, it’s literally the first time that my life with kids and my life in theater have been acknowledged as coexisting. And, although I’ve put it in my work, it’s the first time from the outside that there’s been an acknowledgment of these two things. And I feel that I’m often in a situation where I have these two loves—I love my kids, I love theater, and they can’t go together.
Addie: I think that’s terrifying. Just for who we are as people. I’m glad you said something.
Autumn: I think that’s great, Tanya, the way you put that, ’cause I was happy to see this e-mail and see these other artists that I admire on this list and think, yeah, right, I’m not in this weird vacuum or the only one experiencing what feels like these conflicting poles from the two different sides of me. That as an actor that I should be hiding that I have a child because people assume certain things about you, or that it ages you, or I just feel uncomfortable talking about anything having to do with my daughter in any sort of professional context.
Tanya: Exactly. Because people ultimately don’t want to—you know, if there’s another parent in the room, then you both out yourselves as parents or something—otherwise no one wants to hear about the kids. Not that you should be talking about your kids at work all the time, I mean that could be true in any job.
Michi: It’s hard to settle it in my brain. For me, it’s the thing about being in the theater too, it’s not like you have your job and then you leave it. There’s some piece of you that’s always working and so you never leave work at home and you never leave the family stuff while you’re at work either. So there’s some part of me that always feels a little bit in tension.
Addie: I loved what you just said about as theater people we never really leave our work anyway and then you just add this whole other hugely emotional dramatic thing into the mix and we don’t have a lot of places to work that through. There is something very isolating about theatre momhood, or there can be.
Michi: We just took her to her first show—it was so sweet. It was called Egg and Spoon and it’s totally brilliant. The kids sat all around with their parents and it was interactive, but not much happened. To say something that is probably not true, and an over generalization, but with mommy and me classes, and children’s television, it’s very in your face, and what was so nice about this Egg and Spoon show is that it felt like what you aspire to be as a parent, like “Here we are over here, doing this thing. Come hang out with us. And blow the leaves off the tree if you want to.” And there was a kind of quality about it that felt so like it had nothing to prove, like it wasn’t trying to teach you anything, and it wasn’t trying to make a point exactly, but it was just about being in the same room together and having this experience and community, in whatever way you wanted to have it. And I really thought: that’s sort of a model both for theater and for parenting, you know, both of which are really hard to achieve ’cause it’s so bewildering.
ADDIE JOHNSON TALBOTT is an actor, producer, and artistic associate of Rising Phoenix Rep, where she most recently appeared in Three Sisters by Daniel Reitz and The Telling by Crystal Skillman. She’s also been seen in Late: A Cowboy Song, by Sarah Ruhl (Clubbed Thumb), and Out From Under It, by Susan Bernfeld (Vital Theater Company).
TANYA BARFIELD's plays include: Of Equal Measure (Center Theater Group), Blue Door (Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory; Seattle Repertory, Berkeley Repertory and additional theaters). Her new play, The Call, will premiere at The Intiman Theater in Spring 2011.
MICHI BARALL is a playwright, actor, and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. She lives in Cobble Hill with her husband, Chuck, and her adored daughter, Josie Mee.
AUTUMN DORNFELD has performed in many shows on, off, and off-off Broadway, including The Graduate and The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and in the feature film The Undeserved (now available on Showtime and T.C.M.).
LAURA EASON is the author of more than 15 plays, both original work and adaptations. Upcoming productions include: Sex with Strangers (Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (People's Light and Theater, PA), Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theater, Chicago (also director)), and The Undeniable Sound of Right Now (Rising Phoenix Rep, NYC). More info at www.lauraeason.com.