Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #3: Jeni Mahoney

Jeni Mahoney and I met at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in Idaho last summer.  She serves as artistic director for the conference and is part of a warm and insightful team that helped me with my script, and was of great comfort when tragedy unexpectedly struck my family.   I was grateful to have a chance to talk to her about new plays and new play development, and how family fits in with it all. 

Thanks for taking the time to be part of this, I know you’re super busy.  When I was talking to Sheila McDevitt  the other day (at the id theater) she said you’d received almost 500 submissions for the Seven Devils Conference this year.  Plus you’re Head of Playwriting at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School/NYU Tisch.  And you’re a mother of a young daughter.  It’s amazing how influential you are on developing other people’s work.  How do you find time for your own writing?  

In the spirit of not sugar-coating my answers: often I don’t find time to write! I do better in the early Fall – in the short lull between turning in final grant reports, and the attacking the ever-growing mountain of Seven Devils scripts. It’s not that I don’t write at all the rest of the year, but I tend to be more deadline driven. I’ve had to learn to be okay with writing less, and that’s been a struggle. But being frustrated and punishing myself about it is so unproductive and stressful.

I used to be the kind of writer who loved to spend the whole day writing; without even realizing it I’d discover that I’d been at it for 8 or 10 hours without a break (I got runners knee twice just from sitting at my desk!), so figuring out how to do it differently was challenging.  The turning point for me was something Richard Dresser said at a workshop he hosted at Seven Devils. I’m misquoting of course but it was something to the effect of: “if you’re going on and on about how you can’t write and you don’t have time or the space or whatever is you think is stopping you, then you’re not setting the bar low enough.”

I wrote it on a post-it and hung it over my desk for a year. I just had to remind myself to do what I could do – even if it’s mostly crap. When you have kids you tend to feel like your time is so limited and precious; if I’m paying a sitter, shouldn’t I make it worth that money??? Wow! Talk about a huge creativity-killer!

Using this kernel of wisdom, I decided to tackle “Kandahar” – the first play I wrote after my daughter was born – in three hour increments. She was in an early intervention preschool, three days a week, three hours a day. I would drop her off and then take my laptop to the bookstore/café down the block and write. My goal was to have a draft before the end of her semester – not a good draft mind you, just get to the end. You should also know that “Kandahar” is a spin-off of a play by Arthur Schnitzler (“Das Weite Land”) that I’d be puzzling with in my head for a long time – I just thought: here’s thing that’s been in my head, let’s see what happens if I get it out. Ultimately, I proved to myself that if I had to write this way, I could.
Other things that have helped – trying to get away for development workshops, which I think I’ve been able to do twice since becoming a parent. I make such good use of a week away now – I know what a gift it is. I also am in a writer's group which gives me deadlines. We meet every two weeks, at each meeting a different person leads an exercise so we’re all writing, and talking about writing, at every meeting. It keeps me thinking like a writer – which is soooo important. I also write a lot of ten minute plays. Sometimes I just need something to remind me that, yes, I actually know what I’m doing!

What are you working on right now?

I just finished up a two-week workshop of a play that I actually started many years ago called “Bad Water Juju” – it’s a monster of a play that takes place in a circus. I didn’t think anyone would ever want to tackle it, but was really fortunate to get it into the hands of an adventurous director and a fantastic group of actors. This actually led to the play being picked up for production in Spring 2013 (longish story I won’t go into) – so I just started meetings and such for that. I have a lot of work to do to get that production ready but I’m very excited about that.

I also just recently had a really productive meeting with a director/literary manager I really respect. Not about any specific future production opportunities, it was really just getting feedback and notes on “Kandahar” – I asked him if he’d read it again in great part so I’d really have to make the time to deal with the play, and to keep growing my relationship with an artist I respect. I’ve started to focus more on planting those long terms seeds, than on specific production opportunities. The more I’m in this biz, the more I want to focus on working with people I want to work with.

I’ve been tooling around with a new piece in my writers group, but I’m not in love with it yet. So I’m waiting it out until I fall in love with this, or find something else to get excited about. I’ve also been writing about playwriting and development – I’ve written a few articles, toying around with something more substantial.

Even though the demands of teaching and the Seven Devils Conference are pretty extreme, they also offer you a chance to spend a lot time thinking intensely about what makes plays work (or not work).  How has that experience influenced your own writing and writing process?

Wow. That’s a big question.  I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that! I think plays work and don’t work on so many levels. There’s talent, craft, luck and opportunity; then there are things like business and networking and egos and temperament. None of these elements on their own is going to “make” something happen, but any one of them can turn into a stumbling block.
From where I stand, there are a lot of terrible writers, and a lot of wonderful writers – but a terrible writer with something passionate to say is far more interesting to me than a smart writer who is doesn’t take me anywhere. I’ve also think audiences don’t just want to be entertained, and they don’t want to learn. They want to be engaged – that is really what makes a theatrical experience transformative (dare I say cathartic!), so as a writer, if I’m not engaging my audience, nothing else matters. Lack of active engagement, or even the ambition to engage, rather than talk at and/or show the audience something is probably one of the most prevalent problems I come across in the plays I read.

In my experience, plays (and playwrights) tend to work best when the writer is interested in their collaborators and their audiences – not necessarily interested in being liked, or having the audience like the play, but interested in the sense of being curious about how to communicate with, move, engage, share time and space and meaning with artists and audiences.  In my work at Seven Devils, and as a teacher, I’m really interested in helping playwrights find that place of confident curiosity – I think that once a writer has that, she is able to walk into any situation and find her footing as a positive, and equal, collaborator. Being empowered as a playwright isn’t about calling all the shots – it’s about the ability to be open to the process without feeling threatened.

Your daughter has some pretty intensive special needs.  As a fellow parent of a child with special needs, I appreciate even more all that you’ve been able to accomplish as a writer and theatre practitioner.  For me, I found that it took a few years of being a parent before I was ready to write effectively about parenthood, and I’m only just getting there when it comes to children with special needs (my son is 12, so I’ve got a big head start on you) and their families.   Do you find that you’re at a point (outside of your blog) where you’re able to write about this part of your life?  Even if it’s not the central topic of a piece, do you see your experiences as a mother of a child with special needs influencing your style or way of approaching scripts?  Or even influencing how you approach the business of theatre?

My daughter is seven now. She's blind, non-verbal, can't walk or stand on her own and has a host of other issues; she is also bright, stubborn, determined and has a great sense of humor. I blog about her at

Yes, I think being a parent has influenced my writing, and the way I approach the business of writing. No, I can’t write about it directly at all yet as a playwright. Not yet. I always say that I can’t write about something until I have enough distance on it to have a sense of humor about it (i.e. to abstract it) – otherwise I’m just unbearable. But my “real” life has been – with very few exceptions - rather deeply submerged in my writing. I know it’s there, but I don’t tend write “about” it in a direct way.

I would say there is a certain twisted absurdity that people see in my work that, for me, is just what real life is: this sense of laughter and crying being very close together; or joy and heartbreak, victory and tragedy, gratitude and fury. Full disclosure (perhaps bordering on confessional) I also have Multiple Sclerosis, am a breast cancer survivor, and have spent a lot of time in physical therapy with injuries I’ve incurred just taking care of my daughter. These things – and many others (world travels in some pretty grim situations for example) – influence my approach to life and writing and theater. I think they push on me and make me very aware of the fact that my ability to write at all is not a given. Of course that’s true for all of us. I’m just very aware of that. As much as I can feel myself the butt of some ongoing cosmic joke, I also know I’m very fortunate.

So many plays come across your desk, with the exception of The Miracle Worker, which has lapsed into cliché, do you see much work out there dealing in an honest and open way with people with disabilities (especially children)?  About their families?  John Belluso was writing about it.  Next to Normal looks at a mother coping with bipolar disorder.  Are there others?

A play haven’t revisited since my daughter’s birth is “A Day in the Life of Joe Egg” – I saw it long, long ago but I recall it containing something very painful and real. Also Francesca Sander’s “I Am A Guitar” - which we worked on at Seven Devils. There is an aloneness in both plays that I think is very real, and a sense of building your life around a child who – at some essential level - is unseen by the world which is also very true and painful from a parenting point of view.

It’s funny, my husband and I rented the film of “The Miracle Worker” not long ago and we laughed our tails off in the scene where Annie Sullivan is trying to get Helen to sit at the table and eat and Helen is throwing tantrum after tantrum. Seriously, how do you get to a place where a scene like that reflects your daily life experience in a way that makes you laugh out loud? And how do you convey that theatrically? One of the things I like about the “The Miracle Worker” is that it is about recognizing Helen’s humanity and her deep need for connection. Unfortunately, as you point out, that is often sentimentalized and made into a cliché, when in fact it’s the basic need driving the character forward.

There is a great group working in Israel that does a piece called “Not By Bread Alone” – you can see some of it on youtube . They work with deafblind actors, and they’ve created this incredible theater experience that – while it is essentially for sighted people – offers a very generous glimpse into the way the deafblind actors experience the world: touch, smell, and vibration. The play starts with the actors making dough and putting it in ovens on stage – so the actors and audience smell the bread cooking - and when the bread is finished, the play is finished and they serve the audience the bread. It’s so beautiful – and I love that it so literally embraces the idea of theater as feeding the audience. It’s just plain great theater PLUS that demonstrates the creativity of a group of people whom we all too often dismiss as people, much less as fully creative artists.

But, overall no, I don’t see plays dealing with things that look like my life and my choices and the struggles that I’m facing – and will be facing as my daughter gets older, which are made all the more terrifying by the fact that I don’t see her as disabled. I just see her as my daughter who, beyond all her disabilities, is probably the most optimistic, hard-working person I know. I hope someday I’ll be able to write about it more directly. Honestly, even in this format it’s extremely difficult for me to write about. It just kind of smashes up the deepest part of every possible emotion and makes you stand neck deep in it. So… there’s something to work on.

One thing I really like about Seven Devils is that it’s run by people who are parents and that part of the whole reason it takes place in McCall, Idaho, has to do with family roots.  Can you talk a bit about the vision for Seven Devils, and how it relates to your experiences at other play developmental opportunities?
Well you know, the id theatre existed before Seven Devils, and there are stories of Sheila doing the curtain speech with baby Fallon on her hip, so kids have always been a part of id. I wasn’t a parent when we started Seven Devils but I was very influenced by my experience at the O’Neill where, at the time, kids weren’t allowed on campus at all. There was one Dad/playwright and it was really rough on him. When his son came to visit they had to spend their time away from the company. It was very marginalizing. I understand to an extent. Theaters are just crawling with hazards, and people need to focus, time is limited. On the other hand, theater is all about life – so it seems odd to ask us to separate ourselves so fully from life in order to participate in it.

For id - our view on parenting dovetails with our views on theater and community in general. A big part of id’s mission is about embracing the diversity of the American experience by building bridges that connect things like rural/urban, coastal/inland, student/professional, old/young, audience/artist, etc.

Lisa Rosenhagen and Matt Daren in "The Feast
of the Flying Cow... and Other Stories of War,"
And Toto Too Theatre Company, dir. Lorraine Scott

In some ways, theatre is the most intensely interpersonal and human of artforms, but so many opportunities in theatre seem to be structured in a way that ignores the possibility that artists sometimes have children.   Is there a way to create and develop theatre work in a way that doesn’t preclude involving artists who are actively parenting kids?

Yes. There have been some years in which we’ve had a good number of kids at the Conference, in some ways, the more the better because they can all play together. But you’ve got to have at least one grown up who is assigned to keeping an eye on them. Even older kids need to have someone in charge for when they need a ride back from someplace, or lose their bike lock or someone pushed someone first – whatever. There are things kids can do to feel a part of the process: make brownies for everyone, or write a play of their own to perform for the company (this can be big fun, especially when they decide to make fun of us). We also work with high school students – some of whom have also been sitters for company kids. I think the more families that are a part of the company vibe, the better. When you’re always trying to keep them apart, then there is tension – then Mommy or Daddy is doing something that is NOT hanging out with me. We know how much kids enjoy that. When they are running wild and interrupting rehearsal time because they have nothing else to do then the other company members feel like you’re not respecting their time. And we know how much they like that.

That being said, having kids in the mix can be expensive and logistically scary for a theater company. And on an artist’s salary, paying for childcare can make bringing the kids prohibitive. Some housing situations won’t work with kids – that’s a problem we’ve had at Seven Devils because artists stay in homes in the community. Artists and theaters really have to pull together to make it happen. I’d say we’ve had varying levels of success, but it’s always been worth the effort for us.
Now that my daughter is in school five days a week, she doesn’t come with me to Idaho for the Conference – it’s just much more manageable logistically and financially for her to stay in New York and finish the school year, then she and my husband fly out once the Conference is over. It’s difficult sometimes seeing other kids enjoying the Conference family, while my daughter is at home.  But if having kids around is challenging, having a special needs kid around is ten times tougher – even, or perhaps especially, when I’m the one running the show!

But overall, I have some hope that it will get better for parents in general – as we see more acceptance of non-traditional families, I think we’ll see more theaters making room for artists with kids. I think we’re already seeing it.

Any last advice to writers who are also parents?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to give advice! I spend a lot of my time these days trying to figure out how to simplify my life – and mostly I fail miserably at that. I’m pretty sure I can’t sustain all these things indefinitely. But I love everything that I’m doing and that’s ultimately a wonderful problem to have.
The times when I find rare moments of balance are those times when I am able to be with my daughter fully, or my students fully, or my work fully – and not thinking about how I need to return some emails, or do the dishes, or write a grant, or read someone’s play. I can get into a pattern in which everything I’m doing seems to be a task on the way to the next task. When that happens I lose sight of the fact that I actually love and enjoy all these things that I’m so desperately hurrying through.
I think my advice would be – don’t punish yourself for the things you think should be doing. It takes away from the joy of doing the things you love. After all, parenting and playwriting are both things that should only be done for love, because Lord knows there’s not big money in either one.

Thanks, Jeni!

You can read more about Jeni and her work on her web site at

Tom Byrn, Catharine Slusar, Matt Saunders, and Emmanuelle Delpech in "The Feast of the Flying Cow... and Other Stories of War" at InterAct Theatre Company, dir. Seth Rozin (Photo © Seth Rozin)

Next Wednesday, I'll talk with Jessica Maria Tuccelli about her new novel, Glow.

No comments: