Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #7: Kirsten Greenidge


Kirsten Greenidge and I are both part of the Rhombus playwrights group, as well as past Huntington Playwriting Fellows.  We're also both parents of two kids (though mine are a lot older).  I am a huge fan of her writing--it's lyrical and smart, and she plays with rhythm of speech (and sound) in ways that completely fascinate me. She's one of several Boston playwrights with a growing national presence, with recent productions by La Jolla Playhouse, Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, and commissions from other regional theatres   Her play, Luck of the Irish, opens tonight at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. In between previews, rewrites, and chasing kids, she took the time to answer a few questions.
Your career has really started barreling along lately, with productions at La Jolla Playhouse, Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, and the Huntington.  What some people don’t understand (I certainly didn’t until I saw you going through it) is how much travel can be required for these shows—you’ve got auditions, workshops, rehearsals, openings, talkbacks.  In the midst of all of this, you have two small children.  How did you manage the back and forth (and the rewrites!) with being a mom?

The amount of travel involved is insane.  Just as I don't think many people realize how much childcare is needed until they have their own kids' 24-hour needs on their minds, I never realized how much childcare is needed to be a playwright in production.  I haven't truly mastered this at all, but I'm learning.  I'm finding that as they get older--they are almost five and two-- I need more help so that I can research, actually write, rewrite, and attend rehearsals and note sessions during previews.  This can be the hardest part because if you're really grappling with a script problem with a director and dramaturgs and producers, those sessions can be long and intense.  The kind where you say you'll be back at nine and end up not walking in the door until midnight.  Basically I try to take each trip one at a time.  I will admit I've had to say no to a lot of travel that might have been really great for a play or networking and building a relationship with a theater.  My husband manages a restaurant and works non traditional hours, and that also contributes to my travel needs.  A night away might seem doable to a theater but usually for my family that equals about 48 hours of care, which is a lot of money!  It does make the juggle of playwright life and "normal" life challenging.

I find that I enter a production zone usually.  I fully admit the TV goes on if I am on the road with the kids and have arranged for rehearsal childcare but not rewriting childcare. While I think it is fabulous to ruminate on feedback as the writer, you also have to learn to work somewhat quickly, and I always want to make sure that my having my kids with me doesn't impede my ability to get work done.  That said, I will usually then make sure I take hours before rehearsal or during the dinner break and hang out with my kids so they don't need AS much therapy when they are older. Working at La Jolla was wonderful because their artist housing has pool access.  I would race back from the theater, give the sitter a two hour break, and get in "the hot pool" with the kids (they were obsessed with the jacuzzi and I'd set the timer so we didn't overheat, and play in and out of that tiny pool until it was time to get ready for the evening).

Until I had kids, I thought I could just bring them to rehearsal and they'd be quiet.  I don't know why I thought this.  I was a nanny, so the idea that I even ever really thought this is embarrassing.  One rehearsal period I did bring my daughter when she was a baby.  I felt so guilty getting a sitter or asking my family for the help I really needed.  I will never do that again.  I spent most rehearsals walking her around or shhing her.  After that I got familiar with babysitting websites and figured out what kind of sitters would work best given the demands of rehearsal, and worked to banish the word guilt from my vocabulary.  Which is important.  While I will help my kids talk through their feelings about my being gone a lot and for long periods of time, I have stopped apologizing for the leaving the house.  I don't want either kid to feel as though I should be ashamed for the work I do and for leaving them.
Another thing I am learning about being in production and being a parent is that I've had to be the controlling helicopter type parent our culture likes to make fun of.  I write notes.  I label stuff.  I get hyper about tv watching and bath schedules.  I used to take on the mantra of "as long as they're happy!" in regard to my kids and their caretakers.  But that was making me crazy.  For lack of better language, it really sucks to sit in rehearsal for hours and come back to a house that has gone berzerk.  Spending two hours digging out from toys and dishes when I could be with my kids or rewriting is not ideal.  I've become a bit more demanding in terms of what goes on in here when I am working.

I will say each of the theaters you named above have been extremely supportive when it comes to my childcare needs.  But with the exception of sometimes having to say "I flat out can't afford/need more funds if you need me there because of the plane fare/childcare for two kids on the road" I make a concerted effort not to expect a theater to act as my nanny service.  Often a theater will offer a list of names of sitters other artists have used, but other than that I don't usually ask for recommendations.   I think the internet has probably made this easier for me.  I can arrange for supplies (diapers, food, toiletries) to be sent ahead and can also hire my own sitters before I reach a city.  I can't imagine what it would have been like if this were a hundred years ago.  But then I think you could keep your kid in a drawer for at least an hour or two back then.

If you think of the theater as your employer, then it is easier to try to figure out how much you would want to involve it in the needs of your family.  Some people are very comfortable saying to an employer "I need x!"  But very few of us would show up to work and say "hey, I showed up, now you pay for my nanny".

Marianna Bassham, Nikkole Salter, Victor Williams, and McCaleb Burnett in Kirsten Greenidge’s THE LUCK OF THE IRISH.
Are there things that theatres or development organizations could do to make themselves more accessible to writers who are also parents?  Should they? 
I'd love a writing retreat or residency program where you can bring your kids.  I am sure the insurance would be through the roof for it, but I know I'd apply for something like that.  

I don't think theaters should necessarily pay for childcare or things like that, but I do think commission fees--for those writers fortunate to work on commissions-- should take into consideration the cost of living to an extent.  I've been fortunate to receive many commissions, and I am honored that I have.  But the entire amount and their payment schedules often make it difficult to use the fees to get more than a fraction of the work done, even with good time management and work ethic. I used to use commission money to take time to research and not work as many teaching jobs.  Now those fees usually go to childcare and I am unable to take the same type of time to do a project.

The upside is with the exception of one project (you know who you are!  I am still working on it!) I don't dawdle as much with my writing and, while I might write something horrible and have to rewrite, I don't sit waiting for the muses to take me away.  

Antione Gray, Jr. and Francesca Choy-Kee in Kirsten Greenidge’s THE LUCK OF THE IRISH.
Your plays often have children in them.  I think there’s a great shift that some writers make, in moving from writing from the perspective of the daughter, to writing from the perspective of the mother.  Do you see that starting to happen with your work?   To expand on this notion—you’ve been working on Luck of the Irish for a long time, since before you even had kids. One of the characters in the play is a young mother who is struggling with the treatment and development of her young son.  Have you seen your attitude/sympathies shifting in this play, as your own experiences as a mother have grown? 
They have shifted in that while I got to be known for writing about mothers and daughters before I had kids, now that I have children, I can see the parent-child relationship as being much more complicated than I ever knew it was.  It's definitely changed my writing.  However, in The Luck of the Irish I wrote much of the mom material that Hannah says before my daughter reached six weeks old.  One bit of feedback I keep getting on that character is : oh, you must be writing from experience.  And I was a little bit, but I had no idea of the working mom-concerned mom-slightly helicopter parent treadmill I was about to jump on.  Most of it came from an active fantasy life.

I often have kids in my plays.  I love that there are several generations represented on stage.  That has always been my experience of family life, which I write about a lot.  But working with child actors is challenging.  I have promised Francesca Choy-Kee, who was in Bossa Nova with a delightful child actor and is now in The Luck of the Irish with two equally delightful young actors, that the next time she is in a play of mine, I won't have her scene partner be a kid.  It is so rewarding to see a kid on stage, but it also brings a host of challenges.
When we read your plays in Rhombus, it’s always clear that you have a very specific soundscape in mind for your plays.  How did you work with director Melia Bensussen and sound designer David Remedios (I’m a huge fan of David—I think he’d be perfect for your plays) on shaping the production to match your vision?  
David is so so gifted.  So is Melia.  We had several workshops of the play before rehearsals began, and David was able to build a gorgeous design from mostly those, not so much Melia or myself giving him specific notes.  Sound is something I am learning more about.  I usually include a soundscape but I am still learning about how much sound an audience can take and what sounds are effective and which aren't. 
Melia, your director, is also a mom.  Our business is not known for being parent/child friendly.  Did it help having Melia and Lisa Timmel, Huntington's Director of New Plays (who is also a mother), on the team as you went into production to develop this play?

It helps to see women who are good mothers (Melia and Lisa both are exceptional working moms) as models of how things can work well.  Our stage manager is also a really kick ass working mom.  But I think no matter what is going on with each of the kids whose moms are working on the show, that all came secondary to the work once we were in the room, which is important.  And done not without legions of sitters and other parents (in this case dads) all working to make it work, so to speak.
What’s next after Luck of the Irish?

I have a ton of writing to do.  I am working on an adaptation of The Living is Easy by Dorothy West for The Goodman, as well as a play loosely about Tituba of Salem Village for La Jolla.  And a play about parenthood for Denver Center Theater. As well as continuing working with Melia on adapting the book Common Ground for the stage.  All the childcare needed for these endeavors is making me nervous...
Thanks, Kirsten.  And break a leg with the show!
Kirsten's play, Luck of the Irish, runs through April 29 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.  

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