Having a Child Meant Imagining a New Way to Make Theater
I had to imagine an environment in which theater-making and parenting could not only coexist, but nourish and inform one another.
I kissed the top of my son’s head and wrote three words on my phone’s Notes app: “Heaven is lonely.” My skin was raw, my heart shaken, my mind tender. And a specific kind of pain sprung from the ways I knew I would be expected to divide myself if I was able to find my way back to the theater. The theater expects us to give our lives entirely to playmaking, while society demands that we focus solely on our children.
I thought of something Stella Adler, the great American acting teacher, once said: “You must understand that while you’re in this room, you leave the outside world outside. You need all of yourself here. You don’t need your father. You don’t need your mother. You don’t need your husband. You don’t need your child.” The theater is rife with barriers for parents—mothers in particular. Our children are viewed as an impediment to our art making, something to work around. But I did need my child. I needed him as much as he needed me.
I looked to the books stacked like cairns in the darkness around our small apartment, all those plays. What happens to mothers in plays? What happens to infants? Babies, if they exist at all, are reduced to sound cues, spectral cries, or else they are only the memories of babies, babies that grew, babies that died, babies that never were. If there are mothers in these plays, they are primarily overbearing or critical, cruel or abusive. They conceal letters that might change their children’s lives for the better. They kill the family pet while their daughters are off at the science fair.
If theater is a mirror that reflects society, it is clear that neither think too much about infants or caregivers. Both idolize pregnant bodies, but there is a damning lack of curiosity about what happens to all involved once the child arrives. The early days of parenthood seem to barely register in the dramatic imagination, days to be tolerated and left behind, not dramatized or engaged with. Sure,there are logistics to consider when placing an infant onstage. But we put performers in masks and readily say, Yes, those are horses. We can imagine so much. Why are we so reluctant to extend a willing suspension of disbelief to the postpartum experience?
Perhaps we don’t see infants or those who care for them onstage because we are still struggling to imagine a theater-making culture in which caregivers can flourish.Hours are long and unforgiving. We’re expected to miss weddings and funerals for rehearsals. We are asked to pretend that the life that makes us vibrant storytellers to begin with isn’t just beyond the studio doors and happening right now and sometimes desperately in need of our presence too.
There are artists, of course, who manage to navigate the theater and early parenthood simultaneously. (Lauren Ambrose famously breastfed a newborn in between rehearsals to play Juliet in Central Park.) Still, I could not rid myself of the image of girls banished for losing sight of their singular focus, crumbling like forgotten opening night bouquets—sacrificial desertion of their true selves. I did not want to surrender my artistic life, nor did I want to leave behind the fact of my child each time I stepped into a rehearsal room. I wanted not abandonment but expansion.
When the baby finished nursing, I wound a long black cloth around my body and tucked him inside, wrapping the excess fabric around us both, tying a tight knot under his little bottom. I needed to keep him upright after the feed so the milk would stay down. I shuffled about the room bouncing slightly at the knees, humming incantatory infant sleep sounds, feeling reduced to a stock character of defeat in a postpartum burlesque.
I turned to the books of my theater training. I stroked my son’s back with one hand and, with the other, lifted a book with a deep red spine: Stella Adler’s The Art of Acting, a compilation of her lessons. There she was on the cover, her face and hand lifted. I could almost hear her shouting. Born in 1901, Adler revolutionized acting in the United States. She trained with Konstantin Stanislavski himself and became a great expositor of the Method.
The baby cried, and I offered him milk again while skimming the first few pages. “If you want to know how great you are,” she said, “stay home and audition for your mother.” She was as stern on the page as I imagined she’d once been in the studio. There on the cover, she felt not so much like a friend, but a saint of the theater I so missed. I placed her book in the basket I carried from room to room throughout my days: water bottle, nipple cream, granola bar, burp cloth, and Stella Adler, my unlikely postpartum doula.
The following night as my baby nursed, I watched clips of Adler teaching. There was a physical elegance about the sweep of her hand. The tone of her voice was refined, even when she was shouting at the student-actor to find a soul. Each word felt like an indictment, Adler reaching through my phone screen and scolding me: “There’s nobody acting weaker than you. You’re playing your own timidity!”
After one particularly long night of cluster feeds, I stood in a gray, milk-stained sweatshirt and my new husband’s boxer shorts (nothing I owned fit over the moon of my belly). I held Adler’s book, and it was as if I were standing before her, ready for notes. And there was the baby in my arms, pink and cooing and searching for my breast. If I’d been before her in an acting studio, I was sure I’d have angered her with my fatigue, my mediocrity.
But reading, I discovered that mediocrity did not displease her as much as people who did not pay attention. “What does Ms. Adler want us to do today?” I whispered to my son. “What is today’s exercise?”
I read the book: “Look deeply at things and take note of what you like.”
I laughed aloud. As much as I loved my son, those were painful days. What did I like in this lonely predawn postpartum room? I exhaled.
Okay, I thought. I like the color of the wall paint my husband chose for this room. It’s a very pale blue and is called Marilyn’s Dress. I like the grassy scent of the lanolin in the tube, the way it feels against my skin. I love my baby’s eyes, the ocean of them, the bits of gray.
“The world is in front of you,” Adler said. “You have to take it in. You have to see things you never saw before. Then you have to give it back to the world.”
This was the first lesson. That moment in my life was not a season to be endured, but one to engage with deeply. There was art to be found in those hours. There was pain and loneliness, of course, but there was also much beauty. I felt myself awaken to the dead hours of the night in which a bond between infant and parent is born, how inseparable we become, how fervent the experience can be.
Adler was reminding me: Mine is a profession of recognition, of noticing. “You must realize that what you see is a miracle simply because it exists,” she said. I read Adler’s lessons night after night, pausing only to kiss my baby’s cheeks again and again. An understanding slowly unfolded, how closely related the requirements of the theater are to those of caregiving: attention, devotion, time. At the heart of each is the obsession over the growth and development of a nascent thing—a play, a person.
Mine is a profession of recognition, of noticing.
The most significant lesson from Adler’s teachings was her insistence that imagination was the primary means an actor should use to find and convey emotional truth. Our personal lives are not enough for the size of the work she expected from her students. There’s more to be had. There’s a whole world outside of us, whole worlds no one’s even imagined yet.
“One way we can enliven the imagination is to push it toward the illogical,” she said. “We’re not scientists. We don’t always have to make the logical, reasonable leap.”
Living as an artist and a parent in a society that supports neither would require a different kind of creativity bordering on the illogical. The space in my life that motherhood created was not emptiness, not a banishment, but room for a more expansive imagination to enter. In becoming a parent, I would have to discover a new way of making art, not born only of necessity but also love and respect for my child and myself.
Stella Adler reminded me of the vital importance of the thing I’d spent most of my life cultivating: imagination. I understood that the root of my job both as a person of the theater and as a parent was to imagine the world as it could be, offer action toward that vision, and give it space and life. I had to imagine an environment in which theater making and parenting could not only coexist but also nourish and inform one another.
Ice packs and witch hazel, lanolin and lidocaine, thermometers, and milk-stained washcloths—someday, I would put these in a play. I would place them in the hands of performers and call them props in a theater that could imagine mothers. I made a list called “Things That Could Happen in This Play.” The nursery walls could fall away to reveal a cave, or a meadow at night filled with fireflies, parent and child together in the center. A birthing person could try to remember the lyrics to a song as the walls begin to bloom. There could be a scene of dirt and rain, an infant being bathed. There could be a scene encapsulating the waiting and missing and silence of some postpartum days, a new parent and child pushing past the painted backdrop of a sky, reaching for the real thing. Someone in the act of breastfeeding alone at night could lean into a microphone.
Eventually, I put the book down during night feeds, and I started to write. As my baby grew, I wrote draft after draft of a play, writing the two of us together in scenes, so insistent was my belief that there was space for us in the theater. I wrote the sounds of him first, a coo, a cry, then an infant crawling into the light toward his mother.
I called upon my friends. “This is what I need if we are going to produce this show,” I said. We worked together during hours in which my husband was available to care for our son. The baby came into the rehearsal room some afternoons. Childcare was included in the performance budget, and scheduling took breaks for my breastfeeding needs into consideration. It was a start.
I tried to imagine how much richer the theater could be, imagine the stories we might tell if we could consider the needs of its practitioners. If we can abandon structures that do not move the theater in the direction of inclusion and accessibility, if we are true to the theater’s tools of imagination and action, we can step collectively forward. We can create a theater in which more of us can thrive.