Director Lisa Peterson describes her latest show, In Mother Words, as a “compilation or quilt play” made up of 15 short pieces by 15 different writers, all describing what it means to be a mother.
“It also spans the arc of a mother’s life from birth to all the various ages your child goes through,” says Peterson, a seasoned director who studied theater and English at Yale. “It talks about teenagers, the empty nest, what happens when you become a mother-in-law and when kids have to mother their own parents. This show will question the definition of motherhood and open people’s minds to what it means to be a mother and how it changes your life.”
Opening Feb. 23 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, In Mother Words was nearly four years in the making. The Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater hosted two workshops in 2008, followed by aÂ version of the showÂ in the summer of 2009 under the title Motherhood Out Loud, at Bay Street Theatre in the Hamptons.
A year agoÂ Motherhood Out Loud had its official world premiere at Hartford Stage. The current production, a West Coast premiere, has been reworked and will be the first version opening with the title In Mother Words.
TheÂ production stars award-winning actors Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), Amy Pietz (Caroline in the City), Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Ruined) and James Lecesne (Word of Mouth). In addition to the 15 individual stories, the show also contains five “fugues,” rapid fire exchanges featuring all the actors on a specific subject. A rotating cast of actors, with script in hand, will guide the audience from one story to the next, assisted by multi-media and movement. The show will have cast changes March 16 and April 30, but the names have yet to be announced.
Three women and one man change characters throughout the show, asÂ each takes on different stories by delivering monologues and small scenes that run about five minutes. “Some of the stories are funny and some of them are serious,” says Peterson, who grew up in Aptos, Ca. (near Santa Cruz) but now lives in New York. “There are different perspectives adding up to one arc of an experience.” The stories are not only humorous and thought-provoking; they are personal and revelatory, touching on “all things mom” including subjects like new moms, empty nesters, stepmoms, immigrant moms, single moms and grandmothers.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In Mother Words is the brainchild of Susan Rose and Joan Stein, two producers whose partnership began when they worked on The Nerd in 1987.Â Rose, who lives in New York, attended a performance of Sarah Jones’Â solo show Bridge & Tunnel, a play that looks at New York’s multicultural immigrant melting pot.
She had what she calls a light bulb moment. “I just thought it was a great night at the theater,” remembers Rose. “My immediate thought was, “˜I would love to explore another universal theme like motherhood’.”
So she immediately called her friend, collaborative partner and Los Angeles resident Stein and ran the idea by her. Recalls Stein: “She said, “˜Joan, I have a great idea, let’s do a show about motherhood’ and I said, “˜yes.’Â We’ve been friends and colleagues for many years. We’ve gone through all the life experiences good friends go through together. Of course, I loved it immediately. This subject matter was dear to us for different circumstances and reasons.”
For a long time Rose wanted to have a child. She finally had one, a daughter, named Samantha. “I’ve loved every minute of being a mother,” says Rose. “When my daughter got older I went through the empty nest stage. This project saved me because when she went off to school, I was able to dive into this project.”
“My husband and I weren’t able to start a family,” says Stein. “Not for lack of trying. We went through fertility treatments, a miscarriage and three failed adoptions. It was all very traumatic. After a while I realized I needed to make my life about what I have and not what I don’t have.”
Stein found another way to fulfill her maternal instincts. “My niece and nephew have been very close to us,” she says. “They were our surrogate children. I experienced a version of motherhood with no less love. Part of what our show talks about is families coming together in different ways. Motherhood means something different to every woman, yet we’re all under the same umbrella of this magnificent word.”
Once Rose and Stein nailed down the focus of the show, they needed to find good writers and an exceptional director.Â “Initially when we talked about it, we looked at single writers and thought they would go around and talk to someone,” says Stein. “Then it dawned on us. We know all these writers, why not reach out to our favorite writers? Some were mothers and brought different stories to the table.”
To hear Rose and Stein tell it, they assembled some of the best writers from the worlds of fiction, non-fiction, theater and television when they tapped Leslie Ayvazian, David Cale, Jessica Goldberg, Beth Henley, Lameece Issaq, Claire LaZebnik, Lisa Loomer, Michele Lowe, Marco Pennette, Lisa Ramirez, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice, Annie Weisman and Cheryl L. West.
They are especially excited about having Peterson at the helm ““ and for good reason. Her credits bear out her significance. She’sÂ a Drama-logue Award winner (Collected Stories by Donald Margulies, Ikebana by Alice Tuan); she won an Obie Award (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill) and has received two Drama Desk nominations. She has numerous Off-Broadway credits plus regional work that includes world premieres and classics at some of the industry’s most celebrated theaters. She’s worked as an associate director at La Jolla Playhouse (1992-1995) and a resident director at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (1995-2005).
“When Lisa joined us the show took a different shape,” explains Stein. “She took all of the different stories and made them into one universal experience.”
“I felt it was important for a woman to direct this,” says Rose. “Lisa was perfect because she has worked on a lot of new works and is used to shaping an evening and helping writers find the truth. They respect her for that.”
“She is a fantastic director and a great storyteller,” adds Stein. “That, plus her experience with combining separate stories made her the perfect director, not to mention she also has a great relationship with writers and fabulous dramaturgical skills.”
“I like to work on new plays,” says Peterson, who is also set to direct the Geffen’s next show, the premiere of Jane Anderson’s The Escort, opening April 6.Â “I find the most joy in doing it. I thought working on the show would be a good puzzle. I’ve been involved with putting the pieces together. The challenge of making one thing out of all these parts was intriguing to me.”
The fact she’s not a mother wasn’t an issue or a deterrent for Peterson, who has been in a 14-year relationship with her partner, Rachel Hauck, who is also the set designer for In Mother Words.
“I’m not a mother but I have one. This is a subject I haven’t really spent time thinking about,” says Peterson who began working on the show about four years ago. “My biological clock never went off. It’s not a sorrowful thing for me that I didn’t have kids.”
THE PLAY IS THE THING
For Peterson, her main objective is to bring In Mother Words into focus. “All of these different plays have different tones,” she says. “Trying to get all of them right is tricky because there are lots of writers, actors and designers. They all have opinions. I’m just trying to chart a course. As the director I’m the decider on a daily basis. There are a lot of voices. Sometimes that’s great and sometimes a cacophony.
“I try to be fairly direct when I’m working. I’m not a game player and I don’t screw around with people’s psychology. I’m upfront. I do encourage people to tell me what they think. I’m not a dictator. I’m open to hearing other ideas. I try to balance.”
The more difficult a project, the more Peterson wants to delve right in. As she reads a particular work, she begins to see progress. “Sometimes I do see movement but I don’t plan it. I’m kind of seeing it in an abstract way. While reading, I see what the energy might be. I imagine particular actors. Sometimes I like things I don’t understand right away. I’m drawn when I don’t know how to do something. It’s partly visual, partly the rhythm. I like to focus on “˜what’s the main argument?’ I like a good, strong argument.”
Peterson saysÂ it’s also about the words on the page. “When I direct I believe in the answer being in the text. I’m a language person. I try to get all the actors interested in…how the language works. My approach deals with trying to find the life in the language.”
Directing has always been a natural fit for Peterson, who fell in love with theater as a kid. Initially, she wanted to act, Â but then something happened after she began directing in college. “I found it even more satisfying than acting. I caught the bug. You get addicted to it. I took a class and I directed my first scene and I had an epiphany. It was like turning the lights on and off. It happened in a split second. I love the theater. I guess it’s because it’s creative and you’re always learning and collaborating with people. I like to story tell and not just by myself.”
A confessed workaholic, Peterson also admits to getting inspiration by committee. “That’s why I’m not a writer, painter or composer. I like addressing issues with a group of people. By the time I got out of college, I knew it was what I wanted to do. And, I’ve always done it.”
In Mother Words opens Feb. 23; plays Wed.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 and 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; closes May 1. Tickets: $67-$77. Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles; 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.com. The performance runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Contains mature language and subject matter.Print