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The Mother of All Emotions

For a long time, I thought of my beloved extended theatre community as my family. When you get rejected as a painter or a poet, you might feel badly. You might punch a wall or cry uncontrollably as you question your self-worth, talent, and life choices. Hopefully, you eventually shake it off and get back to work. But, when your “family” doesn’t invite you to play with them (and, when it comes down to the brass tracks, what do we seemingly responsible adults actually do together when we make theatre except play?), it impacts more than simply your psychic realms.

When you are told “no thank you” as a theatre artist, it messes with your schedule—the guiding principles, perimeters, and constraints that our past selves tried to impose on our current selves in service of our future selves. When we finally do land a job in theatre, most of us have to rearrange our day jobs. If the gig is out of town, we must create new nests. In these temporary homes in different cities, you find an instant family—your collaborators. Like with family, it’s a crap shoot whether or not you’ll get along well, but your intention is to do so. Your goals are aligned. You know you’ll either rise or sink together.

In the particular case of a playwright, the actors that you cast often remind you of your actual family members—including people who are no longer with us. When you recreate the words or dramatize the deeds of one’s beloved dead onstage, you get to watch heightened versions of them live again night after night. When the show ends, it can mean the playwright mourns the same people twice. Not exactly a recipe for good mental health, you might think. Or perhaps the best recipe.

The reality is—if you’re a theatre artist—your life will feel more full when you are working. It’s the times you can’t get work that you need to make sure that there is more to your life than work.

Eight people dressed semi-formally.

Playwright Betty Shamieh (Left) shortly before she gave birth during a workshop of Fit for a Queen at New Dramatists with her “theatre family” Erin Cherry, Florencia Lozano, Andre De Shields, Chad Goodridge, Colman Domingo (Director), Angela Lewis, and Tonya Pinkins. Photo Credit: Imani Uzari.

Easy enough to say, but what does that mean exactly? I’d argue it means bursting out of your shell. Doing the hardest thing you can think of. Growing. That’s what I tried to do when I decided to create a family. In that forever weird (and impossible to fully delineate), evolving space between being an emerging artist and a mid-career artist, I became a mother.

When I found out I was pregnant, I was scheduled to do a semester-long artistic residency at Denison College in Ohio—a gig I took mainly so I could work on a student production of Malvolio, my sequel to Twelfth Night. Working within the university system was the only way I could find resources to develop that, not unambitious, script. At the time, it seemed that it was mainly white dudes who were afforded the opportunity to write sequels and prequels to classics that got the developmental support and splashy Broadway premieres. I found little enthusiasm for a woman of color like myself daring to engage with classical material and themes.

In those years, I hated leaving my home in New York for more than a month. But, I gladly took that gig in Ohio when I realized I would be writing for two. It meant less people I knew in theatre would see me pregnant, waddling up the subway stairs. Why the urge to hide? I think it’s because I wasn’t just becoming a parent. I was becoming a mother.

When I was a student, there seemed to be only male playwrights who gained iconic status. You had Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. The living playwrights who were poised to take their place were Tony Kushner and August Wilson. At that time, there were no models for women playwrights whose work was supported throughout the ups and downs of their careers—and certainly not to the extent that those men seemed to be. The men were allowed to fail and get a crack at the bat again in a way that didn’t seem true for women artists of their generations.

In graduate school, I felt that the most successful women in the years ahead of me were those who had mastered the art of masking their true selves. Only amongst friends did these women talk nakedly about their belief that they had it in them to write a seminal work of American theatre or how they hide their politics in their plays to make them more palatable for wider audiences. I watched how they played it safe in their plays and in public arenas, leading them to get more opportunities than their more bombastic counterparts.

The savviest female artists I know can manage the trapeze act of seeming humble while simultaneously selling themselves as geniuses. Make no mistake—that’s what people are looking for when they bet on your horse by producing your play. No one is gonna put a half a million bucks into a project that inauspiciously begins with you writing in your pajamas in your bedroom, unless you can convince them your work has some secret sauce. That you have the potential to eventually make an indelible mark on American theatre. That you’re one of the big boys. To me, nothing highlighted my gender, which I saw as a career liability, as much as bearing a baby.

I wondered, Am I the only one who feels that the public persona I present—the family I can show or hide from the world—affects how I am perceived, which will have consequences for my life and my career?

So, I hid the birth of my child. That sounds a bit dramatic. In reality, I basically didn’t post about my pregnancy or the birth on Facebook. I would only mention that I had become a mom to the people I encountered in real time, which usually meant I was working on a project with them. I’m a confessional writer, so not oversharing doesn’t come naturally to me. I told myself I was being professional, which is code for masking the parts of yourself that might induce shame or garner you disdain from people you fear might have power over you and your career.

I’m, of course, not capable of judging how being a female playwright affects my career vis-à-vis my male counterparts, but I know intimately how gender dynamics work when it comes to directors. I believe I have collaborated with some of the best living American theatre directors working today. The women, who are often immensely talented, are not in the same stratosphere professionally as the men—not in terms of having the ability to keep getting a crack at the bat if they don’t knock it out of the park with every project.

To reach your full potential as an artist, you have to have the opportunity to fail greatly and learn from it, grow, and work again. I saw these brilliant female directors never become the “anointed” one in that way, and it meant they worked less. While I delight in seeing them making inroads in our field in ways women have never done before, I mourn for the artists they might have been if they were afforded the same chances.

I didn’t look like the master playwrights I studied who had the opportunity to develop over the span of a lifelong career—especially with an infant now strapped to my chest. So, I couldn’t see the possibility of a career like the one I dreamed of happening for women like me. I wondered, Am I the only one who feels that the public persona I present—the family I can show or hide from the world—affects how I am perceived, which will have consequences for my life and my career? Is this a problem particular to women artists? Then, I remembered I once read of another playwright who obviously struggled with those same questions.

Arthur Miller was born on my birthday. He’s about as different from me on the surface as you can get. He was a tall Jewish man. I’m a petite Palestinian woman. Incidentally, Rita Hayworth was also born on that day, too. I think, if they had a love child, it might look like me. But, I digress.

Two people sitting down at a tropical set.

Betty Shamieh with director Samer Al-Saber at a talkback on the set of As Soon As Impossible, the first in-person production since the pandemic produced by the Theater and Performance Studies department at Stanford University. Photo Credit: Marina J. Bergenstock.

 

Arthur Miller hid the existence of a son born with Downs Syndrome for almost four decades, committing the infant to a mental institution at one week old. Miller virtually cut his child out of his life, refusing to visit him regularly, and did not mention his existence in his memoir. What did it cost the author of a play called All My Sons to hide the birth of one of his? To not invest the enormous life energy it takes to parent a young child—an energy not unlike the occasionally awesome but mostly punishing work of being a playwright?

What kind of plays would he have written if he had faced how he—the man famous for writing about fathers and sons—could do such a thing and, more importantly, why? I daresay they would have been plays worth having. I daresay there could have been a more honest memoir Miller could have written, which would have impacted more people than the bloodless one he put out instead.

This was a man of utmost principal in many regards. Miller refused to name names during the height of McCarthyism, a brave choice that might have obliterated his career and standing within his community as it did to so many other unlucky writers and artists. In that way, he treated his fellow artists as if they were family, meaning worthy of protection, despite the cost is might have exacted upon him personally. That’s not a stand that I’m sure everyone in my circle of theatre friends, including me, might have taken in his place.

What lessons might we learn from Arthur Miller’s choices as a person and a playwright? No matter how powerful a person may outwardly seem, we all suffer from the malady of wanting to be seen in a certain light, because we are terrified of what will happen if we are not. Nowhere is that fear more potent than when it comes to forming families. We fear judgment whether we are single or married, childed or childless. Even when the circumstances in our lives are clearly not within the sphere of our control, we fear they actually somehow are and we are too stupid or damaged to know it. Fear is the mother of all emotions.

“What of love?” you might ask. Doesn’t love trump fear? Maybe. But, perhaps our attempts at creating families and works of art are not as noble in nature as we purport them to be. Perhaps we are simply grasping to catch hold of something or someone that will outlast us.

We are all part of the human family, meaning the plot of our lives follows the same trajectory. Whether we have ten grandkids or write ten plays that are produced long after we’re gone, it doesn’t change the fact that we are born into this world and will leave it alone. We are all trying to act less frightened than we feel—about the hand we are dealt and how we are playing it—and we do better at being gentler with each other and ourselves when we remember that.

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