Playwright-Parents, Part One

Mike and Rehana are the Playwrights-in-Residence at Ma-Yi Theater Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about thier residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here

Rehana Lew Mirza, Mike Lew, baby and company
Rehana Lew Mirza and  Mike Le ,center, with their child and members of the  Ma-Yi Theater Company.
Photo courtesy of Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew. 

Mike Lew: The first year of our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation residency with Ma-Yi coincided with the birth of our first child, so we thought it might be instructive to do an ongoing series for HowlRound detailing our juggling act. Prior to the birth, the idea of navigating playwriting and parenthood had been a source of concern for us financially and logistically, as well as in terms of how parenthood would affect our writing output.

Rehana Lew Mirza: And how biases around motherhood would affect my career.

Mike: To be honest, we delayed parenthood for as long as possible in the hopes that our careers would be “stable” enough for us to take the time out to have a baby. There’s this idea that it’s unprofessional to tote your kid around to the theatre, yet theatre doesn’t pay enough to accommodate childcare.

Rehana: One thing we’ve learned this year is that there are plenty of people on the street ready to comment on what they think is bad parenting, and offer up what they think we’re doing wrong. I swear, we’d exit the doctor’s office with him crying, and someone would be like, “He’s hungry, you should feed him.”

Mike: Basically, what we’re saying is, please don’t fill our comments section with “You guys are bad parents.”

Rehana: Feel free to fill it with “you guys are bad playwrights.” That’s fine.

Mike: Insofar as it’s useful or interesting for anyone else out there starting this journey, what follows is a Year One timeline of our residency including public events where we took the baby, major away trips as they pertain to childcare, and as many memories and “takeaways” as we can dredge out of our tired tired tired tired sleep-deprived new parent brains.

We end our year of including the baby on all of our adventures and endeavors, happy that we’re still playwrights, happy that we’re still married, happy that the baby is still alive, happy for all the opportunities and open doors and kindness bestowed upon us, but also even more aware of the need to find balance within the juggling act.

YEAR ONE TIMELINE

March 2016: Mike’s play Teenage Dick has a Studio Workshop at The Public just as the baby arrives one month early.

Rehana: I went into labor on the opening night of Mike’s show Teenage Dick at The Public. It might have been hormones, labor, or just plain optimism, but I insisted he could see the show and make it back with plenty of time before our baby was born.

Mike: I stupidly consented. After all, the labor was projected to go on until the next morning and this was opening night at the Public. (The Public!) After getting Rehana settled into the hospital and arranging for a tag-team with her sister, I took the train back down to 8th St. and got there just before curtain.

Rehana: I remember my sister had busted out the stress-relieving coloring books and I was like, “What time is it? Oh, he’s about a half an hour into his show. Text Mike that nothing’s happening.”

Mike: I kept my phone on silent and held it in my lap, and in the middle of the play I started receiving a bunch of frantic “COME NOW!” texts from her sister. I blew past Oskar Eustis, became a walk-out for my own play, and raced back uptown to…y’know…attend the birth of my child.

Takeaways: If you’re at the hospital and you’re thinking of leaving, don’t.

April 1: At-home meeting/read-through of our musical Bhangin’ It with composer Sam Willmott.

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Rehana: We had scheduled a bunch of things in that last month of my pregnancy thinking we could get it all done before the baby was born. Suddenly we found ourselves becoming a circus theatre family overnight.

Mike: We’d scheduled a working session with our composer/lyricist Sam to work through any last-minute changes to Bhangin’ It before a read-through at the Lark. Even though Rehana was still in recovery, we kept the session but transferred locations to our apartment.

April 7: Lark Roundtable of Bhangin’ It

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Mike: We’d already scheduled the Lark reading of Bhangin’ It prior to the birth, and decided we’d be damned to cancel it given how hard it was to assemble that many South Asian actors. Rehana’s sister stayed home and watched the baby while Rehana (still recovering) and I went to the Lark.

May 11: At-home reading of Rehana’s play Hatef*ck

Rehana: We used the excuse of “come meet the baby” to do a casual reading of my play with friends. I can only hope this play didn’t seep into my baby’s subconscious as he slept under the table in his bouncy chair while I rocked him with my foot.

Takeaways: In retrospect, these first couple months were actually the best time to do at-home readings and meetings, because newborns sleep most of the time and when they do cry, it’s still that cute, “I don’t have fully developed lungs” cry.

May 23: Lilly Awards

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Rehana: I got the phone call that I got the Stacey Mindich “Go Write A Play” Lilly Award when the baby was only about a month old. As I said in my Lilly speech, this happened while one of us was curled up in fetal position and the other was crying that their career was over. This was a hugely fortifying moment when I felt like, OK, you can do this. You can be a mother and a playwright. We are a family, and we are going to do this as a family.

Mike: One of the comments that still haunts us from our early days dating was a friend’s assertion that one of us would have to quit the business when we had kids (as had happened with their artist family). We were drawn to each other because of our art, so while bearing no judgments on how other families’ situations works out, that notion never sat well with us. But the physical taxation of having a baby is real, as are the gendered perceptions around parenthood. Rehana gets hit much harder for that.

Rehana: Maria Semple wrote in an interview, speaking of her latest novel: “Despite all of society’s advances, there’s something unseemly about a mother being really ambitious. To be an artist requires a single-mindedness that is supposedly not maternal. Those things conflict with each other.” I struggle with that a lot.

May 26: Primary Stages reading of Rehana’s play Hatef*ck (with baby in audience).

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June 3: Vineyard reading of Mike’s play Tiger Style! (also with baby in audience).

Mike: In quick order, we took the baby to two public readings of our plays. At about two months, he was small enough we could keep him wrapped up in a Bjorn the whole time and he’d sleep through most of it. Whoever was holding him would stay near an aisle in case we’d need to duck out.

Rehana: I think the one thing I really struggled with throughout the first year is the balance of how I appeared to others as both a mother and an artist. I remember getting this passive aggressive “you shouldn’t be here” attitude when I brought the baby to Mike’s reading, whereas Mike would get photographed wherever he brought the baby like he was this rare species.

Mike: We still struggle with this, because the disparity in reactions serves neither of us.

Rehana: My best friend called me after someone had posted a photo of Mike feeding the baby at one of my events. My friend saw all the love and praise he was getting on social media and she was like, “Man, that sucks. You can’t be like, ‘Guys, he’s just being a parent’ because you’ll look like a bitch. But where are the photos of you and the adoring praise?’” And I was like, “Thank you. That’s what you’re here for. Tell me I’m awesome for changing this diaper.’”

Takeaways: In order for us to shift gendered perceptions around parenthood, theatres have to be confronted with actual children. Which means that taking your baby to work is as much a political act as it is a practical one.

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June 7-10: NNPN/InterAct workshop of Rehana’s play Neighborhood Watch in Philly. Baby’s first trip!

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Mike: Rehana had a workshop in Philly, and this was our first extended away trip, which required hauling an awful lot of gear. We’ve always known that theatre people are enormously community-minded and generous, but what we hadn’t realized was that theatre parents would bestow us with all of their baby clothes and baby items. We actually didn’t end up having to buy much. Like our director friend gave us a baby bjorn she’d gotten from a casting director friend, and we’ve just given it away to another playwright.

Rehana: In case you’re wondering from the photo, I’m not rollerblading to Philly. I got carpal tunnel (aka, “mommy wrist”) in my left hand from lifting the baby the wrong way. By the time we got to San Diego later in the year, I had it in both hands. I highly recommend going straight to the steroid shot and not doing this dumb hand brace.

Mike: Eventually I got it, too. They should really stop calling it “mommy wrist,” that kind of makes me feel bad.

Rehana: Parents, you know you’re splitting duties equally if you both end up with “mommy wrist.”

Mike: Dude, stop calling it “mommy wrist.”

Takeaways: 1) Theatre parents help each other! 2) Lift your baby properly. 3) Train trips are totally do-able for a baby because there’s enough room to maneuver a diaper change or soothe the baby by walking down the aisles. There’s also enough storage space to haul all your gear. Plane trips are harder…

June 4-12: Ma-Yi Labfest

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Mike: We took the baby to our fellow Ma-Yi Labbies’ reading series, where no one would tell us to leave.

Rehana: However, we did position the baby just outside the fire door so we could run away if he woke up.

Takeaways: Readings with a newborn are totally do-able; just position yourself strategically.

June 28 – July 16: O’Neill workshop of Teenage Dick. Baby's second trip!

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Rehana: The O’Neill was great for our baby. At first I was like, “Ooooh, are we gonna have to push two twin beds together and then wash bottles and give him a bath in a communal bathroom? Uhhh, how’s this gonna work?” But then, it did. And we could mindlessly get food at consistent times of the day that we didn’t have to cook! And we could nap him under the trees, and stick him on the porch and he’d have no shortage of intern and actor fans keeping him entertained (which I think contributes to his social nature today). It was actually really, really wonderful for a newborn.

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Mike: The O’Neill was the first long-term travel challenge for us, so this occasion probably merits two crucial notes about long trips:

1) Talk to the company manager before you leave. Theatres tend to be extremely accommodating about your needs but don’t necessarily know what you’ll need, so you have to anticipate your needs as thoroughly as possible and then play-test with the company manager. We already knew our housing needs would be super specific. We’d originally been scheduled to be in the same housing as the other writers, but having a baby screaming for food every two hours from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. would make us super unpopular super quick. We also oddly needed regular access to water for the constant bottle washing, so needed access to multiple (communal) bathrooms. If you anticipate all this beforehand and talk to the company manager, you’ll be in great shape. But if you go in blind you’ll be screwed. Our agents have also been extremely proactive about anticipating these needs and getting the groundwork set in our contracts.

2) Long trips present the challenge of hauling a ton of additional baby gear. A couple of space-saving suggestions:
*Instead of hauling a full baby tub, we brought a bath pillow
*Instead of a full pack-and-play, we opted to co-sleep with a Snuggle Nest
*We bought some stroller adapters that attached to our car seat, so that we didn’t need to bring both a car seat and a full stroller
*We found a bouncy chair that folds flat to accommodate easier transport.

Rehana: One piece of advice that I wish we’d considered more came from Jessica Bauman, a director who had been to the O’Neill when her baby was the same age. Jessica recommended we get a baby monitor with a really long range; that way you can hang out in the Pub while the baby sleeps in the main house. We were too cheap and lazy to investigate such a thing, and so I spent many a night sequestered in a tiny room binge-watching Netflix, wearing headphones in the dark while the baby slept next to me in his Nest, wistful of the revelers carousing all of twenty yards away from our room.

July 29 – July 31: Mellon convening in Boston. Baby’s third trip!

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Mike: A thrilling weekend of plenary sessions, play excerpts, and poopie diapies.

August 3: Mike’s reading of Teenage Dick at Hudson Valley Shakes. Baby’s fourth trip! 

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Mike: I got offered a one-day reading upstate, and Rehana had a writers’ group meeting the same day. The baby was still too small to be left at home with a sitter all day without either of us being nearby, so I opted to take him upstate and hired a local sitter to watch him right outside the rehearsal room.

Rehana: Before the baby came, we said that if this is gonna work, we’d have to act like we’re single parents every time we get offered an opportunity. We have to figure out how to make it work without suppressing the other person, or just assuming that they’ll be the default caretaker.

Mike: When someone offers me an artistic opportunity, they don’t necessarily think it will involve having to consider childcare.

Rehana: Which is super gendered. If we really want equality, we should be like, “Oh, this person is a father, he’s gonna need to think about his kid. Is he gonna be able to travel with a baby?” People definitely think that about the mom, but not the dad.

Mike: As a result, we’ll never know how many opportunities Rehana and other female artists have lost out of theatres’ assumptions around childcare.

Rehana: Which sucks because Mike’s great with the baby! Better than me! He’s gotta take the baby!

Takeaways: Dad, take the baby.

August 6th – September 16: Mike’s production of Tiger Style! at La Jolla Playhouse. Baby’s fifth trip!

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Mike: My play Tiger Style! had two major productions in a row at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and the Huntington in Boston. I’d also been offered a workshop of Teenage Dick at OSF in-between. Aside from this being an embarrassment of riches artistically, this was a next-level logistical challenge given the baby. Since my parents were in San Diego and could help out with childcare, we opted to go to San Diego as a family, then I’d go to OSF solo (due to the threat of multiple plane transfers), and then all three of us would be back-and-forth in Boston (since we didn’t have consistent childcare there).

Rehana: The only other option would be that Mike wouldn’t see his baby between August and November. Four months seemed a little excessive, so we finagled this scheme.

Mike: Four months would also be way too long to saddle Rehana with being the primary caretaker away from home, at the direct cost of her writing.

Rehana: The only problem was that this time was the perfect age for sleep-training the baby, and we opted not to begin it while traveling. Regret.

Mike: So, so much regret. But even with the sleep deprivation, I was still able to attend rehearsals by day and rewrite at night. We settled into a rhythm of having my parents take care of the baby and/or bringing Rehana to the theatre (with the baby in tow) so that she could write while the baby slept and I’d visit them on the ten-minute breaks. Even so, I did end up skipping some rehearsals I wouldn’t have otherwise skipped. But I wonder whether letting go of every little detail was in some ways healthy, especially during the weeks when the actors were getting off book and the writer’s hawk-like attention isn’t as useful anyhow. For better or worse having the “distraction” of a baby has made me more reliant on my collaborators and less able to sweat the minutiae of the rehearsal process.

Rehana: On my end, while I had trepidations about being seen as a nanny during Mike’s production, I have to say La Jolla was extremely embracing of me being a dual and equal artist and went out of their way to provide me writing space.

Mike: It helped that La Jolla has co-commissioned us on another project, so Rehana was already coming to them as a fellow artist.

Rehana: We ended up doing a reading for my play on one of the off nights, and I’m super grateful for them for putting that together, given what else they had going on. The idea for me to work on some artistic stuff came out of advice that we had solicited from Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez, who had just come out of La Jolla doing their musical Up Here. Kristen mentioned that the first year is particularly hard, and that it was important to have dependable childcare in place, and to have a community of adults to report to so you don’t just feel like the spouse. So that’s how the workshop/reading came about.

Takeaways: If you’re going into production, make sure both of your needs are being met both art-wise and childcare-wise, because six weeks away from home is too long for one partner to be riding sidecar. Also, try to plan for the separate rhythms of early rehearsal, late rehearsal, and previews, and how the baby’s presence will affect each part of the process. (For example, are you a morning rewriter or a late night rewriter? It doesn’t matter, you’re always exhausted!)

October 12–October 17th: Tiger Style! at the Huntington in Boston. Baby’s sixth trip!

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Mike: For Boston we used a different mode of living entirely. I’d rehearse a few days in Boston and then take the train back to New York, and after several weeks of this back-and-forth we did a full family trip during previews. Again I had to rely on my director and cast much more than I usually would (since I couldn’t be there 24/7 watching it all unfold), but this was also the third production of Tiger Style! and several of the actors had done the world premiere in Atlanta, so letting go of my white-knuckle grip on the reins was perhaps a good thing.

December 6–12: Back to San Diego to work on Rehana’s new play reading in La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA Series. Baby’s seventh trip!

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Mike: We went back to San Diego to work on Rehana’s LJP commission.

Rehana: I think this was actually a harder trip than the previous ones because it was so short, and it was hard to get the baby used to the time zone change so quickly. I probably would have wanted to get in a week earlier, but I had a Lark Playwrights Workshop in New York. Also, we relied solely on what childcare Mike’s parents could offer, as opposed to hiring a sitter. But the level of rewrites I needed to do for a brand-new play having an early-phase reading is totally different from refining a play that’s further along.

Mike: Even with me watching the baby during rehearsals, and with my parents chipping in, there wasn’t any way to get separation during the evenings.

Rehana: Having that headspace would have been helpful.

Mike: At this point the kid is nine months old, so in addition to the sleep irregularity, his care demands are more pronounced, and the traveling circus act is frankly starting to look less feasible.

Rehana: I think that’s right, at least for short stints. The baby’s also not sleeping all the time anymore, so we can’t just hang out with him and write. He’s gonna wanna use that computer as his pounding toy, and demand attention if I’m around.

Takeaways: 1) Plane flights are harder than train trips. 2) Traveling with an infant is harder than traveling with a newborn. 3) Factor for time zones, sleep training, and teething...then make a value judgment.

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Jan 25–28, 2017: Rehana goes with a writers’ group to the Arizona border (Momma’s first trip solo!).

Mike: I think it’s useful to point out that my first solo trip was four months earlier than Rehana’s. Even with the intention of co-parenting, between pregnancy recovery and breastfeeding, Rehana was less physically able to leave than I was. She’d actually gotten a sweet retreat offer right around her due date that she painfully had to decline.

Rehana: Pumping blows. By now, I had stopped pumping! I was lucky to have directors who were completely cool with me setting the breaks around my boob times, and also one awesome gent who was like, “Just pump and we’ll chat about your play, give notes, I don’t care.”

March 15th: Ma-Yi Labfest reading of Hatef*ck

Rehana: For this one, the baby isn’t present.

Mike: By this point the kid is such a wriggling crawling hissing bag of snakes that expecting two hours of silence out of him at a public event is pretty much all but impossible, even among our closest of understanding friends.

April 2–6: Rehana goes to Bennington with Primary Stages Writers Group (Momma’s first writing retreat!)

Mike: I have nearly no recollection of solo-parenting this week. I guess that means I survived?

April 10–13: Mike goes to St. Louis Rep for a workshop of Teenage Dick.

Rehana: I have nearly no recollection of solo-parenting this week. I guess that means I survived?

April 15–20: Rhinebeck Writers Retreat to work on Bhangin’ It. Baby’s eighth trip!

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Rehana: And full-circle! A year ago we had an at-home reading of Bhangin’ It just days after the baby arrived, and now we go into a full workshop with Rhinebeck Writers Retreat.

Mike: This involves a cold read at the Lark, followed by a weeklong writing retreat in Rhinebeck with Sam, followed by a 29-hour workshop in NYC. To be honest it nearly killed us. With both of us working on the same project at the same time, we knew we’d need outside help, so we hired our playwright friend to watch the baby in Rhinebeck and our actor friend to watch him during rehearsals in NYC. Even so, the kid is now walking and always trying to brain himself on dangerous objects, and getting any kind of mental separation (least of all in a thin-walled Victorian house) is bonkers.

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Final Takeaways

Rehana: We end our year of including the baby on all of our adventures and endeavors, happy that we’re still playwrights, happy that we’re still married, happy that the baby is still alive, happy for all the opportunities and open doors and kindness bestowed upon us, but also even more aware of the need to find balance within the juggling act.

Mike: Once we find a rhythm, the baby completely changes. But we’re artists; our lives have never been stable and within this fellowship (and having a home at Ma-Yi) we’re actually the most stable we’ve ever been.

Rehana: That’s what being an artist is—being able to adapt and find stability even in the most tenuous of circumstances.

Mike: One thing that isn’t even included in this timeline (because it wasn’t a “public event”) is the fact that throughout the year we were writing and meeting up at Ma-Yi the whole time—a luxury of an artistic home we’re acutely aware is a rarified privilege.

Rehana: And we’ll keep meeting up and writing at that home for as long as they’ll let us.

Mike: So as for the progress of this ongoing experiment in playwright-parenting, check back with us again in a year.

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Wow! You guys are amazing. Thanks for taking the time to write this up--it'll be helpful and inspiring for many young parent-artists. (My kids are mostly grown now, and I was the playwright-stay-at-home-dad for many years--my wife had a regular day job.) The article brings back so many memories of my kids when they were little and I was trying to write and run a small theatre company. Congrats on all your writing and parenting success!

thanks for writing this, & for sharing some of the journey & mad wisdom (& mad photos). you guys rock.

This post is quite seriously a brilliant public service, and you're bringing back so many memories for me. I gave birth to twins while running a theater company, and we just had an R-rated office for 6 months or so. I was the boss, so I was able to adjust everything so it worked for me, but even so my company members didn't really "get it" until years later when they had kids of their own.

Since then I have worked at several other companies that have never once had a parent on staff, and it always amazes me. Our work schedules are not conducive to having kids, but that's a reminder both that kids are flexible and resilient (they don't know it's supposed to be any other way) and that theater can also afford to be more flexible because it to is resilient. We're creative people—we can find solutions to these issues.

If you can keep the sense of humor that you demonstrate in this post, you'll be fine. Your little one will not be little for long, and traveling/scheduling etc gets gradually easier from age 3 until they are in school. Then it gets easier in different ways at about 7yo because they are old enough to deal with one parent being gone for extended periods (thank you video-chat). And by the time they are my kids' age (11), they actually want you to be working on a play so they can hang out in rehearsals and feel like part of the cool crowd.

All this to say congrats on your theater-baby, and know all the other theater parents before you and those theater parents-to-be are wishing you all the success in the world.

Loved this article. The validation about the gender roles. My husband is a musician and I am an actor/writer. Our son he came with us everywhere. He became a part of our lives not the other way around. People constantly asked me if I was still acting but never asked my husband if he was still playing music. I appreciated that you said theaters need to include children/families! Yes! I *know* I didn't get a couple of jobs because they didn't want to deal with the childcare aspect. I have actor "friends" that have been disapproving. On top of it, we're homeschoolers. He's 13 now and we're still at it. THANK YOU, for sharing your story.

I think it's so great that you shared this time (and these AMAZING pictures of your SWEET baby) with us. The more we see artists parent, the more theaters will think about the issues, childcare, accomodations, etc.

Thank you for sharing. I think theater parents have mostly done what they needed to in order to be artists and parents, but done it silently. It is important that we share our stories.I had no idea when I had my first child (then my second) while continuing working full-time in the theater, that I was making a political statement. In hindsight (my sons are 16 and 18 now), I most certainly was.And the criticism for women is very real. But as artists, we do what we must. And it's a beautiful life to share with children.

MIke and Rehana, thanks for this funny, honest, real account of your first year as artist-parents! It's clear that it takes a village, but also clear that there's more theaters can do to accommodate and help playwright (and other artist) parents so we don't lose them and their work from our community. And congratulations on your beautiful son! - Sue Ferziger

Thank you for sharing! As an artistic director of 20 years, an actor husband and 3 kids 10 and under... I totally understand and commend you for such an amazing first year!! The struggle and juggle is real, but it sounds like you're approaching it with respect and thoughtfulness, and a healthy dash of humor. All of which are necessary to survive.

Amazing! Congratulations! The "balance" is hard. And the gender norms are hard too! Way to go for all the amazing work you fit into that incredible year both on and off the stage. I did grad school with a baby and people are constantly amazed. I guess we parents need to be way more transparent about our lives and how we are making it work. I'd love to read an update from the next year!

Okay, this article is awesome (adorable, insightful, useful AF) and everything, but why does it look like Kimber and I are having an existential crisis? We're just enjoying the view while eating some dinner!

A) Ya'll are adorable.

B) Y'all are damn informative on how to balance everything. Parenting/theatre making combine to make a life.

Thank you, Rehana and Mike, for being so vulnerable sharing your process with us. It's vital we, as artist-parents, keep pulling back the shame curtain and show that it is possible, it can be positive, and that it is absolutely individual. There is no one way to do this dance.

My husband and I tour most of the year with our two children in all its many configurations. The issues you both speak to—from disparity to redefining professionalism—resonate deeply. Thank you. Keep living/parenting/creating out in the open. #inSolidarityLove,Jess