Go Down, Miss Moses: Quiara Alegría Hudes, Erin McKeown, and Lear deBessonet
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
April 17th, 2018
Towards the end of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck, faced with what seems like an impossible situation, oscillates between doing what he’s been taught is the good and moral thing to do, and what he believes is the right thing to do. He decides to forgo the teachings of society and the church, and says one of the novel’s most famous lines: “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” Beyond this scene, I have no memory of reading Huckleberry Finn in high school, but I vividly remember my high school English teacher talking about this moment and urging us to remember something that I had made light of at the time: Huck truly believed that he was going to hell for following his own impulses of morality. His renunciation is about more than just what he will do and who he will be, but also about the losing of his ability to see his world as one with fixed and unchangeable ideas of right and wrong.
Part of going from childhood to adulthood is figuring out how to make choices in an imperfect and complicated world. Olivia, the teenage protagonist of the new musical Miss You Like Hell, faces a big choice: will she help her long absent mother, Beatriz, not get deported? In a tale loosely inspired by The Odyssey, Beatriz and Olivia drive from Philadelphia, where Olivia has been living with her father, to California, the location of Beatriz’ immigration hearing. Along the way they fight, meet people, pray, commit turtle-cide, and grapple with their own agency—or lack thereof—and how that affects what choices they make. Olivia is a child of books (she also writes and has a blog with a following), and narrative has informed much of her worldview of how people should be, how mothers should be, how things should be. Of course, the devastating thing about stories is they simultaneously give us a framework to measure and make our choices, and for them to fracture. And it always has a cost.
Miss You Like Hell is an ambitions and expansive musical. It has book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, music by singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, and is directed by Public Works founder Lear deBessonet. On the eve of opening night, I talked with Quiara and Erin, and the following day talked to Lear, about how they developed the musical, their own spirituality, and moral purity in an imperfect world.
The following interviews have been edited and condensed.
Part 1: Quiara and Erin
I read that you started working on Miss You Like Hell in 2011 and that it’s loosely adapted from a play of Quiara’s, 26 Miles. What was your collaboration process like for switching forms into a musical?
Quiara: It started with the play. Erin read the play and then we met and discussed it. We had lunch. We discussed the play and what I wanted to stay the same and the parts where I was open [to change]. And then we just started outlining. That did not take the form of what looks like a college [essay] outline. It took the form of just us talking about what we wanted the themes to be, and talking about the Odyssey and how closely did we or did we not want to adhere to that structure. That outlining processes was a year, at least, and then we started writing.
Erin: I just had a really strong memory of us watching Oh, Brother Where Art Thou together. When we started, we did a lot of watching things together and trading songs. We made playlists for each other, and sat on the couch and traded songs. And then we watched a lot of stuff together. We went to a lot of shows together. I feel like we were doing all of that either before we made the outline or just as the outline was coming together. But that was all basically before we had a real draft.
Quiara: We went to the Lincoln Center archive and watched some stuff there that we thought might be relevant.
Erin: It was good because we really didn’t know each other.
Quaira: In addition to opening our minds to some aesthetics and techniques we were interested in, it was helpful getting the same vocabularies.
Erin: So we had shared points of reference.
Quiara: I would say prior, we had actually come with really different vocabularies. The music that you were listening to and the music that I listened to—our playlists were really different. Even our movies, we didn’t have a ton of mutual points of reference. So that was helpful.
When you sat down and started writing, did you go in order, or was there one thing that jumped out at both of you as, “This seems like a good way into setting the tone and making it what we want it to be”?
Quiara: I did a very, very rough draft. I wouldn’t even call it a rough draft. I wrote through the plot with rudimentary dialogue. And within that rough writing through, there were indications of where songs might go. I don’t believe we went chronologically.
Erin: Instead, it was more like, “Okay, where do we want to start?” There were some songs, like what is now “Baggage,” which had everyone in the cast singing, and we didn’t want to start there. That would have been too complicated a place to start. We wanted to figure out what Olivia’s online world sounded like, what her online world was. I think that is the first piece of musical experimentation that I did, and it doesn’t sound anything like how it ended up now. But it was a start and I think we worked through the “Mothers” song. I think it was a really early one. And in some ways it’s sort of our version of a list song—and there are a couple of those in the show. But I think “Mothers” was the first one. It was trying to lay out the world between a mystic mother and a real mother and literary mother and a remembered mother, all of those different points of what a mother is, which I think was really helpful.
There has been a lot of talk about the fact that the show portrays a mother-daughter relationship that’s complicated. One of the things that I thought was really interesting about it was how much the journey had to do with women discovering their own agency and how they wanted to use it.
Quiara: That’s really important, I think, for Beatriz. She is pretty aware of her own agency, though it has its limitations on a purely legal basis because she is not documented. But she is aware of her power within the world as a human being in communities. I think one of the discoveries that her character makes is that she has the right to feel pain, and for that to be acknowledged and dealt with by her daughter. I don’t know if I can think of that as agency, though it’s a compelling question. Is part of a woman’s agency the right to demand space for feeling pain?
Erin: I think it’s definitely part of agency.
Quiara: I guess that’s what #MeToo is actually about though. Beatriz’ pain is not related to any sort of violation sexually, but it is about saying publicly: we are not going to suffer in private. We are allowed to share our suffering publicly, and do that together. I think Olivia’s agency is more traditional in that she discovers the severe limitations of being an isolator, the limitations of the romantic hermit identity, and the power of simply being in space with other people. She discovers what it means to reach out a hand to other human beings in real life space.
Another thing I thought was interesting is that so much hinges on a character having to make decisions in terms of what they think is right or wrong.
Erin: It’s been a long time since I have thought about the show this way, because I mostly have been thinking about the show in terms of technical function, within the trenches of this thing that needs to happen at this measure, and this needs to happen at this measure. And that is an important part of the storytelling, but I forget that there are also these large questions. There is a morality to it. There is a question of why would you do something for someone, and under what circumstances. The way I think about it is that whenever we have the opportunity to have a character make a choice, we try to keep it as complicated as possible, and to keep it as multi-layered as possible. So it’s harder for me to point to a particular moment and say there is morality that we are trying to show in that. I feel like we are just trying to keep it complicated and singular, in the sense of this is what this one person did in this one situation, which sort of resists the larger lesson of the show.
How did you manage to balance the plot and the themes of the show?
Quiara: That constituted a large bulk of our work. What I hope is one of the thrills of the piece is that, at its core, there is a really emotional story about these two women, about this mother and daughter. But it is balancing that with an odyssey journey, which is a kind of a larger than life epic. In this case, a shared hero’s journey, in which they meet all sorts of fanciful creatures—these creatures being other humans. So just getting to a place where the mechanics of that plot felt like it had levity and thrust, that was a lot of the balancing. In some ways, the balance was off in La Jolla, and we could feel it. It wasn’t hugely off, but it wasn’t where we wanted it to be. The plot was overwhelming the themes at that point, I think.
When we first got together and we outlined, a lot of that outlining was actually just coming up with what themes we wanted, and some of those have stuck around more vigorously than others. One of the ones that I remember—we put them on index cards—was American mythology and American iconography. I do think we stuck with that, and even in the plot mechanics about who they meet on the way and how those people help them or don’t help them on the way, that there is an American mythology we were playing with and in discussion with. They meet two bikers in retirement, and that very much strikes me as a kind of classic American type, and it’s fun to spend a little time with them and discover the ways that they kind of veer from that or adhere to that type. There is a National Park incident that they have, which is also is dealing with that mythology. There is a street vendor who brings a Pan American mythology into the center. He is Peruvian and he talks a lot about his recipe for tamales. I think that “Tamales” song is a good example of plot and theme marrying on how we love each other, and how we make a living on a daily basis.
Erin: Also something that we learned from La Jolla was when you talk about the mythological America and the iconography of America, one of the glorious things about driving across the country, is you sort of get inundated with all of these images, but how do you make them stick together? In La Jolla, we almost literally tried to show them as well. I think we were more visually trying to capture American iconography. Something we learned was that it was actually more in the service of the magic of the piece, and of the experience of America, if we showed less, and let the things be in the text. So we don’t see much about the motel parking lot where they meet the bikers. We don’t see the host of images that Olivia sings about when she is driving for the first time. But, in some ways, having made that choice, it lets that iconography live in a much more vibrant way, but it took us a second to figure that out.
In other interviews, there’s been discussion about how we’re living in a political moment that makes the show very timely, but the show actually takes place a couple of years ago. What has your thinking been in terms of how to handle that, or are there any concerns about that?
Quiara: I have a really strong feeling about that, which is I think some people do feel that the play is really polemical or polarized, but one of the actors was telling me about a friend of his who came and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s so political, it’s so anti-Trump,” and this actor reminded his friend this was written before Trump. This was written years before Trump and, in fact, the piece has not changed, the center of the piece has not changed, and it’s the context of the story that has become far more politicized, far more aggravated as a conversation. I understand that today is the context in which the audience comes in and hears these words, but in fact I think the story has been one that would have resonated 20 years ago, would have resonated eight years ago. These issues and these concerns are not new to this country. The tambour of the conversation is what has reached a fever pitch.
Erin: If you think about the final image of the play, that is not a new image, that is an interaction that’s been going on. That spot that we depict was built in the early 1970s. So that image that maybe someone might point to as the most highly politicized moment of the show is actually an image that is 30 years old.
Do you think there’s anything about the response that’s gendered? In the sense that something like Angels in America, yes, it’s a political play, yes, it’s an AIDS play, but first and foremost it’s talked about as a good play. Do you feel like because this is a piece with female authors there’s any rush to simplify it or try to make it one thing?
Quiara: I haven’t felt that.
Erin: No, that hasn’t been an experience that I’ve had so far. The conversations that I’ve had with people, and the way that people are starting to talk about it, to me has remained pretty complicated, and acknowledging the complication. So far if there’s anything gendered that’s happening, it has been acknowledge the satisfaction of having a mother-daughter narrative at the center of something and the satiating of a hunger for that, but I haven’t felt like things have been simplified or anything because of who made it.
Quiara: Someone on Twitter today shared that he had brought his 14 and 11 year old daughters to see it. I loved that, because he was just expressing their connection with the piece. I’ve had friends who’ve come and now are going to come back with their daughters. Last weekend, one of my friends came to a Saturday matinee and brought her teenage daughter back to the Sunday matinee. It’s exciting to think about a piece that centers daughterhood in a way that gets parents excited, and the daughterhood is super complicated, so it’s not like some warm, fuzzy picture.
Erin: It’s not like an after school special.
Quiara: Right, but I think it brings up things that adolescents deal with a lot, like depression, anxiety, intelligence, sex, and it talks about them in a comical, yet pretty blunt way. So I really like that.
If there’s anything gendered about the piece, it’s probably coming from me. I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of people reviewing the piece will be men, and that freaks me out a little bit. Not that I think a man can’t get it—we’ve had many male audience members who deeply connect with the piece—but I feel outnumbered, and that scares me.
The New Yorker article about the show talked about the show’s spirituality, and I found that really interesting as well. Why did you think it was important to have that as a piece of the show and how do you feel the musical aspect helped with that angle?
Erin: We spent a lot of time thinking about how we wanted to communicate with our musical choices.
Quiara: How did the spiritual component of the play inform the musical choices? So much with “Lioness.” First of all, we knew we had to have a song that captured Beatriz’s essence praying, and so, it had to be drums. It had to start with drums to respect the ceremonial aspect of it and the energetic aspect of it, and the drums are still central.
Erin: Even in the bigger picture, there are many kinds of spirituality that are represented in the show, and I think that’s also an important choice on our part so we don’t just experience Beatriz’s spirituality. We also experience the different ways the different characters [are spiritual]. They may not pray with a capital “P,” but their choices expresses spirituality.
Specifically, musically, we made two choices that I think are important. One is rhythm. I think that’s a spiritual choice for the whole piece. The songs are built on rhythm, and they’re built on motion, and they’re built on energy. You can look in many spiritual traditions and find that that’s a central piece of what’s happening, in terms of creating a connection between an earthly world and a spiritual world. And the other thing is, we decided early on that everyone was going to sing, that there were going to be a lot of moments where people were going to sing. Not just two people, not just three people, but a chorus of people singing, and I feel like there’s an enormous spirituality in that choice. What happens when a bunch of people sing together, not just in unison, but in harmony, as a big tent that everyone’s voice is welcome in? I think that is an important spiritual choice. It took us a second to figure out how to get everyone singing. The music and the spiritual choices that we made had to then dictate the staging, and it took us a second to figure that out.
Quiara: I think the production found its wings this time around in a discovery about why they all sing, and what kind of space the story lives in, and it is about the connection of community and spirit, I think.
Do you both have spiritual lives that you feel impact your work?
Quiara: Yeah, I do. What I love about the piece is, I think that if you randomly go to see ten pieces of theatre in New York, it tends to skew towards atheism as a default and secularism as a default, and I don’t think that actually is an accurate reflection of who people are. So we made a choice here that rather than assume that that’s everyone’s default on stage, that, in fact, Olivia has to defend her atheism as a choice and an identity, just as much as Beatriz has to assert her spirituality as a different choice and as a different identity and as a different way of walking through the world.
I’m half Puerto Rican and half Jewish. The Jewish side of my family is secular. But there’s just no default worldview, and I was steeped in a lot of different religious traditions, and it was my work as an individual to use those to move forward as an artist and as a person, and that’s been a challenge I really loved, so I want to imbue my characters with that kind of richness and those sorts of dichotomies and choices. I feel that my identity as someone with a mixed background is not unusual. I think it reflects how a lot of people feel and what a lot of people experience.
Erin: I was raised Catholic, and I’m not a practicing Catholic, and I do not defend Catholicism in any way, but there’s a couple things that Catholicism gave me that I do feel like impact my work. Catholicism does have a mystic part to it, and it does have a ritualistic part to it, and it does have a heightened language to it, and those are all things that marked upon me early. Not just a Latin Mass, but also the translation of the Latin Mass and some of the prayers are in heightened mystical language, and I took that with me when I left Catholicism.
I think my current spiritual practice that’s affecting this piece is saying hello to a stranger, and being willing to find common ground with someone that you don’t think you could identify with, but you can identify and not compare. That openness to people around you, and openness to coincidence and happenstance and being surprised by what the world shows you in each moment. That’s where I feel like my spirituality has impacted this piece.
Like you were saying before, in this piece there are a lot of complicated choices for the characters, and nothing is black or white. In thinking about that, and everything that’s been going on in the entertainment industry, it’s not an industry where moral purity can survive for long. In terms of your work, have you been thinking about how to balance what you’re comfortable with and what supports things you believe in, versus the realities of the industries that you’re working in?
Erin: In my early 20s when I had a lot of opportunities, a lot of money, and a lot of choices to make, I had to make the kind of choices that you’re talking about where you have to decide if it feels like a compromise, and if it does feel like a compromise are you going to go through with it, and how do you make a decision? In my early 20s, I struggled more with those things or felt like there was more of a morality or that a choice felt right or a choice felt wrong, or like a compromise was difficult or not. I feel infinitely less bothered by any of those questions as an older person who had a bunch of success and then it went away. Life gets level, which is, I make my choices based on, “Do I like the person that I’m working with? Does this bring me an opportunity that feels creatively challenging?” and that’s what I make my choices from. Because I’ve lived with and without money, and I have lived with and without recognition of what I’m doing, and I’m fine.
I had struggles earlier in my career of: should I be more feminine or not feminine? My sexualness and my sexuality were both in play, and I made choices one way or the other based on any of that stuff, and regretted some, and others were great. But, on the other side of all that with a bunch of time past, I really just try to decide if the person I want to work with is a nice person, and does the work challenge me, and that’s been a really great way for me to think about all of it. Even with the addition of #MeToo, that works fine with those two questions for me.
Quiara: I don’t know if it’s the initial reason I chose the life of theatre, but it’s definitely the reason I’ve stuck with the life of theatre, because at the end of the day, I own the copyright, Erin and I own the copyright. This is actually our work, and that is profoundly different in film and TV, for instance.
Erin: And music.
Quiara: [In other mediums] We would be in a labyrinth of other people making decisions about our work and having the power to make those decisions about our work. Of course there are always power dynamics in theatre too, but we get to make those decisions. We get to choose the cast, we get to choose the designers, it’s an extraordinary amount of power. I love it, and I try to use it as responsibly, and as reality-based as possible—and I say “reality,” which is my way of saying diversity. I think that in more typically upscale productions, in deep and recent New York past, they’re not diverse, necessarily. You see a lot more wealth depicted on stage, you see a lot more male characters depicted on stage, and that that’s an active choice, too. That’s not a default. By muscle memory now, we think of that as the default, so things other than that feel like a radical choice, but actually that’s the radical choice.
In terms of who we wrote roles for, who we cast, our creative team, that is actually a much less radical choice—it’s just simply reflective of reality. That’s why I proselytize when people ask me do I have any advice for young writers. I’m frequently like: be a playwright, because you will have a tremendous amount of power. It will be tricky to navigate that power. Sometimes you feel extremely powerless, especially if you don’t get produced. It’s not a solution to all your problems, but it’s nice, essentially, being the one in charge, the one who is expected to steer the ship.
Part 2: Lear
When I was talking to Quiara and Erin yesterday, they talked about how they started working on the show in 2011 and it was a long process. When did you come into that process?
I came in 2013. I’ve been with it for five years. So, they had already been working for basically two years before I came forward.
When you got involved, how did you find this process compared to some of your other work, especially Public Works? It seems like this would be very different, especially in the scope, both in the sense of what the show is covering and how it’s covering it, and also the amount of development time that you’ve had with it.
Absolutely, it was some very different muscles to flex for me that were really exciting. One thing is it’s a ten-person musical and the design that we have ended up with is quite simple. It is not a show that is driven by spectacle or by hugely chaotic energy, as some of my other shows are. I think there are a lot of deep thematic connections and deep human priorities that are shared across this project. In the metaphor, I feel like I’m very much a midwife in this show, I’m not actually the person having the baby. Quiara and Erin are. So I saw my role as being very much of service to their vision and their intentions.
When we talked last year, one of the things we talked about was the fact that you have to make so many design decisions early in the process. With this show especially, it seems like there would be dramatically different directions you could go with the design and how to physically stage the production. At what point did you make those decisions and what was your thought process behind them?
We had a different design of the show in La Jolla when we did it there. I would say, of all my projects, I’ve never been through as many different drafts of what a design might be. Where we have landed has a real simplicity to it and vibrancy, I hope. But it was tricky to figure out, because I think with the structure of a road trip musical that has many scenes taking place in a car, you’re up against the anti-theatricality of people sitting in a car.
I’m always interested in what the space between and amongst audience and actor is, and for this piece, that felt especially important to me. I really wanted to do it fully in the round, we’ve reconfigured the movements of it so it is almost the round—or rather it is a round that is completed by the band, the musicians, and the actors. But I was interested in inviting the audience into a posture of deep listening and really full body enjoyment and not a posture of distanced consumption. Many theatre spaces themselves are designed to create a sense that an audience is there to sit back in their chair and wait to be impressed. And I was much more inspired by Quaker meetings and other spaces that are cultivating a more circular energy for this.
Did you have a particular moment in working on it where that idea clicked?
I think it came out of a conversation with [choreographer] Danny Mefford. He and I were so vexed by how to solve the unsolvable right up until basically the moment that we had this epiphany. A lot of times I feel great agita and confusion before the moment of what feels like the right idea.
The particular thing we were trying to solve is the way that the ensemble functioning in this musical is not like a traditional ensemble in a musical theatre piece. They are witnessing, there’s an aspect of free chorus to it. They’re very connected to the audience, they are inviting us all to witness this story and they are facilitating it, they’re making the story happen. And then they each step into the story at one particular moment of the Beatriz and Olivia journey. So we were just trying to figure out the questions—that once you’re at this stage seem like, “Oh, I’m sure that was really obvious,” but they weren’t—of, “When is the ensemble moving? When are they visible? When are they singing?” All of these things were up for grabs at some point, and once we locked into who they are, the rest of the visual ideas emerged from that.
When you first started working on the show, was there a particular something about it that was your way into the material?
This is not my usual reaction, but even upon the very first read of it and listening to the music it made me cry a number of times. My understanding now is that that is some other people’s experience of watching this show. And I’ve tried to analyze it actually, because there are two songs, that even now hearing them thousands of times and continuing to work on them for five years, there are certain lyrics, certain moments where a lyric converges with a melody or an orchestration that I really have to work to hold it together. I noticed that I was feeling it in my body. That whatever was happening with those words and ideas and with that music, was affecting me on a very deep, inexplicable, gut level. And that’s the kind of thing that I really listen to when I’m choosing projects.
One of the things people have been discussing with the show is it portrays a complicated mother-daughter relationship on stage. I thought one of the things that made it so unusual was that part of their journey had to do with their relationship to their own agency or lack thereof.
Yes, one of the core lyrics and ideas is, “I am a lioness.” And the discovery of what that is, and also the moments of coming up against a system that is crushing—a system that no amount of life force and strength can overcome or press against.
How did you work on staging that?
I would say there’s a lot of fluidity in the staging of this show in terms of the border line between my work and Danny Mefford’s work. We worked very in a one brain kind of way, because there wasn’t a sharp line always between movement and staging or scene and song. And also my work with the actors was really quite intuitive and very much wanting to respond to their unfettered impulses. When you have performers like Daphne Rubin-Vega and Gizel Jiménez, in a way my job is to show up and be the outside eye that’s hopefully making clear the places where we need stillness or we need silence or we need focus to be directed along a particular vector in order to let something be heard. But this was not a show where I did little sketches of every moment to moment in the show of where I thought actors should be standing for example, which I do sometimes, but not on this.
I also wanted to talk about the spiritual aspect of the show.
That’s another reason I was interested in it. I feel like it’s deeply spiritual. It’s a show that has spirituality and spiritual questions knit into it at the very core, and I personally find that kind of surprising as an audience member. Even the expressions of spirituality that are happening in the show are not things that I feel like I’ve seen on the stage ever, or certainly not in this combination. I think the feminine divine lives really large in this show. And I don’t mean that in a way that’s exclusive to any gender. I feel like men can commune with the feminine divine and have it within them as well, so it’s not any sort of binary thing. That feels extremely unique, to me, and it’s a very embodied spirituality. It is a kind of North and South pole to the intellectual life of the show, that there is also this very physical, ancestral spirituality that’s bubbling underneath it.
I thought it was interesting in relation to certain plot points that you have with Olivia having to make a choice about if she’s going to help her mother or not, and that, to a certain extent, helping her mother does involve lying in court. It’s a complicated sense of something along the lines of morality.
I was going to say moral ambiguity. For sure there is a lot of moral ambiguity in the show. I was surprised to read in something covering the show that it talked about Beatriz as a quote, “Bad mother,” which is an idea that is so far from my thinking about her that I had forgotten, “Oh, there may be many people that perceive that.” The person who was saying it was saying that the show was pushing that notion, but I had forgotten that might be a perception of her. There are definitely moments where something could happen that would be sort of morally straightforward, but the thing that actually happens in this show has more layers than that.
Right, the idea that right and wrong might be circumstantial at times.
Yes, and that moral certainty is related to privilege. There are a lot of moments in the show where these women don’t have that option because of who they are in the world and because of the structures that surround them, and I think that’s exciting to point out.
The show portrays women in a lot of ways that still feel very unusual for the stage. This is so silly, but The New Yorker article mentioned the show having a teenage girl who didn’t like to shower and I thought, “That’s great.” How do you think about how female bodies read on stage and the fact that it can be much more complicated than men?
There’s just a realness to these women. These women have bodies that do the same thing that every human body does, that are animal bodies, basically. And there is something about maternity and the physical messiness of what exists between mothers and daughters that is ferocious.
Last year when we talked, we spoke some about how your spiritual life affects your work. In the last year has anything changed there? It seemed like something that you thought about a fair amount.
Yes, constantly. The spiritual practice is first of all, in the rehearsal room, creating a space that is, as much as possible, a space of vibrant collaboration and joy and peace and kindness. All of those things. That is a spiritual practice that’s participated in by everyone, and that I think is unique to theatre as an art form. I don’t think that would be my central consideration if I were a painter. But also, I think for me, there’s something special about this show. I haven’t done a lot of shows about motherhood. This show is intersecting with me at a very particular moment in my life. Over the five years that I’ve been working on this show, I went from being diagnosed with infertility, and going through deep, dark emotions around that; going through fertility treatments; getting pregnant and being pregnant; being a pregnant director; having the baby; and now my son is one. There are certain lyrics in the show that I feel are truths about motherhood that I’ve never heard encapsulated so well.
My tradition that I’m coming out of is essentially a Christian mystic tradition. The ideas of death and crucifixion and sacrifice and then some sort of resurrection that comes on the other side of that sacrifice, or through a sacrifice that is very bodily and that includes shame and humiliation, is part of how I read that big narrative, that mythology. It feels like motherhood contains a lot of that. I want to underline that by “motherhood” I don’t just mean that literally. To me, the human experience and emotions of motherhood can be expressed in friendship and can be expressed in work. It’s more like motherhood is like a radio wave, it’s like it’s a frequency that you can tune into or tune out of. But that does involve some pain that is part of the things that are beautiful about it.
We also talked about how you balanced your own morality and what you think is right and how you want to be in the world with certain demands of the industry. Given not only the themes of the show you’ve been working on, but also everything that’s been happening with women in the entertainment industry, at this point in time, how do you balance wanting to be true to yourself artistically and spiritually with also being a person who wants to work and get the work done?
My faith as a child/teenager involved much greater separation between essentially the heavens and the earth. It was really an idea of holiness that was outside of this earth and that we were waiting for, but that wasn’t actually here. My adult faith is rooted very much in a belief that the messiness of humanity and the ambiguity and essentially the struggle, all of that is holy, and what’s awesome is being a part of God’s world, with an ever-expanding notion of what that is, which I’m aware that I, as a person, can only glimpse the smallest outskirts of the truth of that.
I think what that means in a more concrete sense is I am not living in a monastery, and the process of wanting to make work in the real world and in the entertainment industry and the theatre industry, does mean a kind of steeliness or really not flinching away from being a flawed person among other flawed people, as we all are. I think both require that we have empathy and forgiveness for them and that we all have to call out the better instincts in one another, which means when we encounter the more twisted expressions of that and those instincts, that has to be called out.
One of the cast members in this show has called me something, which I have not been called in a while, which is a steel magnolia. I have decided that I really am going to own it. It’s probably a reference to me being from the deep South, of course, but it’s also: how do you keep yourself tender enough to be able to do deep work and good work, and tough enough to, on some level, not give a damn and really keep going, kind of relentlessly? And I think that is an interesting paradox to live.