Notes from the field. June, 2017.
On a recent summer Tuesday afternoon, I was on a walk with Dana, Artistic Associate of the Institute of Collaboration and Play (IFCAP). Walking has been the only way to ensure my baby will nap at least once a day. The walk-nap used to be a solid gold guarantee of infant slumber, but as my son’s awareness of the world has increased, walk-nap effectiveness has decreased. In spite of this, in order to meet with Dana after IFCAP’s recent Spring hiatus, a walk-nap was in order. Home naps are still too precarious and unpredictable. I suggested a smoothie.
We arrive at Liquiteria. Baby in stroller, I roll up to the counter and greet the young man behind it with an enthusiastic HI. He compliments me on my positive energy. I return the compliment, saying I remember him (I am a regular at this location because: WALK-NAP) and his spirit. He asks me what I am having and proceeds to gather its ingredients. I turn to Dana to resume our discussion and he returns to the register and says This one is on me. I protest and offer my card and he firmly says no. I look at him, stunned. Such a small gesture of kindness, but when he places the smoothie on the counter I have tears in my eyes. No one sees the mamas, I say to the other employee, who was decidedly and predictably sullen. She catches my eye noting the catch in my throat and I can feel her soften, just for a moment.
No one sees the mamas.
In the Fall of 2015 I founded IFCAP in order to address a need perceived in myself, my peers and students, and in the countless theater students sent unwittingly into the world each year by academia. I wanted to establish a hub to explore best practices regarding the infusion of creative, collaborative work with play. It is surprising how well the academy can quelch the quest for fun that often propels people into the arts when it strives to codify art-making. Teaching craft is important but it does not mean we cannot also teach pleasure in said craft. Pleasure often gets set aside for Serious Pursuit of Art.
As a practitioner for nearly twenty years of clown and physical theater, I can affirm as performer and educator the propensity of these forms to thrust the actor/creator relentlessly into the center of the theatrical event. These approaches force us to ask the most basic questions of performance-making: Why do we come on stage in the first place? What makes a compelling theatrical event? It is truly liberating to witness rigid, fearful actors, worried about impressing a director or teacher, rekindle in themselves a ferocious capacity for discovery, design hilarious and unexpected games, compose lyrical and tender songs of and about beauty, and invite their audiences into a shared experience. Play is an influential root of creative practice regardless of form. True collaboration comes from many of the same ingredients necessary for play: listening, vulnerability, risk, openness. If we operated from these values, how might our training, work, and the world change?
These questions at the fore, with IFCAP I intended to create a space wherein performance-oriented people could exercise their play muscles; investigate their work’s intent and process safely and practically; explore pleasure and self-expression without the pressure of product, be it audition, performance, investment recoup, audience generation, etc. From this emerged the PLABORATORY, a Laboratory for Play. It offers play-based making to whoever seeks it. Our first year was exciting, expansive and so much fun.
Our second year ran smack-dab into the aforementioned, unexpected Spring hiatus.
I had to let my professional field lie fallow in order to attend to the immediacies of my personal field.
In graduate school, a beloved advisor once said, as I bemoaned a period of perceived stagnation between projects, that I had to periodically let my creative field lie fallow otherwise I would deplete my soil from overuse. There is practice in stillness as well as movement. It was always my intention to continue the PLAB throughout this calendar year, but the unexpected physical and emotional hardships of new motherhood (our baby was born late October of 2016) pushed me to suspend it for the spring months. I had to let my professional field lie fallow in order to attend to the immediacies of my personal field.
In order to play a long game as an artist, a concept I often mention to my students, one must set guidelines for self-preservation and expectation, otherwise we risk early burnout and arbitrary career reorientation. We typically want everything at once and worry terribly about missing out. This mindset stems from our training wherein performers in particular focus on being constantly available and malleable for whatever anyone else needs in any moment. This keeps us from finding our own artistic viewpoint and results in a lot of uncomfortable contortionism. In order to practice what I preach I knew I needed to pause my professional ambition and attend to my body, sleep-deprived spirit, and the small baby I had worked so hard to grow and birth into the world.
My meeting with Dana, so beautifully interrupted by my smoothie angel named Soloman, was to discuss how we might resume our programming after my post-partum hiatus. We’re a small organization operating out of my living room, our laptops, and today, Washington Square Park and the Liquiteria on 6th Avenue. Being an artist involves a fair amount of entrepreneurship: a lot of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, believing when others do not, doing/discarding your own research, carving new paths (contrary or not), determination, sweat, grit, tears. It’s a lot like motherhood.
My conversation with Dana unexpectedly became a mixture of motherhood strategy and IFCAP strategy, motherhood purpose and IFCAP purpose. I told her I did not want to disappear, to be rendered invisible. I was scared that if I continued our hiatus, both I and IFCAP would evaporate forever from everyone’s minds, but I was not sure how to proceed. I felt obligated to my PLAB participants, Dana, and myself to figure this out, but frustrated that I had no clear path or guidance. No one sees the mamas.
I told her I did not want to disappear, to be rendered invisible.
So much of new motherhood metaphorically or literally overlaps with the questions of identity artists grapple with all the time. If I am not making, am I still an artist? When my students ponder this, I tell them enthusiastically Yes, You Are. You do not stop being an artist at your day job, when you shop for groceries or go visit your family of origin. You do not stop being an artist when you put down your script or pen or paintbrush, when the clay sits still or you skip class, i.e. when your field lies fallow. Of course, there is a practice to being an artist, not to be overlooked. But our culture’s obsession with output, with DO DO DO MAKE MAKE MAKE PROVE PROVE PROVE is debilitating to the young artist. And to the young/new mother as well.
Why can’t we talk to mothers about playing a long game as well? Why do we expect them to know and adjust and balance immediately? Furthermore, why do we discount the viability, vision and vitality of a woman once she bears a child? Why do we assert that she is not making right now (when she has just clearly made something extraordinary, but that is beside the point to granting or hiring committees…) so she must not want to make or even be good at it anymore? Let’s not bother her. Let’s not consider her. No one sees the mamas.
Mothers need to be supported, not excluded. The way for mothers to not disappear is to insist that they be seen, through questions about their well-being, their work, their livelihood, and requests for action stemming from this kind of inquiry. Ask a mother what she needs, repeatedly. She may be exhausted and not able to reply right away, but she is probably thinking about her creativity too, her best gifts, the legacy of expression she wants to model for her children, and how in the world she is going to do so alone.
Unfounded altruism is unnecessary here. It is in our society’s best interest to give mothers space and time and to work on all levels of scope. If you valued a woman’s contributions before she became a mother, then your declaration of her as lost is sadly narrow-minded in its blindness, exempting yourself from any responsibility in keeping what you say you value engaged with the world. See her for who she is fully and say something about it. Gestures large and small count. Solomon did this with a smoothie.
Mothers need to be supported, not excluded.
As I contemplate these issues for my art and for myself, I truly question what balance is possible. I firmly believe in IFCAP’s purpose, how it fulfills a need in artists of all ages who seek community and space to make without public repercussions. To exercise creative muscles. To be seen. To matter. To flex. To fly. To fail. To try. And yet I falter as I contemplate the energy required to continue launching a nascent organization while also nurturing a new human being. I am simultaneously passionate and ambivalent, confident and afraid.
I have observed women return to work as early as six weeks after giving birth. Whether this is done from employer pressure, economic need, or the mother’s own insistence on her professional viability, each mother I have seen go through this process finds herself divided and must contend with the emotions that accompany such choices.
Why can’t we give mothers the same grace the PLABORATORY strives to provide its participants? Why aren’t mothers allowed to flex, fly, fail and try, without public, peer, familial or professional condemnation?
Additionally, just like artists who must absurdly articulate the outcome of their projects in development at the outset as part of grant or residency applications, mothers must also somehow demonstrate what kind of mother they are with the choices they make in seemingly every aspect of mothering. They indicate their status with strollers or baby-wearing, purees or finger foods, coconut oil or diaper cream, cloth diapers or disposable, bed-sharing or sleep training, breastmilk or formula – false dichotomies that terrorize a new mother struck by choices of seemingly life-altering consequence. We further dissect ourselves in terms of pant size and return-to-work parameters often set by industries uninterested in the inevitable nuances of parenthood.
DO DO DO MAKE MAKE MAKE PROVE PROVE PROVE
Why can’t we include all of it? Why can’t our culture acknowledge the complexity of motherhood? That contrasting emotions are actually a common part of the human experience and do not mean that we love our professions or our children any less? That we can miss our pre-birth bodies even as we acknowledge what our post-birth bodies have accomplished? That it is the journey we are funding when we support mothers (which this society does so poorly)? It is not the outcome.
There is no guaranteed outcome in motherhood or art.
They are so much more alike than we realize.
SEE THE MAMAS.
WE ARE HERE.
Catherine Mueller Melwani is an Interdisciplinary Artist, Actor/Creator and Educator based in NYC. Founder/Director of The Institute for Collaboration and Play (www.ifcap.org). Past teaching includes Adjunct/Guest Faculty/Guest Director at Pace University, Marymount Manhattan College, Middlebury, Drew University. Performance work: The Public Theater, Ars Nova, The Orchard Project, Dixon Place (select list) and many national network commercials. MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts, Goddard College. Delighted and exhausted mother to Arjun George Melwani, born in October, 2016. www.mywonderchamber.com.
For more info on how we’re changing work environment for parents, check out PAALtheatre.com