Zen & the Art of Mourning a Mother: Interview with Playwright Emma Goldman-Sherman | PAAL

Interview with Emma Goldman-Sherman, Playwright | by Rachel Spencer Hewitt

Playwright Emma Goldman-Sherman returned to the pages of her play as a personal meditation. After losing her mother at 19, Emma explored this loss through the voices of her diverse characters – but the pages had yet to receive a full reading. As a mother, Emma reveals the reality of taking time away and the power work can have once a mother artist returns.

Emma was born and raised in Philadelphia. The now- New Yorker knew she had to submit when she saw the opportunity last year for the motherhood reading festival in her hometown. The festival is happening this weekend, August 2-5 with the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival, and Emma’s piece will be featured. When she saw the opportunity to submit a play, the connection and significance was undeniable.

“I was thrilled. It was really, really exciting. When I had my son years ago, there was nothing. There is so much more now…People are so much more accomodating.” The festival offers four new plays from four mother playwrights collaborating with four mother directors. In an unconventional but appropriate twist, the festival will also offer childcare on-site via a children’s show in a neighboring studio for audience members during all four readings, during dress rehearsal for the artists, and it pays its performers – many of whom are parents as well.

Goldman-Sherman submitted her play Zen & the Art of Mourning a Mother, featuring “3 generations, mothers & daughters, in 3 different moments in time, trying to avoid their feelings of loss and grief while traveling from Philadelphia to New York City by train from 30th Street.”


“Channel all the voices you wouldn’t let yourself think about.” – Mariá Irene Fornés


Zen is getting its first reading now, but Emma says she started working on it long ago while getting her masters and studying under Mariá Irene Fornés. It was Irene, according to Emma, who put the play in Emma’s head. In the play, the characters deal with the loss of their mothers. The stimulating direction was Fornés’ insistence that the playwrights “channel all the voices you wouldn’t let yourself think about.” Emma described the characters in Zen as “personal,” and though flawed, she says they are people she knows and for whom she has quite a lot of “compassion.”

In her own approach to becoming a mother, Emma found resilience in her lifestyle as an artist. The difficulty of pursuing production of plays influenced her decision “to go ahead and do it.” The epiphany came in almost apocalyptic revelation. Emma’s plays had done a couple of equity showcases, she pursued teaching and writing, but theatres were not producing her. Finally, her work was scheduled to move off broadway, and the theatre was downtown. Before production came to fruition, 9/11 happened and “wiped the theatre off the map.” Emma says she was “blindsided” by the devastation and the global effect all made more prescient by the shift of her own future, so her thought on motherhood erupted, “what am I waiting for? Have the child, do what’s life affirming.” For a long time after, she didn’t write. She “just had the child.” The complicated nature of the balance of career and motherhood – and lack of structures in place at the time – took her “out of the rat race for a while.”

Finally, thirteen years later, Emma returned in bold fashion. In 2014, she recalls putting pen to paper, declaring “I’m going to write a play and I’m not going to care if anyone likes the play.” Her piece

WHORTICULTURE was born. Then a one act was produced in San Francisco, and since then, the “work kept flowing out.” Her plays have now seen productions in New York, D.C., regionally across the U.S., Queensland, Australia, development processes, this motherhood series, and she’s in conversations with New York producers for more.

Her piece going up this weekend is a new experience, still. At the PWTF Motherhood Reading Festival, Zen & the Art of Mourning a Mother will be heard in full length for the first time.


“We don’t see [the mothers] the way their daughters see them. It humanizes them.”


Bending how the story tracks time, the play features mother characters younger than the characters of the daughters. In the piece, the perception of motherhood is broken wide open by revealing the mothers as young women in the eyes of their older daughters. Emma says the depiction means “We don’t see [the mothers] the way their daughters see them. It humanizes them.” It also allows the characters to have open, raw conversation about the mother they wish they had and what to do with those wishes once a mother has passed breaks the piece wide open.

In Zen, Emma’s characters ask us to confront the social reality of expectation on mothers and reveal the dynamics of humanity every mother wrestles with and should be allowed. She says humanizing a character who can “talk about being a terrible mother” is not something allowed socially, nor is the internal regret many mothers feel being “not as focused” as they feel they should be on their children. Emma says becoming a mother helped her realize that the social expectations were false, and once you’re a mother, you realize the expectations are simply “not true” to what’s real.

The motherhood reality, Emma says, is universal. Her play explores three generations and four mothers in 5 characters. The character pursuits ring true for everyone, Emma explains, because “we all came from mothers…most of us are going to lose our mothers in our lifetime. In order to deal with that while they’re living, we have to take motherhood for granted to a certain extent. So what happens when we’re dealing with loss and motherhood in retrospect? We all have the cry for motherhood, for better or worse.”


“We all have the cry for motherhood, for better or worse.”


Emma hopes parents and non-parents come out to support the festival because “it’s important to support theatre by women. [Dynamic mother characters provide] a point of view they probably have not heard before.” When asked how motherhood impacts her art now, prioritization of content and story comes to mind for Emma. “If someone is going to pay money [for tickets], hire a sitter, etc – it has to be worthwhile. It can’t be something they can get at home on their TVs. It has to be an event. [It’s about] working and caring for people. Before I create something, I ask who is the audience, why are they gonna see this. I don’t want to waste my time.” The story she prioritizes for the festival has a social impact in dignifying motherhood, as well: “We need mothers to be…seeing themselves in the art they’re looking at. It should be of value.”

Catch Emma’s incredible piece Zen & the Art of Mourning a Mother on August 5 at 3:00 PM in Philadelphia at Music Theatre Philly with the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival Motherhood Reading Series in partnership with Parent Artist Advocacy League. Tickets can be purchased here and childcare is provided free for children 5+ and children under 5 are welcome in the space during the readings as well as breastfeeding mothers. There are four new plays by four mother playwrights and four mother directors going up Aug. 2-5. Learn More Here.


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