Thursday, September 15, 2016

Thoughts on Making My Mother into a Character -- and a Puppet!


When I first started working on WAITING FOR THE PODIATRIST  (which is now AWAITING THE PODIATRIST) back in 2003, I had a sickening feeling that I was betraying my mother.

Every writer has to make a decision about where to draw a line when portraying the people close to them.  Some people are very up front in writing explicitly autobiographical plays or memoirs portraying  parents who are anything from a mixed bag to monstrous.  If that parent is still alive, that makes me very uncomfortable.  I'm a huge fan of Alison Bechdel's first graphic memoir about her father, who had died.  But her memoir about her mother, who's still hanging around this planet, just made me squirm.  I could not stop thinking of what it must be like for Mrs. Bechdel to go grocery shopping and run into acquaintances who had seen her portrayed to the world by her daughter, warts and all.

The only play I have written that was memoir -- i.e. explicitly and strictly based on my actual life rather than a dramatization inspired by my life -- was BAUM FOR PEACE, about my campaign for U.S. Congress.  I invented/imagined nothing in that play.  I didnt have to.  In my other plays, although in no way feeling confined to the facts, I have felt some moral obligation to be fair to the people who inspired my characters.

 In general, I try to be very scrupulous in making the character based on ME at least as awful/ridiculous as the character based on the other person.  This can lead to the dilemma that I created in TWO FOOLS or LOVE CONQUERS ALL -- NOT (1996)!
Poster for Original Production

TWO FOOLS is based on my relationship with a Costa Rican woman I was deeply in love with.  I made Luna (my Costa Rican love) so absolutely wonderful and Gracie (myself) so conflicted and neurotic that everyone in the audience sided with LUNA against GRACIE  whenever the two characters disagreed!  Didn't they realize that the whole point of the play was that BOTH characters were right and both characters were wrong???!!???  Didn't they notice that Gracie, who was a writer, was obviously based on the person who wrote the very play they were watching and CREATED the lovable character of Luna and the quirky character of Gracie and was therefore someone of great consciousness and honesty???!!!  No, they did NOT!  They thought Gracie was a pain in the ass, and Luna was oh so wonderful and sexy.

Maybe I was a pain in the ass in real life.  From the beginning, I knew that I was going to write a play about Diana and me.  That is not a very healthy approach to a relationship.  I knew I was twisted.  I didn't care!   We were so dramatic together!  It was so intense and interesting!  The two cultures clashing!  The great love!  Oy vey, how could I resist writing down every fascinating thing she (or I) said, at the expense of actually working on building a good relationship?

Oh well.  I got a really good play out of it.

The Fool Being Seduced by Evil Coatrack
Sometimes, despite my principles, when I'm transforming my life into (I hope) art, revenge rises to the the top of my motivations.   ONE FOOL, or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING & LOVE THE DUTCH (1988)  is based on my experiences when I moved to Amsterdam for love the first time in 1985.  The woman who inspired me to move 6000 miles became a coatrack who was great in bed but selfish and cold.   I absolutely REJOICED in the possibility of her friends seeing the play.   A few years later, I ran into First Dutch Love on the street and we had coffee together.  She said reproachfully, "I heard you made me into an evil coatrack."  I replied, without a smidgeon of apology,  "You bet I did!"

Which brings me to PODIATRIST and my mother.  My MOTHER!  The one who kept me from starving to death and wallowing in shit when I was extremely young!  I don't remember this, although I am certain that it happened.  That saint, that nurturing force who,  when I had a very bad asthma attack, lovingly bathed me as I lay in the tub.  THAT I remember because I was an adult when it happened.  HOW CAN I POSSIBLY MAKE FUN OF HER?!
Original Mom Puppet by Mary Wings made for short workshop version
 performed at the 2000 Women on the Way (WOW) Festival in San Francisco.  

Thus, when my mother asked me in 2002, "That play you're writing about when Daddy was in the coma, how's it going?"  -- I replied, "Mom, I've decided to drop it.  I don't feel good about the character based on you.  I have to exaggerate what she says to make it funny, and I feel like I'm betraying you."   Of course, most of what the mother says in the play is not exaggerated at all.  So I was lying.  My mother really did say, without any irony, "Other people live for their parents' approval.  Why not you?"

Mom replied, "I don't care what the mother character is like, as long as I don't have to see the play."  She wasn't exactly giving the project her blessing -- but it was close enough for me!  So Mom became an opinionated, sarcastic, puppet who was really pissed off that her daughter was a lesbian.

On opening night in 2003, I arrived at the theater and there was a huge bouquet waiting for me.  Of COURSE  it was for me.  It was a goddam solo play!  But no, my mother had sent the flowers to the Mother PUPPET!
AND at every performance, the Mother puppet got more applause than me!  I know, I know, the mother puppet was my left hand.  I SHOULD have felt the applause was for ME.  But I DIDN'T, and neither did the audience! Dammit, I was jealous.

What can I say?  One suffers for great art.

Mom died in 2011, and I wondered if I ever would feel okay about reviving PODIATRIST.  Mom could no longer give me permission or send flowers.  You're supposed to speak well of the dead.  The PODIATRIST Mom is a great, funny character.  But I would have to say the play speaks both well and ill of her.

But the play does SPEAK of her.  My mother lives in some fashion as long as I'm playing PODIATRIST.  And she continues to get more applause than ME, dammit!

And I have continued to think about her, as I've rehearsed and performed.  I've added a new scene where Mom tells Alexandra (me) that she's a good daughter.  My mother never said those words to me, although I was a damn good daughter.  At first, writing those words and having my left hand speak them was very disturbing to me.  It only reminded me that I had never heard them from Mom's lips.   But now I look forward to that scene.  There's something healing in hearing those words from the puppet during every run-thru and performance.

Also, I remembered the time when my sister Nancy was very ill, in 2009.  Mom's mobility was way too limited for travel.  So there was no possibility of her supplying a mother's physical comfort to her dying daughter, as Mom did when she bathed me all those years ago.  My mother said to me on the phone, "The fact that I know you're there for Nancy makes it much easier for me that I can't be there."  At the time, I couldn't really take it in.  But my mother was saying she trusted me to take care of her precious child.  I never really valued that beautiful statement until now.

I don't think I've ever experienced performing as a healing journey.  But AWAITING THE PODIATRIST is just that.