Channeling Mommy Anxiety Into Mommune

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Ursaline Bryant, Hilary Ward, Sofie Calderon, Cate Scott Campbell and Amy Ellenberger in "Mommune." Photo by Dave Brewer.

I was angry, I was afraid, and, being six months pregnant, I was probably also hungry. It was the fall of 2010. I was sitting in the waiting room of my midwives’ office at 8 am, and I was supposed to be writing a play. Ruth McKee at Chalk Rep had asked me for a 10-minute play to be part of Chalk’s inaugural Flash Fest. I was honored at the request, but had no idea what to write. Like, none.  In my uncomfortable chair, unable to stomach flipping through another parenting magazine, I pulled out my notebook and started to write.

Dorothy Fortenberry

I wrote from my anger and my fear, I wrote about motherhood and loss, I wrote about the impossibility of living up to society’s expectations as a pregnant woman or a mom — and about the very real risk of doing something actually bad to a child. Those scribblings became my 10-minute play Jesus Loves You, Make a Collage. It was directed by Amy Ellenberger and starred Larissa Kokernot as a woman who had been arrested for improper parenting. And yes, people actually did make collages during the show. The play happened, and I was happy about it, and I kept being pregnant — and then I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I was a mom.

And I was even more angry and afraid and hungry and blissed-out and exhausted and grateful and lonely and sick of people and in love, curious and sore. My playwriting group, Playwrights Union, has a Challenge every February, in which members write a play in a month. Despite the fact that there were fewer than two weeks between my daughter’s due date and February 1, I signed up because I had this hilarious notion that I would “write during naps.” It took me three weeks of “writing during naps” to compose the email saying I withdrew from the Challenge.

Ursaline Bryant and Hilary Ward.

Motherhood was all-encompassing. Until it wasn’t. In April, as the light began to emerge, I wrote an email to Amy proposing a project to Chalk Rep, and thanks to Gmail, I can quote it here:

“There’s a play I really want to work on about contemporary mother culture (mom blogs, parenting websites, the inescapable judgmentalism and parenting philosophy loyalties, etc). It’s based on some of the stuff about safety and protection and dystopia that I was exploring in Jesus Loves You, although I think it’s about a group of women in the near future, in a mothering re-education program, not just one.”

That email started a series of conversations, and those conversations became Mommune. I banged out the first draft that spring and summer — yes, during naps, but also during times when my husband watched the baby, or, blessedly, when we started sharing a babysitter with friends that fall. I developed the characters of Lynne, Trista, Charlotte, Bree, and Mrs. Jensen. I figured out why they had all been arrested and what would allow them to be released and rejoin their kids.

Sophie Calderon

The play has grown and changed from that initial draft, helped by a workshop at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a reading in New York, and countless hours with the women of Chalk Rep, revising and refining and uncovering. In June, we spent two weeks in the children’s play space Pint Size Kids, because Chalk produces all its work site-specifically, and Mommune‘s site is a kids’ zone. Ducking under low doorways and sitting in tiny chairs, we discovered how the play functions in three brightly colored dimensions.

And now, as I sit in rehearsals at Pint Size, watching Larissa direct Amy, Cate, Hilary, Sophie, and Ursaline, waiting for opening night, I am struck over and over again by one simple thought — I had to write that play then. I would never write a play like this now.

Yes, I’m still animated by many of the same concerns (don’t get me started on parenting blogs), but I’m not the same person. For the play to be as fearful and angry and crazy and strange and wild as it is, I had to write it as a new mom. I had to write it when sleep was a luxury and showers were a treat and when I longed for community but feared the judgment of other mothers. When I would watch Teen Mom and Toddlers and Tiaras and click on any link with the phrase “mother” or “child” or “new study” in the title. When it seemed like I could only either be a mom or be a person, but not both.

Cate Scott Campbell, Amy Ellenberger and Ursaline Bryant.

Writing Mommune helped me channel all my loony feelings into something larger than just myself. And working on Mommune with the community of artists at Chalk helped me find a true mommune — a group of women who support and encourage each other, instead of tearing each other down. I don’t feel as fearful or as angry anymore — instead, I feel energized and inspired by the work I see happening in rehearsal. Also, I don’t feel as hungry because every night someone brings snacks.

Mommune, Pint Size Kids, 13323 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks 91423. Opens Saturday.  Sat-Sun 8 pm. Through April 7. Tickets: $20. (Special $15 Preview Friday, March 1.)

**All Mommune production photos by Dave Brewer.

Dorothy Fortenberry is a member of the Playwrights Union, a founding company member of Tilted Field, and in the 2013 Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop. She received her MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama and is currently working on a commission for Yale Rep.

Dorothy Fortenberry

Dorothy Fortenberry