[INTERVIEW] Making a Disruption with Mary Anna King

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Disrupted, currently making its world premiere at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, is the first play from writer and memoirist Mary Anna King. King is the author of the 2015 memoir Bastards, which chronicled her experiences with adoption and her search to reunite with her biological siblings adopted by five separate families. As an adoptee, King has a strong commitment to telling stories of adoption that complicate its traditional narrative.

Disrupted — which King is also directing — is another nuanced look at adoption, a sister piece to her memoir. It lays bare the emotional intricacies of familial bonds tested by the unique strains and challenges of adoption. On the eve of her playwriting debut, I sat down with King to chat about the show.

Can you fill in our readers about the basic premise of the show?

MARY ANNA KING: Disrupted is about two sisters who reunite after their mother’s death, and they’re reconciling not only the will, but also a disrupted adoption that caused them to disappear from one another’s lives when they were children.

What does disruption mean, specifically?

Disruption is technically, in legal terms, only when a family is going through process of adopting a child and before the adoption is finalized, they decide not to go through with it. But within the adoptee and adoption community, people use the term disruption to be an umbrella term for many things that happen when an adoption is sort of canceled in a way… So we’ll use the term after an adoption is finalized and then the child is re-homed somewhere else, and we’ll use it when we’re talking about adoptions that have been canceled before they were finalized.

What inspired you to write this story?

I was adopted at the age of ten by my grandfather and his second wife. I had only really met them a couple of times before I was sent to live with them because my birth mother had run away from their house when she was 17, so they were estranged. I never knew that something like disruption existed. But I always sort of feared that something like that was real. So then, as an adult — when I was researching Bastards — to find out that it is real and it really happens to people, it was devastating.

Was that fear that, because you’d already faced this disruption in your life, you were worried your grandparents would send you away?

I’ve talked to other adopted people and, of course, my adopted siblings as well, and I think most of us all felt this at a certain point. Because we had been sent away once, we could be sent away again at any moment. There’s a feeling when you’re a small child… you’re like furniture, you can be boxed up and sent somewhere without your consent or even consultation.

Being adopted yourself, what are your thoughts on the typical adoption narratives portrayed by the media — whether plays, television, or film?

The predominant narrative is “child in need is adopted by well-meaning family and everyone ends up happy.” And that love is all you need. And I think most adopted people and adopted families, when you talk to them behind closed doors, will tell you that it’s more complicated than that. That yes, in the end, love is a salve for many, many things. But there’s usually a bit of development that has to happen before one can really connect on that level.

Part of the reason it took me so long to write Bastards [King worked on the book on and off for nearly twenty years] was because I was always looking for the ending, because I thought the ending was going to be this very Hallmark, movie-of-the week moment — where everyone and everything felt reconciled, where suddenly all of us figured it out and we figured out how to be a family and we all accepted one another. I was waiting for that to happen. And then I realized, it’s actually not a happy ending; it’s very complicated, and that’s the ending.

How do you feel it fits in next to Bastards as both extensions of yourself?

It’s almost more like a footnote to Bastards potentially… It ultimately relates to my motivation to just complicate the narrative surrounding adoption. I think it’s also about siblings, and siblings are clearly my thing. You will know them longer than know your spouse or your parents. Even if you fight, even if you dislike one another and don’t get along, you can’t really ever fully escape a sibling. They’re a part of you and you’re a part of them, and you share not only biology, but history, and family, and stories. That relationship really fascinates me, especially where it is not the classic model of siblings born to the same parents who grew up together. What do we owe our siblings? What do they owe us? What do we expect of them, and what do they expect of us?

Given that, how do you think your play fits into the narrative that we usually get about adoption?

It focuses the conflict on the adopted person, rather than all of the potential dramatic conflict that could erupt. It’s this lone hour, with two women who are basically unpacking whether or not they’re still sisters. It’s really more focused on these internal injuries [and whether] someone can bear [them] for the rest of their lives. I really wanted to humanize the adoptee. A lot of the time the adoptee is the object and not the active subject of most conversations about adoption. They are the thing that’s been moving from place to place. No one asks their thoughts or their voice or what they want. It’s about what happens to them, rather than how they feel about it.

How did this compare to experiences of writing memoirs or other long-form prose?

I’ve read other writers talking about characters taking hold of you, and I’d never experienced that until I wrote this piece. Writing memoir, writing Bastards, I was writing something that actually happened, and so it was more just trying to remember all the threads, and flesh out all of the scenes, but it wasn’t necessarily letting characters take hold of you. So this piece was definitely the first time that that happened for me, and it felt like getting on a rollercoaster and just seeing where it went.

Has writing and directing this show given you new insight into theatre that you didn’t have before?

Absolutely, the thing that’s so great about theatre is how many levels the work can operate on. You know it’s not just what’s on the page. When I’m writing books, I’m always thinking I need to leave room for the reader to put themselves into this — I need to basically, with the prose, stitch a pocket they can pour their imagination into. When I was writing Disrupted, I really wanted to leave room for the actors to bring themselves into it. When you’re writing a play or a screenplay, you’re only working with 70% of a medium, the rest of it is going to be brought by the humans on the other end of it who are then going to inhabit these spaces and flesh these characters out. You need to leave room for them to bring their humanity to it.

Has directing change how you’ll write in the future?

I think it invariably will. The thing that I was most excited about with this piece was to write these roles for women where they’re not talking about men, and they’re not talking about sex, and they’re not talking about children necessarily. They’re just talking about a nuanced human conflict. If I write or direct plays in the future, that’s definitely something I will look for. Is this conflict incredibly human? Is it true and is it honest? And is it a conflict that shows me a world I’ve never seen before that perhaps exists right alongside the world that I have inhabited for most of my life?

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Disrupted will play the Uptown Stage of the Underground Theatre (1312-1314 N. Wilton Place) June 17 & and 18 at 8 pm.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen is a writer, actor, and director. She currently writes about arts & entertainment for Neon Tommy, as well as a monthly column about groundbreaking women in Hollywood for Ms. In the Biz. She holds a B.A. in History and Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California, as well as a Master’s in British History from the University of Oxford. Because she doesn’t have enough degrees, she is also currently working towards a M.A. in Arts Journalism at USC. Theatrically, she can mostly be found at the Antaeus Theater, where she is a proud affiliate.