Mothers by Anna Moench is a work of brutal imagination and delicious humor that follows a group of mothers in an upper-middle-class Mommy-Baby Meetup. A Playwrights Realm production, it opens at The Duke on 42nd Street on September 25, 2019 and is slated to run through October 12th. I first met Anna when I was visiting UC San Diego, where we went on to spend a year in grad school together before she graduated. Anna’s son was the first baby I ever held. The next time we saw each other, we discussed whether we could become cannibals if necessary to survive. In September, we hopped on the phone for a conversation about object theater, motherhood, and the cost of imagination. What follows is curated from that conversation:
DAVE HARRIS (Rail): So I got the chance to read through every one of your plays that you were willing to send, and journeying through your body of work was one of the great literary experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I’m fascinated by the way puppets appear in a lot of your work. I’m thinking first about actual puppets in Hunger, and now the inanimate teddy bears that are the children in Mothers. It’s so theatrical.
ANNA Moench: I think there’s a conversation around theatricality right now and writing plays that need to be plays. And a lot of that comes down to moments that are beyond language. So I think with Mothers we are seeing something that couldn’t be a movie. It would be too horrifying to see with real children. Theater allows for a remove, but because of the way human beings invest in puppets and objects, the audience has to participate. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. And then suddenly there’s a moment where you’re like, “Oh my god, that bear is a child!”
Rail: Within that, because the children are just objects in Mothers, I find myself defining the identity of the child by whatever use they have for the parent. It’s a really hilarious, dark gaze into motherhood.
Moench: In one sense, I think there’s something incredibly powerful about being needed.
Rail: Ooo, say more.
Moench: There’s been a lot of talk about what makes a fulfilling life—why are we seeing rising rates of suicide, alienation, loneliness? And I think it comes down to being needed. I certainly found in my late twenties/early thirties, before I had my son, I was needed in some ways, but not on a day-to-day level. If I didn’t show up for something, did it really stop someone in their tracks? No. There’s something great and free about that. But I came to a point where I was like, I kind of want to be needed more. I want to matter more to people than I do. And I found that of course having a child is an immense amount of need. Which can be difficult. But there’s something really rewarding in being needed and delivering on that need.
Rail: Right. I grew up feeling a sense of debt for being born towards my mother. Constant guilt as a child. Until I realized that the needs I had as a kid fulfilled something for my mother too. A power? An exchange?
Moench: And that’s a part of this play—the way the needs of your children shape you. What’s interesting to me is the way that this comes from insecurity and incredible love for your kids. At its core, it’s a beautiful thing. But it comes out in dark and frightening ways.
Rail: In so many forms of violence. From the mothers verbally (mostly) battling over hierarchy at Mommy-Baby Meetup to the more gruesome battles that come later.
Moench: There are all these rules around the violence. I was very inspired by what I’ve observed in my 34 years of being a woman on planet Earth. The ways it is not acceptable to be aggressive. And the ways young girls are trained to learn that this is not okay. However! Human beings find a way! And we learn to do these very careful, very tactical verbal jiu jitsu where if you deliver a cutting remark in a way that seems accidental, then it puts it on the recipient of that remark to get upset about it. And then you can plead that it was an accident so that they look like the ones who were being overly emotional.
Rail: Like, “Oh, I’m sorry did I hurt you? You look so hurt. What’s wrong with you that you look so hurt?”
Moench: YES! And we’re all smart people; you know when someone’s doing that to you. Then you learn, and you start doing it back. Jane Austen is the master of that. You’re reading for the rules. It’s true today, too. Especially if you go from one cultural group to another. The rules change.
Rail: You do something in the note of your scripts that I rarely see, which is that you lay out the rules of the world in the most objective terms. “You lose if you’re overtly cruel. The only way to insult another woman is by accident.” This is the game. This is how you win.
Moench: There are certain things that to me matter or don’t matter. I’m always aware that I’m watching a play. Even if I’m super into it, I know that sitting on one side of me is a stranger and on the other side is my mom. So let’s just cut to the essentials. Yes, we are watching a play. Let’s acknowledge the reality of what we’re doing. WHATEVER. It’s a play. We know that. No one is confused.
Rail: There’s so much possibility in acknowledging and playing in the fact that we’re all just sitting in these seats we paid for. We have a freedom here.
Moench: Exactly! The teddy bear is a kid!
Rail: And then you’re horrified by what your imagination has done.
Moench: I feel like I often hear a critique of musicals that singing is absurd. Guys. IT’S ALL ABSURD. NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL. We’re all packed in this one part of the room. Watching someone on a slightly higher part of the room.
Rail: This is maybe my sensibility, but I think people just want to be surprised. Well, I say that, and then I saw this jukebox musical the other day and sat in the audience looking around and realized, “Oh, no. Actually no one is here for the thing that I’m here for.”
Moench: I think people enjoy surprise. But I also think there’s something satisfying about expecting something and then getting exactly what you expected. The stuff that made me fall in love with theater wasn’t the most avant-garde crazy shit. I was learning the rules. Everything blew my mind.
Rail: That’s true, I’m being a hater. Guys & Dolls had me in my feelings in high school. Sue me.
Moench: And then you’re like, I’ve seen this before.
Rail: That’s why I love your body of work: each thing has your signature but feels formally distinct. When I was reading your plays, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of our first conversations about cannibalism. And it made me just want to ask you about cannibalism.
Moench: HAHAHAHA. [Pause.] What’s your question, Dave?
Rail: Ooo, let me drink some water. [Drinks water.] Purely hypothetical. But it’s a thing, tying into Mothers—a lot of the play explores what people are capable of. There’s a character, Gladys, who is often the voice of history. And when the world goes mad in impossible ways, she’s the one to remind us that this world isn’t impossible. It’s possible and happening now.
Moench: The violence of this play is normal life for so many people around the world. People act like it isn’t. Why am I the weirdo for writing about it?
Rail: Like, what illusion of safety are you holding onto that is stopping you from imagining this?
Moench: People sometimes read my work and act afraid. They say things like, “Whoa, I guess I should be afraid of you.” It happens all the time. And I laugh along. But there’s a part of me that is like: Am I a total freak? Am I fucked up in some irredeemable way? I feel pretty stable.
Rail: I was at Ojai talking to Kimber Lee [Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play], and we were talking about the response to work that has a cost. A psychic cost to create and then share. Something at stake in allowing your imagination to be translated. And if you’re not open to that, that says something about you as a spectator. Not inherently bad. But an imaginative limitation, perhaps.
Moench: Before you got to campus [at UC San Diego], Paula Vogel had an amazing chat with the playwrights where she said, “You should laugh at your own plays. You should cry. What the fuck are you doing if your work doesn’t make you afraid?” I’m often brought to tears when I’m in rehearsal. I’m sort of embarrassed by it. But, of course I am—I wrote it! If it doesn’t affect me, God help me it’s not gonna affect anyone else.
Rail: Of course it’s going to delight us. Which brings me back to cannibalism. I’m asking this to you and to myself as someone who lives in a violent world and often finds that my imagination, inclined towards humor, still cannot escape this violence. My question is: are you capable of surviving the worlds you imagine?
Moench: I don’t know. I think that’s what I’m exploring when I write. I didn’t have a sense of what was going to happen. I was writing into a circumstance I was curious about. And so I discovered along the way. What happens in the play happens because of the cocktail of character and circumstance. I know myself pretty well. I can imagine a cataclysmic event. And I don’t know what anyone is capable of until you are making choices in the moment. And making mistakes. And making compromises. So, what would I do to survive? I would sell everyone out because I’m so focused on my and my child’s survival. Or I would make some horrifying choices and be the last one standing. Or everyone would tie me down and use me and kill me. [Laughter]
Rail: You write yourself into a circumstance and suddenly find that you are capable of unimaginable things. The writer’s unknown capability for violence, for passion, for X—and then the character’s unknown capability for violence, for passion, for X.
Moench: There’s something interesting in how you and your characters are in this together. If the apocalypse happened on one of my good days, maybe I’d make it. If it happened on one of my bad days, maybe I’d be the first to go.
Mothers, by Anna Moench, directed by Robert Ross Parker, will be presented September 13 – October 12 by The Playwrights Realm at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 W. 42nd Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further information: https://www.playwrightsrealm.org/mothers.
IN DIALOGUE was created by Emily DeVoti in October 2001 as a monthly column for playwrights to engage with other playwrights. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org