Guest Post: Is Everyone Qualified to Be a Parent? A New Play Imagines What If…Not.
Guest Post by Sharon Goldman
My longtime friend, Los Angeles-based playwright Susan Josephs, has always been attracted to the theme of non-conformity. That’s no surprise: She and I both grew up in Modern Orthodox Jewish communities (she in San Diego, me on Long Island), where going down the traditional road of marriage and children is strongly encouraged. These days, while we are both married, both of us are currently childfree (though cats are in the equation) and we both ascribe to a freelance, artistic, non-9-to-5 lifestyle.
So when I read an early version of Susan’s new play, The Interview (world premiere October 4-27 in Los Angeles), I wasn’t shocked to discover a social satire and psychological drama that explores a world where critical thinking and non-conformity can have devastating consequences.
The dystopian work explores a time in the not-so-distant future where the federal government exerts firm control over parenthood, and it is now easier to get into Harvard than to become a mom or a dad. All females must be implanted with a contraceptive rod upon hitting puberty, and becoming pregnant requires a rigorous application process and interview. Those lucky enough to be deemed qualified must remain compliant with all the laws and regulations on best practices (which a panel of Mommy Bloggers help determine) for child-rearing; otherwise they will lose their right to be parents.
First-time applicants Jenna and Steven beat the odds and land a coveted final interview with the U.S. Department of Parenting and Child Welfare. However, when they sit down with their state-licensed interviewer and the questioning begins, of course, drama ensues.
I’ll be heading out to L.A. to check out Susan’s new work in October (click here for tickets), but wanted to chat with her about how her own upbringing and decisions regarding parenthood influenced The Interview; how she thinks both parents and non-parents will react to the play; and the biggest challenges of bringing potentially inflammatory subject matter to the stage.
Here is what she had to say:
Q: How did you come up with the concept for The Interview?
A: The idea first came to me when I applied to graduate school in 2010. The academic application process made me think about how much of our lives revolve around being evaluated or competing with others for some chosen slot, whether a job, a master’s degree program, a sports competition or some other contest. At that point in my life, I had also just gotten married and many people – friends and strangers alike — were asking me whether we planned on having kids. So I started thinking about how being able to biologically bear your own child seems like one of the last things in our society that people can just do without having to apply, interview or compete. From there, I began to imagine a world where natural childbearing and rearing – something our society views as a basic human right – becomes something super-difficult, like getting into Harvard.
I was also inspired by years of observing the different child-rearing techniques and philosophies espoused by my friends who became parents. Also, when I read articles about parenting, I was always struck by how impassioned so many parents seemed to be on any given child-rearing issue — from vaccination to breast-feeding to toilet training. It struck me how convinced some parents seemed to be about the utter rightness of how they were raising their kids and how polarized parenting discussions could get. I imagined a world that no longer tolerated a multiplicity of approaches to having and raising children.
Q: How would you describe the play?
A: It is both social satire and psychological drama. During the first half of the play, I’d say the satiric element is strongest. In the first scene, Steven and Jenna, a supposedly “ideal” couple, have landed a coveted interview that will determine whether they get approved to become parents. The interviewer, Veronica, soon greets them and, as the interview unfolds, the audience gets a sense of the world where these characters live — where a certain group of mommy bloggers, together with other “experts,” have succeeded in lobbying Congress to pass legislation governing all aspects of reproduction and child-rearing. There is now a government-mandated code of “best practices” that all parents must follow, otherwise they risk fines, hearings, and at worst, authorized home removals of their children. The second half of the play becomes much more personal, as it examines how this regulated world has affected the lives of Jenna, Steven and their government-interviewer Veronica.
Q: The issues addressed in The Interview — choosing or not choosing to have children, high expectations for parenthood, conforming to society’s expectations — are really front and center in the news these days. Did you expect that, and how do you think the play, set in a dystopian future, connects to our present societal struggles?
A: While the play takes places at some point in the future, I don’t specify dates precisely because the world of The Interview isn’t so dissimilar from our own. Think about how reproductive rights issues continue to dominate our media and political discourse, or how much coverage and attention Michael Bloomberg received when he tried to regulate soda consumption in New York State. Also, nearly everything I reference in The Interview has already been invented. For example, in my play, all females, once they hit puberty, have to get a government-mandated contraceptive rod implanted their arm. This technology exists today.
Q: We both grew up in Modern Orthodox Jewish communities, and we have supported each other during our own struggles to decide whether to have kids and generally conform to a community’s expectations. How does your own life manifest itself in an artistic effort like The Interview? Do you see yourself directly paralleled in the play or is it a more complex connection?
A: Great question! As a writer, I’ve always been attracted to the theme of non-conformity and to stories where a protagonist does battle with societal norms that, at their core, turn out to be oppressive. And while this play is not directly autobiographical, my upbringing, in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in San Diego, has had a very large influence on the story. When I graduated from UCLA, I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to be part of its large, young Modern Orthodox Jewish community. I found a boyfriend who was part of that community and I tried hard to fit both his ideal of a “good” Jewish girlfriend and my conception of a “good,” religious Jew. Well, to cut a very long story short, I started to understand that my personal truth lay outside of this Upper West Side Jewish community and that this boyfriend and I were not meant to be together. When I was 26, he and I broke up and I went off to India and other parts of Asia to travel with a friend and essentially reinvent myself. Today, I still consider myself strongly Jewish but I’m not part of an Orthodox community. Nor do my husband and I have children – something that Jewish families and communities definitely promote and strongly encourage!
So you might say that there is a particularly strong connection between my own journey and Jenna’s struggle in the play to prepare for this interview with her husband even though she has deep misgivings about the whole process. Jenna, like myself, has a sense that her own personal truth conflicts with the larger society in which she lives and she’s struggling to do what she believes is right. Of course, I would also say that there are pieces of me in the other characters too. Without giving the play away, I would say that I relate to Steven’s determination to do what’s right and to the way Veronica deals with her own personal circumstances.
Q: This play certainly has relevance for both parents and non-parents. How do you think both sides of that equation will connect to the idea of the federal government having so much power over the process of deciding who has a child? Do you think most people even give that much thought to having children?
A: I definitely believe that both parents and non-parents can connect to this play because its ultimate theme concerns personal freedom. Really, the play is asking the question: where do we draw the line as a society between the quest to improve people’s lives and regulating every aspect of those same lives? In The Interview, the people that lobbied for the legislation to regulate parenting, and consequently, reproduction, wanted to prevent future child abusers from becoming parents. But as the play unfolds, it’s clear that their good intentions have resulted in a highly oppressive society.
I think this play will appeal to everyone who believes they have a right to live according to their own beliefs and values, whether that means they choose to be parents or child-free. Because in the world of the Interview, the opposite is true. Everyone must live according to the same set of rules and regulations, which is wreaking havoc on personal lives and relationships. Personally, I doubt that anyone will see my play and say: wow, what a great world that depicts! But if anyone does, I’ll let you know!
Q: What are the biggest challenges in terms of bringing this type of subject matter to the stage?
A: I’m fortunate to have great collaborators to help bring this play to life. Diana Wyenn, a hugely talented Los Angeles-based theater artist, is directing the production and working with our set designer Vincent Richards to visually imagine the world of The Interview, which takes place in the not-so-distant future. For me, the biggest challenge lay in crafting a script that didn’t have any particular political agenda but really tried to imagine specific consequences that could occur in a world where parenting becomes so strictly regulated. Another challenge lay in trying to personalize these abstract ideas that I had about this world and attempting to portray how my play’s three characters would honestly react to their circumstances.
Q: How do you hope audiences will react? Do you have any concerns?
A: It’s interesting – I have shared the premise of this play with hard core Democrats and Republicans, parents and non-parents and people who span the spectrum of all types of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. And I have to say that the premise seems to resonate with all of these people, though perhaps for different reasons. But I have also learned as a writer that I certainly can’t control what people think or how they will react to what I create. All I can do is try to tell the story I want to tell as truthfully and artfully as I can.
Find out more about The Interview here.
The Interview: World Premiere October 4-27, 2013
Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 5 pm
@ Studio/Stage 520 N. Western Ave. Los Angeles
$20 general admission; $16 students/seniors/unions
Purchase tickets online: http://www.theinterviewplay.com/tickets.html
Photo Credit: Donna & Andrew