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Jamie Leonhart, former Kimmel Center Theater Residency Artist

Posted by:  Kimmel Center on January 26, 2016

We sat down with Jamie Leonhart, former Kimmel Center Theater Residency Artist, for a Q&A about her upcoming performance ESTUARY: an artist/mother story (Feb 4-6, SEI Innovation Studio, Tix and info): 

Q. What are some of the challenges you will address of being a new mom?  Why did you choose them?

Some of the challenges I address are:

  • The shift from imagining parenting to actually doing it, and all that is involved,
  • The shift in sense of self (mental, physical, emotional) that occurs and how it impacts the artist,
  • The competitive nature of New York parenting,
  • The shift/adjustment that occurs in the partner relationship - two becoming three, basic hygiene, 
  • and more.

I drew from my own experiences, and whittled down the list to one that would make sense in the piece. I started from what I learned and as I developed the piece I began talking to other people about their own challenges/successes as artist/mothers.  I sent out questionnaires to about a dozen women to see what their experience was/is.  What I continue to discover is that this very personal experience isn’t singular at all - it is universal and important to get into the public’s ear!

Q. What do you want the audience to take away/How will they feel after seeing this show?

I began this piece in Gretchen Cryer’s writing workshop.  There was a woman in the workshop, Julie, who had made the choice to not have children.  It wasn’t what she wanted or what she related to.  I presented a piece I’d written about being in an airport about to get on a plane with my son, who was an infant at the time, and he was having a true meltdown.  The piece was my inner dialogue, trying to figure out how to stop the crying; how to get on a plane with this screaming child; realizing that he and I were the child and mother that I, pre-motherhood, hated, praying that they would not be sitting near me on the plane.  When I finished reading the piece, this woman said, “Wow - I will never look at a mother and child the same way again.”

That’s what I really want the audience to take away — a different perspective on a very common occurrence.  I am not the first artist to have a child.  But I am the one who is sharing her story.

I want this piece to be an ice-breaker, a discussion starter.  I see it along the same lines as Jennifer Senior’s book All joy and no fun and the discussions and articles that are finally coming into the public eye about “Mommy shame” and how something that is wonderful and rewarding is also really hard and confusing…

Estuary doesn’t offer answers –  it is an example of what this situation can look like.  Of one woman’s experience.  I am sharing my experience musically, so that other people might begin to share their own.  Or not feel so isolated or “other.”

I hope that they will use my story to engender conversation about the unspoken realities of parenthood — the life/work balance and how that changes with the addition of a child, the importance of responsibility and communication in partnership, perceived failures, both professional and parental.

I hope that they find humor in the ridiculous competition that we find among mothers in urban environments.  (I have a friend who is a writer now living in Vienna and she says that this type of hyper-competitive parenting is decidedly American.)

Q. How does the musical component compliment your message?  Why did you set this story to music?

I am first and foremost a singer and songwriter.  So it was never a question as to whether this piece would be straight theater or a hybrid of theater and music.  The songs enrich the material - at times taking us on a journey from point A to point B, at other times deepening the exploration of a particular emotion or situation.  

The nascence of this piece began a few years after my son was born.  I was having trouble writing new music, I wasn’t enjoying performing and frankly, I was frightened.  I decided to take a writing workshop that focused on developing one-person shows.  It wasn’t specifically music-related, but I figured that it was a good place to start, and I had sung for a woman, Mimi Cohen, in a musical piece that she had developed in a similar workshop.  I entered the workshop telling myself that I could write about ANYTHING but parenting — that it was my “sacred space” and should be filled with everything else.  Of course, we know what happened…But it was a great jumping off point.  I ended the workshop with about 20 minutes of material and an idea of how to move forward.  

Q. What’s it like working with your husband?

Michael plays an important role in the story - a complex role that is intertwined in both my life as an artist and my life as a mother.  We have created music together; we created a child together, and those two creations don’t always work well concurrently for both “creators.”  He will be the only man on the stage, serving as arranger and music director for the piece (we will have an all female band.)  People are curious as to how he feels about the piece - what his reaction is to having a role both in the text and on stage.  (You’ll have to ask him about this yourself!)

I love working with Michael.  Before we were a couple, we were friends and worked together in a musical capacity.  I have always admired his musicianship and work ethic.  We have collaborated well on so many projects, that it was clear to me that he would be a wonderful partner in this endeavor.  

His arrangements are absolutely beautiful, and fit the piece perfectly.  We have chosen a somewhat unconventional instrumentation for the piece (joining us in Philly are: upright bass, Bb/bass clarinets, violin, and two singers) and he’s arranged them as characters/voices in  addition to providing the accompaniment to the songs.

Q. What’s it like working with Joanna Settle?

There was a piece of our first phone conversation that I will forever remember.  Joanna said, “I was the mom on the playground who forgot lunch and went across the street to pick up a bacon egg and cheese on a roll –  I wasn’t the mom on the playground who had packed extra snacks and an ‘emergency bag’.”  To which I responded, “I was THAT mom.”  We both laughed, for although we have very different experiences/coping mechanisms within parenting, we face the similar struggle of balancing our artist/parent lives.

I’d never worked with a director for my own material before, and am still learning about the impact that it can have on a piece.  Joanna is direct and firm, but approaches this sensitive topic with heart, and gets to the nitty-gritty of the material.  

This was a part of the 2014/15 Kimmel Center Theater Residency, what was that experience like?  How did it effect or change your process.

Simply being afforded the space and time to create, uninterrupted, was the greatest gift from the Kimmel Residency.  Every day I focused solely on the piece, and was able to explore it with Joanna - a new set of eyes and ears, with a whole new set of opinions!

The four other artists chosen for this this Residency:  Daniel Alexander Jones, Migguel Anggelo, Ethan Lipton and Dito van Reigersberg, along with their amazing teams, were invaluable.  Although we mostly spent the time working separately, we bounced ideas off of each other and shared material freely (and had fun too.)

In some ways, I see the Kimmel Center (along with Joe’s Pub/The Public Theater) as an important silent partner in the piece, and I am excited to present Estuary in its current form in February!

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