Baby Lovin’ With Christen Clifford

Christen Clifford

First it started with an essay. Then it continued with a solo show that has played Europe and a variety of downtown venues here in New York. Now, actor-writer Christen Clifford tackles the big time with the Off-Broadway premiere of her show, BabyLove, in which she colorfully ruminates on what she calls “the eroticism of motherhood.” The show opened late last month at 45 Bleecker and runs until the first week of June. It is being presented by Hourglass Group, the producers of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles and the forthcoming Frequency Hopping.

With the show successfully up and running (and her son temporarily napping), Christen dropped by the ol’ blog to talk about the show, the Off-Broadway move, and what else she’s been up to since the last time I interviewed her. BabyLove director Julie Kramer (None of the Above, Mother Load) throws in a handy assist from time to time, as well.

When last we spoke, you were getting ready to open BabyLove at the very first FRIGID Festival. How did that run go?

The FRIGID was great for me: I got to work the show for seven performances instead of just of just one or two here and there. The other work in the festival was wild and wonderful. And it’s important to have a truly fringe festival in New York.

What have you been up to since then?
 
Well my son started PreK, only half days, but that’s been a big change since last year. Since I’m a stay at home and working mother (I just work when he’s asleep mostly!) his schedule is what dictates my schedule. Ummm..I got my MFA, won some writing awards (MFA New School Nonfiction Prize and a 2007 NYFA fellowship, woo-hoo!) I was supposed to be working on a book- if my agent is reading this I AM, I AM!!!

How has the show changed since then – or has it?
 
Christen: The show changes with my circumstances.  When I first started doing the show, I was still really caught up in many of the issues, still very confused about sex and motherhood.  Now I feel like I’ve gone over a mountain and am on the other side of it, so it has a different feel to it.  It used to be even more emotionally raw, it’s still pretty raw, but it used to be REALLY raw.  Now I have to act to access some of those emotions, when they used to just be there.
 
So that’s kind of a big difference.  After over two years, I am finally looking at the show as an actor!
 
Julie: The show has changed so much over the years that we’ve worked on it, though it’s probably changed the least between the Frigid Festival and now.  We’ve had the opportunity to do it so much out of town and it’s interesting to me how some things are pretty much exactly the same from when we first did it in Slovenia and other parts we have continued to refine.  Actually we changed some things for Frigid and this time we’ve gone back to how we did it before.  Also we brought Julie Atlas Muz back, and she expanded some of the dances, which is exciting. 
 
Mostly though, I think what’s changed has been Christen.  When we started Felix was two and everything was so raw and uncertain and frightening.  Now, he’s four.  Her marriage is strong and Felix is this really great little person.  So while the show is still unflinchingly honest and emotionally bare, I think we’re both able to achieve more clarity on what it’s about.

BabyLove originally came to life as an essay for Nerve.com. What inspired you to write it, and then turn it into a solo show?
 
I was really confused sexually after having a baby.  I had identified myself sexually, and I felt like that part of my personality was gone, or not accessible.  Like I wanted to be a mother without losing myself, but I WAS fundamentally different.  But also unchanged in my basic desires and neurosis. 
 
So as a reader I turned to books, only to not find very much out there.  As a writer, studying with two great essayists at the time, Vivian Gornick and Phillip Lopate, I wrote from my own experience.  All of my solo work has developed out of a need to express something I didn’t find out in the world, some true bit of my experience that I hope has some universal truth in it.  It started from writing personal essays, on which I then collaborated with the fabulous director Julie Kramer to turn into performance texts.  Julie and I first met when I auditioned for her for a role in something for the American Living Room festival at HERE, a funny play about Elvis and a Russian woman and a pig:  I played the Russian. Julie has devoted a lot of time to my work and I am forever indebted to her.  I was very unhappy about feeling disconnected from my sexuality, and a lot of humor can come out of unhappiness.  Julie really uncovered the humor.
 
I am so grateful and lucky, this show has been supported by so many different companies- New Georges gave us discounted rehearsal space, so did the Interart Theatre.  The first time I did the show in New York was for the terraNOVA soloNova festival in 2006, and we did a lot of rewriting and rethinking during that run.  We’ve taken it on the road. And now this run at 45 Bleecker for Hourglass Group.

Christen Clifford & Family

Previously, you’ve said that the show is about “the eroticism of motherhood,” and that motherhood changed your ideas about sexuality and your body. How so?
 
Sex and love and intimacy overlap in romantic relationships.  My relationship with my newborn was the most intimate I’d ever had, and it was shocking to me.
 
Sexuality is so commodified these days, and motherhood is so commodified, and now there is the media-ization of the “sexy mommy” as if we have to look like Angelina Jolie when we are pregnant and be a stick six weeks afterward we give birth.
 
This doesn’t recognize the true experiences of many first time mothers: that your body is changed, often injured; that you are often completely in love with your newborns at the same that your relationship with your partners may be floundering, that your hormones are fluctuating.  So I really feel it’s important to talk about motherhood and sexuality together without it being part of a media trend that just makes most women feel badly about themselves. 
 
Principally, I’m interested in exploring the in-between moments, the grey areas between love and sex and intimacy.  Where we are all trying to connect.  And solo performance and storytelling has been a vibrant way to explore this: I love the shared experience of the theatre, to find community with an audience that might be shocked by my admissions.  Though I use sexuality as a way in, the work is always ultimately about love.
 
Maternal sexuality is actually an issue that involves us all, as children and women and men and parents. The director Julie Kramer always says it’s like the opposite of Phillip Roth romanticizing or fantasizing about his mother- now we get to see the mother’s point of view!

Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about Hourglass Group. How’d you get hooked up with them?
 
I first met artistic director Elyse Singer at a party at our mutual friend Erica Gould’s in the early nineties. Erica had this huge Chinatown loft and always threw big parties that were lots of fun, and I met Elyse and I had seen her production of Love in the Void (alt.fan.c-love)  which was a one woman play in which Carolyn Baeumler did Courtney Love posting online just after Kurt Cobain died.  I was not a big Cobain fan but I fascinated by Courtney, and I LOVED that they had taken her posts and made them into a show.  It was so great.  And this was when the Internet was still fairly new, I remember I went to see it and I tried to get onto these message boards and couldn’t figure it out.
 
I did some readings and workshops with Hourglass.  When Felix was very young we did a two-week workshop of a very interesting play called 800 Words: the transmigration of Phillip K. Dick by Victoria Stewart and it felt so great being able to bring Felix to rehearsals with a babysitter.  Elyse had had her daughter a few months after I had my son, so there was an acknowledgement of motherhood.
 
And then in 2005 Elyse and I were taking about solo work and she had the idea for a Lab devoted to female writer /performers.  The Lab is the first of its kind, which is very cool and also just a super supportive group of creative and diverse women – together we avoid the vacuum of solo performance.
 
And Hourglass Group is all mothers now: in addition to Elyse, Nina Hellman and Carolyn Baeumler both gave birth in the last year.  And Carolyn was just in Beebo Brinker at 37 Arts, and Elyse is opening Frequency Hopping at 3LD, so I’m happy to be a part of this group of mothers making theatre.

How have you enjoyed prepping the show for Off-Broadway?
 
Christen: I loved it.  I was so happy to get back in a rehearsal room with Julie Kramer, who is just so smart and I love working with her.  We had some sessions with the amazing Julie Atlas Muz and re-did some choreography.  She asked me if I wanted to make it dirtier and I said, “YES!”  So we have even more fun with the dance sequences now.  And Elizabeth Rhodes came in to rework some sound.  Costume designer Melissa Schlachtmeyer met me at maternity stores to find the perfect pair of pants, and made me a new belly. I am so lucky to have such generous collaborators who have been helping me work and rework the show over the years; we’re all in this together.  And we brought in Graham Kindred to do our lights, and had a consultation with a great set designer, Lauren Helpern, and added a Mylar rain curtain.  I love shiny things!
 
Julie: It’s always great to be able to revisit something, to have that confidence that it works in front of all kinds of audiences, and just to be able to really hone in on those areas that we want to be perfect.  It’s the best kind of rehearsal situation really, because there are fewer variables in terms of how or whether something is going to work.  And it’s always the best to be able to move forward with a show and bring it to more and more people, especially when you really believe in what the show is about.

Part of the performance schedule includes “Mommy matinees.” What time of day is best for theatergoing mommies?
 
Well, Sunday afternoons are pretty easy to get out get out of the house, you leave the kid(s) with your partner or a friend.  It saves you from having to make a big deal of going to the theatre and getting a babysitter and coming home late and tired.  And the Wednesday matinees are early, at 1pm, so parents can get back to school for 3pm pick up, or see the show on their lunch hour. 

What are some of the challenges (and advantages) you face in balancing motherhood and performing?
 
Well, first of all, I don’t buy into the whole “opting in” and “opting out” of motherhood that makes headlines.  For me, it’s not a choice to work or not.  Personally, I don’t have the option of having a high-powered job and hiring a nanny.  I can’t not be a mother, I can’t not be a writer/performer – these are givens for me. I also just started teaching.  So it’s a challenge for me to make my way in the world and piece it together the only way I know how.
 
When I was getting my MFA I’d be up until 1am writing and still have to get up with my son.  So I stayed sleep deprived long after my son was sleeping through the night in order to do my own work.  It’s definitely a DIY business model.
 
That said, I think coming from downtown theatre makes me scrappy in a way that’s a good influence on being a mother – the whole beg, borrow, or steal mentality makes you flexible and I feel like we can always find fun wherever we are.
 
When Felix was little, he would just travel with me- well partly because I breastfed him for so long!  When Julie and I premiered the show in Ljubljana, the festival there put us all up in an apartment and even arranged childcare for me and paid for it! 
 
I like to bring him to tech rehearsals, he loves the lights and gels, he loves to come to the theatre and explore different spaces.  He loves it and I think it’s important to see me at work, since he can’t see the work.  BabyLove is for adults only; it even came with a warning label in Canada. My son is old enough to really know what theatre is now – I take him to children’s theatre – and he likes to give people the postcards for my show and tell them, “Here’s a postcard for my mommy’s show.  It’s not for children.  It’s only for grown ups.”  It’s so cute!

You’re expecting your second child later this year. Congratulations on that! Might we see BabyLove 2 sometime in the future?
 
Thank you. I’m excited and scared to bring another human being into the world.  I don’t see BabyLove 2 in the works; I’m not fond of sequels in general. But who knows: when the new baby comes everything will change again.
 
I’m actually looking at sex from the perspective of a daughter instead of a mother now.  My new solo is called (What I Know About) My Parents’ Sex Life and it explores elderly sexuality.  I’m looking at everything from my father’s Viagra prescription to my mother’s racy letters, from nursing homes to granny porn.  Daniel Fish will direct it, and it opens June 17th at P.S. 122 as part of terraNOVA’s soloNOVA festival and I got an equipment loan grant from Digital Performance Institute so we’ll be using video and I’m excited that it will be something I’m not used to.  So I have to get to work making a new show.  And it’s scary, because though it is still a solo with personal stories, I’m consciously moving away from the storytelling form that I’ve been working in for the past few years.  I’m excited to see what will happen.

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