At Mindr, we believe becoming a parent can unlock new creativity, vulnerability and capability. And we see all of those qualities in playwright and Mindr member Mathilde Dratwa, whose new play Milk and Gall centers on the experience of being a new mother during the first year of the Trump administration. We're excited to check out the next reading of Milk and Gall at the Corkscrew Festival on the Lower East Side on July 20th, where free childcare will be provided. In advance of showtime, we chatted with Mathilde to learn more about her inspiration for writing this play, how she is balancing being a playwright and a mom, and what’s next for her as an artist.
The central theme behind Milk and Gall is a commentary on raising an infant in today’s political climate. What was your inspiration for the play?
It happened in two parts.
First, I had a baby. I had low milk supply and was pretty set on breastfeeding, so those first few months were rough: lactation consultants, constant weighing, supplemental nursing systems, formula supplements, pumping after every feeding… That was something I wasn’t prepared for, a part of the new mother narrative that is completely left out of mainstream media. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to tell that story.
Then, the election happened. I had gone to bed early that night, because my son was still waking up at night and I was pretty exhausted. My husband assured me there was nothing to worry about, that Hillary would obviously win. So I went to bed blissfully ignorant of what was to come… And then found out the result in the early hours of the morning as I was nursing. To find out that Trump had won as I literally held a beautiful baby boy to my breast - that was incredibly jarring.
I wanted to explore that duality: being a new mother at precisely that moment in history. In the play, I took this a step further: a woman gives birth on the night of the election. But the connective tissue is the same. It’s a story of a woman who struggles to find herself after she gives birth, and who struggles to find agency in a shattered world. It’s visceral, and visual, and funny - because that’s sometimes the only way to process the absurdity of the world we live in.
Milk and Gall eatures a shape-shifting baby played by a series of incongruous objects: a delicate glass ball, which shatters as Vera learns the result of the election; a live chicken, which demands attention and prevents Vera from being fully present for her friends; a helium-filled balloon, which floats away as Vera struggles to breastfeed and the baby loses a dangerous amount of weight; a piggy bank that eats up Vera’s savings. The personal and the political spheres collide and Vera is pushed to the point of exhaustion.
Do you think that it is especially difficult to balance the parts of ourselves that want to be socially/politically active while also focusing on the everyday needs of our children?
I think that becoming a parent made me more politically aware; but the demands of raising an infant made it difficult for me to be as politically active as I would have liked. I think some of these challenges are specific to having a very young child, and I look forward to involving my son in the politically engaged part of my life as he grows older.
Some of the challenges are intrinsic to the experience of being a parent, and some are actually external - and dictated by society. We live in a patriarchal society, which influences the way that we think about motherhood, the provisions we have in place, and the way we treat care workers.
Second-wave feminists actually made a conscious decision to leave motherhood off their platform. Their message was that women could show up to the workplace as men, could behave as men. It made sense as the most effective way to fight for equality at the time, but it did a disservice to women with children then and now. We’re only just starting to see feminist discourse adopt motherhood as a key factor worthy of prominent placement on their platform.
That’s why I’m so thrilled that Mindr exists, and that you’re bringing motherhood to the political sphere. And I think there’s a shift starting to happen. I was thrilled to see pumping and nursing stations at the Women’s March, for example, but the truth is that we still have a long way to go. Milk and Gall explores the terror of the mundane: Vera is stuck in the world of diapers, breast pumps and padsicles while everyone else she knows is out marching.
We’ve heard a lot from the Mindr community about difficulties of balancing our roles as mothers and professionals. How have you found this balance in your life? Any secret tips/life hacks to share?
Milk and Gall is my first full-length play and it wouldn’t exist had I not had a child. Motherhood broke me open in a way I hadn’t anticipated; it made me more vulnerable and stronger at the same time. I have been pretty prolific professionally these last two and half years - I had never thought that I’d run a non-profit, for example, and yet I co-founded Moms-in-Film shortly after giving birth, to advocate for parents in the entertainment business. The truth is that becoming a parent re-focused my career. I’m much better at prioritizing and saying no. I’m much more efficient. And I’m much happier.
I used to be an actor, and I had put off parenthood because I thought it would get in the way of my career. The transition from acting to writing was messy and lengthy - it’s not as tidy as saying that I quit acting and started writing when I became a mom. It is a transition that began before I even got pregnant. But writing is a much better fit for me, personally, than acting ever was. There are stories that aren’t being told that I’m pretty passionate about telling, and that gives me a sense of purpose that I hadn’t known before. I don’t really miss acting at all, actually - the thought of paying for childcare in order to run around the city to audition for projects I probably won’t get makes me shudder…
How has parenting influenced your creative process?
Milk and Gall is kind of episodic because I wrote it during my son’s naps. So each scene is pretty short, and almost stands alone as a vignette. The through line came much later, at the end, during rewrites. It’s interesting actually because everyone tells me they love the form - that it mimics the experience of sleep-deprived new parents so well. They say, “I love that you chose a structure that highlights the themes of your play.” And inside I’m like, “I didn’t choose anything! It’s fragmented because my life was fragmented - it’s disjointed by necessity, because it came spilling out of me in 45-minute chunks!”
We love that your reading of Milk and Gall on July 20th will provide childcare. Tell us a little more about ways we can support parents in the arts - both patrons and artists - and why you think this is important.
There’s so much talk right now about gender inequality in film, TV and theater. But so much of that talk neglects to mention that the lack of parent-friendly practices in the arts have a disproportionately negative effect on women, because most child-rearing responsibilities continue to fall on moms. So by making the entertainment industry more parent-friendly, we’d actually end up with more gender equality. (A shout-out to Paal Theatre, an organization working on precisely these issues.)
The more diverse the industry, the more diverse the stories being told. I, for one, want my son to grow up watching stories about women as well as stories about men, and yet there are so few! (The same goes for the representation of different races, religions, abilities, sexual expression and sexual identity.)
Milk and Gall is a play about parenthood, so it was important to me to provide free childcare to patrons as well as artists - because we want them to be able to come and experience the show, to see themselves on stage. But the truth is that I’d like to see this done frequently, with all kinds of shows. Parents don’t only want to see plays about parenthood - in fact, there are times when they want to see plays about anything else. And it’s important to keep our parents culturally and intellectually stimulated! I want parents to participate in the cultural scene, because I want the people raising the next generation to be active, and passionate, and involved in the world around them.
What’s next for you, Mathilde? Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’m working on a play called A Play about David Mamet Writing a Play about Harvey Weinstein. David Mamet spent his career writing plays and films largely devoid of women. When he does include female characters, they’re often… problematic. Take Oleanna, for instance: a college student falsely accuses her professor of sexual harassment. Well, the guy who wrote that play is writing a play about Harvey Weinstein in which, I imagine, Weinstein will be the tragic hero. I don’t say this glibly, pretty much all of his plays are about tragic heroes.
The news that Mamet was writing a play about Weinstein made me feel all kinds of feelings, so I started writing my response, which I’m thinking of as an angry comedy. I’m workshopping it on Governors Island, with free readings on the 28th and 29th of July. It’s a good excuse to go hang out on the island!
#MINDRMAMA Mathilde Dratwa is a Belgian playwright and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. She is a member of Dorset Theater Festival’s Women Artists Write group and of New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artist Program, a former co-leader of the FilmShop collective, a Sundance Channel Contest finalist and a two-time Pulitzer Center Grant recipient. Her plays have been workshopped and presented by LAByrinth Theater Company, Great Plains Theater Conference, InProximity Theatre's Project W Festival, Rising Sun Performance Company and Corkscrew Theater Festival.