Motherhood & Words

I’m honored to have Maria Asp, Darcey Engen, and Nanci Olesen of the new motherhood show “I’m Telling” here at Mother Words today. If you were at the Mother Words Reading at the Loft on October 7, you had the pleasure of hearing an excerpt of “I’m Telling” as the opening act. (And if you weren’t there, you can listen to the podcast of the reading over at Good Enough Moms.)

Today, I’ll be talking with Maria, Darcey and Nanci about their show, which you can see on Thursday, November 18th at 7:45pm at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 2561 Victoria Street North, Roseville, MN.

This performance is free and open to the public.

Kate: Darcey, tell me a little bit about how “I’m Telling” started.

Darcey: The beginnings of this piece started 10 years ago when my oldest son was born. At that time, I was an actress and newly hired professor in the Theatre Department at Augsburg College. With a newborn and career to build, I realized that opportunities for me to perform were forever limited. I wasn’t able to go to evening rehearsals so I began to invent ways in which I could perform that that wouldn’t take me away from my children.

I was dealing with a whole new world. The way in which I worked in my job at Augsburg changed. I worked around childcare. I juggled my need to breastfeed and my need to work using student babysitters off and on during the day. I hired someone for three hours in the morning—ran home to breastfeed and then hired another student for three hours in the afternoon. Just dealing with that was tremendously challenging. I began to wonder if I’d ever perform again. I was a performance teacher and couldn’t imagine that part of my life going away. I was vexed by my inability to juggle full-time career, artistry and motherhood. I realized early on that the only way I could perform was to do a one-woman piece. I started writing about the death of my mother to cancer because it was such a significant part of my journey as a young woman and then realized that it was this balancing act (motherhood, artistry and work) I was doing that was the real story I needed to perform. As I worked I realized that I could manage to pull other mothers in to my process. I made the goal to create an hour piece from a diverse group mother stories and mother performers.

I received a research grant from Augsburg and began Saturday morning workshops that took mothers through a writing and staging workshop. Originally I worked with maybe 5 to 7 mothers. We met every other Saturday morning for six months (seemed like a reasonable schedule for mothers) and used several writing methodologies to generate text. Periodically children and babies would be with us in rehearsals…sleeping, watching, or playing. Eventually our stories were staged and performed at Open Eye Figure Theater in the fall of 2007. After that performance, Maria, Nanci and I decided to work together on a three-mother piece. We wrote and staged additional stories, incorporated music, and constructed the piece so that it could travel easily to where mothers are: ECFE meetings, community centers and church basements.

After we generated material we performed our three-mother piece at Illusion Theatre in the summer of 2008. We hired a director who helped us interweave our stories, we had our husbands watch—Maria’s husband Razz is a musician—he helped with music—Nanci’s husband, Steve, and my husband, Luverne, are both performers. They helped us periodically with editing, performance ideas and the general shape of the piece. Recently, Steve has been helping us hone our work even further.

Currently we are touring this piece because of a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant. We are so enjoying continuing to work on this piece and bringing it to communities! This fall tour we have performed in a college Women’s Studies course, an ECFE meeting and two church basements—PERFECT!

Although we began to write about our experiences as mothers, the pieces that we generated focus on many different subjects that reflect larger issues around relationships, identity, parents, grief, artistry, career and many more. We are driven by these rich stories and believe that performing them will encourage deep reflection and conversation about the personal and political importance of parenting in our culture.

Kate: Nanci, you produced the MOMbo radio show for many years. How is working on “I’m Telling” different (and/or) similar to your work on MOMbo?

Nanci: “I’m Telling” is storytelling and theater—dealing with some of the same subject matter as I did on both MOMbo and in “How’s the Family?” on Minnesota Public Radio, but in a theatrical way. This is first person narrative, and we are enjoying using our acting skills and the little splashes that come with telling a story live as theatre. This piece comes first from our writing, but because we have theatricalized it, we’re able to tell the stories in a broader, more entertaining way. There’s one piece in which I talk about maternal depression, but I don’t deal with the topic the way that you would in an informative, fact-based radio show.
And the live-ness of this production is so fun for us. I did radio for 15 years and I loved it dearly, but I was first trained in theater. I remember feeling sort of silly years ago, when MOMbo was new, and I’d step out of the radio studio into the black night and not have any idea if anyone had heard what I said and had poured my efforts into. In live performance, you know right away if people are with you or not. But it’s also ephemeral in that way. You can still hear pieces I did 10 years ago on MOMbo, but “I’m Telling” just exists every time we do it…. and it’s always slightly different.

I am also impressed to remember how hard it is memorize lines! I haven’t had to do that in years!

And I love the camaraderie. We really love being together and doing this show, come what may as we roar into it on stage. We have a great friendship and a great time working together on and off stage. I like that. I’ve always been close with the people I work with in radio too, but it’s more immediate onstage.

Kate: Maria, I’m very interested in collaborative arts, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how your pieces are crafted. Do you each come to rehearsals with ideas or already fleshed-out pieces? How do each of you influence the content of your show?

Maria: We started out meeting as a group for writing sessions. Each of us was given similar prompts then we would write, read and give each other feedback. Sometime we brought in pieces that we had already worked on and then edited them for the stage. The piece took a big shift when we performed for the Fresh Ink Series at the Illusion Theater. It gave us a chance to work with the director Lisa Channer. She really challenged us to take our pieces and make them less of monologues and look for way to incorporate the other performers’ voices. Some of the pieces lent themselves to this more easily than the others. On a personal note, we are aware of the complexities of each other’s lives and encourage each other to write about new mothering challenges and delights.

Kate: Nanci, you’ve been committed to telling real stories of motherhood for the last twenty years. How have the focus of your interests and stories changed over the last two decades. Where are there still gaps in art about motherhood?

I chose to stop producing MOMbo in 2007 to make way for the work I began at MPR, first with “How’s the Family?” and then as a reporter for the family desk in the MPR newsroom. I used to wonder what it would be like if I had continued MOMbo all the way through now. Now I have a 20-year-old in college, a 17-year-old in France studying for a year, and a 15-year-old at home. Life is so different now. So on a personal level, my daily life with children has changed because they have grown up. At the same time, I have stepped in as a sometimes-caretaker to my little niece and nephew, who are turning 4 and 6 this month. When they were 1 month old and 2 years old respectively, their mom, my sister, was diagnosed with brain cancer. The journey we have all been on since then has been huge in my life in so many ways. My sister died two years ago. The grief has almost swallowed me up. I learned so much caring for a tiny baby and a toddler during her illness. The baby was set up on the weekends in a little crib right in my MOMbo office for a whole year. I have rarely written about it, but I did do one piece on Marketplace a few years back. Since then, I have become a Montessori teacher, and I now work with 3-6-year-olds everyday. I am right back in the thick of it with their parents, who are struggling with all the things I was back when I was a mother of young children.

I tell my stories differently now, but sometimes I feel like it was yesterday that the kids were little. I’m still deeply interested in how motherhood affects us as women, especially in the early years. I still find it very fertile ground to contemplate, to celebrate, and to commiserate about.

I think that many women have deep feelings about motherhood that they might just be too exhausted to articulate. So there are many gaps in art about motherhood. There is, however, much more available to moms now than there was 20 years ago. The INTERNET!! There are so many outlets for moms to think and feel and engage in discourse about motherhood. It’s very encouraging.

On a personal level, I feel that my best writing and performance and perhaps even radio work is in the future—I have so much more experience and perspective now after all these years.

Kate: Thank you, Nanci, Darcey, and Maria for taking the time to e-mail with me about “I’m Telling.” I look forward to seeing your show on Thursday!

If you’re local, meet me on Thursday, November 18th at 7:45pm at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 2561 Victoria Street North, Roseville, MN. You won’t be disappointed!


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.

1 Comment

  1. cath c on November 16, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    what a cool way to deal with the tectonic shift that paretning brings to our lives!