By Elizabeth Gracen:
When Hilary Thomas asked me to join a reading of her new play, Mother Places, and to read the part of her late mother (an 85-year-old psychoanalyst who I had seen in the front row for every performance I had ever attended or performed in at the Lineage Performing Arts Center), there was no hesitation. Every project I have ever worked on with my longtime collaborator over the past 10 years has been such a worthwhile endeavor and simply a joy to be a part of.
As we inched along from that first reading toward a workshop of the play at the end of 2021, I found myself venturing into juicy, unknown acting territory. How do you play an 85-year-old without physically altering your appearance? How do you walk with a cane and then a walker? How do you transform yourself into a feisty, bigger-than-life woman with a very particular outlook on life? And most of all, how would it stand up during the eventual performance for a room full of her family and closest friends? Daunting!
The best part of the performance that evening was the laughter. I could see Michelle Kolb, my effervescent acting partner, light up when it began. Our wonderful musicians, Jana Nakoa and Lauren Wilmore felt the shift as well. We knew that some of the play was funny, but it was a serious subject. The laughter freed us both to try new things, to ham it up, to stretch a bit more to bring the poignancy of the words into the light. It was a glorious evening.
So, when Hilary extended the offer to bring Mother Places into an official production with four performances at the Lineage Performing Arts Center, starting tonight, April 8, 2022, I was in. It has been a supreme challenge for me as an artist and an absolute joy (there's that word again) to once again work with my Lineage family.
I reached out to Hilary to talk about the experience and her inspiration: her mother,
Elizabeth Gracen & Michelle Kolb in "Mother Places"
EG: Hilary, we have worked together on a wide variety of projects over the years, and I really can’t believe my luck to have found such a willing, artistic partner in crime. Collaboration is key to the work you create at the Lineage Performing Arts Center. When did you realize that you were destined to bring so many artists under your wing, and why is this process so important to you?
HT: I did not feel that I was destined to bring so many artists under my wing, and I didn't know what Lineage was going to be. It was all a wonderfully accidental creation, and what has happened and what I've learned over the 20-plus years that Lineage has existed is that luckily I am obsessed with creating art, and I have, over the years, found people like you, like all of the beautiful actors and dancers and singers and musicians and artists who have been a part of Lineage for so long. When I find people who have the energy and the talent and the interest in open connection—I just grab 'em, and I hold on. And that's something that I've really gotten good at over the years.
I didn't realize I was doing it when I was younger. I would just have these wonderful people and have so many fulfilling moments, making art with them—and now I get to do that all the time. The number of people who are part of this artistic family has grown so much, so now that we've got this gorgeous new space, it feels like the sky is the limit on these collaborations. And to me, it's really challenging if you don't find yourself open to collaborating, because part of the joy for me is discovering what each artist has to bring to the table in so many beautiful ways. I don't know that I would ever have even begun to be able to guide and direct you as my mother if you hadn't just kind of started and been putting yourself out there and gone with your instincts on it, because it would've been too difficult and too intimate for me to try and relay to you or create from scratch. It's such a gift that you are bringing so much of your own ideas and energy to the process, because then I can see something beautiful and say, “Yes, that's it! Keep doing that!” I feel like this whole show has been a result of saying, “Yes, that's it! Keep doing that!” to a lot of beautiful artists.
EG: Mother Places is possibly the most intimate piece that you’ve created. I know that it has been an integral part of your own experience of processing the death of your mother, but I’m curious about when it hit you that you needed to make your mother’s journals and writing into a production?
HT: I did not even realize that I would be making my mother's journal and writing a production at all. I think what happened is that when she got sick and was in the hospital, I started writing like crazy—my sister and I both did it—and I'm so glad I did. I never am the type of person writing in the middle of a crisis or in a situation like that. But I just found myself writing down every detail from all of the words that she was uttering. I mean, everything that made it to the script is totally based on reality. I wouldn't trust my brain to remember something in such a crazy moment, but the fact that I had written it all down was such a gift to me. Then after she died, I had so much of her own writings, and the longer that time passed after her death, the more every little kernel that she wrote, even little things on post-it notes, became these tiny pieces of gold that I would uncover. And as I was an uncovering this gold, it just somehow managed to match up with some of the things that I had written in such interesting ways. I wasn’t intending to create a show—certainly not a play—but I would place my writing and place something of hers right in there. None of it had a purpose or a home; it was just kind of happening, and then I realized that it was emerging in my mind as a play. I was visualizing actors sharing these words, and I'm so much more comfortable envisioning something on a stage than on paper. So it started just unfolding even faster from there.
EG: Your work as a choreographer, writer, and producer involves a complex leap of faith that what you see in your mind’s eye, or feel in your heart, will ultimately find its way to an artistic presentation that you share with your world. I know that involves an immense degree of vulnerability on your part. This piece, Mother Places, boldly opens up a Pandora’s box of ideas and raw emotion from one of the most intimate yet universal relationships that we all share—the mother/daughter dynamic. How do you deal with the process of revealing the tender parts of your psyche to the very bright light of public exposure?
HT: I think that I totally attribute my ability to just get crazy vulnerable on a stage or into a piece of art from my mother, who did not ever shy away from talking about challenging topics or even being vulnerable herself, looking openly at her own flaws in kind of a more public setting. I had done a show before, called Ceiling in the Floor, where I really shared my darkest secrets. It was a transformational experience for me as a human, because I've always been super private. When I did that, I revealed so much about myself that I had never told anyone, including my own mother, who learned about all of these innermost secrets for the first time while watching the show. The experience just opened me up, and suddenly I was not afraid of anything, and I did not care what anybody thought of me. And I was certainly not ashamed of my mental health struggles, or anything else along those lines, because I felt so free to have it out there. I think I've been kind of riding this high of freedom since then. I feel it's just so good for me to share my thoughts and my feelings and my stories with a certain level of vulnerability, because I was so private for so many years, and I didn't like being that way at all. It feels so much better to be on the other side of the spectrum, so I think Mother Places is just kind of part of that. It's just how I process, and I know that about myself now. I always really lean in to that. Art is the way I feel and process grief and trauma, so I already had that awareness when my mom died, and I felt pretty lucky that I could just dive right in—because I knew that's what I was going to have to do.
EG: Do you think you have something unique to uncover about this mother/daughter dynamic? What do you hope this production accomplishes? What do you hope the audience takes away from the piece?
HT: Well, selfishly, I just want everyone to know and love my mother as deeply and intimately as her daughters knew her, because what a wonderfully crazy, crazy woman. I mean “crazy“ in the best possible way, quirky and elegant and bold in her statements—and particular and anxious. There are so many wonderful characteristics that make her, I think, very captivating. I believe that some of the things that she had written, I think we can all relate to in so many ways. She just kind of took it to a new level. For example, she wrote an entire personal memo, then typed it up, called "Earthquake Safety Rehearsal with Self," with very specific instructions of how to deal with an earthquake—from an emotional standpoint, even more than a physical standpoint. She just wrote that to herself and had this document on her computer. That’s pretty incredible.
I also want people to just have a connection with their mothers, whatever that relationship is like. I hope that they go home and call them and ask them really specific details about their life, because there are so many things that I never asked my mom about that I really wish I had. It's just the dynamic when a mother is alive, it's so different from the dynamic when a mother has died, so I want people to really feel like they got their chance to catch this deep insight into their own mothers, especially if their mothers don't leave the kind of incredible writings that my mother left behind.
EG: As the actress playing your mother, it has been a fascinating journey of discovery—not only of the “how” to play an 85-year-old woman, but there is a challenge of playing someone I’ve met (and who has seen me perform many times at LPAC) and was so well known to many in your sphere. What do you think your mother’s life shows us all about being alive? About being a mother?
HT: I think it comes back to the relationship with our mothers and being totally aware that our mothers are not perfect by any means and to be able to see them as human beings; I think that allows us to really develop some empathy in ways that are challenging for us to do, because there's a certain dynamic that's always been there that can be stressful or overwhelming, or a burden, or too intense, or whatever it is that can hinder sometimes our ability to see our mothers as separate people and to not be critical of them. I think about being a mother. I am so different a mother than my mother. I am not at all particular about how things need to be done. I do not take the kind of care and details, by any means, that she did, but I do have these really deep, wonderful, connected moments. I think it's the depth that I bring to my mothering that she did in such a beautiful way. And certainly that really tight, tight relationship that she had with me that I have with my daughter. EG: Your work has always bravely ventured into the darker corners of what it means to be human—in all its messy, difficult truth. Your mother was a psychoanalyst who relished going deep. She was unafraid to ask the hard questions. Your work at Lineage follows this same brave path of “talking about the hard stuff.” Why are you compelled to explore these depths? Why do you think it is important to bring these type of productions to life?
HT: I don't know why I'm so compelled to explore depth and death. I'd say I got it from my mother, actually, but more and more, I find myself so comfortable involved in difficult discussions, and I noticed that so many people around me get really, really uncomfortable talking about death or going super deep. I think it's so important because it’s important to be comfortable in these places. I got so lucky that my mother's death was as totally traumatic as it was. It was so beautiful. It was so, so beautiful. And I can really see that this moment of watching her body slowly shut down and being able to be there with her right by her side, holding her hand and sleeping in bed with her. That was such a beautiful gift. And I think that she felt it in her last phase of her life. She was probably happier than she had ever been to know that her daughters were there just loving on her so hard; it's all she ever wanted.
EG: Finally, since the pandemic is finally (knocks wood) loosening its grip on our lives, LPAC is up and running with live productions. Please tell our readers about the up-and-coming productions they can expect to see in the coming year and how they can donate and become a part of the good work you are doing to help the community through the arts.
HT: In an effort to try and offer some lighter content, we created a family show that was light and funny and really great to be able to do called The Curiosity Tales. It explores what it means to be curious and also takes a look at social media and how it is influencing young people and how it is taking away some of our originality and our curiosity and what we can do about that. It has been a really fun show to do. We do it monthly, just so we can continue to keep content current for all ages.
Art is so important for everyone at every age and stage of life. That's really what I love about Lineage. Not only are we working with so many talented artists, but we have so many beautiful creative souls here, all ages—from babies to my 85-year-old mother who used to spend a lot of time doing workshops and all kinds of things here at LPAC.
We will be having a number of open house–type events coming up in May featuring our favorite artists, singers, musicians, news, dancers, and storytellers. So, we encourage people to come and hang out and get to know who we are in this brand-new space, because it is such an exciting time now that the pandemic is loosening its grip. It’s important for us to finally meet neighbors and reach out and connect in a really meaningful way.