The personal is political in Meg Miroshnik's new play QUIVER

The fourth play in our 2017-18 Ruth Easton New Play Series is Quiver by Core Writer Meg Miroshnik, with readings March 5 and 6, 2018, at the Playwrights' Center. In this interview, Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn talks with Meg about portrayals of childbirth onstage, her interest in Christian mega-families, and adapting Shakespeare's sonnets.

What inspired you to write this play?

This play exists because of the Playwrights’ Center. It started with the 2016 season brochure. One of the questions you sent for me to answer was, “What would you like to see onstage that you’ve never seen?” I had just had my third baby and I was idly thinking about how long and weird my labors had been. With all the kids I would have false labor from like 5 p.m. to midnight for weeks. Every night, the contractions would start and I would think, “Well, I guess tonight is the night!” But then it would just stop at midnight and so I went about my life. And that’s just not an experience I had ever seen on stage before. Childbirth on stage or on film or TV is very dramatic and short. But I had this idea of a character who would be just going about their business while also in labor, and that wasn’t something I’d ever seen dramatized. So that’s how I replied to that email and then I remember Julia Brown wrote back and was like, “Oh, I would watch that play,” and I filed that away—that somebody was interested in that idea.

Then I was starting to take the kids out all together—a newborn and two toddlers. I don’t think it’s so extraordinary in Minnesota, but in L.A. people would stop me and ask me questions, and I realized that the point of those questions was to figure out if there was an organizing principle behind my family planning. At the same time, I was embarking on a bit of a religious journey and thinking about the kind of community and identity that organized religion can provide. Pretty standard stuff to think about when you have kids. But it got me thinking about a couple people that I had known who had grown up in the context of religious movements where having a big family was part of the calling. These two things—organized religion and having a few kids fairly close together—melded in my mind. I was thinking about how difficult it is, financially and physically and emotionally, to support a mega-family. What an incredible ask that is of believers.

In a way it’s an extreme example: “How do you take care of 19 kids?” But it’s also a universal question: “How do you balance the material and emotional and spiritual needs of everyone who depends upon you?” In the same way that I was wondering how parents justify bringing that many kids into their home, I’m also thinking about how my distraction or interior life as a writer affects my kids. These questions were the seeds for the play, and then I started to do more serious reading and talking to people about these religiously motivated mega-families and realized that there were often, in addition to spiritual aims, really specific political ones as well. I found fertile ground to explore questions of patriarchy and white supremacy and theocracy that I was thinking about and wrestling with anyway.

Can you talk more about the Quiverfull movement and what you were looking at specifically in this play?

The term “Quiverfull” comes from Psalm 127 in the Bible, which encourages childbearing. It refers to children as “arrows” in the hand of a “mighty man” and says “happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them…” It’s a really striking, militaristic image of children as weapons. Fundamentalist Christians who don’t use birth control and believe in having as many children as God brings them are often referred to as Quiverfull. But that’s kind of an outsider’s name for them, very few people identify as Quiverfull. More often people will just say that they have a Biblical or complementarian marriage. That’s a philosophy of marriage that considers men and women (and it is restricted to men and women in their view) as halves of a whole with really clear gender roles. Wives are seen as helpmeets to their husbands who are head of household and answerable to God. So, it’s this really clear hierarchy: Women below men, men below God. It’s a codified patriarchal structure that I think actually underpins a lot of other parts of even the secular world in less dramatic ways. That’s what interested me about looking at these questions in a fundamentalist Christian context. They are just coming out and saying, “This is who women need to be.” It’s not subtle. So, I think that makes it an interesting place to wrestle with questions of patriarchy that extend into everyone’s lives.

The most famous example in pop culture of adherents to the Quiverfull movement are the Duggars who were part of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, and then families in their orbit who have spawned other reality TV shows. (Though, again, none of these families actually call themselves Quiverfull.) The reality shows actually present a super interesting paradox, because their beliefs are supposed to keep women inward-facing and domestic. These women are generally not supposed to hold jobs outside the home, and when you’re having 8 or 10 children it would be extremely difficult to do so. Yet here are the matriarchs and “stay-at-home daughters” acting as reality stars and ambassadors for the family brand. I was interested in this, like, stealth power, you know? It’s kind of a fascinating paradox. That inspired me to write characters in Quiver who don’t exactly fit neatly into their prescribed gender roles.

How would you describe the tone or style of Quiver? What should people expect if they see the reading?

At first, the world of the play is accessible and welcoming. That’s an important part of what the characters find in their community—they have support and spiritual contentment. It feels important that the audience enter a not-perfect but affectionate family, because some of what happens later… their beliefs are unlikely to be held by a lot of audience members. So it’s important that it be warm and funny in the beginning.

And then as the labor progresses and things become more dangerous, we’re in more of a thriller situation because there’s a ticking clock. She’s going to have this baby and it’s a question of will it be under circumstances that will be safe for her and the baby or not. We’re in the home with them, wondering, “Are they all going to get out OK?”

You’ve been writing plays for a long time. In fact, I believe you started writing plays at the Playwrights’ Center, through the Young Playwrights program that used to exist here. Can you talk about your trajectory as a playwright and what compels you to write stories for the stage?

I actually have a lot of distinctive memories of the theater that I saw through the Playwrights’ Center at Bryant-Lake Bowl, the Jungle, Patrick’s Cabaret, and more, through the Young Playwrights summer program. I guess maybe everything is more heightened when you’re young, but I think I’m still responding to those productions. Remembering what it is to sit in a darkened theater and fall in love. I’ve used theater as the thing larger than myself—the place religion occupies in a lot of other people’s lives—for so long. It’s a really earnest place that I’m always trying to return to when I’m writing.

What else are you working on?

I’m doing a few adaptations, which is exciting. I like having a road map. One that I’m thinking about a lot right now is an adaptation of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. That was the brief. I’m using it as an opportunity to take a hard look at how much space we’ve allowed Shakespeare to take up. And how hard we have fought to keep Shakespeare central to American theatrical culture. Listen, I love Shakespeare. I’ve written whole plays that are essentially love letters to Shakespeare. But I have to wonder about all this energy we’re spending on him—is it a good thing? Whose voices has this effort to keep Shakespeare alive crowded out?

It’s very hard as a writer to say, “We’re giving Shakespeare too much time and energy,” because the response is always, “Well, your writing sucks. You’re no Shakespeare.” See some of the anxieties that surfaced in response to Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s awesome Play On! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare project for that line of attack. The argument that I’m starting to make in the project is that it’s not about just one writer having to go toe-to-toe with Shakespeare, but looking at our efforts to keep Shakespeare so central in the U.S. in 2018, and all the voices that are lost as a result. It’s cumulative. It feels related to the ways—as a result of the #MeToo movement—people are just starting to understand and mourn the work by women, and particularly women of color, that never came to be. People are increasingly beginning to acknowledge that there’s a body of work that’s missing. And that’s the context in which I’m thinking about Shakespeare right now.


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Meg Miroshnik