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My Mother, My Theatre- A Personal Memoir

“I, Bertolt Brecht, come out of the black forests. 

My mother brought me to the cities early on.”-Of Poor B.B, Bertolt Brecht

    1

    Getting along with my mother was like performing Bertolt Brecht in a proscenium stage. This sounds like an exaggeration, but hear me out.

    I left for college in the United States at sixteen.  I remember, at the airport, the feeble arch of my mother’s back, the way her black coat draped over it like a chair, her mumbling silently, trying to say the word love.  I could barely hear her.  She was standing in front of a large pane of glass.  The sun was rising over a line of blinking lights lining the runway.  The light of day was pouring through her limbs. 

   The airport was endless. We stopped at a Starbucks in the Hong Kong Terminal. I stared at the blackboard.  Without looking at me, she ordered a double-shot espresso for her, and for me, a Chai Tea Latte, with an extra shot of sweetener.

   I could teach her a theatre history class, I thought. Sprinkling the sugar--Shakespeare, topped with Spanish milk--Lope De Vega. Ibsen would be the concentrated ginger extract.  Maybe Shaw would be the cinnamon.  I pulled her over to the self-serving counter. Her sharp eyes focused on my “colorful” drink, which she seemed to consider disagreeably theatrical.  

   “Coffee keeps you awake,” she told me. “You are too old to play with food.”

    I remember her looking at something I wrote in middle school. She scanned it like a sergeant at a roll call. She shook her head.  She picked on every mistake in spelling or grammar. She said, “You have a lot of ideas, but you aren’t much of a writer.  Writers don’t just scream their emotions out.”

     This was my mother. Discreet and deadly honest, rigid, precise.

    

    2 

     The man behind the counter was saying something. I didn’t hear it.  I was trying to keep my mother back from the counter.  Finally, he pointed to the red figures on the scale, 34kg. I got it. My bag was overweight. I knew what would happen next.

     I was not ready to leave my theatre books behind.

     My mother was watching now. She did not seem surprised.  I heard her heels clatter. She began opening her notepad.  Inside was a long list. Precise quantities, weights, measurements of each item I’d packed. I watched as she lunged open the luggage zip at least two feet--enough to take away my whole collection.

    The thought rushed into my head:  she has to be stopped. I grabbed O’Neill. Just throw away everything else, I said.

   "O’Neill can wait. Your clothes cannot.”

   A purely anesthetic interest lingered in the contours of her eyes. 

    “Get your priorities straight,” she said at last.

    At this point, I didn’t dare argue with her.

   This was not the first time this happened. Priorities was one of her words.  She used it like there was a specific list somewhere, but I could never figure out what it was.  What was supposed to be my priority here?  I thought it was going to America to study theater.  But whatever this was, it was my priority, and my mother was an expert at sensing what my priority was so should quickly substitute her own.  Problem was, she’d change the subject before I had any chance to figure out what her actual priorities were. 

    For almost every situation with me, my mother had her own private definition of almost every essential word. Completion, maturity, responsibility, rationality, competitiveness. It was like her superego had completely taken over her personality and was devoted to reorganizing my life at my expense.

 

3

 Some words in her lexicon were words specifically designed to describe me. Over-idealistic, over-dramatic, over-emotional, over-analytical. The list could go on. 

     Above all these was her favorite word:

     Overimpractical

      Growing up, I would bombard her with questions,  “Why don’t you love me? You never say I love you to me.” 

      She would respond, you know where it says “amateurish over-acting grows into the worst kind of acting. It is intended to deceive. You are too overimpractical to handle Method acting.” 

     Now, this was not what I was expecting. Stanislavski? 

     Since when did she start reading that?  I knew I left books lying around. Stanislavski An Actor Prepares, My Life In Art, and The Theatre and Its Double. It never occurred to me she would look at them.

      I know you would say that the moving image is composed of emotion, she continued. 

       No, I wasn’t, I stuttered.

      But Sammy, she interrupts, The core of Stanislavski is his strict mechanism. First the unbroken series of supposed circumstances, then a solid line of inner visions, in linear is external awareness. The wave of successful acting is the “in-between'' you create. 

     “Even Meisner designed a framework for relaxation exercises,” she added. 

     Meisner?  She knew about him, too? 

     “Don’t forget what Stanislavski says.  He says. An actor “remains cold toward the object of his acting but his art must be perfect”. 

       I felt her words tumbling into a suffocating pile.  My mother seemed to have read all of my theater books. I started to think I ought to keep them away from her.  She always said that reading was dangerous, but I thought she meant the danger to me. Now I saw it came from her.    

     I remember once watching her read. It was not reading, but an extraction process. 

    Her steps were simple and crude. 

    She sets the alarm. 

    Then she puts on her glasses. 

    A red pen and a notebook in one hand.

   The book is several hundred inked pages, her fingertips flipping rudely through pages, making a slapping noise. She scans quickly down the page, her eyes snapping from one line to another.  She did it then and I saw her starting to do it now. The excised books were piling up behind her. The Cathay Pacific attendant had stopped looking at her and was looking at me instead.

   The Stanislavski she kept in her bag. I actually saw her smile slightly when she saw it. 

   But how on earth did she savor Stanislavski’s fundamental insight: “Everyone at every minute of his life must feel something. Only the dead have no sensations.”

 

    4   

    Picture this: it’s midnight, I’m exhausted, jet-lagged, and already in my pajamas and ready to drift into sleep. 

     I had the peace of Beethoven in my ears. I was in America at last. I tugged my body into the white blanket. Then--jarringly, a ringtone. Not my ringtone, though it was my phone.  My mother had been at it again.   She set my phone to her ringtone.  This is bad, thinking, knowing her, that she could have followed me all the way there and that her phone really was ringing somewhere in my room. 

   This was my first night in Boston. I picked up. My mother’s fuming face seemed to spill over the edge of the screen. 

  “You weren’t wearing a coat.”

   I tried to think of what she meant. What coat?

   “Why did you first visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, then the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and at last the Fogg at Harvard --without wearing a coat.”

    And another thing, she went on.  “The route you chose.  It simply does not make sense.”

   I found myself mentally retracting the route of my first day’s tour of Boston’s museums.  The Red Line, then the Green Line, then the Red Line again.  Had my mother ever taken the subway?

   But by now she had already reached her inevitable conclusion.

    “Well!” she huffed.  “You know you would have gotten much further in life than you have now if you weren’t so overimpractical.” 

   That word again.  It had followed me all the way to Boston. 

   We hung up shortly.  I found myself suddenly disinterested in sleep. 

   I decided to try on a coat in a nearby store. 

   Pink Polka dots. Green stripes. Buttoned wrong.

   I stood in front of the mirror for a long time.

   I looked enough like her that she was there, too.

   Then I went back and sat in my hotel room, waiting. 

  

  5

  Rereading this, I wonder if my mother is really as bad as I have made her seem.

  Probably not. 

  Over time, I have come to see that she began to substitute my priorities for hers.  She said much the same things she always said, but underneath the pressure of her voice, I could tell that she was learning.  Learning from me.

   Sure, she read my theater books selectively. She was a careful and incisive reader. She always saw different things in my books that I saw in them. In Brecht, she lined up the Verfremdungseffekt as a structural dramaturgical module right away. I didn’t. I saw it as his soundscape as a means of investigating human expression. But we were both right.

    Thanks to her, I am called upon to attend carefully to intimate relationships and investigate how different bodies stage emotions in complete different ways. I don’t think the way she does and never will. But I find I can call on her frame of mind when I need it. 

    Our collision formed a theatrical space that mirrored the practical and expressive balance in Brecht’s sphere. She was the proscenium and I was the theater in the round.  

    I would have never understood Brecht without growing up around her, just as Brecht formed his theater against the theater of his own time. 

   She is and forever will be

  My Mother, My Theatre.

   

 

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