March 18-20, 2016 WAM Theatre is teaming up with playwright and actress Rachel Siegel to present a workshop production of her one-woman show Special, at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre. The show is based both on Rachel’s own experience as the mother of a son with Down syndrome, and her interviews with mothers of children with a variety of special needs. We sat down with her to talk about how she crafted this theatre piece.
WAM Theatre: Is it possible to talk about the genesis of this play without talking about your experience with carrying, birthing, and raising your younger son, Patrick, who has Down syndrome?
Rachel Siegel: Not really. My husband and I already had a typically developing son, when we decided to have another baby about four years ago. Our 15-week screening happened to come at the exact time the MaterniT21® screening test came into wide usage. I didn’t get that test which women get in the first trimester but I got the quad screening they do about 15 weeks. I tested with a 1 in 2 likelihood of chromosome abnormality, so we went ahead and had amniocentesis and discovered two things – I was carrying a child with Down syndrome and I was about four weeks further along in my pregnancy than we had thought, meaning that we had very little time if our decision was to terminate the pregnancy. Modern science presents us more and more complex decisions and no additional assistance in making those decisions. Luckily my husband and I had had the merest of conversations about how we would handle such news, and we agreed that we would have the baby. With the decision made I had to learn how to to be the mother of a child with Down syndrome – what would it mean to choose a child who would be so different from us? – but because we knew of Patrick’s condition in advance, his birth was nothing but joyful.
WAM: When and how did you decide that there was a play in this experience?
Rachel: I did a lot of writing during my pregnancy with Patrick, and knew that I would do something with it eventually, but not immediately. Now Patrick is three and a half and he started school last fall, so I had time to sit down and get to work. I wanted to broaden the story and interview other mothers, but I really didn’t know any other parents of special needs children. Then I found this wonderful organization called Whole Children housed in the Inclusive Community Center in Hadley, started by mothers who knew they needed this kind of group for their own children and for themselves. Through that organization I met some mothers who I just wanted to get to know better. I also was invited to be part of a leadership series by an organization called Mass Families Organizing for Change (MFOFC), started by mothers of kids with special needs. At the trainings, which began last fall, I met mothers who were nothing like me – immigrants, non-English speakers, low-income – wonderful women, wonderful mothers, who wanted to do the best for their children. I thought I had a dramatic story, then I met these moms! One mother, who is about 25 years old, sold cake on the streets in her native Puerto Rico to get the money to bring her son with cerebral palsy and epilepsy to Boston where he could get the services he needs. So these were most of the women I interviewed. They were all so welcoming and inspirational – I was honored that they agreed to be interviewed by me.
WAM: What about the fathers?
Rachel: In this play, I am focusing on the mothers. There are some incredible dads, and I know many. And it’s also come up a fair bit in the interviews I did, that some fathers find it really difficult and absent themselves from their families emotionally and/or physically. My husband is very involved with raising both our sons.
WAM: So how is the play structured?
Rachel: The play takes place during the pregnancy. I have been bouncing ideas off of my good friend, the writer Kenan Minkoff, and he was the one who saw that the material naturally fell into a three-act arc, based on three meanings of the word “special”:
Act 1 I’m think I’m so special — talented, smart, whatever.
Act 2 The transition from “I’m so special” to “OMG I’m having a “special” (negative connotation) baby!”
Act 3 The decision: I want this baby, he’s special to me.
WAM: And how did it come to the stage here and now?
Rachel: I’ve written my own material since I was in drama school, and I wanted to try a one woman show again. I did one in London in 1999 and it sold-out, but it wasn’t the big career-opener for me that I had hoped it would be. In 2010 I performed The Amish Project – a one-woman show by Jessica Dickey about the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shootings – at StageWorks Hudson, and when Down syndrome came into our lives I thought, “I’m going to write an Amish Project style play about this.”
I had worked previously with the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, WAM, and Jayne Atkinson on Can You Hear Me Baby? (2015) and Motherhood Out Loud (2014) at the Unicorn. I wrote to Jenny Browdy and she had space for me to workshop the play at the 2016 BFWW. Kristen van Ginhoven and WAM agreed to co-produce. And Jayne agreed to direct! That really gave me confidence to go ahead and write the play. This is a workshop production of a play in development, but hopefully it will live again in a full production later.
WAM: How has the process changed you?
Rachel: Motherhood always changes you, it’s the most transformative experience. People tell me I’ve changed a lot since I found out I was having a special child, but I don’t necessarily see it. Life has become more challenging (as it would with any second child!) and much more nuanced and rich. Babies with Down syndrome are very sleepy and sweet, but when they are toddlers it gets more challenging. When I realized that Patrick’s speech wasn’t progressing, that was hard for me because I am a communicator, as is my whole family. My husband is a teacher and a classicist working on his Ph.D., and we are both Harvard alumni. So I taught myself sign language and we all learned a lot. I realized if I can’t have a really positive outlook on my child and his abilities then there will be a really negative impact on my family. I thought, I have to do this for myself, my older son, and my marriage. Before Patrick, I was spoiled, thinking that I was entitled to having everything be easy for me. Patrick will not achieve in the ways that I thought so important for so much of my life, and still do value highly. But Patrick is so present. He exists in the moment. We laugh a lot. There’s a saying that people with Down syndrome have a special source of joy and that is absolutely true for him. Having someone like that in our family is absolutely a gift.
WAM: Tell us about your life in the theatre.
Rachel: After I earned my B.A. from Harvard I went straight to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and after I completed my studies there I lived and worked as an actor in the UK for about 18 months. But I learned that I didn’t want to make my life over there and that I wasn’t really enamored of the “business” and life as an actor, so I came back to the USA and started writing. I’ve done a wide variety of writing work, and I teach. Right now I’m teaching at MCLA in the Fine and Performing Arts Department. I always thought I was going to be Meryl Streep – I love drama and doing accents, I used to watch her doing her grocery shopping in Salisbury, CT – and I have had to learn how to be Rachel Siegel. I wanted to be Meryl Streep, but I never wanted to have my own Sophie’s Choice. But it got it. That’s the theme of Special.