Interview | Playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff On Her Ephemeral Play ‘The Bumps’
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff and I met at a coffee shop, those places where writers go to get out of their home offices and be around some sort of humanity while remaining completely in their own worlds. Something felt oddly familiar about Rachel, and so we agreed to share a table, talk, and write. We also decided to stay in touch.
At only 25, Kauder Nalebuff is a veritably accomplished writer. In 2009, she published her first book, The Little Red Book, a compilation of stories about the experience of first period stories from around the world. Her most recent compilation, The Feminist Utopia, is a collection of essays that imagine what a truly feminist world would look like, while simultaneously discussing the ways that misogyny limits our lives. Kauder Nalebuff has written between 3-50 plays (depending on if you count extremely short ones) since graduating from Yale University in 2013. She moved out to Los Angeles in 2013 and is an integral part of the thriving theater community.
Intrigued by Kauder Nalebuff’s projects, I decided to attend a reading of her latest play, The Bumps, at the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles. For this show, Kauder Nalebuff cast three actresses at varying times in their pregnancy — 3 months, 5 months and 7 months. The characters are referred to only as the number of months they are pregnant. Curious to learn more, I got in touch with Kauder Nalebuff via email with some questions.
Alicia Eler: Talk about the process of casting pregnant actors! Were there any special concerns that came up, that you’d never dealt with? What was it like to think about pregnancy so often for . . . how long did the play take to put together?
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff: I was able to find a dozen talented pregnant performers within an hour of posting a casting call on my Facebook—and that was just from my own personal network alone. After a day, my inbox was flooded with recommendations. It’s funny, I had anticipated casting to be the biggest challenge of the production, but as long as the theater/the entertainment industry continues to overlook visibly pregnant performers, casting may be easier for The Bumps than for other productions. Actors won’t have scheduling conflicts!
Working with Emily Alpren, Sarena Kennedy and Jennifer Page was such a blessing because they taught me a lot about pregnancy and are all so passionate about equity. Having with them in the room, my director Deena Selenow and I were reminded that it’s not enough just to have an accessible script—the entire rehearsal process and infrastructure of theater needs to accommodate the pregnant and female experience as well. For example, working with Sarena, who has a three-year-old, I was reminded that many pregnant women are also mothers already. If they’re actors, it’s also likely that they are going to be the ones whose schedules are flexible enough to take on the bulk of child-care.
For a full production, it would be essential to either have funding for child-care or even child-care provided during rehearsal. No one should have to lose money or worry about their child by participating in this play. And of course, not providing these services is how we keep pregnant women and young mothers out of the entertainment industry and the work force at large.
I know it’s going to take a while for the capitalist workforce to be built around women’s lives, but the theater is alert enough that it should take these simple measures immediately. The Women’s Center for Creative Work was the perfect place to bring this play to life for the first time because they are so aware of all these things. It is a blessing to work with an organization that gives you free rehearsal space, a small stipend, publicity, and is so aware of people’s diverse needs.
What made you decide to choose 3/5/7 rather than 2/4/6 or some such other months pregnant? Was there anything about numerology in this decision?
I named the characters 3 MONTHS, 5 MONTHS, and 7 MONTHS because I wanted there to be roles for performers in each trimester. Basically, for the characters to make sense, there just needs to be a visual progression in their size—though the exact dates don’t really matter. I picked because 3 seemed like the earliest that someone would be far along in the process to feel comfortable in their pregnancy and participating in the piece. 8 months is probably the latest someone would be comfortable performing. So I picked 7 so that there could be a window that that performer could be a part of the play. And then 5 was in between! I don’t know if that is interesting to anybody. It is not a very artistic answer. More math!
Have you ever been pregnant yourself? What kind of research went into understanding how women feel at these different times in pregnancy? Also it’s a different experience of pregnancy the first time rather than the second or third. Wondering how you worked that out in writing the script?
I was, for a time, in high school. The experience deeply shaped who I am and my understanding that motherhood does not equate with being fully formed. But I’ve haven’t seen pregnant characters who reflect my reality of womanhood. Or honestly the casts’. Where are the pregnant characters that are happily single? Liberated and desirous? Insecure? Still exploring their sexualities and identities? Who don’t actually know what they want? I wanted to write a play for these kinds of characters. I hope that someday we can reject the idea that there is any “right” way to be pregnant—and I believe storytelling can usher that change.
Ultimately though, my hope is that—while informed by personal experience, The Bumps feel like a meditation on something bigger and maybe more abstract, something we can hopefully all relate to: how do we make meaning as we wait? How do we find courage while surrendering ourselves to the unknown?
Tell me about the theater community in Los Angeles! Usually when people think of LA, they only think TV/film/entertainment. How do you feel like the theater community is situated in LA? Is there a fluid exchange or overlap between entertainment and theater? What are some of the main differences you notice between actors who are more theater-oriented and those who do mostly film/TV?
Yeah no one thinks of LA as a theater city! But I actually think it’s poised to be one of the most exciting places for playwriting in the country.
Being so close to the film industry, in theory, is such a gift to playwrights. It can push us to think about what kind of stories have to be plays, and do what theater does best. The Canadian director Jordan Tannahill writes about how “liveness” never even meant anything until the advent of film because once upon a time, everything was live. That feels like such a metaphor for what the theater here could be—the ultimate live city. There are some playwrights here whose work embodies that spirit already. Aleshea Harris comes to mind. Everyone see anything she puts on!
To answer your question about actors: someone once told me that film actors have small faces, but theater actors all have big faces so you can see them from afar. I don’t know if this is true.