I’m Breaking Up

by Emily Conbere

in National Conference

Post image for I’m Breaking Up

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

It’s a strange dream where I’m sitting in a playpen eating red meat with my partner and we are breaking up.  I’m the one saying “It’s not you, it’s me.”  I’m really attracted to this guy and I keep wondering what I am doing and whether we should have sex one more time. Then, in reality, I wake up to my 1.5 year old crying.  We sit in the rocking chair in the dead of night. Who was this guy in the dream?  I think about it, staring out the window at all the lights of Seattle spread out before me.  I’m breaking up with the theater.

“Really… I’d like to stay friends.”

Seattle is the most welcoming, wonderful theater community I have ever experienced in my life. When I got here, I set up a few initial meetings and I was off. The culture here is dedicated, determined, motivated, talented, and lovely. The worlds between self-producing and regional theater blend and artistic directors are encouraging and inviting. The community is nothing but giving.  There were no edges – we were all in the theater world together. A dream would be in its infancy stage and before you knew it, someone had taken the reins and it was crawling, walking, and running on stage. Braden Abraham started the Seattle Rep Writers Group and then I had a structure and support system. Catapult Theater formed and Kaytlin McIntyre did a fantastic job directing my one act play. SOAP Fest did another great production of a different play. Leslie Law continued to build her amazing Sandbox Radio Live and generously invited me in as a writer. Rebecca Olson invited me on board as a playwright with her innovative Custom Made Play Project creation. 14/48 let me stay up all night with them two nights in a row and have one of the best weekends ever. I was seeing all sorts of theater, big and small, and having all sorts of mind blowing experiences.

“We should see other people.”

The border started when I decided to go back to graduate school ten years after getting my MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. After teaching high school full-time, waitressing, starving, and scrambling to support myself financially while maintaining a playwriting career, I decided I might as well support myself doing something that I like. I love being a therapist and I think of it as I how I support myself and my family while I continue my career as a playwright. But there’s a slight line there between me and the people who eat, drink, and live theater on a daily basis.

“I just need some space”

When I got pregnant the border materialized. I was tired all the time and it became harder to go to plays, get home late, and get up at 6 for my full time job. I saw less and I wrote less. I needed to start taking care of myself in a different way where my focus was more on my body and health and rest. An actor I really wanted to work with asked me to come to two plays he was in and offered me comps for each one. I missed them both: once I was traveling, and the other one I missed because I was sick from the pregnancy and needed to stay home. I knew when I missed the second one I was setting fire to the bridge and I felt terrible about it. I set a lot of fires over those 9 months but when I had the baby I was healthy, calm, and well-rested. Four years after leaving New York, a broke, underemployed grad student in Social Work school, I found myself at home. A new mother, a clinical therapist at a well-respected agency, and a playwright.

“I’m just not ready for this kind of relationship.”

The first four months of Charles Wallace’s life, I was finishing up my two year stint in the Seattle Rep Writers Group. I was staying at home from work, then, and had not left my little one yet. The first night I returned to the group it felt amazing to sit in this room with my fellow writers. When I returned home, I could hear him screaming from down the block. My wonderful husband was doing everything to try to soothe him, but only nursing seemed to work. The scream really sat in my bones and I still carry it around. It was traumatizing to me in a way that sinks deeply into my past and brings up screams that I’ve buried in order to get by, move forward. I started going to the writers group for only part of the sessions, knowing that at home my boy was crying his eyes out. It was so hard telling a room full of some of the best writers I know that I had to go because my baby was crying.  I was ashamed, depressed, and felt like it looked like I was making excuses. I thought I would be the kind of mom to take my kid with me, and fold him into my life. But what happened is the opposite and I’m not sure why.  He needs structure and routine to function well, and when that starts to break down all hell breaks loose.  Because of who my baby is, and who I am, I subconsciously (now consciously) made the decision to make him first in all things. For now.

“God, you’re beautiful, but I just… I just…”

The reason I’m in love with theater is that it is all give and take. Actors give performances, audiences take it in. Funders give money, companies take it in. Companies give seasons, the public soaks in their stories. In the community, theater has given to me by producing my work, giving me structures and deadlines, providing me access to plays, and giving me awesome and talented friends. Since Seattle, it’s been giving giving giving. The problem is that right now I can’t give back.  I’m so consumed with this new family member and my new job and our move to the eastside so we can be closer to work and daycare (thus taking me farther from the theater scene) that I have so little left to give. I don’t have the energy or money right now to go see a lot of plays, or stay up late into the night, or meet regularly with people for drinks and creative discussions. When I do, my little one is running all around making it impossible to have a flowing conversation. How long will the community keep giving without getting anything back?  I’m terrified of the position I’m in and I’m very aware of it. I’m breaking up with the theater community even though I don’t want to and I’m freaking out that they won’t take me back.

Don’t get me wrong. Seattle is being its generous self. Custom Made Play Project is giving me as much time as I need and still working with me to develop my play. There’s another writers group being formed with a different company that I’ll join soon. And people are still being their friendly, beautiful selves.  It just needs to be emphasized that this open culture needs to be respected.  It needs water to grow.  And attention.

“We’re just at really different points in our lives right now.”

Somehow this imaginary border got created and my goal is to learn how to cross back over it. I want my child to see me in the theater world. I want him to be exposed to the vast stories and cultures and beauty that theater provides. I want him exposed to theater people.  Life is boring without it. I can feel that boredom circling around my veins. The boredom is how people get old and dusty. What is most wonderful to me about theater is the give and take, the beginnings and endings. The generosity and creation.  I hope someday I can get out of the playpen and cross this border and bring my kid with me. The grass is greener over there. I know it is true.

The scream that I carry around in my bones is going to come out in a play at some point. That play will need to breathe. It can’t breathe without community. I hope it’s the Seattle community.

I don’t want to break up with you. Let’s not do this. I need you. I love you. Just wait for me, please.

Emily Conbere has been in residence with Ensemble Studio Theater, Mabou Mines, and American Lyric Theater. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. Emily was a finalist for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and for the Creative Capital Grant, and a recipient of the Sloan grant, a MacDowell Colony fellowship and a Tofte Lake Artist Residency. Her one-act play “Slapped Actress” is published in the Best American Short Plays Anthology 2008-2009, and her play “The Harold Scholarship” is published by S.Fischer Verlag.  She recently developed her plays “The MAP Annual Fellowship Play” and “Knocking Bird” with Seattle Repertory Theater as part of their invited writers group. She is currently a staff writer for Sandbox Radio Live in Seattle, and commissioned by Custom Made Play Project to write a full-length script.


  • Emily Chadick Weiss

    This is both inspiring and refreshing – to get a realistic take on the pull between children and your other baby – theatre. Thanks for your honesty.

  • Laura Wickens

    Thank you for this. Am in a similar situation (though am an actor).

  • Chrissie B DiAngelus

    I can relate to this completely being on the agent/manager side of things and life changing after my son was born. He’s 6 now and things are constantly changing and I find myself looking at decisions and places and having to make tough choices as well and like you, saying, wait for me.
    Thanks for this.

  • Thelma Virata de Castro

    The early years of parenting are so intense, but they have enriched my writing. Amazing how breastfeeding has crept into so many of my plays! We’re humans. We’re mothers. We’re PLAYWRIGHTS!

  • lsbbohn

    Thank you for this. Tough to read, tough choices. But it’s nice to know that we’re not alone.

  • http://heyjbn.blogspot.com/ HeyJBN

    This got me choked up. Mom of 21 month old twin boys and on-hiatus Chicago musical theater actress. Thank you for writing this. Yes, you really need to write that play… no rush though. :) I get it.

  • PiccoloGal

    So good to hear this, because I absolutely relate to what you are going through. I’ve always known that between theatre, a decently paying job, and a young family, that I could have two, but not all three. I’ve spent the past few years getting used the idea, and I’m thrilled about the arrival of my baby. I’m calling her my latest creative project, but it doesn’t take away the pull I still feel when I need theatre to express something, or communicate something, or share something that just can’t be done in normal life. Can’t wait to for the day I can get my feet back on the boards.

  • Donny

    A dad posting here that went through the same thing. I ended up doing arts admin, which was fine for awhile…but once you start seeing other people, you start to realize what a codependent relationship that was. And oftentimes unhealthy. I don’t feel the need to go back. That may change as my kids get older. But right now I’ve finally found some balance between work and home. I like it.

  • http://bagnbaggage.org/ Peter Schuyler

    I’m right there with you Emily. I’m in the second week of rehearsals of the first full show I’ve done since my daughter was born last fall, and for a good part of the week I only get a half hour with her in the morning before she goes to daycare and I’m off to work and then rehearsal. The guilt and sadness are pulverizing, but I know that, as you say, a time will come when I can show her the theatre world and why it is so valuable.

  • Michelle Murray Wells

    Thanks for writing this!!

  • Julianne Theodoropulos

    I finally had my first child at 47 1/2 years old after actively acting, writing and directing for the theater since my young twenties. I’ve come to a complete standstill and feel so isolated from the community I used to thrive in. You make me feel like I WILL get back to writing and directing which brought me so much satisfaction, and made me the kind of person I want my son to know and be proud of.