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Can I Get You to See the World Through My Eyes?

An Interview with Playwright Mike Lew

By Olivia O'Connor, Geffen Playhouse Literary Manager & Dramaturg

Olivia O’Connor: tiny father is loosely based on the time in which your daughter was in the NICU for four months in 2019. I’m curious about how creating art that’s closely related to your own experience might in turn impact how you think about your life. In the years that you’ve been working on the show, has your perspective on that time in the NICU or on parenthood changed at all?

Mike Lew: Whenever I start writing a play, it’s to try to actively process something big, knowing that the development life of a play is long and that you want to be grappling with subject matter that is complex and complicated enough that you’re gonna be actively sorting through it throughout that time.

So it’s not necessarily that writing the play has changed my perspective so much as I’m working out my perspective through the play. It is in some ways a time capsule, because it’s got a lot of minute detail about the time that we spent in the hospital. Early parenting experience—regardless of hospital stay—is difficult; you end up forgetting a lot. I’m grateful that I have this play as a document of that time, because I think that some of those details would escape me.

Another vein that I’m trying to piece through is the line between medical expediency and parental rights. We were second-time parents in the NICU. A lot of the people that were in there were first time parents, very wide eyed. Whereas we, at a certain point, were like, “I know how to do the newborn routine, and I choose to leave here.” And [the hospital staff were] like, “Well, you can’t.” So how do you negotiate the authority, or figure out what’s best for a child?

Another thing that I tried to tease out in the play is the layering of race within medical care. The casting is purposely two people of color from different races, both affected by systemic racism. [The play grapples with] how they each deal with that, how they both contribute to and are victims of it. And that is only something that we had a flash of in the hospital.

My responsibility as a playwright is to get you to invest in these characters. A lot of the maturation of the play has been separating out some of the autobiography and doing whatever I can to keep you locked into this evolving relationship.

OO: Were there any real medical professionals or memories that you found yourself drawing on to create Caroline and Daniel’s dynamic?

ML: I have a complicated relationship to medicine because my parents are both doctors and my mom’s a pediatrician. I spent a lot of my early childhood at nurses’ desks. [My mom would] put me at the nurses’ station and be like, I’m going to go check on some newborns and you can, you know, draw.

So I have a childhood association of being close to some of those nurses. And more generally, of intrinsically trusting the medical system—but also being an educated consumer. All of which is to say that my relationship with the medical staff in a patient position was weird, because I wasn’t super intimidated by the environment. It felt not like home at all, but it felt familiar.

On any given day, I think everybody’s doing their jobs, and a lot of people are really compassionate. But they’re catching you on your worst possible day for four months. I have a lot of both positive and negative interactions that I’m drawing from, and I remember a lot of it. Not necessarily the medical details, but the relationships, the people, I remember distinctly. I was seeing a lot of the subjectivity in something that [as a child] I either accepted as a given or thought of as objective.

OO: You and [director] Moritz von Stuelpnagel have known each other for, is it 20 years now?

ML: Yeah. Essentially my whole career. We started off as interns together at Playwrights Horizons. We were both the resident assistant directors for [the 2003-2004] season. He’s directed nearly all of my major plays, and I have a really deep collaboration with him.

This project in particular has been really delightful, because he became a parent in between the first time he directed the Audible recording and now. Watching his lived experience catch up to his craft has been so amazing. Something as simple as being able to give pointers on how to change a diaper and knowing that that’s not from a YouTube video or from research, but [from] literally having done it hundreds of times.

OO: tiny father was first commissioned as an audio play, then developed on Zoom, then developed in in-person readings, and finally had a full production last year. How has moving through each of those steps impacted your storytelling?

ML: The challenge of writing for audio was part of the appeal for taking on the Audible commission. How could you evoke this world without the normal tools that I have? And then the rest of it feels a lot more familiar. I didn’t have to retrofit it to be on stage; that was kind of my natural mode.

On a craftsmanship level, I’m always trying to challenge myself to avoid paths that I’ve taken before. I worked for Blue Man Group for a little while. You had these characters that don’t speak; what could I do? That made me reinvest in physical comedy. And here, [the challenge was] the two person structure.

I think about playwriting almost as going to the gym. In the grand holistic sense, it’s like, I want to be healthy. But on a micro level, it’s like, oh, I’ve really been avoiding leg day. I better write a play that’s all leg day to see whether I can do it.

The other thing that’s weird about this [play] is that it’s stylistically naturalistic, which is not the mode that I’m used to. Sitting in that style and not having my usual tricks to goose a scene has been a listening and growing exercise.

OO: Every playwright conceives of this differently, but is there is something that you hope audiences walk out of the theater contemplating, or an experience that you hope they have?

ML: A lot of my early experiences with playwriting have been feeling really passionate about saying something and then feeling misunderstood.

In this case, I’m processing this difficult, traumatic experience. I’m weighing my gratitude for the medical practitioners that saved our daughter’s life versus the frustrations that butted up about feeling ourselves infantilized and feeling like we didn’t have full authority over our own kid. And then also there’s this social component of when medicine is subjective, when it’s racialized. That’s the swirl that I hope is conveyed to the audience. But if the audience doesn’t hook in emotionally, then none of it matters.

I want you to live in this person’s shoes, have this experience, feel yourself pulled by the same forces that we felt ourselves pulled by. I don’t know that I’m trying to dictate a specific takeaway as opposed to, can I get you to see the world through my eyes?

tiny father

JUN 12 – JUL 14, 2024

Written by Mike Lew
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Featuring Tiffany Villarin & Maurice Williams

When a “friends with benefits” relationship unexpectedly results in the early arrival of a baby girl, Daniel must choose between being a biological parent or becoming a father. With the help of a no-nonsense night nurse, the new dad learns to navigate the protocols and frustrations of NICU life on his uncertain path to parenthood in this funny and heartfelt new play where growth is measured in more than grams.



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