“How many more miles will I need to walk to get you to sleep?”
On being an artist and a new mom
A conversation between Emily Tieger and Megan Paradis Hanley
Megan Paradis Hanley: I wondered if you could tell me what your earliest memory was of being onstage.
Emily Tieger: My earliest memory of being onstage… oh yeah, I was in a school assembly, and I was playing Little Miss Muffet who sat on her tuffet, and a little boy was a spider. He was the spider who came to sit down beside her or whatever.
Megan: Gender roles early in life.
Emily: There’s a video, and I am just such a ham. I’m sitting front and center. And there’s a lot of other stuff that goes on during the assembly, the Little Miss Muffet part is a very short portion of the event, but I am fully living my truth as Miss Muffet for the entire 35 minutes: not participating in any of the other songs or group things that are happening, I’m just in my little dress, preparing for my two lines. I was probably in first grade. I was a very little person.
Megan: You sat on your tuffet for 30 minutes so you could deliver two lines at the end?
Emily: Exactly. Not much has changed.
Megan: That’s amazing. So outside of tuffet-sitting, can you tell me a little bit about your training as a theater artist?
Emily: Sure. Oddly, I feel like I was mentally and emotionally preparing for a career as an actor as early as 7th or 8th grade.
Megan: Was your family supportive of that?
Emily: My parents supported the idea that I wanted to be an artist without any hesitation. It was such a privilege- they never questioned if it was going to be financially viable. So I chose a high school and college based on the theater programs. I went to Skidmore College because I wanted to go to a liberal arts school. I thought I would be better served by being able to take history, sociology, and psychology in addition to studying theater. And the Conservatory programs that I was really interested in were almost all in New York, and I didn’t really want to become a college student and a New Yorker at the same time. And then my time at Skidmore was all about training. I met Bondo [SITI Company member Will Bond] my freshman year and took class with him my sophomore year, and that began my relationship with SITI Company and Suzuki and Viewpoints. Then that obviously led me to the SITI Conservatory and to The Syndicate. That line feels really clear. I was also so fortunate that during my college experience I got to go to Moscow for a semester and train there.
Megan: I always think of Three Sisters and women staring off into the distance murmuring, I want to go to Moscow…
Emily: I came back dark, cigarette-smoking and vodka-slugging. But I think that apart from working with beautiful artists there, the biggest thing I got from that semester was the knowledge that I needed to find a female-focused, non-patriarchal community to make work with. That felt glaringly obvious coming back from Russia. Because I felt as a woman, your points of view and what you have to offer as an artist were always secondary to those of the men in your cohort. So when I got back to the United States, I was interested in pushing against that and freeing myself from the idea that I had please my male teachers, to prove something to them, or to fit a certain mold. I remember in my exit meeting at the end of that semester in Moscow, the note that I got from my teachers was that I was one of the pretty ones in the group, so I would do okay as an artist.
Megan: Ufff. Ouch.
Emily: I felt so destroyed by that. I could have just walked in the door, and they could have said the exact same thing to me in the first 30 seconds, so what was all the work for if that’s what I can be reduced to? So training with SITI Company was really important because there are strong female role models there. And when I went to Conservatory, when we all met each other, it was like this is where the opportunity really lies, and this is what I need, to be surrounded by women and folks who will challenge that reverence for a male perspective and will challenge my shit connected to that.
Megan: That’s so interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you about your own journey with gender and why you want to be part of The Syndicate, as a women/queer/trans centered company. I think, I hope, what’s happening in art now is that people are recognizing that the 20th century model of “here’s a singular white male figure who we will literally follow around the world,” doesn’t work. I see people forming other ways of working to try to break that hierarchy.
Emily: Absolutely. I think as an artist, our training and our teachers are in our DNA. But The Syndicate always, even in its most difficult moments, has offered me an alternative path to training than what my experience was as an actor up to that point.
Megan: So that leads me to my next question. I wondered if you could share one or two of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from being an artist.
Emily: It’s kind of come to fruition in the choices I’m making my life now: I’ve learned that you have to love what you’re doing. It can’t be for other people. The theater that makes me excited about the creative process so clearly comes from a heart place.
Megan: Yeah, because otherwise, why do it? We’re definitely not doing it for the money.
Emily: I think that’s the other thing: I’ve learned that I don’t have to please anyone else, that my work doesn’t need to be about pleasing others. Starting with the love and support of my parents, trying to fill this massive debt of support and gratitude that I felt for them. But understanding that we can change, that the work is more compelling and more human when we’re asking questions. I think that’s been a big trap for me for a long time: feeling like I have something to prove or something to live up to as opposed to just being present.
Megan: I think it happens so early too, in anyone’s life, but in a young female performer’s life, you’re told, “Oh, you are an ingénue” or “You are a character actor,” and that’s it. And that’s if your gender or your body even fits into one of those types.
Emily: And you live in that and either succeed or fail based on someone else’s rubric. It’s so limiting.
Megan: There’s so much work to do to change what we expect: whose bodies we expect to see onstage, what women are supposed to do on stage. So then… to transition into the topic of this blog post… Can you tell me about what you’ve done in the past four months of your life? I guess it’s more like 13 months.
Emily: I had a baby in August, who is now a person who lives in my house. I read this really interesting thing yesterday asking, what would be the title of this chapter of your kid’s life? This mom was describing her first three months with her newborn as “The hundred days of darkness,” and I was like, oh yes, I’m reading this article. It’s something that I will never get over, the tectonic shift that takes place when you become a mother. It’s so radical. I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder three months than I have had with Will, but also my entire sort of conception of reality has shifted on its axis. It’s so cliché, but I feel like I’m looking at part of myself outside of myself, and I’m watching him wake up to the world around him. I’ve heard consciousness described as the universe reflecting on itself.
Megan: Being a baby must be so weird.
Emily: So weird and intense! I think about that all the time. I was so scared and overwhelmed and exhausted those first couple of weeks. Every moment feels like a decade, and you’re just surviving. But I’m looking at Will and thinking, oh my God, you are alive. We can count the number of minutes you have been alive. How overwhelmed are you? You just been slapped with reality, and you have to deal with it. And I’m just here to make it a little bit more comfortable and make sure your diaper rash doesn’t get too bad and feed you sometimes, but you’re coping with the fact that you exist. He gets pleasure from things now. For the first few weeks, he just experienced polar opposites: he was either content or discontent. But right now I’m watching all these new shades of experience enter his consciousness, and it’s stunning to see his nuance all of the sudden.
Megan: So what would you title the first three months of Will’s life?
Emily: Probably something to the effect of “How many more miles will I need to walk to get you to sleep?” I don’t think I’ve ever walked more than I did in Will’s first three months. We never stopped moving. We just never stopped moving! And now he’s finding stillness, and it comes in moments of pleasure, in the discovery of something that makes him content. So the irony is that I couldn’t have given that to him. He had to find contentment himself, had to discover the ability for attachment, and stillness comes with that.
Megan: That’s amazing. I hope that he can hear you when you tell him that later in his life, when he’s an adult and running around and can’t be still. I hope you’ll be like, “Listen, you figured this out when you were 3 months old. You’ll be able to slow down with you find happiness.”
Emily: It’s really true. You’ll have to remind me when I’m freaking out.
Megan: I’ll email you this blog post. Ooh, this is also the Syndicate’s first Mommy Blog, another milestone.
Emily: We’ve gotta get some diaper sponsorship or something.
Megan: Oh shit, you’re so right. Okay I have two more questions: a big one and a little one. The bigger question is, are there any lessons from your artistic life that have helped you learn how to become a mom?
Emily: Yes. I think I learned through collaboration, and with The Syndicate specifically, that I have to take care of myself in order to take care of others. I’m re-learning it as a mom. I haven’t figured that out yet, but I’m going to figure it out. And a lesson I’m learning from my husband Danny, but that I knew already as an artist, is that humans in their most raw and desperate moments are the most beautiful creatures in the world. As an artist, that has always been my taste in terms of work I’ve loved: work that focused on simplicity and the beauty of people. Honestly, when you’re in those moments yourself, it’s impossible to go, “Oh, gosh, look how beautiful that is. You’re struggling.” But there’s an odd but deep connection in this idea to finding beauty in motherhood, in this moment, in this experience.
Megan: Will is now three months old. What are you going to do in 12 years if he comes to you and says he wants to be an actor?
Emily: (Slow exhale)
Megan: Ha ha, gotcha.
Emily: You got me. I am going to have a little cry, probably, and then do everything I can to support that dream. It’s such a gift in this world to be creative and to be surrounded by creative people. The relationships that I have as a result of trying to be an actor, whatever that means, are the bedrock relationships of my life: my husband, all of my best friends. And in many ways my relationship with my family is totally defined by that journey and that experience. So I would never take away the opportunity for him to have those kinds of experiences. And looking at Will– I think we’re really screwed. I don’t think Will’s going to be a dentist. I just don’t.
You can learn more about The Syndicate (and donate to support our work in 2018) at www.wearethesyndicate.com. Thanks for reading!