Chiara Atik on new mom message boards, ALT lines, science stories, and BUMP

 Chiara Atik

Chiara Atik

This year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production is the world premiere of BUMP, written by Chiara Atik and directed by Claudia Weill. Previews start May 9 and the show runs through June 4 at EST. BUMP is the exuberant exploration of the evolution of women's understanding about and control over the childbirth process through the  stories of three separate quests for knowledge: a young expectant mother in colonial New England getting coached through her first pregnancy by a peppery midwife (inspired by the diary of Martha Ballard); a contemporary message board where new pregnant moms swap gripes, quips, and observations; and a grandfather/mechanic's invention of a device that could revolutionize how babies in distress could be safely delivered (the last inspired by the story of Argentinian mechanic and inventor Jorge Odon).  We interviewed Chiara a year ago when, as Midwife/Mechanic, her play received a workshop production as part of the 2017 First Light Festival. This year we have even more questions.  

 (Interview by Rich Kelley)

 BUMP consists of three distinct and compelling story lines, all about the childbirth process. How did you decide that these were the three story lines you liked the most and wanted to pursue? Were there other story lines you tried and abandoned?

It’s been these three stories since the beginning! The Sloan Commission came from the story of a car mechanic who happened to invent a birthing device – though my account of it is largely fictionalized. The next part was inspired by some old obstetrics tools I saw in a museum. I started thinking about midwives, and what birth was like before modern medicine. And then the third came from my friend Rachel, who had recently had a baby and regaled me with all the stories from her “Birth month message board.” So these became the three stories!

how to remove a cork from inside a bottle

The YouTube video (or one like it) that inspired the Odon Device

It was just about a year ago that BUMP received a workshop production as part of the 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival. How has the play changed since those workshops?

A lot. It’s still changing! I’d say the midwife storyline is largely untouched but the story of the mechanic and his family has hopefully developed considerably since last year.

How many different pregnancy message boards did you sample as part of your research for BUMP? Did you find much difference in the community or the comments from board to board?  Which was the most informative? The most fun?

Hundreds. I love them. I’m obsessed with them. They’re such a peek into other people’s lives. Pregnancy message boards are especially tight-knit: here are other women who are going through exactly what you’re going through, at the exact same time, and unlike your friends, coworkers, family, they will never get tired of discussing symptoms, or test results, or maternity clothes, or ultrasound pictures.

I’ve read so many boards over the two years I’ve worked on this play, and what’s kind of fun/crazy is that every month...there’s a new one! Every month a new group of women gets pregnant, a new board is created, and people start to post.

 A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

A page from Martha Ballard's diary, February 3 - 12, 1800.

The wildest thing I came across in my research (though honestly, it’s beyond research now. The play is written. I’m just addicted!) is a month board that somehow – I think through just the detective work of some of the suspicious members – discovered that someone who had been regularly posting to the board was not actually pregnant. This was months into the pregnancies, when people had been posting to the board every day for so long, and had really gotten to know each other. So people were shocked and scandalized, and even women on the other boards were gossiping about what happened on the NOVEMBER board (or whatever it was).

You have now spent more than a year immersed in the world of pregnant mothers, both contemporary and colonial. What new things have you learned? How has this changed your perspective on childbirth?

Oh, honestly, I wish the Odon device were already available! It’s not quite yet, they’re still doing clinical trials, though very confident it will be on the market soon. I would so happily offer to test it. It’s impressed me so much, I absolutely believe in it, and if something so uninvasive can effectively get a baby out in so few pushes, I’d almost hate to give birth without it.

I know that the producers at EST emphatically insist that EST/Sloan plays have to work as a play and yet have substantive science content. What have you found is trickiest about writing a play about science?

Well, there’s a lot of information you have to impart to the audience when you’re doing a science play. In real life, when you get information, you’re probably reading something, or watching something, or noticing something – none of these things are active or dramatic! They’re all quiet and internal.

So figuring out how to impart information in a way that feels natural and true to the characters and in the dramatic arc of the play, AND making those moments entertaining, is very difficult!

 Jorge Odon demonstrating the Odon Device.

Jorge Odon demonstrating the Odon Device.

I find it very very hard to dramatize a moment of scientific or creative discovery – the actual Eureka! Moment – so I just skipped it in this play, focusing instead on the inspiration, and then the aftermath.

You mentioned once that you get impatient with theater that doesn’t take into account the audience experience. How does BUMP deal with the audience experience? What do you want the audience to take away from BUMP?

It’s funny, it’s very easy to have lots of opinions on this when you’re in the writing process (or in the audience of another play) but it feels so vulnerable to talk about when you’re in production, because you’re so aware of the possibility of falling short!!! But what we hope is that the play is entertaining, and funny, and warm, and that the audience enjoys spending the time with these characters as much as we do. And we’ve been pretty strict about pacing, and when the play needs to race to the finish line.

I love being at home. I think most people love being at home! Most people enjoy not having to trek to midtown. So I guess, when it comes to the audience, I hope that the experience of watching the play is ultimately worth not being at home.

You’ve been part of the writing team for the hit TV show Superstore (IMDB says you’ve written eight episodes so far!). Congrats on that. How is writing for a sitcom different from writing for the theater? I know that soap opera writers have to write to beats. Do you need to get a laugh every three minutes? Do you find that writing for Superstore has informed or changed your playwriting?

 The cast of Superstore

The cast of Superstore

First of all, to say that I wrote eight episodes of Superstore is a very very flattering misapprehension courtesy of IMDB. I was in the writer’s room of Superstore, but it was a BIG writers room, where everyone sort of pitched ideas and jokes. The writers on that show are genius comedians. Everything that comes out of their mouths is funny! I was in awe. SO fast and SO funny.

This is sooooo hugely different from playwriting, or screenwriting, for that matter, where you sort of get to sloooowly construct things.  I am NOT funny out loud. I am ONLY funny like, by myself on my computer.

But one thing I learned from Superstore – that I actually used on Bump! – is about ALTs. Having ALT jokes or ALT lines in a script. You can have the actor read them both and see which you like. In television, I believe they would film all the alts, and you then choose the best one when you’re editing later. For BUMP, I just have the actor try a few and choose right there, but adding ALTs to a theater script is, I think, unusual, and straight out of my time at Superstore.

Do you remember when you first got turned on to science?

Well, tellingly, my interest in science is strongly tied to narrative! I took an incredible Microbiology class in high school which stood out from all the other science classes I’d ever taken because there was such a focus on the stories and scientists themselves – how Louis Pasteur discovered vaccinations by inoculating chickens with weak strains of bacteria; how John Snow traced the cholera epidemic in London back to a single water pump; how Ignaz Semmelweiss realized women were dying after childbirth because doctors weren’t washing their hands. I guess I like unusual discoveries and the logic behind them. It’s no wonder I was so inspired by the real-life story of Jorge Odon and his cork-trick discovery!

 When did you first discover you were funny?

I think there were a good few years of trying very hard to be funny without ever managing to do it. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a funny short story (??why) that my friends really liked and passed around, AND I’VE BEEN CHASING THAT HIGH EVER SINCE.

In an interview in 2014 you raved about how great Twitter was for new playwrights. In an interview in early 2017 you scaled down your enthusiasm but admitted that you met your husband through Twitter. Then in November, 2017, just after the presidential election, you left Twitter completely. What happened? Do you blame Twitter for Trump’s election?

 Chiara's retired Twitter page

Chiara's retired Twitter page

I loved Twitter when it felt like a fun and a low-key way to engage with people about art, writing, and current events. There was a time when it was really effective. Writers that I had long admired were suddenly just a tweet away, and I could interact with them! I could post a tweet, an article, a link, a recommendation to a play, and people would really engage back, read the link, go see the play, talk to me about it.

But now it’s just din. Everyone shouting over one another. I don’t feel like it’s an effective way to promote content or ideas anymore, and I don’t know why, only that I also am so much less likely to take a Twitter recommendation seriously.

That’s enough for me to become disenchanted with it, but the reason I quit altogether is that I vehemently disapprove of Twitter as a conduit for political discourse. 140 characters – or whatever it is now – is not sufficient for the kind of conversations I feel are necessary now. Retweeting something does not make you politically engaged – that’s something I learned the hard way in 2016. An unguarded, unthoughtful, unedited screed quickly typed and published on Twitter is absolutely not something I can stand for in a president. I literally find it insulting as a citizen. And I felt that to despise when Trump does it yet continue to use the medium myself would be hypocritical.

Twitter was fun for a long time. I am so indebted to it. But I can’t support it anymore. And I’m ready for longer, more thoughtful conversations.

What else are you working on now?

A screenplay and a play! I’m reading The Odyssey with my dad right now, and I’m hoping to write a play – a comedy! – that picks up where that leaves off – Penelope and Odysseus back to domesticity after a twenty-year break from it.

BUMP is being produced as this year’s Mainstage Production of The EST/Sloan Project, a twenty-year-old initiative between The Ensemble Studio Theater and The Sloan Foundation. BUMP starts previews on May 9 and continues performances through June 4 at The Ensemble Studio Theatre. You can purchase tickets here