La Mama's Shakespeare's Sister Playwright Irina Brook on Being a Mother, an Artist, and Heir to a Family Legacy
The daughter of famed English director Peter Brook assures us that her new play is "not just for middle-aged ladies."
Seven years ago, Irina Brook was struck by what she self-mockingly labels a "strange puritanical desire to be true to myself." Daughter of the legendary director Peter Brook, her own directorial success seemed imminent. Yet after making a name for herself in Europe, touring the world with well-funded production after well-funded production, Brook decided to take the road less traveled and start her own small theater company (Irina's Dream Theatre) where she could artistically curate her own body of work.
La MaMa is hosting her company's newest play, Shakespeare's Sister (or La Vie Matérielle) — a piece Brook adapted from writings by Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own) and Marguerite Duras (La Vie Matérielle). Speaking as both a mother and a director, she shared her motivations to create a piece both about and developed by female artists. She also recalled her experience making the intimidating leap into her father's shadow, ending her career as an actress to pursue her true love of directing.
What made you want to adapt these two pieces for the stage?
I started directing and being a mother at exactly the same time, fifteen years ago. I had gone from being an actress [with] a lovely selfish life [for] myself and my art to being a director, which is someone who totally looks after other people, and a mother, who looks after small children. It was a real before-and-after experience. The sheer slog of dishes and laundry and trying to, at the same time, be an artist and a director was something that [made me think], gosh, I'd love to do a show about this one day. I didn't realize that this Virginia Woolf book would tell it so perfectly.
What prompted your decision to go from acting to directing?
I think I'm a bit of a slow burner, frankly. I've always thought of myself as rather a fiery Aries, but actually, I realized that I'm one of the slowest people I know. It took me a whole lifetime of wanting to act and acting and suffering as an actress and hating every minute of it that I sort of didn't realize it during all those fifteen years of acting, that it was because I was really a frustrated director. I think it was simply a matter of confidence. Coming from the father that I come from, it was just an inconceivable possibility to follow [in his] footsteps, so I pushed myself into another direction that was entirely not for me. The minute I swapped sides, it was such a revelation. It was like, my god, the place where I belong at last! From that moment on, I never, ever looked back.
How did you arrive at the combination of the Marguerite Duras and the Virginia Woolf texts?
I had had this little book of Marguerite Duras, La Vie Matérielle, which is something that I had been wanting to make a theater piece from for a very long time. For about five years, I held this little book in my heart. There was a whole section on the house and the home, and that was the center of what I wanted to tell. In that section, one little line mentions A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf. I then went from the Duras to Virginia Woolf, and I realized that the two were so beautifully intertwinable.
How did you go about putting them together?
Basically, I had the two texts, and I cut out phrases that really touched me and that seemed theatrical. We started as just a quick one-off reading for the French Institute when they were doing a special Marguerite Duras week. I just had the idea of gathering a small group of women. My casting had no other direction other than it had to just be amazing ladies and women who were mothers and had families and knew all about the struggle of work and parenthood. We worked around a kitchen table first in my little country house in Great Barrington, and then we worked in one of the actress's country houses in upstate New York. The whole thing was created around kitchen tables and takes place around a kitchen table as a show. [It] really came from gatherings of women in a kitchen creating something together.
Are you excited to be bringing the play to New York audiences?
I'm so excited. These two classical pieces about women and the position of [female] artists in society is so timeless. The great astonishment is that it's the most universal piece imaginable. Grown men were carried sobbing from the aisles. I thought, gosh, this is really a sort of women's ghetto piece; the only people who will be interested are middle-aged ladies with children. [But] every man has got a mother, and it's really so strongly about mothers. It's so moving in terms of the relationship with the mother, and it's funny and it's sexy and it's cute and it's not hitting people on the head with it. It's very warm and fun, but the text is deeply moving at the same time. It's not just a middle-aged-ladies piece. [laughs]