When poet and teacher Barbara Lau began writing her first play about the transformation of the American teenager, she analyzed her knowledge of Greek mythology and found the famed goddess whose metamorphosis was one of the most terrifying and heartbreaking: Medusa.
“Just because she has a beauty-and-the-beast transformation, that’s not enough. I looked at the condition she was forced to live in,” Lau said. “She had looks that could kill [turning everything she looked at to stone]. And they did. She could not see anyone she loved, she couldn’t see anyone period. She was totally isolated. I think a lot of the conditions and the powers have some very fascinating parallels between teenagers.”
Lau’s play, “Raising Medusa,” will premiere April 2 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. In the meantime, Lau has been visiting area high schools to share her play and gather the thoughts of young people about their own transformations. The play follows the tumultuous relationship and awkward communication between a mother (Waterloo native and Broadway performer Nancy Youngblut) and teen daughter (“Maddie,” played by Cornell College sophomore Laura Tatar) while Maddie goes through massive changes physically, emotionally and sociably. Both the mother and Maddie share their frustrations, wisdom and humor throughout the performance.
“It’s a tug-of-war,” Lau said, “the more the parent pulls on them to get them in control, get them in line and try to eek out some love, the more that they [children] pull.”
The strained relationship between parents and children, Lau said, comes from the inability for parents to accept the “new” child who walks through the door when they begin the transformation into adulthood.
“If you still loved them as you did when they were two or three, you could not bear to let them go. You need to be in a position that you are really exhausted [from your child],” she said. “The mother realizes she needs to go through a transformation as well…parents have to do their own kind of growing up–growing up and growing away.”
Lau’s experience with teenage girls is not new to the mother of two. Her daughters – Grace, 19 and Lily, 15 – have gone through changes of their own, and Lau drew on some of those experiences as well as research derived from mothers and psychologists she interviewed.
“[‘Medusa’ highlights] the point we’re at in society right now, coping with all of the types of expressions and experimentation that our young people are getting in to,” she said. Lau notes that like any dialogue between parents and teens, there is plenty of humor to go around, either between the characters or from the Greek chorus who helps narrate the production.
“Once I made that leap, I got so excited about the idea of attempting to put in on stage. I tried to just stick to the page, the stuff I know, which is poetry,” Lau said. “But I became so intrigued with it, it was just really delicious and I could not stop thinking about that [play]. And it just got under my skin, literally.”
Lau’s focus for the past three years has been “Raising Medusa,” but credits the help of a National Endowment for the Arts development grant and Riverside Theater artistic director Jody Hovland to the early roots of the project. While the grant has helped provide funding for its process and growth, it was Hovland who read four poems of Lau’s prize-winning anthology, “The Long Surprise,” which inspired the play.
“When I first read Barbara’s poems, they certainly resonated with me as a mother, but also as a theatre artist. They’re very vivid emotionally and they employ strong imagery – and both of those qualities invite an adaptation to the stage,” Hovland said “As both the artistic director and an actor in the ensemble, it’s really exciting to be so deeply involved in the birthing of a brand new play. No one has gone before you with this work, so you have both the responsibility and the joy of creating the characters, the voices for the first time.”
Lau currently teaches at Kirkwood Community College. After an early career in journalism, she decided it was time to move into creative writing and soon after, poetry. She received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas in San Antonio, where she was raised, and later a master’s degree from the University of Illinois and a master’s of fine arts from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She resides in Mt. Vernon with her husband, Donald Chamberlain, the composer of the music and sounds for “Raising Medusa.”
Though she hopes to return to private creative writing and poetry after the play’s run, through April 19, she has enjoyed the process of writing the play and repositioning parts with the help of her actors.
“I feel like I’m nine-and-a-half months pregnant and I’m ready to birth this thing [the play],” she said. “And my actors have been my birthing coaches and midwives.”
Lau said she was dissatisfied with the ending for some time and with the help of her actors and Riverside team, improvised new lines and created a more solid ending. Now she waits anxiously for the premiere and continues to discuss the issues of teenage metamorphosis with the high schools she visits.
“Parents will never stop closing their eyes and having the best images of their children. But for all purposes, that person is gone,” Lau said. “We have death and rebirth, and that’s a huge part of any classical literature. So the mother needs to learn to love the new Maddie. And it’s hard. You have marriage for better or worse, don’t you have children for better or worse, too?”