A Conversation with Mia Walker
Mia Walker greets us with a hug and we immediately feel like she’s been our friend for years. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be in the rehearsal room with her. It figures: Mia is responsible for some of the most galvanizing, vulnerable theater in New York right now. She is the assistant director of Waitress, the emotional and optimistic musical about a working-class woman surviving and thriving through an abusive relationship and illicit affair. Then there’s Normativity, the project she’s helming off-off-Broadway at NYMF. Penned by twenty-year old Jaime Jarrett, starring a cast as diverse in gender expression as anything we’ve seen onstage, the new musical is the buzziest show of the festival this year. So it’s natural that we feel right at home with Mia – she’s in the business of empathy.
Helen Schultz: Looking at the projects you’ve done – you’ve done American Sexy at The Flea; Normativity, which is about gender identity; and Waitress, which brought domestic violence to a stage that it hadn’t necessarily been on before. How do you come to pick projects?
Mia Walker: I wanted to do a show that told a love story between two women. To me, that hadn’t been represented. People don’t empathize with that, and that’s how homophobia perpetuates itself as well because we’re not identifying characters that are women falling in love. There are shows about lesbian love, but I wanted to see something that felt very real and honest for a younger generation. With Normativity, I don’t think I totally understood how bold it was or how needed it was in the theater community until I got involved. It wasn’t until auditions, when I was getting Facebook messages and emails from people coming in to auditions for us. Multiple people wrote me and said, “I don’t care if I don’t get cast in this show – thank you for letting me audition,” because our casting notice said, “all gender identities welcome.” Our casting director, Rebecca Feldman, works at The Public and is an amazing advocate for queer trans performers being welcomed and embraced in the community. People were saying how liberating and empowering it was to go into an audition where they could just be themselves, where they didn’t have to hide their gender identity, where they didn’t have to find a song that didn’t sit well in their voice because that’s not how they identify in terms of their gender, that’s when I started really realizing how necessary this piece was. It became a movement.
HS: How did that translate to the rehearsal process?
MW: When I first started it with Jaime [Jarrett], I was just really excited to be doing a musical, and I thought it was dealing with something that was bold and marginalized. And I was excited about that. But as we were getting more and more people involved, I realized that it was truly a movement. Normally, in theater, your first production meeting you talk about set design and you figure out when designer runs will be, you talk about budget – it’s a pretty straight-forward model for a production meeting. But our production meeting was different because I started telling our whole team about all these emails and messages I was getting. As I was telling our crew how important this piece really was, I started expressing how much of a movement it is, and how I’ve become part of that movement just by virtue of caring about Jaime and wanting to represent [the LGBT community] in the world and I saw their eyes light up, and I thought, “everyone on our team just became part of that movement.”
HS: Can you talk a bit about the phenomenon of “Bury Your Gays?” It looms very large in Normativity.
MW: What’s interesting about Normativity, the whole premise, is that there’s this phenomenon called “Bury Your Gays.” It’s a tendency in arts and culture and media where gay characters are killed off. It’s crazy – if you do the research, you’ll see. The percentage of gay characters that die, commit suicide, get hit by a stray bullet, it’s like society is subconsciously telling us that being gay is a sin. That is ever-present in the media, and Jaime has been reacting to that and trying to fight that. The quest of Normativity is to rewrite the queer narrative. The idea is that we want positive representation in the LGBTQ community, and everyone deserves a happy ending. There’s a song where one of the characters, Taylor, sings “I’m sick of reading stories about girls who don’t make it past age nineteen” because there’s this phenomenon of queer characters committing suicide.
HS: And in the wake of Orlando, that movement feels even more urgent.
MW: It was a very somber reminder that tragedy is still happening in this world to the queer community, and our show is not trying to erase that or deny that. I met with Jaime after Orlando, and we were both very shell-shocked and in a weird place and we sort of went through the show and we sort of worked on ways to recognize that it doesn’t erase the fact that tragedy still happens in the queer community, and that’s been a really important part of the piece. Something that’s so exciting about working on a new musical that actually deals with timely issues is that it’s being affected by the moment. It’s not like we’re working on a show that was written fifty years ago and isn’t being impacted by current events; we’re actually working on something that’s living and breathing right now. Jaime’s making changes every day based on what’s happening in the world. That’s been what’s been really eye-opening about this experience – how much our daily lives play into it.
HS: Could you talk about Jaime, and how you connect with them for this show?
MW: Rachel Sussman is the programmer at NYMF. I had an informal meeting with her, like “Hi! I’m a female director. Hi! You’re a female producer. Let’s meet.” She said to me, “If you could direct anything right now, what would it be?” and I said, “I’ve been trying to find a piece that has to do with a lesbian love story. She said, “I think I may have something for you,” and sent me the materials for Normativity. I met with Jaime and that meeting was pretty amazing because it was pretty clear that we were having some sort of soul connection. Jaime is a student at UArts in Philly. Jaime is twenty years old. Jaime wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics, which is an incredible feat for anyone, let alone a student. And the music is beautiful. When I met with Jaime, I really got this sense that Jaime was very open to making changes and delving through and working with this piece. I got the sense that there was potential, and a spark, and an amazing story that needed to be told; and I could tell immediately that Jaime’s voice as a composer was deeply needed in the musical theater community, but I was also reassured by the fact that Jaime was totally game to delve into an intense rewrite process. And that’s what we did – we cleaned for months. Jaime was churning out draft after draft, creating new characters. We actually went to an open call that NYMF had for casting, and we met one of our actors there, Soph Menas, and Soph inspired a whole new character – Jaime wrote a whole new song to do with the experience of being trans. And that was really inspired by Soph, who identifies as a trans man. I really felt deeply connected to Jaime, and excited to go on this ride with them.
HS: And this play is so personal to Jamie’s own experience as a gender-queer person.
MW: When I first met Jaime, it was like a whole new world opened up to me. … Jaime explained to me the use of ‘they’ as a pronoun. It’s amazing because now that’s so second-nature to me, because there are multiple people in the show who identify as gender-queer and so pronouns are a very sensitive issue in our rehearsal room, and we all take great care to respect people’s gender pronoun preferences. But I just think back to that meeting in October, November when that kind of blew my mind. And now it’s second-nature.
HS: I wanted to ask you about the design of Normativity, in as much as the set echoes what’s going on in the characters’ minds and in their emotional lives. Could you talk about that process of putting together the design and the world of the show?
MW: So, we have an amazing set designer named Kristen Robinson, who studied at Yale. And her background actually is in installation art and painting. So she does a lot of set design for plays and musicals, but she also has that installation side of her. I went to see something she did recently – it was called The Heart of Darkness. And it was an immersive experience where you were thrown into the jungle. It was just incredible. But it also felt like modern art – it felt like I was at MoMa or something. I knew she was the right person to bring onto this because we had a few meetings with Kristen – it was me, Jaime, and Kristen – and we were talking about why Jaime wrote this show, where it came from in Jaime’s soul, why Jaime felt the need to write it. Kristen sort of took that away and came back with a list of locations that we needed to have: a high school, a writer’s office, and a bookstore. Then we had a meeting with her and she was like, “my instinct is rather than to have a very literal world, that we have a sort of surreal – this was her word – ‘poetic gesture.’ She wanted to have a poetic gesture so that we’re in a space that’s already surreal. I think the design element is very important because with NYMF, it’s a festival show, so there are certain restrictions. Their entire set needs to be taken down within twenty minutes and put up in half an hour. Every prop and every set piece has to be stored within a set amount of space. There’s a really incredible floor treatment that Kristen’s doing and it’s a very minimal set but it all comes together in this one poetic gesture. I’ve never been interested in literal theater and so, for me, the approach that the show takes is embracing the fact that we are in a theatrical space and we’re not in a cinematic world where we can just be in a school, a store, and an office.
HS: Choreography is a big part of that world too. And your brother is the choreographer!
MW: Adin just graduated from Princeton this year, so he’s right out of college. He’s an amazing choreographer. I’ve never had an experience with a choreographer before where it felt like we were really creating a vocabulary of the show together, and Adin – I don’t know if it’s because he’s my brother, or because he’s a genius – he’s illuminating the world of the show in a way that I don’t think anyone else would have. And I think that’s part of why Kristin and I wanted to keep the space sparse – now it’s really about bodies and space and the awkwardness of not feeling totally in your skin. Adin has been exploring how to create a stage vocabulary of that, and I actually think that people are going to see the show and go “who choreographed that?”
HS: Let’s talk about your time at Harvard. It’s interesting that you went from being a film major to working in theater.
MW: When I was nine, I was actually on Broadway. I lived in Washington, D.C. and my grandfather took me to a Broadway audition as a present. I wanted to be an actress – “I want to go to a real Broadway casting call!” Then I booked it.
HS: Can I ask what show it was?
MW: It was Annie Get Your Gun with Bernadette Peters.
HS: Oh, wow!
MW: Oh yeah. So I spent a year in New York doing that show when I was nine years old. I think that’s when the theater got in my blood after that. Like whenever I’m working on a show now, or on any of the shows I’ve worked on with Diane [Paulus], being in a Broadway theater to me feels like home. I thought I was going to be an actress, and that was my whole thing; after Annie Get Your Gun, I was auditioning for more shows, I went to LA for pilot season, but when I went to college, I started to feel frustrated when I was in shows. I don’t really want anyone else telling me what to do! I was lucky at Harvard that there wasn’t a theater major at the time because I was able to do whatever I wanted. I got space in the experimental black box, and I was allowed to do whatever I wanted as soon as the on-campus student groups gave us permission to do it. I was really able to explore and treat Harvard as my lab. I started out with directing a three-person play that was about college students, and then I did The History Boys, and Grease was my senior project.
HS: How did you connect with Diane?
MW: Diane actually generously came to see a tech rehearsal of Grease and that was sort of what connected us. I had been flinging myself into her office, asking for advice, like, “How do you work with a choreographer?” and in between meetings, she would for ten minutes bare her soul to me, and I was just taken by that: how generous she was to actually mentor me. It was incredible. She took me under her wing. So after I graduated, I started going from project to project with her. The access that she’s given me has been such a gift.
HS: What is it like to learn from a female director in a field that’s so hugely dominated by men?
MW: It’s funny because when people say to me, “theater is dominated by men,” I literally have not seen them. I’ve worked with so many women, because Diane surrounds herself with women – and not intentionally, by the way. It happens organically. I think she just has this incredible network of strong, amazing, talented women and she just happens to staff her shows with them. A lot of men, too. But I’ve gotten so used to working with women, and it’s been such a blessing. I guess in a way it’s how people say, “you grow up knowing what you know,” so for me the idea that women are not empowered or not represented in the theater… I’ve literally never seen that because I have had the blessing of just seeing women kick ass for the past six years. Diane is so strong, but she’s strong in a way that is non-gender. She’s just a person with the vision and the endurance to push people to their best. That’s what I’m most thankful for: the fact that I don’t see being female as any sort of hindrance. In fact, I see it as a benefit. I don’t want to make any gender-divided assumptions, especially after working on a show right now that’s bashing all expectations and assumptions about gender and sexuality that I’ve ever had. I do find that the women I work with are incredibly focused on detail and incredibly compassionate, vulnerable, and strong, and I feel very much at home working with other women. I hope that, as I continue to turn into my own director, that I’m also giving opportunities to women. Diane’s whole thing is that I’m a director. I’m not just a female director. I’m an artist. My gender is part of me, but doesn’t define me. I very much feel the same way too.
HS: Something people talk about when they talk about women and directors is confidence and taking up space and being bold, things we really try to beat out of women from a very young age.
MW: I read this article about how women tend to use the word “just” more. They write emails with questions more. “Just checking in,” “just wanting to know.” There’s a tendency for women in rhetoric to excuse themselves or apologize. I do see that – I see that happens. Part of what’s great about working with Diane is that she doesn’t apologize for herself. She takes up space. Hugely confident. I think I, personally, have definitely struggled with confidence. I think part of being a child actress and getting rejected from auditions at the age of nine impacted me. Part of why I didn’t want to continue being a performer was I didn’t like that feeling of being rejected. My mom used to say, “you care a lot about what people think of you, and that’s what is going to be hard for you as a performer,” and that’s ultimately why I ended my career as an actor. It made me very anxious. I’ve found my confidence in directing. It’s funny – in real life, I’m very indecisive. It’s hard for me to pick out clothes; it’s very hard for me to make general life decisions. But in a rehearsal room, I’m decisive, I’m in my element, I’m working from my gut. I would like to try to apply that to the rest of my life.
HS: I think it’s starting to change now, but there seems to be a certain level of shame that women feel, just because we’re women.
MW: I do think that women have to stop apologizing for ourselves. I know someone that works in resources in a media company, and he told me how little women ask for more. Men ask for a promotion every six months, and women go ten years with the same paycheck. It’s the asking that’s scary. I’m really trying to attack that, because asking for more, for me, is also really hard. Asserting my needs is not easy. It’s definitely a process. I’m getting better at that; directing is forcing me to get better at that because I think directing is all about asserting your needs and not being afraid to take up space, ask for what you want, demand it, not doubt that you mean it, not try to please anyone.
Michelle Tse: As a director, you’ve stepped in so many other people’s shoes that are different than your own. Where does your empathy come from?
MW: I remember this moment in college where I was really trying to figure out what to do, and I wanted to be a director. But then I decided that my goal had to be bigger than “I want to be a director.” So that’s when I identified: I want to move people. I think it’s because I’ve had the blessing of being moved myself. My parents always took me to see shows when I was little. My parents would take my brother and I to Shakespeare festivals when we were five years old. I love that experience of sitting in an audience and feeling moved, or feeling sick, or scared, and I think that I wanted to give that to other people. That’s my goal, to do that. My parents have also said that I’ve always been very sensitive. When I was a kid, if something was upsetting me or I saw something in the news about a bomb I would just immediately throw up. I think in artists, that’s often mistaken for mental illness or depression or anxiety, and it can be all of those things – and that’s certainly part of my life. But, to me, that’s what allows me to tell stories. I think the most important thing about theater and about a piece worth telling is that there are not good guys and bad guys. I would like to never do a piece where I’m perpetuating an idea that someone is good and someone is bad. To me, it’s messy and I’m drawn to pieces where you can see the reasoning behind people doing evil things, and you see the reasoning behind people doing good things and it’s hard to locate a black and white structure in that.
HS: It’s hard to get people to really embrace that ambiguity, that discomfort.
MW: The shame is that the people who are seeing these things… it’s like preaching to the choir. I think that Normativity will attract people who are excited and happy about it, but I would love to go find some really homophobic people, sit them in the theater, and make them feel compassion for those characters. That’s the struggle, I think: reaching people who actually need these stories.
MT: That’s a doozy of a struggle.
HS: We can probably talk for the rest of the day about that.
MT: I’m hopeful, though, with musicals becoming more popular in the mainstream the past year, that people will start to seek out and do theater. Do you have any advice for aspiring theater artists?
MW: I am still learning myself, so it’s definitely coming from a place of still taking advice myself, but I definitely think that the most important thing that I’ve learned is how to listen. I think when I graduated college there was an environment that was so focused on your opinion, your voice, what you think, and as soon as I graduated and started working with Diane, I learned to silence myself and that didn’t mean that I wasn’t expressing myself, but that I was able to take in what other people were saying around me, and know that if I don’t express my idea right now, it’s okay. They’re going to eventually arrive at it in their own way. I think that’s a really big kernel of advice that I’d give to aspiring directors in general – if you are taking the path of assisting and working with other people, it’s learning how to listen and not have to voice yourself in order to feel confident. You can know that you have value without other people validating you.
When I graduated college, my icon was Lena Dunham. She was twenty-five and doing it. I was feeling that if I wasn’t doing it, there was no hope for me. But now I’m six, seven years out of college, and I’m grateful for every minute and I feel like I’m really ready for my voice and to direct. It definitely took me that long, and it may take me longer. My advice is, also, in this time and generation of feeling like you have to do everything now, there is something to be said for learning and developing a path and being ready. Growing and becoming ready. Once you express your voice, it’s out there.
Mia is currently Assistant Director for A.R.T.’s new Broadway musical Waitress, directed by Diane Paulus, with music by Sara Bareilles. She is also Assistant Director on Finding Neverland, Pippin (winner of 4 Tony Awards in 2013, including Best Revival and Best Director); The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; Invisible Thread (Second Stage). Recent directing credits include world premieres of new works by Trista Baldwin and Israel Horovitz (The Flea); recurrent projects at Ensemble Studio Theater; Zoe Sarnak’s The Last Five Years at 54 Below; Gardenplays (East 4th St. Theatre).
Mia is also in development for the film adaptation of American Sexy, her feature film directorial debut; she also made a dance film with Sonya Tayeh, award-winning choreographer on So You Think you Can Dance and frequently shoots and edits video content for Amsale the fashion designer and singer/songwriter Rachel Brown. Not Cool, a short film Mia directed was recently screened at the Soho Short Film Festival and LA Indie Film Fest. B.A. Harvard University. While at Harvard, Mia was one of the founding members of On Harvard Time, the university’s first student-run news station, that still exists today.