Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Daily Reporting on the Second Stage Theatre New Works Festival featuring plays from the Time Warner Play Commissioning Program by Laura Hedli

With more kids taking IB courses and racking up the extracurriculars, The New York Times estimates that next year will be the most difficult for the college bound. With over 3.2 million graduating high school seniors—the largest in the nation’s history—competition will be steep. But maybe they haven’t met the class of 2025.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s newest work chronicles the trials and tribulations of a different sort of application process, one that occurs during the more formative years of development. Directed by David Schweizer, Mothers on Fire is a theatrical quest on getting your child into “the right” kindergarten.

What started as Loh’s own one woman show at the 24th St. Theatre in Los Angeles, has now morphed into a book and a revamped play complete with a six-member cast. Penning a full-length multi-character show is somewhat of a rediscovered art for Loh—she hasn’t written anything of the sort since her 20s.

“In LA, just keeping a cast together is really hard in terms of equity waver theater, where it’s like 70 seats and people getting paid 5 dollars. I started doing solo shows just because it’s a lot simpler to do,” says Loh. “But the year I went and looked at kindergartens for my daughter was so traumatic that I thought, ‘This is amazing. I have to write about this.’”

Loh, whose solo shows Aliens in America and Bad Sex with Bud Kemp have received full productions at Second Stage, spoke with Assistant Artistic Director, Chris Burney, about her newest work. As she discussed her solo show and the book deal, Burney was in full support of the kindergarten craze, trusting that it would make for an interesting theatrical piece. “He said to me, ‘Just make sure it has a ticking clock,’” Loh recalls.

Taking his direction, the menagerie of imaginary clocks keeps time and marks the pace in Mothers on Fire. At the start of the play, Sarah (Michi Barall), whose character is based on Loh, tells us there’s a big clock over her head that reads “Kindergarten, T-minus 1 year.” As the play progresses, time contracts and then expands, ticking off the months of the year with each passing Act.

Early on, we meet characters like Aimee (Welker White) and Paul (Martin Moran) whose young twins Seon and Ezekiel have been deemed gifted by professional child psychologists. They’re within the top 0.1 percentile for their age bracket—destined to be on the accelerated coloring track at some haughty-taughty kindercare.

“We used to write an advice column for the LA Times about placing people in schools, and this was totally based on one mom who said that her son was at the 0.5 percentile in terms of gifted, and he was four,” says Loh. “Even though their local elementary school was this award winning school … she had visited the kindergarten, and she felt sure her son would be bored. You can just picture a 40 something woman sitting on a tiny blue chair in a kindergarten, judging that kindergarten class on how exciting it is for her for her son.”

Later in Mothers on Fire we’re introduced to Celeste (Isabel Keating), a multi-millionaire, multi-tasking, micromanaging nut, who never had time for children of her own, but has no qualms pointing fingers and barking orders. Drs. Ruth, David Eggenschweiler (Colman Domingo) and Margaret Schanzenfeld, MD (Martin Moran) provide their professional assessments. And even Sarah’s partner, Mike (Nick Offerman)—whose character is based off Loh’s real life husband by the same name—tries to tackle the indebted task of finding a suitable kindergarten for their daughter. With so many voices and so many stories—Loh explores all facets of this issue.

“I really like plays like Noises Off, or Wit, or like any of the Pirandello-like breaking of the fourth wall, characters going in and out,” Loh explains. In Mothers on Fire, the result is much like taking a ride on the scrambler of parental hysteria.

“There are a lot of people making a lot of money out of parents’ fear, and that starts in the womb where you have to get the right baby monitor, and the right Mozart to play on the headphones, and the right food to eat,” says Loh. “So there’s no one who’s really invested in stopping parents from becoming hysterical because people are making so much money on it.”

And that’s why she hopes Mothers on Fire will get people talking. As Loh worked to get her daughter, Madeline, into kindergarten, she noticed the growing socioeconomic and racial divides.

“I live in LA, and there’s certainly a lot of Democrat, liberals who have this elaborate dance of trying to explain why they don’t want to send their kids with the rest of the poor,” she says. “The private schools have cropped up, and they start at $20,000 a year. They have a diversity day so they can see children of other colors. I mean, this is really out of control.”

Not only has Loh written a solo show, a book, and a multi-character play on this issue, she’s also an advocate for educational reform as a contributor to Atlantic Monthly and on KPCC (89.3 FM in Los Angeles), where she has her own weekly talk show called The Loh Life. Her current installment entitled, “Million Parent March”, is available on podcast at

“They often say if private schools were illegal, then public schools would all be great,” says Loh. “There are many good-hearted people who have their kids all in private schools. If those highly motivated, amazing parents are not in public school, then there’s not that positive change and they’re sort of left to languish.”

Loh ends her comical rollercoaster in Mothers on Fire with a touching bit about Sarah and her daughter, Hannah, going to see a Julie Andrews reading at UCLA. I asked her, after all the emotional stress in the story, why she chose to end with something that had nothing to do with kindergarten hysteria.

“You want to give some magic to your child, so I guess Julie Andrews is how I related to that,” says Loh. “And sometimes I can’t give them that magic, but they’re okay.”


Mothers on Fire is written by Sandra Tsing Loh and directed by David Schweizer. The Second Stage/Time Warner Commission cast included Michi Barall (Sandra), Martin Moran (Paul/Dr. Margaret Schanzenfeld/Todd), Welker White (Aimee/Kaitlin), Nick Offerman (Mike), Isabel Keating (Celeste/Nancy), and Colman Domingo (Dr. David Eggenschweiler/Dr. Ruth). Stage directions were read by David Schweizer.

In 2006, Time Warner commissioned 10 playwrights, both emerging and established, through Second Stage Theatre. The week of June 9-13 2008 showcases plays by 8 of the 10 writers as part of the New Works Festival. Readings take place at Telsey Casting Studios (311 W. 43rd Street, 10th Floor) and Manhattan Theatre Club (311 W. 43rd Street, 8th Floor).

NEXT UP: 10 Things To Do Before I Die by Zakiyyah Alexander at 12 p.m. June 11.
As Soon As Impossible by Betty Shamieh at 3 p.m. June 11.
Happy by Sung Rno at 6 p.m. June 11.

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