Actor Kyra Miller plays Rebecca Hershkowitz, mother of David, in Rags. In real life, Kyra is mother to two young girls: three-year-old Sami, who is still [as of March 31] back in New York, and nine-month-old Natalya, who has spent the last several weeks with her mother in rehearsal for the show. Associate Marketing Director Syche Phillips talked with Kyra about the intricacies of being a working mom in theatre.
Syche: So how’s it going so far?
Kyra: It’s good! Good. I’ve never done this before.
Syche: So this is the first time you’ve done a show post-Natalya?
Kyra: Post either girl, actually. So let’s see. Sami is almost three and the last professional gig I had at a theatre was in 2011. So yeah, it’s been a while. I’ve collaborated with the Woodshed Collective in NYC since then, and I was invited on board as a writer/creator for that, and I did a tiny bit of acting with them. And I wrote three one-person shows and performed them. So it’s not like I’ve been inactive, it just hasn’t been professional gigs.
Syche: How has it been keeping up with writing? It’s never easy under the best of circumstances.
Kyra: Sometimes it makes me more efficient. I do a lot of writing on my phone on the train. I’ll get an idea and start making notes. The whole concept of having a 3-hour chunk in the afternoon to write, or to memorize lines—that’s just gone out the window. So you get very good at accepting that and creating a long thread of writing in tiny little moments, and that has been my MO. That was my MO for Rags too. Pretty much as soon as I got this job I just started listening to the score, on breaks, or with Natalya. I had to learn it all in tiny pieces.
Syche: When did you find out you were cast?
Kyra: I found out, let’s see…in December. First of all, I was gobsmacked to have gotten the job off of a taped audition. That’s never happened to me in my entire career.
Syche: It wasn’t an in-person audition?
Kyra: They came to New York to do auditions, and I had gotten laryngitis from my toddler. I’ve never lost my voice before and it was the first audition that I felt like, This is a slam dunk for me, I’m really right for this part. There just aren’t that many that I’m so right for. I was so excited to do it. Even though I thought, Oh God, California, how am I going to swing that? But my agent said, “Let’s not worry about the logistics, you’re so right for this, you should just go to it.” And I didn’t think I would book it. I thought, Okay, I’m going to go in front of Alan Filderman [the NY casting director] and make a good impression, and it’ll be a great way to come back after being away for six years… And then I had to miss the audition because my voice wasn’t there. (Laughs) It took two weeks for my high notes to come back. I’ve never made a tape for a musical theatre audition before, just film and TV. So I made this tape, and I thought, they’ve cast this role a long time ago. And I sent the tape off assuming it would go into someone’s file.
Syche: And when you were offered the role?
Kyra: My husband and I had to sit down and have a serious conversation, because I’d been so sure I wouldn’t book it, but we were so excited. So we had to work through how it would even go with the children—like, could I take Sami out of school for seven weeks? No. Could I take her away from Jesse for seven weeks? No. Could I be without the baby for a while? No. So there were certain questions we had to answer, even before we started looking at the finances of it. In the meantime I was getting certified to teach the Alexander Technique, and I did that right before I had Natalya. I got my certification, applied for a job in November, but the same day that I got offered the Alexander job, [TW Casting Director] Leslie [Martinson] sent this beautiful email to my agent about how helpful TW would be in terms of dealing with a baby around. It changed everything. And because the role is so good and the show is so timely and it feels good and in a way politically active to do this—we figured it out and I turned down the teaching job and came here instead.
Syche: You keep bringing up the role of Rebecca—do you have any experience with the show in the past?
Kyra: I’ve always known I was right for Rags…in the same way that every Jewish girl grows up knowing she’ll be in Fiddler on the Roof someday. When I was younger, everyone told me I should learn Rags to play Bella. Then I aged out of the part and stopped paying attention to it. Until a teacher told me, “You should listen to this role because Teresa Stratas sang it.” In my voice lessons, she’s someone I’m told to listen to a lot. I have this opera background and I’m also a musical theatre singer, so roles that sit on that dividing line are the roles I pay attention to. They’re often roles that were played by Julia Migenes, an opera singer who did a lot of musicals. She sang Rebecca on the Rags recording (after Teresa Stratas originated it), and she sang Aldonza in an early production of The Man of La Mancha,, which is the last role I played. There aren’t that many productions of Rags, so when it gets done somewhere, you jump at the opportunity. And it’s a beautiful score.
Also…I’m not a refugee, but my grandfather and great-grandfathers on both sides fled Eastern Europe in the same time period, for the same reasons, so this show feels close to me. One small thing that resonates for me is her name change. The reason my name is Kyra Miller is because twelve years ago a role came up that I was right for, and I was having trouble getting an audition, because the role was for an Italian woman. I was told that casting couldn’t believe that I could play an Italian with my real name, Himmelbaum, on my resume. And I was horrified and angry, like, this is in 2005, aren’t we over this yet? This particular role had been originated by an actress with a very Irish last name. So after a lot of hemming and hawing I decided to just use my mom’s maiden name, Miller—against my better judgment, and I don’t know that I’d make the same decision today.
My mom’s family name was actually Gostkowski, but they took Miller at Ellis Island—the family story is that some guy pulled my great-grandfather aside and said, “You’ll have an easier time doing business if you have a different last name.” So he picked Miller.
So I sort of saw it as carrying on a horrible family tradition.
Natalya taking it all in
Syche: Can you describe how it is working with Mariah [the childcare provider] and Natalya being on site?
Kyra: First of all, I’m incredibly grateful to TheatreWorks, for everybody marshaling resources and willingness to have a baby—and a mom—around. People have donated childcare equipment, and we have use of two separate childcare rooms [in the admin offices] while in rehearsal. I’ve talked to [Stage Manager] Randall a couple times when I’ve been late coming back from break because I was nursing, and he’s been so willing to exercise a little forbearance in that regard. Stage managers have such a tough job, so to put another wrinkle into the mix could be a problem, but it hasn’t been. [Director Robert] Kelley stopped me the other day—I had had a 12-hour day because we had a photo shoot before rehearsal started, and he stopped me the next day and said, “You seem tired. You have to tell me when you’re tired.” He’s been so kind, and so willing to have Natalya around.
How it works is I pick up Mariah, and we come to the rehearsal space. I’ve already fed and napped the baby one round in the morning, because we usually start rehearsing early afternoon. Mariah takes her for a walk or gives her lunch, and then on my first break I will see her. When we go back in to the rehearsal room, Mariah and Natalya will go for another walk, or play in the classroom, or have a meal, and then as soon as we’re on our long meal break, I get her, nurse her, and I have to eat. Usually Mariah will try to feed her and change her while I’m rehearsing so I don’t have to do all those things in one little break. It’s only one hour but it’s about an hour and a half worth of tasks and bonding time.
Natalya and Kyra on dinner break
Usually we get our third break around 7:50, and I go get her, nurse her in the quiet office for about 10-15 minutes, and put her down in the pack ‘n’ play. That’s the break I’m usually a little bit late coming back from. Then right as we’re finishing up rehearsal around 9:30, Mariah will transfer her from the pack ‘n’ play into her car seat, which clicks into the stroller. And Natalya has learned to stay asleep through this whole maneuver. We get the car seat into the stroller, put her into the car, we drop Mariah off, and then I get home, get the car seat upstairs into the apartment, and transfer her to her crib…and she stays asleep through the entire thing right now.
Syche: That is amazing.
Kyra: Yeah, it’s incredible. I have a very amenable baby. She’s super social, she loves people, she’s about to crawl, she’s been working on that every day.
Syche: You knew she was an amenable baby, right? I mean, if you had a difficult baby would you have even tried to do this?
Kyra: Probably not. I think if I’d had a really colicky baby from the get-go, or trouble nursing, or if it had been my first kid, I might have just been too overwhelmed to even consider this. I really was not auditioning when Sami was first born. I know moms who have, and who did, and when this offer came through, the first thing I did was contact every actress I knew who has a baby, and I asked, “What’s the longest you’ve been apart from your toddler? And have you been apart from your infant?” I got a bunch of different responses, all of them implying that it depends on the kid. But from the minute she was born, Natalya was an easy baby. I recovered from the delivery really easily, my milk came in, she started sleeping well, she didn’t have any stomach issues…it was all just easier than the first time. So I thought, Okay, I can do this. And knock on wood, so far it’s been okay.
Syche: When is your husband bringing Sami?
Kyra: This is something we talked about a lot, because from tech rehearsals [10 out of 12 hours a day] through preview week, I’m just not going to be around a lot. But he said he didn’t want us to be apart for more than 3 ½ weeks. So they’re going to arrive just as we’re finishing tech, and through preview week, I’ll still be busy but she’ll see me sometimes. They fly in on Sunday, and then I have Monday off. At that point, the babysitting will move to our apartment. The baby will only be at the theatre for a few hours a day. That’s the plan. We’ll see how it works in reality. And his job has been so great about letting him write from far away—he writes for The New York Times, so he’s going to be writing remotely for the month of April.
Syche: That is awesome that he can do that. How has Sami been doing, back in New York?
Kyra: She’s been amazing. We’ve had a lot of family support. Jesse has these two aunts who live in England, who we don’t get to see very much, but they decided to come out right before I left, to see me and the baby, and then help Jesse through these couple weeks. So they’ve been there since I left. And Sami is also in school for half the day, and she loves her school. They’ve been really supportive too, helping her get her head around it. It’s a Montessori program, so her teacher was like, “We’ll make a social story for her.” A social story is precisely for something like this: like a parent is going on a business trip, or some other major potentially disruptive event, and you write a story to help the kid get through it. So our story was, We’re all going to California! But Mama and Natalya are going first, and while we’re gone, you’ll hang out with Dada, and Cheryl will still pick you up after school, and you’ll still play with Essie after school every day. And there are pictures of all of this that got laminated and bound together. We started this a couple weeks before I left. And her school totally facilitated that. They helped make the book and they talk about it with her. It’s been really comforting for me too. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. She says things like “I miss Mama and Natalya. I’m going to go put on my shoes and socks and bring them back.”
Kyra: So it’s definitely hard. I’m probably more weepy than she is.
Syche: Don’t worry, it’s almost over.
Kyra: Right! But I’ve thinking about this. What if this role had come along three years later? It would have been impossible. There would have been zero reason for me to split up the family, and I wouldn’t see either child. And I couldn’t pull them out of school for a month because they’d miss something important, like reading. This is actually the easiest time to do something like this
Syche: Unless it was like, six years ago.
Kyra: Well, that too.
Syche: Will you keep looking for parts in New York? Is this a springboard back onto the stage, but staying closer to home?
Kyra: That was the idea. (Laughs) I really just wanted to work. I miss it. This is my joy. But going forward, it would have to be some pretty special circumstances to get me to leave town again. Leaving is really hard on a family. I’d never say never, but I don’t know exactly what it means going forward. But for now, I get to work again, and that’s great. I’d rather do a great role every few years than do what I believed I was supposed to do at the beginning of my career, which is keep working no matter what.
Syche: Quality over quantity.
Kyra: Exactly. Also, I really feel strongly that TheatreWorks is a model for how theatres need to react to actors being mothers to young children. Fathers too, but mothers more, because we deal with infancy and breastfeeding, and there are certain physical realities that can’t be gotten around. And just a little bit of flexibility on the part of theatre management has enabled this huge change to happen in my life…whereas if you’re adhering very strictly to every equity code and rule and corporate reality, there is no room for that.
The things that I care about as a parent are so different than what I cared about a few years ago. That diversity is important on every level: the people who write the plays, who produce the plays, who design and act in the plays…those people should also be able to have children and still be engaged, just as much as people without children. But I want to emphasize that TheatreWorks has been amazing. It didn’t occur to me to ask for leniency. I was about to turn down the job when I was told, “We have these resources for you.” And it’s partly on actresses to say, “Here’s what I need to be able to do this. And if you believe in me in this part, then maybe you can help me in these ways.”
It’s really important that moms get to participate in the theatre. The budget and people’s minds just need to widen a little bit to make room for us. Or else this whole group of women doesn’t get to participate. And then we lose out on certain kinds of stories that get told, or a quality of storytelling. The arts are about inclusion and exposure to all kinds of stories. If moms aren’t in the room, who knows what we could be missing out on?
For more discussion about mothers in theatre, check out:
Motherhood in the Theatre Part One: Hold My Baby, Homeless Man—I’ve Got An Audition
Where Are the Disappeared Women of the Theatre? (HowlRound)
Children in the Space: A Collaborative Photo Essay on Working Parents in the Theatre