BWW Interview: Mary Lynn Owen's KNEAD at the Alliance Theatre is the perfect recipe for breaking bread on stage
In KNEAD, now playing at The Alliance Theatre, Mary Lynn Owen bakes bread on stage. Yes, really. What might sound like something you would see on a cooking show is actually a fantastically deep and complex story, in which Mary Lynn plays a version of herself working through her mother's bread recipe in the early hours of the morning. As she progresses through the stages of the recipe, she intertwines memories and stories from her youth. We spoke with Mary Lynn to discuss how the ingredients for her show came together, and how she believes baking is not only a metaphor for art, but for life.
Where did you get the inspiration for KNEAD, and how did it come together?
It began as a collection of essays that I had written about my family, my mother, and my family of origin. And also various things that had happened to me in my life. I just always liked to keep a journal to understand things, and just write everything down. Not just the good stuff, I write down all the bad stuff too! And I remember the first time I tried to make bread as an adult, it was so hard. It was something my mother had done so easily. It came so easily to her and it was just part of her signature. Part of her life, her identity. It gave her life. She made bread and she gave it away. She was like the original bread machine! She would come back and haunt me if I ever used a bread machine! It was always this start to finish, hands-on process. I tried to do it as an adult, and I learned so much about my mother that day. That always stuck with me, and it revealed so much to me about her. When she died, I spoke about her bread in her Eulogy. My longtime friend David de Vries was in the congregation. Years passed, and I kept writing. I would occasionally pass him things to read. After 3 or 4 times of that, he said that I should start thinking about a play. I resisted that idea, because I thought of myself as an actor and not a playwright. But when he flashed back to my mother's eulogy and said "What if breadmaking is central to this play?", something clicked. We found a structure for this play and really began to shape the material. So then it became a process of figuring out how to make bread in a play! And what that meant in terms of storytelling. What would the evening be for this character? I call her a character, even though it is me and she has my name. However, I had to think of her as a character with a journey on this particular night. She's a little bit different at the end then she was at the beginning.
Can you tell us how the story progresses while the process of real time baking takes place on the stage?
Well I don't want to give away too much! But, it's a night of discoveries. It takes place at 3 o'clock in the morning when the character is baking. I'll admit I'm not stranger to that! I have actually baked at 3 o'clock in the morning. As a matter of fact, I like being in the kitchen in the wee hours because its so quiet and kind of meditative. I understand now why my mom was up in the wee hours cooking or baking, because its so quiet and its almost a sacred time. So the character is in for some surprises.
The premise of this show is so neat, because baking specifically can evoke such strong memories and feelings for many people. Do you agree?
Absolutely. One of the things I realized when I was crafting the eulogy for my mother was that our home life was so chaotic - we moved around every 3-4 years, we were always going into other people's homes because my father was a Methodist minister, so we never really had a home. We were the stereotypical preacher's kids, so life was very chaotic. However, what I remember is that every one of our homes smelled the same. My mother brought that consistency to our lives with her bread. It brought us all to the table. At the end of a crazy day, we would smell bread and suddenly we were a unit who came together. It did so much more for us than I even realized at the time.
There's something to be said how audiences have such strong memories, where even a smell can bring back such a special place, person or point in time.
I think smell is very important. Wonderful scents that transport us on a deep level. I think everyone has some sort of olfactory memory that can be triggered. Coming around the table is what my family just lived for.
I've noticed over the last few years the rise (no pun intended!) of baking related entertainment - things like the musical WAITRESS and even the TV show THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW which are so popular. It's obviously entertaining, but there's something to be said about how baking is so appealing to almost everyone because we've experienced it at some point.
I know! And its so creative, because you're making something with your hands start to finish. And the choices that you make determine the outcome. So it's a little bit of a metaphor for life. 'How is this going to turn out?' And that's what I love about bread because it's so transformational. It's like a life cycle. I remember the very first time, I thought it was like cells dividing. It reminded me of those videos you see that show life occurring. And then it blooms and rises, which is like life! And then boom, you punch it down...and that's like life too, getting knocked back. And you must shape yourself after a setback. And then you bake. Each step is like a series of births and deaths. Its fascinating to me to learn so much about the process. And then at the end, who knows? It could be something that falls flat, but either way, you can share it.
I hope that audiences can find some resonance with this show, and the stories aren't just stories about me and my family, but maybe something that they can plug into as well.
KNEAD is written and performed by Mary Lynn Owen. Although a fixture in the Atlanta acting community, including recent roles in CROSSING DELANCEY at Alliance Theatre and WIT at Aurora Theatre, this is Owen's first turn as playwright. KNEAD is directed by David de Vries.
KNEAD is playing now at The Alliance Theatre. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., November 13 - December 9, 2018, on the Hertz Stage. For tickets and additional information, visit www.alliancetheatre.org/knead.