By France-Luce Benson
No trick or treating this year? The Fountain’s got you covered. Please be sure to bring your kids and grandkids to this week’s show, where our guest – Lynne Streeter Childress – will perform work from her show for young people.
I met Lynne Streeter Childress many moons ago in Miami, FL when I booked my first professional acting gig. We were part of a company that toured plays for young audiences about issues like domestic violence and homelessness. While the subjects are grim, the plays were full of hope and the creative process was full of light. The latter, largely due to Lynne’s exuberance and delightful sense of humor. Decades later, Lynne has her own company, producing plays for young audiences that address issues like tolerance and empathy. I spoke to Lynne about the origins of her company (Building Better People Productions), and what it’s like to balance her creative life with motherhood in the time of Covid.
What was the genesis of Building Better People Productions?
I had always wanted to do my own stuff, and I knew that it would be for young audiences, and I knew that it was going to be something about building people up. Over the years I would start, and then put things on a shelf because I was working for other people, which actually was great, because I was gaining not only a paycheck, but support, and the chance to grow. In 2015, lots of things started to come together, good and bad, that kinda pushed me forward. I lost my brother in law, which was the 4th in a series of family losses. I had also started writing a piece about empathy that I planned to produce on my own somehow, and when the opportunity to perform part of it for a festival didn’t work out, that seemed like an open door to just do the thing for real. I was in the place to just move forward.
How will future productions address the moment we are in as a Nation? How do you tackle such complicated conversations?
It’s made me want to continue to not run away from addressing hurt. Most of the shows that we have done have hard moments, where people are bullied, and lose family members, and have anxiety, and are treated bad because of differences. There is always a moment in rehearsal where I think “Is this too much?” And no, it’s not. Kids are smart. And I think that we insult them when we DON’T tackle things they are going through or that are going on around them. There has to be something between hitting them over the head and completely ignoring where we are with the isolation of COVID, and the sadness of where we are racially. I owe it to my kid, and all kids, to figure out how to do that respectfully. One more thing: we have always had a pretty diverse group of people that we work with, but I am committed to truly seeking out more people. I also want to do a show that is about a little black girl loving life. I needed to see more of that when I was a little kid, and now I want to do that. For little black girls and for everyone, to normalize that little black girls can just have joy.
You say that the adaptation of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” you performed in is your most favorite show you’ve ever done. Why? What made it so special?
It was my first Equity show (although I am not a part of the union now currently), and I participated in a development reading of it, I was part of the original cast of the show, and in the first tour. I am on the cover of the script as a koala! It is the show that made me feel like I was really doing this, and I got to be at the Kennedy Center every day, which is the most beautiful space. I got to see something come off of the page, see it worked in the room with the playwright and composer in rehearsals. And it took me around the country, getting paid to perform and travel. It helped make me. Also, I think that I may have named my son after that show. It was years later, and the name Alexander came to me as a front runner, and I didn’t know why. It just felt right. When my son was a baby I was at a party for a friend, who had directed that first production of “Alexander”, and Judith Viorst,the writer of the show, was there, and I had not seen her in a while. She asked what my son’s name was; when I said “Alexander”, everyone started laughing. And I said, “WAIT! Did I name him for the show?” And maybe I did. It was in there somewhere.
You have a twin sister who also writes? Did you grow up writing together? Will you or have you ever collaborated?
My sister is amazing. AMAZING. She has been a journalist for 27 years, and has won awards, and wrote a memoir that came out earlier this year called “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title”, about losing her husband. We used to make up stories as little kids, and actually blogged together about our experiences in our 40s for a while. I produced and perform in a holiday play that she wrote, The Gift of the Mad Guy, about generosity, that Building Better People has performed yearly since 2016. I love saying her words, and I love sending her royalty checks.
Did becoming a Mom change you as an artist? If so, how?
Yep. It’s made me want to make a world that he sees as lovely and that sees him as lovely. The third part of “We Got It” was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and I was pregnant when Trayvon was murdered, and I felt the weight of how some people did not value the lives of young black men, and did not see their deaths as tragedies. That wrecked me for their parents, and I was about to BE a parent of a young black man, and me yelling on Facebook, while cathartic, wasn’t going to be enough. What I knew how to do was create. So, I wrote. My son has also inspired shows that I have written or that we have performed, that are things I want him to hear, like about keeping his imagination, and knowing his worth.
How will you make Halloween special for an 8-year-old in the middle of a Pandemic?
Our plan is to have my sister and nephew and mom over (they are in our Covid circle), and we will wear costumes and eat candy. That’s a good plan. Family and sugar.
What’s been keeping you sane?
God, and the idea that if we are in this place, then there has to be a way to work in it. If we are still here, when other people aren’t, there is something to do in it, even if that’s just to be grateful for being here. I have also learned a lot of grace for others because we are all struggling.
What gives you hope?
That people are still creating and finding ways to be light for themselves, and then for other people. Seeing creative output gives me LIFE.