Friday, May 8, 2009

Nanny Business

Actress Lisa Ramirez

Exit Cuckoo

Written and performed by Lisa Ramirez
Directed by Colman Domingo

Performances April 17-May 17, 2009
Clurman Theater
310 West 42nd Street

Ramirez in Exit Cuckoo
Is Lisa Ramirez an actress who is also a nanny, or a nanny who is also an actress? The answer is obviously both, as her one-woman show, Exit Cuckoo, shows. Ramirez not only recounts her experiences taking care of the children of affluent Manhattan parents, but also gives others their own voices, from the mothers conflicted by their social status and lack of parental skills to those women (many from other countries) who give their love and much of their time to others’ kids, even though the bonds that are forged are often broken abruptly when they or the families they work for move on.

Ramirez—a San Francisco native who now lives in Brooklyn—spoke about the creation of Exit Cuckoo (whose title refers to the bird that leaves its eggs in other nests so its offspring will be raised by new mothers), her life as an actress and a domestic worker.

Kevin Filipski: How long have you juggled working as a nanny and being an actress?
Lisa Ramirez: In San Francisco, I did some theater work but I also taught in pre-school. About 10 years ago, after moving here, I started nannying, which is more lucrative than teaching, obviously. I would have loved to have been a waitress but I was lousy at it. I can deal with 20 two-year-olds in a room, but not with hungry adults. Actually, I’m still nannying now, but not while I’m doing Exit Cuckoo, because there aren’t enough hours available.

KF: How did Exit Cuckoo take shape?
LR: I had met this woman from Trinidad who was fired for her lack of “stimulating” the children she took care of. I told Eve Ensler, a mentor of mine, her story and said I would rather be a bartender or waitress because being a nanny was way too draining. And she said no, I have to write this down—I have to keep doing this and start taking notes. So I did—I wasn’t interviewing people the way Anna Deavere Smith does for her shows: these characters are just my impressions. For example, Esther in the play began with this woman who walked up to me in a store and said, “Your daughter’s beautiful.” I said that she wasn’t my daughter, I’m her nanny. “What is it with this nanny business?” she yelled and stormed out of the store, which was the beginning of the character Esther.

KF: Was it always intended as a one-woman show?
LR: I originally wrote it for four women, and we did a reading at the Cornelia Street CafĂ©, and those who watched it agreed that it should be a solo show. I was never one of those actors who wanted to do solo play. The other women’s stories were the most interesting—and the logic was, since I saw them and heard them, I should play them. It just really evolved. My first experience as a nanny was that this is a really messed up system which I’m going to expose, but the longer I was in people’s homes the more complicated it became. There was little connection between women in the same houses. I workshopped it by bringing characters in and developing it further. It’s always been changing. I was told that I couldn’t write about mothers and nannies without dealing with my own relationship with my mom, and I of course said that that was ridiculous! But now my mom is in there. It’s just been a series of adding and taking away—my mom took over for awhile and I had to peel our story back.

KF: What has been the reaction from other nannies and parents?
LR: There have been a lot of nannies who have come to see the show, because The Working Theater gives free tickets to domestic workers. A woman from the Republic of Georgia was a concert pianist in her country and came here to work as a nanny. Another woman from Trinidad came up to me and told me that she never saw herself onstage until the night she saw my play. A lot of moms also come and stay afterward to talk about it. I think this production is more like a mirror of both moms and nannies, and not just from the nanny’s point of view.

KF: How has your current director, Colman Domingo, helped shape the piece?
LR: It’s become more complex, and I have to give credit to Colman, who’s a brilliant director. His mother was a domestic worker—which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with him. We’ve known each other for 15 years, and he brings a levity to the piece, since there’s a tendency to get a little macabre with this material. Colman really helped me bring it to life, and to find the humor in these outrageous but real characters and situations.

KF: You seem to have found a balance between nannying, acting and writing.
LR: I have a really great situation now—I work 20 hours a week with a full-time mom. I always told everyone that I was writing a play about this subject, and there was always a laughing response along the lines of “Are you writing about us?” I thought that would be invasive to write about my current family. One of the moms I used to work for called me to ask if she should come to see the play, and I sent her a copy of the script, because there’s no secrecy about it. Being a nanny has opened my eyes to a world which I would have never have seen otherwise, and the great thing about Exit Cuckoo is that it has provided discussion. There was a grandmother who was telling everyone that Esther was based on her—which she wasn’t! I feel that this is quite unlike The Nanny Diaries, which was mean-spirited and sensationalized, like the National Enquirer. The real stories are the nannies, not the “Mrs. X”s. After that book came out, all of the nannies were talking about how their own stories would make great books!

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