By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of profiles about the people who bring Washington's weekends to life.
Karen Zacarías, mother of three children younger than 8 years old, begins her day by serving breakfast. Then it's a book read, shoes on, car seats buckled, a song sung, kids dropped at appropriate locations, a kiss goodbye.
Once that routine is complete, she will shower -- finally -- and become her other self: the 39-year-old woman who has emerged as one of Washington's most successful and prolific playwrights.
The one who completed five full-length plays the year her youngest was born.
Who had four new plays staged within eight months last year.
Whose works have been seen at some of the nation's most renowned theaters, including the Kennedy Center and Chicago's famed Goodman Theatre.
Whom Variety called "a writer of comedic skill."
The one who'll watch anxiously tonight as the curtain at Arena Stage rises on the world premiere of what she believes to be her finest play yet, "Legacy of Light."
The one who knows what you're wondering: How does she do it?
"I haven't slept in a really long time," she jokes on a recent morning, having rushed into a cafe across from Arena's rehearsal space 10 minutes late and frazzled. Her voice is hoarse, as always, but her smile is unflagging.
The truth is, she didn't think she could do it.
Then she considered the alternative: "It was the difference between losing my creativity," she explains, "or kind of losing my mind."
Before we provoke the wrath of what she calls "the Mommy Mafia," let's make one thing clear: Zacarías (pronounced Zak-a-REE-as) completely adores her children, Nicolai, 7, Kati, 4, and Maia, 3.
But there was a moment not long ago when she became sure that her blossoming playwriting career would be lost among sippy cups, baby dolls and field trip forms.
Maia, you see, was "a little bit of a surprise."
"I felt that when this third baby would come, my creative life would be done," she recalls, speaking with such characteristic speed that her ideas often interrupt one another. "There's no way you can write and have three kids, ya know?"
So for the nine months of her pregnancy, Zacarías, who has been writing plays on and off since college, buckled down with her laptop, trying to pound out what she thought would be her last work for a long while, "The Book Club Play."
That script completed, she began to make peace with the notion that her "career is waning and I'm going to be home with the kids, which is okay."
Then something strange happened: Three weeks before she was to give birth, the folks from Arena Stage called and commissioned her to write a new play.
"And that became like my anchor to the other side," she says. "I knew that I would still be a playwright after the baby came."
Zacarías, who presents an air of dishevelment but is rarely without a striking necklace or a funky belt, describes herself as a "good Girl Scout": Given an assignment, she always completes it. The question, this time, was how.
The impending baby and the opportunity with Arena prompted a series of soul-searching conversations with her "very supportive husband," Rett Snotherly, a lawyer with the International Trade Commission.
"We sat down and reevaluated what we needed in our life and what we didn't. And we didn't let the tail wag the dog," she recalls from a couch at Tryst coffeehouse, near their "crazy, messy" Adams Morgan home, having rushed in late this time after Maia "had an accident" at preschool and needed a change of clothes. "We restructured our whole life, and we let go of certain things."
She dropped any lingering desire to be a community activist, a classroom helper, a flawlessly coifed person in an impeccably kept home. And she gave up day-to-day involvement with the Young Playwrights' Theater (YPT), an organization she started in 1995 to help local youth write plays.
That one was the hardest. At 23, the Mexican-born daughter of a nurse and doctor and granddaughter of film director Miguel Zacarías, was accepted into a playwriting graduate program at Boston University but couldn't afford to go.
A woman in her playwriting group got wind of the quandary, spoke to her husband and made Zacarías an offer: They would pay for the program if, upon graduation, Zacarías would return and do something for the community.
"She was immensely talented, otherwise I never would've taken this step," recalls Zacarías's benefactor, Patricia Smith Melton, wife of William Melton, a Washington technology executive. "For me it was a no-brainer."
So YPT was born. It has grown from a one-woman show to a half-million-dollar organization that teaches 800 local students a year the art of playwriting. In the end, Zacarías says, it was the students who inspired her to hand the reins to a new executive director. "Meeting these kids and seeing how hard they work, I'm always like, 'I have to make sure I don't stop being an artist as well.' "
So Zacarías and her husband came to the conclusion that she need be only two things: a playwright and a mother. She would take herself seriously in those roles and leave everything else by the wayside. If they needed to go into a little bit of debt, so be it, but they would hire a babysitter three times a week so she could sit amid the calming chatter at Tryst and write without interruption.
The wager paid off. "I used to fight the chaos a little bit more, but what happened to me was finally with the third child, it was a great release. I just gave in to it," she says. "And when I gave in to it, five plays came out. It was very interesting."
Zacarías has been at this for almost 20 years now, and, as Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith says, "she does the work."
When the Arena commission came in, Zacarías was fascinated with an 18th-century woman named Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a mathematician and scientist, and lover of the great philosopher Voltaire. She became unexpectedly pregnant at age 42 and, sure of her impending death from childbirth, completed her greatest work, a translation into French of Newton's "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" during her final nine months.
In other words: Zacarías chose to write a story she knows well.
"Why did that story resonate with me 260 years later?" Zacarías remembers wondering. "All my friends are in some state of struggling to become mothers or whether they want to become mothers. . . . I was trying to figure out this idea of trying to have it all, which I think is impossible."
Zacarías spent six months finishing a rough version of "Legacy of Light," weaving Du Châtelet's story with that of a modern couple trying desperately to conceive a child. And she has since plowed through "15 or 16 serious drafts," ripping the play apart and reassembling it each time. In the same spate of time -- while Maia was still nursing and in diapers -- she also completed an adaptation of the Julia Alvarez novel "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" and the children's plays "Looking for Roberto Clemente" and "Chasing George Washington," which will go on tour later this year and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award this year.
But she has been on both sides of the critics' sword. In 2000 she won a Helen Hayes award for "The Sins of Sor Juana." During its premier at Round House Theatre, however, "The Book Club Play" received decidedly tepid reviews.
Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks says Zacarías "is one of the most prominent Washington writers writing for Washington theater. And she's one of a very small group getting produced with any regularity."
"I do care about critics, unfortunately," she admits. To mitigate the potential psychic wounds, she no longer reads reviews; her husband summarizes what was written. "I don't want that person's judgment," she says. "I can know what they thought, but I don't need to know the wording."
Reviews aside, as her work has flourished, so has her satisfaction with her family and home life. "I think I'm a better mom being fulfilled with my creativity. I really enjoy being with the kids when I'm with them," she explains. Which is not to say it's never a struggle or that guilt has been banished.
"I've had my son proudly introduce me as a playwright to all of his friends," she says.
Zacarías, who occasionally has to travel to advise productions of her plays, has also had her son "call me . . . and say, 'Please don't ever write a play again, because you have to go away with that.' And they're both real."
Of her recent plays, "Legacy" has been the cherished and most intimate project. Like most of her works, it oscillates between comedy and drama and zeros in on this tricky business of being human.
The characters differ in time, attitude and circumstance but are all, she says, "trying to do the best they can."
"And I find that to be true in the world I live in. No one's given up. Everyone's trying," she continues. "We feel bad and guilty about not doing everything . . . but I really don't know very many people who aren't trying hard."
On a recent spring evening Zacarías rushed breathless into rehearsal. She is late, again, and dressed in a silky coral top belted chicly over jeans. It's vintage from her mom's closet, she explains in response to a colleague's compliment, pulled out for the occasion "since I didn't do laundry."
Inside the rehearsal room actors are already at work, running scenes over and over again. They parse through their characters' motives and movements, wondering out loud about the feelings their faces are meant to portray.
Through it all, Zacarías smiles a lot and says very little.
Playwriting is a precarious, public endeavor. Stories birthed from a writer's imagination fall imprecisely to the page only to be passed on to the hands of a director and troupe actors before it's stood up for judgment by critics and audiences.
"Legacy of Light" isn't Karen Zacarías's play anymore; it belongs to all of them.
At this moment she's acutely aware that the response to "Legacy of Light," the play she has worked harder on than any, could be unfavorable. "It's ambitious," she says. "It might get slapped down. But I do feel exhausted in the best sense of the word. I've given it everything I've got."
Smith, who's directing "Legacy of Light" at Arena, is less equivocal. "This is a play that has a strong emotional journey. It's contemporary and universal," she says. "And it's her time. This is Karen's moment."
In her moment she is full of nerves, anticipation and not an ounce of regret.
"At least," she remarks of the play, "it says what I wanted it to say -- and now it's up to other people to decide."