Premiere Stages, the professional theatre in residence at Kean University in Union, NJ, has been producing new plays as a result of their annual Premiere Play Festival competition for the past 13 years. This year, however, the winner of the competition is a special one: the play, titled Foster Mom and written by playwright Chris Cragin-Day, is the story of a single woman who sets out to become a foster mother and runs into unexpected complications, including a skeptical mother and unexpected new romance. Foster Mom was an audience favorite at the theatre’s Spring Reading Series in March, and is returning to the stage in a full production that opens on September 7th and runs through September 24th.
Although any writer could guess that foster parenting might provide rich source material, Cragin-Day has firsthand experience in the world of foster care: she is a foster mother herself. Audiences interested in learning more about the challenges and rewards of fostering can attend select 3:00 p.m. matinees (September 9, 10, and 17) to take part in talkback sessions that explore the play’s topic in more detail with a variety of speakers, including the playwright. During the rehearsal period, Premiere Stages’ Literary Assistant, Nicholas Orvis, sat down with Cragin-Day to ask her about her process, her experiences as a foster parent, and the life changes that inspired the play.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Nicholas Orvis: Chris, to begin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Chris Cragin-Day: Sure! I grew up overseas. We’d lived in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and China; we lived in China right when mainland China first opened to Westerners, so we were kind of at the beginning of that influx. We came back to the United States when I was thirteen. My family roots are in Oklahoma, so we moved back there and I went to high school and college in Oklahoma, and then moved to the New York City area after graduate school.
NSO: What are some of the other plays that you’ve written?
CCD: Well, right now I have a play running in Summer Shorts at 59E59 [in New York City] which is called A Woman, and it’s about…a woman…[laughs] who is challenging her church’s policy against women elders. She’s trying to convince the new pastor of the church to try to get the policy changed. I have a couple musicals that I’ve written with a collaborator out of Nashville, his name is Don Chaffer, and we’re working on our third musical right now, which is called The Zombie Family Musical. We wrote a piece called The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, which was in the [NYC] Fringe in 2016, then got a production at River and Rail Theater in Knoxville after that and is slated to have another production by them this Christmas. And then I have a play called Martin Luther on Trial that’s about to start a national tour, and had a run off-Broadway last year. There are others, too, but it would take a long time! [laughs]
NSO: Fair enough! So, turning to this play, what were the personal experiences that led you to write Foster Mom?
CCD: So I am a foster mom, and I started my journey to become a foster mom with my husband…now it would be, I think, almost five years ago that we began the process. We do have a foster son right now that we expect to be able to adopt. I wrote the play after I had gotten my foster son, in the first year that we had him.
The play is actually not about him, in particular. It’s really about the journey, from a woman’s perspective, of deciding to choose this path of motherhood, which is a very unique one, and the journey of understanding what you’re taking on and all of the conflicted emotions that come along with that. So that’s a story that I was interested in telling: “What does it mean to make that kind of decision? What does that require of a person, and how does that change a person?”
NSO: And what made you, personally, decide to become a foster mom?
CCD: Well, my husband and I have a biological daughter, who’s nine years old right now. And we had kind of always talked about wanting to adopt, ever since we’ve been married, just for the sake of giving a home to a child who needed one. So we explored lots of different options, including international adoption, things like that. One of my dearest and oldest friends was a foster child for much of her childhood, so we looked into that option as well.
And when I first met with our resource worker…I think that we both were just really compelled by the resource workers. We had two of them that we worked with, and both their passion for helping the children in their system and also their frankness about the challenges of parenting in this way…I think they just earned our respect, so we chose that path.
NSO: You mentioned that foster parenting comes with a lot of challenges. What have some of those challenges been, and what are some of the rewards that come with being a foster parent?
CCD: Well on the surface of it, the most obvious challenges are all of the unknowns. You don’t know what the child has been through when you get the child. I mean, what you know is the most immediate crisis, which was the impetus for the child being removed from their home. But you don’t know all the stuff that came before that, usually. Because usually the social services don’t even know that, right? They’re not even alerted until things get to a certain point. So there’s a lot of mystery. Another one of the challenges, one of the unknowns, is that you don’t know how long a child will be with you…So you’re walking into a situation where you have to commit to loving a child as though you were going to have them and care for them the rest of your life, knowing that may not happen. And it’s also hard for the child, I think, because if they’re old enough, they realize that those unknowns exist as well. That said, one of the things I often tell my friends who are birth parents and are asking me about foster parenting is, the truth is that even for biological parents there are a lot of unknowns. We just don’t acknowledge them. We operate our lives as though we know exactly how things are going to unfold with our children when we have biological children. But usually—I would say almost 100% of the time—things do not unfold the way that we think they will, and we’re surprised by that. So I think parenting in general requires a lot of faith, and a lot of willingness to venture into the unknown. But with foster parenting, you’re much more conscious of that.
NSO: Turning more to the writing side of things, what’s the development process for Foster Mom been like?
CCD: Well, it’s a naturalistic play, and it’s a small cast, and the first draft actually came out pretty quickly. Within a matter of a few weeks, really. Then the Sheen Center in New York City offered me the opportunity to do a table reading. So we gathered together some actors there, and I’m an alumna of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public [Theater], and I keep in very close contact with not just the other writers but the literary office there. So Jack Moore, who’s on the literary team there, had read the first draft and really loved it, and both he and Jesse [Alick, also in the literary department at the Public] had met with me about the play and given me some feedback. So Jack came to the table reading and gave me more feedback and asked me questions about…[laughs]…about how I felt about some of the issues that were already there but really needed to be mined a little bit more. Then, as you know, I submitted it to Premiere Stages and it was selected, so it was really exciting to have it come to fruition so quickly. But I think that because it was about a personal experience that was taking up so much of my emotional space at the time that I was writing it, the emotional journey of the main character was very clear to me, and so it was able to come together very quickly.
NSO: About how long ago did you start writing the play?
CCD: I don’t know. If I were going to guess, maybe two years ago now? Or maybe less? I’m actually not sure. [laughs] My life goes by very quickly! It was pretty short.
NSO: Has there been anything different about writing a play that is so—
CCD: —Personal? Well, yeah. Actually, I think one of the reasons that I wrote this play was that I had just come off of working on Martin Luther on Trial, which is this huge, epic, historical…beast of a play. And I use the word “beast” in a good way, I love it and I love what it’s become over the years. But it required so much research and so much reading and so much of me trying to be true to other people.
And I actually started writing Foster Mom in the middle of all those rehearsals, because I just wanted to write something where I could be true to me. And that felt really necessary to me, in terms of a writing process. I needed to kind of get out of my analytical writer’s mind—which is what Martin Luther required of me—and get more into my impulsive writer’s mind. So Foster Mom was really therapeutic for me in that way, not just because of my own experience as a foster mom, but as a writer. I needed something where I could write in that way.
NSO: Were there any unique challenges to writing Foster Mom?
CCD: I think the biggest challenge was that it deals with some issues that are controversial. I mean, fostering in general is pretty controversial! It’s such a complicated social service, and the people that are working in that system are dealing with very imperfect situations that will probably never be perfect situations. They’re just trying to protect children the best way that they can. But what that means is that…you’re really living in the gray. So I think for me, there was fear of saying something that wasn’t true, or you know, judgment. [laughs]
NSO: Judgment of the play, or judgment working its way into the play?
CCD: Of what the play’s saying. And of me, to be completely frank. One of the contributions that I feel Jack Moore made is that he really encouraged me not to pull any punches. He said to me once, “I feel like there’s stuff that you’re not saying because you’re trying to be too nice, and I think you should just say it.” I still think the play’s pretty nice, but… [laughs] You know, I’m not out there to intentionally offend anyone with the play, and I think it’s somewhat even-handed in terms of presenting different perspectives on the different issues. But at the same time, it was like permission to share your experience, and not feel like you have to capture the entirety of what the fostering system may be to some people. I think that was the challenge: giving myself permission to be honest, regardless of how people may be offended or hurt, even.
NSO: I know I certainly wasn’t aware of this until we started working on this play—can you expand a little bit on what some of those controversies around fostering are?
CCD: Right. Well, whenever you take a child out of a home, that’s a very traumatic thing. Even if they’re in a dangerous home, it’s still traumatic for the child because they’re getting pulled out of something they know and put into something completely unknown to them. So the foster care system is always weighing two evils: either the evil of not intervening and something terrible happening to the child, possibly even death—and then they knew about it, and they didn’t intervene, and they are complicit in that; or causing huge trauma, emotional trauma, to a child by being separated from their birth parents. Like I said, even if that’s a dangerous situation, it’s very rare that a child wants to leave. So it’s a very fine moral line that determines the right thing to do in all of these situations.
There are certainly situations that seem like a child should not have been removed, or that the court process hasn’t been fair to a birth mother (usually it is the birth mother who’s going through the journey). But now I know a lot of other foster parents, and I actually know a mom who had her child removed as well—I knew her before that happened. And on the other side, there’s foster parents who really believe that returning a child to their birth home is dangerous to the child, and will cause them more trauma than that child has already experienced, but the judge rules to return the child to that home. And sometimes that does lead to bad things, and the child ends up back in the system.
So now they’ve experienced more trauma than they would have if they had stayed with the foster parents. It’s just like what I was saying about the unknowns: life is so unpredictable, and we all want to believe—I, personally, do believe—in the possibility of redemption. I do believe that it’s possible for someone who’s made a lot of mistakes with their kids to change and become a great mom. I do believe that. But sometimes, whether it’s addiction or mental health issues, that doesn’t happen. So here are these people in the system who have to make these calls, and they bring in psychologists, they bring in as many experts as they can to try to predict the best outcome.
But really they don’t know. And justice is such a murky thing. So from both sides, there are a lot of angry people who feel that justice has not been done for a child.
NSO: I want to wrap up before you head into rehearsal, but what do you hope for audiences to take away from Foster Mom?
CCD: I think that foster parenting is a beautiful thing, regardless of the extent to which justice is accomplished, because as a foster parent you are actually not influencing the judge’s ruling. You can’t even show up in court. They intentionally keep the foster parents out of that process. [And that] allows me to say, “I’m willing to help a child, and I’m not going to be the one that decides whether the child goes back to his or her birth parents or stays with me. I’m just going to commit to love this child no matter what.” I think that that aspect of it can stay pure even when it’s very hard for everything else around it to stay pure.
I guess what I’m saying is that I would encourage people who feel called to do this to venture into those murky waters, knowing that even with all of the questions of injustice, that if they just commit and focus on doing what’s best for the child that you can kind of get through…somewhat unscathed. [laughs] And that it is a beautiful thing to experience, regardless of all of the ugliness that you voluntarily become a witness to. It’s still a beautiful thing.
“Foster Mom” by Chris Cragin-Day runs from September 7-24 at Premiere Stages at Kean University, located at 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.premierestagesatkean.com, or call the box office at 908-737-7469.