Playwright Kate Moira Ryan ’87
Writing and Juggling
by Aimee Dolaway Olivo ’99
On a chilly winter evening, Trinity women filled two rows in an intimate theatre in downtown Washington, DC. Certainly this in itself is not unusual. After all, generations of Trinity women have taken advantage of the access to the arts and other cultural opportunities afforded by living in our nation’s capitol.
This night, however, was different.
Trinity alumnae ranging from the Class of 1967 to the Class of 2000 – and Sr. Margaret Claydon ’45 – were at the Jewish Community Center’s Theatre J to see 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, co-written by Trinity’s own Kate Moira Ryan ’87.
Ryan came to Trinity in 1983 from Yonkers, New York, after attending Catholic schools most of her life. For college, her mother was pushing Marymount Tarrytown; her father, Fordham.
But when Ryan came to visit Trinity, she sat in on a class taught by Sr. Margaret Claydon and knew this was the place for her. Her father told her he was only able to pay a portion of the tuition, so Ryan earned a Trinity writing scholarship for the rest. “I wanted a really good education,” she explains, “and I knew this was the best Catholic women’s college.”
Having already won the Young Playwrights Festival at age 16, Ryan continued to develop her writing at Trinity. She credits “the phenomenal Lori Shpunt” with teaching her the tight form and structure of poetry – something that has really helped her in the theatre. “Even though everything seems really fluid [in 25 Questions] there is a very clear and deliberate structure to the piece. It may look effortless, but it took 32 drafts to get it right!”
And, of course, anyone who has succeeded in one of Sr. Margaret’s classes knows what Ryan meant when she wrote about Sr. Margaret’s “sharp wit and searing grading” in a blog post after her 20th Trinity Reunion in 2007.
The night of the performance at Theatre J, Ryan was clearly beaming with pride that her former professor and mentor was in the audience. “To show your work to somebody who has had that kind of effect on your life was really fun. I was so proud. [While attending Trinity,] she really made me approach my work in a scholarly way and awakened my head…. If someone takes you seriously, you’ll take yourself seriously. Sr. Margaret took us [students] seriously and we appreciated that.”
During Ryan’s year at Oxford, she won the Young Playwrights Festival for a second time and was offered a scholarship to transfer to New York University. “My father said I wasn’t going, that I had to stay at Trinity and get a liberal arts education. I’m glad I stayed. My Trinity education has really made a huge difference in my life.”
After graduation, as she delved more deeply into the world of theatre, Ryan’s appreciation for her strong liberal arts education at Trinity continued to grow. “Many of the actors I work with went to strict conservatory; they can’t converse on the different levels that I can because of my education at Trinity. I was almost a double-major in history so I have such an extensive knowledge base upon which to draw.”
For 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, Ryan and co-writer Judy Gold interviewed more than 50 Jewish mothers across the country. Currently in its second year on a nationwide tour, the two women used the interviews to write a book with the same title. And, there’s even talk of a future documentary.
But Ryan, who is known as a quick writer as well as one who takes on interesting projects, hasn’t put down her pen to bask in that success.
An adaptation of lesbian novels from the 1950s, Beebo Brinker Chronicles, which Ryan co-wrote with Linda S. Chapman, opened to rave reviews in the fall, including a feature story on the front page of The New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section. Based on this initial success, producer Harriet Newman Leve decided to open it commercially at her theatre, 37 Arts, and Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner have also recently signed on as producers. “You really elevate the production when you get that kind of high-level support,” Ryan explains. The twelve-week run began in March.
While in Washington to see 25 Questions with Sr. Margaret and the other Trinity alumnae, Ryan was hard at work on research for yet another production – 5:20. Through Trinity alumnae connections, Ryan was able to interview officials in the State Department for this play about two young men from Yonkers who go to Iraq. About their lives and their experiences in Iraq, one of them returns missing a leg; the other is not so lucky.
She is juggling a lot. But that’s the way a writer, especially in theatre, has to work. “You need to have three to four projects simultaneously. Shows are slotted a few years in advance and you need to be proactive in the market.” And she enjoys it. “It’s a job at this point, like any other job,” Ryan explains. “But, I’m committed to it. I love collaborating and I love being around people. But in the other sense, I could spend days writing by myself, discovering new worlds.”
According to Ryan, only 18% of plays produced in America are by women. With encouragement from her friend, director Leigh Silverman, and because of her Trinity education, Ryan is mindful of using her success to give women more opportunities in the field. To that end, Ryan crated the 18% Club – a dinner party she hosts every few months. Ryan invites a mix of established women and young women from all aspects of theatre – lighting, design, etc., to socialize, network and get work done. These gatherings helped Ryan put together all-women teams “from soup to nuts” for both 25 Questions and Beebo Brinker. She notes, “Having an all-female team is kind of amazing.”