Playwright daughter debuts one-woman show about her mother
Before her mother died, Vivien Straus – a Petaluma actor and playwright best-known for her solo show “E-I-E-I-OY: In Bed With the Farmer’s Daughter” – promised her Mom Ellen that her next show would be about her. 20 years later, Ellen Straus’s story is finally ready to be told. The one-woman play, “After I’m Dead, You’ll Have To Feed Everyone,” is a touching and hilarious tribute to Ellen, a major agricultural legend in Marin and Sonoma County.
The play also serves as a representation of the special relationship that Vivien and Ellen shared.
“I don’t know if everyone’s as lucky as I was to have such a great relationship with my mother, but I had a great one,” Straus said. “I really wanted to honor her and that relationship. So, it took me a long time but I did it. I finished something.”
"After I’m Dead“ tells the story of Ellen Straus’s life, expanding on and exploring her reputation as a local “Dairy Godmother” an avid environmentalist and a co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. In the show, Vivien plays 13 characters, including her mother, her father, her own younger self, her therapist, an oncologist and Tessie the cow.
Cows are kind of a thing in Viven Straus shows.
Appropriately enough, “After I’m Dead” will be performed in the perfect theatrical performance space for such a story – the barn at the Straus Home Ranch.
“So it’s not just the show, but they actually get to see and be at this place that I love so much, that my mother loved,” said Straus. Vivien grew up in Marshall along Tomales Bay where the Straus Family Creamery began and where the story took place. Attendees will experience Ellen’s life there, as Vivien has opened up their home, further bringing the story to life. She hopes to share her theatrical work, but also her family’s property, and invites the community to picnic on the farm.
Though the story is framed around Ellen’s death, Vivien has constructed it to highlight who she was as a mother and environmental activist. To protect the future of farming in Marin County, Ellen started the first U.S. agricultural land trust in 1980, an arrangement that benefited Sonoma County as well.
According to Vivien, when her mother was dying, goofy things happened, inspiring her to take notes and eventually formulate a story.
“It took me a long time to figure it out,” she said. “Because I didn’t want it just to be about her death. I wanted it to be something bigger than that. It’s kind of a conglomeration of a lot of things— a lot of cow facts and farming stories. It’s comic, it’s sad, it’s a lot of thing. It’s kind of like a mish-mosh, but it’s a story of my mother and me, mostly my mother.”
To direct the play, Vivien recruited Elly Lichtenstein, an acclaimed Petalum actor and director who for many years served asthe artistic director at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.
“We met, and it was an instant thing,” recalled Lichenstein. “There’s a certain background that we share, and we just had an instant liking for each other.”
The director was also drawn to the script and Vivien’s openness to ideas.
“I read it and I chuckled with delight and cried with sadness,” Lichtenstein said. “The other thing that really attracted me to her was she said, ‘I’m really great with criticism, you can tell me anything you want. I listen and I take things to heart.’”
This pleased Lichtenstein, as those writing their own material are often attached to their work.
“She’s not. She told me the truth,” the director said. “The first script had so much joy, delight, love and good writing that I just knew this would be a great thing to work with her on.”
Lichtenstein now wants to continue work with Vivien and hopes the two can share a stage in the future.
“I’m pretty sure this is a life-long friendship. For two 60+ women, that’s pretty cool,” she said. “I think she’s a wonderful comic actor, and she’s so smart. That woman is so smart. And so incisive and insightful. I hope to be her friend forever.”
It’s clear to Lichtenstein that Vivien and Ellen shared a special relationship, which is beautifully portrayed in the play.
“Its not a maudlin piece in anyway, shape or form,” Lichenstein said. “And it’s not just a pay-in to an incredible woman, which Ellen Straus was. But it’s just a loving tribute to a woman that she knew intimately and was proud to be her daughter. It’s like spending your time with two pretty amazing women, one in the story and one right in front of you.”
This is Lichtenstein’s first time directing a one-person show.
“It’s such an intimate way of working on a such a public forum,” she said. “Getting to know the person, the artist and the work all at once.”
Emma Molloy is an intern for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.