That question keeps getting trickier. Adoption, surrogacy and medical advances have created unexpected options for hundreds of thousands of women and men who might otherwise have little chance of starting a family.
"As reproductive technologies keep changing, the ability to choose when to have kids, to not be locked into a certain age range, gets down to what choice really means," says Michael John Garcés, artistic director of the Cornerstone Theater Company. At the same time, he notes, desire can be trumped by financial demands and personal and ethical pressures.
Garcés' downtown ensemble is a champion of socially active -- and interactive -- theater, which is why it commissioned a play about the complexities of what he calls "reproductive choice." Julie Marie Myatt's "Someday," which opens June 6, weaves together nearly a dozen tales of aspiring parenthood, most notably a couple's attempts to conceive through in vitro fertilization and egg donation, and a disabled woman's battle to adopt a newborn she discovered in an alley. The piece is the second of five plays in the Justice Cycle, a multiyear exploration of ways in which laws influence Angelenos.
Many of the show's themes and characters grew out of an outreach program Cornerstone developed to provide material for projects like its earlier Faith-Based Cycle, which examined spirituality and religion in L.A.
People from different communities join "story circles," sharing experiences that an author crafts into a script. Garcés wrote the Justice Cycle's opener, the 2007 "Los Illegals" that was inspired by conversations with day laborers, domestic workers and immigration activists, among others. Myatt was enlisted for "Someday" because, says Garcés, "Julie has the ability to capture the scope and story of the big picture and still hone in the details. That's important because the drama is inherently in those life stories and the decisions people have to make."
Myatt, who lives in Los Feliz, has been on a hot streak. Last year, her works premiered at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She is no stranger to weighty subjects or extensive reportage, having written about homelessness, Iraqi war vets and the Cambodian sex trade -- the last in an ambitious venture that took four years to complete. Even so, she has never done anything like this.
"I just had to let go and embrace that this is a different way to approach a play," she says. "I liked the assignment part of it -- 'This is what you have to work with.' I realized that my role was to facilitate an interesting play."
Early on, Myatt decided not to focus on abortion -- a significant, but polarizing subject. "Instead, it had to be about celebrating reproductive rights in L.A.," she says. "If someone wants to have a child, there are a lot of ways to pursue that in this city." She does punctuate the onstage action with readings of thank-you letters received by a locally based agency that helps women pay for abortions they can't afford. "People may fault me for not concentrating on the abortion side," Myatt says, "but the letters speak for themselves. People shouldn't have to feel shame about making a choice. It's very personal."
"Someday's" story circles included disabled women, college students, nontraditional families and infertile couples. "We would bring up topics like kids, abortion, sperm donors and egg donors," Myatt says, "and try to make it an open environment for people to talk."
A variety of viewpoints
THE accounts were poignant, frustrating and funny. "A few people talked about terminating pregnancies," says Garcés, who is directing. "But by and large the stories were of yearning, of wanting to have kids, or of having kids, and the choices they were forced to make or were not allowed to make" -- in many cases because of money. "A lot was dictated by economics," he says.
One circle participant who intrigued Myatt was Diana Elizabeth Jordan, an actor who has cerebral palsy. "After I met her I knew that I wanted her to be a main character," Myatt says. "She talked about dating and getting older and wanting to have kids and I just responded to her honesty and earnestness. Also, I knew that the idea of disability and motherhood is so rarely dealt with."
Jordan will play Ruth, the woman intent on taking home a baby she found. "I am single and I don't have kids and I always thought that by the time I hit my 30s I would be a mom," says Jordan, who is 44. "It's not my personal story. But it's still very personal because I had the same feelings.
"What's wonderful," she adds, "is that Ruth speaks universally to a lot of people. As a woman with a disability it's a real honor to tell a story that has nothing to do with disability. I'm also glad Ruth's story is being told because people don't think that issues that affect the universal community affect the disabled community. But they do. The desire to marry, to have children are just as strong. One day, I still hope to be a mom."
Besides listening to story circles, Myatt drew on conversations with friends and family. "Because I am 40, I know so many people who are in this place in their life of figuring out if they are going to have kids or not," she says, "and, if so, how are they going to do it?" The playwright, who is single, had always assumed that she would adopt one day. "Whether I could carry a child or not, carrying a child was never high on my list. Working on this play has left me feeling a bit of mourning. I began to wonder about never even trying to have a child."
For Myatt, the hardest part of the creation process was "trying to honor all of these stories -- more great ones than I could fit in." Another challenge was to avoid sounding strident or ponderous. "Luckily," she says, "from my previous plays I had learned how to make something dramatic, something an audience wants to see that is not an issue play. . . . I am not going to change hearts and minds about reproductive rights. People come in with their own feelings. I have to tell an interesting story that asks questions."
Indeed, "Someday" leaves both main plot lines unresolved. "I think it is important, as the writer, not to sum things up, particularly on this subject, with what would be considered a happy ending," Myatt says. "I feel that what I have presented is the ending that so many women and men and couples often find themselves in, and there will be many in the audience who will see themselves in these characters. There's so much mixed emotion. Even when you decide to have a kid it's not like everything is perfect. I just want to live in that gray area in the play a little more."