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Ann Imig's theater concept Listen To Your Mother lets moms tell their stories

Motherhood in the spotlight

Ann Imig had only been blogging for six months when she attended BlogHer, the national conference for women who write online, in the summer of 2009. While there, the self-proclaimed "Stay at Home Humorist" and mother of two young sons sat in on the keynote address, where invited writers read aloud from their own posts.

"I was moved and excited by the live readings on so many different levels," remembers Imig. She immediately noticed the "reverence in the room. Everyone cared so deeply about writing." Trained as a social worker, she also found herself "geeking out at the opportunity to bear witness to the powerful stories these women were sharing."

And it was there that Imig, who began her career as an actress, first realized she was "completely dying for the chance to read my writing on stage. Blogging was reconnecting me to an audience I didn't know I missed." She left the Chicago conference knowing she wanted to create something similar in Madison.

On the second Sunday in May 2010, after just eight weeks of planning, a dozen local female writers took the stage at the Barrymore Theatre for the first Listen to Your Mother show - now a national series of live readings performed in celebration of Mother's Day. During the show, which Imig affectionately refers to as her "third child," performers shared their musings on what the LTYM website describes as "the beauty, the beast, and the barely rested that is motherhood."

Imig hoped that by giving women in Madison a chance to share their stories in front of a live audience in a well-produced event, "a new way to celebrate Mother's Day - as a community" might emerge. "Motherhood," she feels, "needs recognition and celebration beyond the individual."

"The whole idea came together synergistically," says Imig. She had initially considered an open-mike format for the inaugural show. But she soon abandoned that, realizing, "I wanted something polished. I needed the audience to leave feeling energized and celebrated."

The feedback from the crowd of nearly 300 that Sunday was extremely positive. But the impact the experience had on the 12 women in the initial cast was extraordinary. Becky Sewell, one of the final readers that day, shared an essay detailing her first month as a single mom with a newborn. "Being a part of the show was so much more than I expected," she remembers. "Having the chance to tell my story in public, raw emotional material and all, was cathartic. It was the chance of a lifetime to have both my feelings and writing validated."

There was little question in Imig's mind that Listen to Your Mother should become an annual Madison Mother's Day tradition. What she wasn't expecting, though, was the response she received from other bloggers all over the country, fueled by her posting the 2010 production in its entirety online.

They all wanted to know how they could bring the "page to stage" concept to their communities the following year.

"If I'd have picked the city where we went next, it might have been Chicago or Milwaukee," says Imig. "I'm pragmatic." But in May of 2011, after a careful selection process, the LTYM show was produced in four new cities, including Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles. And this year, the stable of locally produced shows for which Imig serves as national director has grown even larger, with 10 productions planned across the country in cities as large as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York.

The day I met with Imig she had just finished casting for the Madison production. "I feel honored to get to listen to all the auditions," she says. "I see them as just as much a part of the LTYM experience as the actual show."

She stresses that she wasn't just looking for the "best stories" but for a "playlist of readings that will resonate with the audience."

As producer, Imig has a loose formula for shows that work and aims for a production where half the pieces "validate the common experience and the other half expand perspectives." This year's 13-reader event will take place at the Barrymore at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 13, and feature a performance by Madison-based country singer Whitney Mann. And as is true of Listen to Your Mother events nationally, 10% of proceeds will benefit a local nonprofit that serves families in need. This year's show will benefit the Urban League of Madison's Healthcare Administrative Training Program.

Twelve-year-old Hannah Nies has taken the concept of Listen to Your Mother quite literally. Last Mother's Day, the Waunakee seventh-grader sat in the front row of the Barrymore and watched her mom, Deb, overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking while cracking the audience up with a humorous essay on childrearing. The experience inspired Hannah to write a response, "kind of a roast," she says, that she will share next week on the LTYM stage.

"It will feel really good," says Hannah, who has experience in local youth theater, "to perform as myself, not a character."

And the senior Ms. Nies is thrilled her daughter will have the opportunity to experience the magic of the show. "Even more than getting to tell my story was the chance to share it with all the other cast members - amazing women I wouldn't otherwise know."

While this is the first time the show has featured a back-to-back mother/daughter duo, it doesn't really surprise Imig. "Mothers," she says, "affect us in very big ways we don't always realize."

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