Thursday 7 January 2016

The V Word

We’re back into the rehearsal room for Partus, and we're having a lot of fun. We have a lot of potential material, which is separating out into three distinct strands: a group meeting, verbatim interviews and, well, a birth cabaret. (We run at the Crucible Studio 15 - 20 Jan, info here). 

Some notes from this week...

A key question early on in making this piece was, 'How Verbatim Theatre is the show?'. Describing it to other people I’ve said it’s “the most verbatim thing we’ve done,” but also “it’s not Verbatim Theatre as such.” As the show has been coming into focus this week, there is a clear strand of verbatim text in there: extracts from the amazing stories we’ve been told, in the words that the people we spoke to used to tell them. If you wanted to trace the lineage of this show though our earlier work (and I accept that I might be the only person who does), there is a connection to the other ‘story collection’ shows What I Heard About The World, The Lad Lit Project and even Class of ’76. (And as those were made in 2000, 2005 and 2010 respectively, we’re due another one). In common with those shows, some of the stories are ours, some are from other people. This allows the show to have multiple authors, agendas and opinions. Because it is a big and complicated subject. As ever, we feel a big responsibility to those contributors and the stories they have given us. We can’t include all of them – that would take 20 hours or more (and of course we have talked about a durational version that includes all of the stories…).

I am reminded again that what the show is, is a big part of what it is saying. What we have come to understand as a priority for this project is to create a show in which we make space for a conversation about people’s experience of birth, and we contribute to that conversation. A space that is welcoming and enjoyable to be in. 

Consequently, just before the Christmas break, the show evolved rapidly from quite an abstract environment – that included a giant marble run that acted as a metaphor for midwives’ caseloads – to a more realistic ‘meeting space’ where mums, dads, midwives and obstetricians might meet to talk about their experiences, about what has happened to them, about how they feel about it now. What we’ve been working out this week is who we/they are in the show at different times: are they midwives, are they mums? Are they (a version of) themselves?

Things move fast at this stage of making a show. I started this blogpost 36 hours ago, and already things are clearer – notably in answer to that last question.

As is often the way for us, the process of making the show and the final form are very much intertwined. I’m in the room as a dramaturg and assistant director; in the team but also observing it. The core of the team are performer-devisers Rachael Walton, Stacey Sampson, Selina Thompson, Denise Pitter and Laura Lindsay, with sound designer / composer Heather Fenoughty and stage designer Bethany Wells. Watching them discuss the themes of the show, explain the issues that arise to each other, re-telling the stories that we’ve been given, finding ways to respond to them, finding forms that articulate something about how we feel, about how people have told us that they feel… I am struck by the care they take of the stories we have been given, how varied the view points in the material and in the room.

We have said all along that the show is not about pregnancy, it’s not about parenting, it’s about birth. So the immediate question that we asked ourselves then was when birth starts and ends? When people told us their birth stories, some of those stories finished the hour the baby appeared, and some birth stories went months into their baby’s lives… for me it seems the show has evolved to become about how people deal with birth, and how they talk about it, how they tell their story.

Another early question we asked ourselves was, 'What can this show do that (for example) One Born Every Minute can’t?' One of the clear answers is that it can articulate these feelings after the event, and the ongoing effects of the birth – it can allow us to hear that reflection.

But there is also a strand in which the performers, not all of whom are mums, get to talk about these stories and the issues they raise, and another more theatrical strand that attempts to articulate something else about the (sometimes extreme) feelings and emotions that birth produces.

This week’s work has been to tie these together. We’ve talked about the ‘balloon moment’ Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar. In one episode there one of the big fantasy lip-sync numbers takes place in Ewan McGregor’s character’s office. I remember dancers, streamers, and definitely balloons. After the song is finished all of that disappears. But as the McGregor’s boss crosses the office, a single red balloon bounces forlornly across the carpet. The boss boots it out of the way as he talks. I think Rachael and I have always liked the playfulness of that.

But what really strikes me this week is how much fun we’re having. In all the interviews we did, however traumatic or affirming or exhausting the experience, there was humour and joy and strength. And it’s important that the show reflects that. Cue the song and dance numbers…

Photos by Chris Saunders

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