I’m really pleased to be able to share this guest blogpost from Stacey Sampson, who we’ve had the pleasure of working with for a few years now, as deviser, performer, writer and facilitator. We talked a while ago about Stacey writing something about her role in making Partus, and the impact the project has had on her.
When Alex and I first discussed writing this blog we vaguely mentioned it might touch on what being part of this show has meant to me… Snap forward a few months as I actually come to put fingers to keys and that feels like a huge task. This show, sorry to pun so early, is truly Part Us – All those who’ve been involved in the making process have poured their heart into it, sharing the most personal of views and experiences as well as immersing themselves in the views and experiences of all the contributing interviewees and spending many hours trawling articles, research, statistics, reports, images… It was never going to be ‘just an acting job’ but I couldn’t have anticipated what a truly significant impact it would have.
In 2013 I had just had a baby – My first son Billy – Having put all my eggs in the positive birth, hypnotherapy, natural as a fox in a field basket, I was shocked to end up with an emergency caesarean and a lot of residual health problems after a painful and dramatic labour. Birth wasn’t how I’d imagined it at all. When Billy was a few weeks old a friend posted on Facebook that Derby University was commissioning a nationwide piece of research into traumatic birth. There were various aspects but as part of it they hoped to provide art therapy sessions for a small group of women to see if it might help them process their experiences. I applied and spent 12 weeks in brilliant company surrounded by every art material you could think of – We cut, stuck, sketched, painted and sculpted our way through various prompts and I started to unpick what had happened. During that time Rachael visited us to explain that as another strand of the programme Third Angel would be making a show in response to some of the collected research. We started talking… I’m an actor, based in Sheffield, my own traumatic birth experience and those of the women in my therapy group were fresh in my mind. It seemed like a good fit.
The first incarnation of the show, Labour Intensive, was shown at Derby Theatre in April 2015. By this point I was absolutely hooked on the material. Rachael had already conducted several interviews with mothers, fathers, midwives and consultants – I started to collect stories too. Some informally from friends, others from groups we had specifically targeted like families with multiples and those who’d experienced premature labour and mental health issues around birth. It became a collection of verbatim material interspersed with facts, told by four people of mixed ages. A young boy and girl, a man and a woman (me.) It was only on for one night and we all felt that hadn’t done the subject justice. We were fascinated by the stories and decided to collect more. It felt like there was another show waiting to be shaped from the old – One that viewed birth not just through the trauma lens, but tried to capture the whole crazy miraculous diversity of it.
We went back to the rehearsal room in December 2015 and whilst making this second version of the show I got pregnant again. Birth had been bloody scary the first time around so I felt a real mixed bag of emotions knowing I’d need to go through it again but being in a room completely devoted to that very topic every day helped to balance that out somehow. As part of the extended research I started leading sessions with a group of mothers at the Young Women’s Housing Project - a local organisation which supports and provides accommodation for those at risk of, or with experience of, emotional and/or sexual abuse. The women were incredible and we were privileged to hear their birth stories, many of which they said had never been told. The workshops became the highlight of my week.
A fortnight into our making process, I miscarried. I spent Christmas eve in hospital having a procedure to remove the remains. We had a couple of weeks break over the festive period and came back to rehearsals in January and I felt weirdly serene about it. In opening the conversation about birth with such a variety of people we often heard about experiences of miscarriage too, it was part of the journey for many people. I talked about it openly with friends, and strangers actually. It felt right to do that and it felt okay that it had happened.
On 15th January 2016 we opened the new version of the show – Partus. This time there were songs, balloons, dancing, party poppers and cups of tea punctuating the verbatim stories. It felt more representative of the varied landscape that is birth. It also had some political bite as we all got increasingly angry about the compromises being forced on our maternity services and the impact it’s having on both the staff and the three quarters of a million families relying on it every year. It was an emotional week of shows for us all. A highlight was being hugged into the bosom of my fellow performer Denise as she sang a gospel song, ‘He will take the pain away’ whilst me and Laura cried with a mix of exhaustion and elation. Birth was big and small, universal and personal, messy and tough. But oh so worthwhile.
And the story wasn’t over yet… Partus was set to tour in the spring. Knowing this I conveniently got pregnant with a due date just weeks before we planned to go on the road. This time the pregnancy went okay and, in a funny, lovely, circular twist of fate, my second little boy Sam was born on the 15th January 2017. A year to the day, in fact almost to the minute, after we’d opened Partus in 2016. The show evolved again. We had a new cast member, updated research and more brilliant music from our composer & sound designer Heather. I also had a new birth story to add into the mix. But it wasn’t just a case of my story influencing the show, the show had influenced my birth story. I went into labour with Sam ten days late. He was back to back so there was more pain, a failed induction and an emergency C-Section – Not dissimilar to last time. But after three years of soaking up the complexity and unpredictability of birth I had a completely different mindset. Last time I’d come out battered and bruised, physically and mentally. This time, I felt acceptance about how things played out. Last time I couldn’t even hold my baby because I was in too much distress. This time, they placed Sam on my chest the moment he was born. Last time, I was knocked for six by the vast gap between my expectations and reality. This time, I knew the only thing you can be sure of is that you can’t be sure of anything.
Partus has bookended my experience of childbirth and it has revolutionised my approach to and understanding of it. For that reason, I knew I had to be part of the tour, even though my baby arrived only three weeks before rehearsal started. So, here I am…on my way to our next show. Sam is with me. He came into rehearsals every day too. In fact, during our opening shows in Stockton, I actually breastfed him during the play. There’s a lot of debate around how to support women in the arts to create whilst raising a family – I’d say just ask Third Angel. The whole company have made it seem like a walk in the park for me to be here with a new born. I’m very grateful. Not only for that but for giving me one of the richest, most profound experiences of my life. In the past three years I’ve made three things I’m very proud of – Two little boys and this show.