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Tuesday, 11 April 2017

My part in Partus

I’m really pleased to be able to share another postcard from the Partus team - this time from actor/writer Laura Lindsay (the previous one from Stacey Sampson is here).

I asked Laura if she would like to write about her take on being part of the Partus project - big thanks to her for sending this over. Partus is on at Barnsley CIVIC this week (10.30am & 7.30pm on Thursday 13 March); you can find Laura on Twitter @mslauralindsay.

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Laura Lindsay in Partus; photo by Helena Fletcher

Hullo, I’m Laura. I’m an actor and theatre-maker and I am part of the cast and devising team behind Partus. Working on this show has been a hugely rewarding process for me and I thought it might be useful to share some of my discoveries. I have a fondness for subheadings, so here goes: 

1.     The Imposter

Partus, as many of you will know, is a show about birth. Now, I have not had the ‘pleasure’ of the experience, apart from being propelled into the world 30 some years ago. I also have not been part of a devising process, apart from at drama school nearly 10 years ago. So in many ways, I was a strange choice to join a team creating a devised piece of theatre about birth. Where are my credentials? This question is something I am often plagued with, as I think a lot of artists are. The imposter syndrome. However, working with Third Angel and the process of creating Partus together has enabled me to recognise and value my skillset and understand the importance of alternative perspectives in theatre-making.

Firstly, my lack of devising experience is only part of the picture. It is all too easy to focus on the things you can’t do or haven’t done. Being part of Partus has not only developed my knowledge and skills in devising, but it has highlighted and affirmed my aptitude in areas I think I took for granted. My writing experience was fully embraced by Rachael and Alex. I was encouraged in the suggestion of ideas, generating content and structuring the show. Gradually, I began to see my value in the process, because I was a different practitioner. They saw it before me, and for that I am very grateful.

So much of the structuring of theatre ecology is to separate it into different forms, and often as theatre-makers we can become a little blinkered and precious about our own specialism.  I think some of the most interesting theatre comes from blending these forms, from taking input from a variety of influences and knowledge bases to create something truly unique. Partus is a show I’m immensely proud of, but not one I could have ever envisaged making on my own. It blends verbatim accounts, songs, moments of absurd live art, scripted sections, audience interaction and balloon choreography. It’s bonkers. But then birth is pretty bonkers. So it feels apt.

My lack of being a mother – or being ‘child-free’, to put a more positive spin on it - was also an important part of creating this show, rather than a hindrance. I am the only one in the touring cast who hasn’t given birth.  For the first couple of weeks I battled with this, feeling a little bit like I wasn’t ‘in the club’. However, again gradually I began to see my value in this process. When dealing with a subject matter which is so emotive and personal, and is potentially a bit niche, it is really useful to have an outside perspective. My lack of personal experience meant I was able to contribute to objectivity about material, to ensure other voices are acknowledged and to help the process of broadening the appeal of the piece.

2.       The Audience

Integral to the devising process and to experimental live art is a recognition of the audience and the importance of clarifying their role within the piece of theatre. As an actor working on established scripts, which often deploy the ‘fourth wall’, it’s easy to almost forget about the audience, to focus on your own process, the journey of the character, your thoughts, your feelings, etc, etc. But ultimately, it is the audience who we create theatre for, it wouldn’t exist without them. We certainly wouldn’t get paid!  So it was really refreshing to put the existence of the audience at the centre of the conversation when creating the show. Who are they? Why are they listening? What is our relationship to them? What is their experience of the show? The process of devising live art highlights the role of the audience and focusses on the communication between them and the performer.

Touring the show to a variety of different venues has been a really valuable reminder of the potential power of theatre on an individual level. We received some of the most heart-filling, encouraging feedback from a man who was part of an intimate audience at Colchester Arts Centre. The piece had a profound effect on him on a personal level and he was kind enough to let us know. This feedback was a reminder to me of why I make theatre: to have an impact, to move, to stimulate, to ask questions and to start a conversation. And the impact can be more profound in an intimate setting.

As part of the tour we have provided ‘baby-friendly’ shows in the morning where mums and dads can come with their baby to watch the show in a relaxed atmosphere without having to worry about disturbing others. Performing to these audiences has been really special. It has brought the subject matter into sharp relief: the miracle of birth and what is at stake, the joy, the pain, the fear. Sharing these stories with a room full of women (and some men) and their recent family additions has been another reminder of how theatre can be a vital and profound expression of people’s experience. The Partus baby-friendly shows have got me thinking about the work I produce myself and how I can ensure greater accessibility to people who would otherwise struggle to attend the theatre. 

Photo: Joseph Priestley

3.   Generating Material

Being new to devising I had to make a bit of mental adjustment as to the purpose and focus of being in rehearsal. On scripted pieces, a lot is already decided before the cast enter the room – the script, the design, the format. Once in the rehearsal room, there are discoveries to be made, but they are limited within the context of these decisions. Within a devising process this can be blown wide open –  it might be that nothing much is decided before you enter the room – the content, the form, the design… only really the subject matter. This blank page approach can be a little daunting. But it is also exhilarating too – anything is possible, and I had an ownership of the piece I would not have had if I was not part of these decisions.

One of the main things I found interesting about devising is the exploration of ideas. A good general rule of thumb is that there’s no such thing as a bad idea. You simply don’t know which suggestions are going to work and fit into the picture of the whole show until you try them and start to build the wider context. In this way, devising is rather like a first draft of a script where you allow your imagination to wander and the words to flow uninhibited and uncensored. It is after you get everything down that you can start to shape it. There is something more exposing about this process of presenting unadorned, partially formed ideas to other people rather than simply sharing them with your laptop. But it is also brilliant, because so much of devising hinges on sparking something off, a shared discussion and the development of an idea beyond its inception with everyone in the room.

We joked a lot in the room about ‘fridge-dooring’ a lot of ideas. I initially interpreted this as the obligation to display the idea, despite its poor quality, in recognition of the effort it took to generate it – rather like a child’s indecipherable painting lovingly held to a fridge door by a magnet. But in fact, it is more a ‘parking’ of the idea to possibly revisit later, depending on what components are needed – it is an option, or can be a further stimulus for generating something else. This filing is fluid and things went up on and down off the proverbial fridge door a lot as the show developed.

The great thing about generating ideas as a group is there can be no preciousness about whose idea it is and everything should be proposed with generosity and positivity but without being too attached to it being realised. There are moments when you can feel like there’s no clarity and nothing seems to work, but this is part of the process and you have to push on through with the same energy and enthusiasm as when it goes smoothly.

Having a designer in the room as part of the idea generating process was a real eye-opener for me. It was fascinating to explore how design and space impacts not only on the audience’s experience of the show in performance, but the direction of the piece as a whole. The format and setting of the show can influence the content as much as the other way around. The two elements evolve together. In fact the design is an integral part of the content, not a dressing or an imposition on it.  It has made me very tempted to involve a designer at a much earlier stage in my drafting process when doing scripted work.

 

4.     To be continued…

One of the many things I admire about Rachael and Alex’s work is that it is constantly evolving. Nothing is ever finished. There is always room for tweaking and refining even once the show is out on tour. At every venue, for every show, elements of the piece can be adjusted. These may be small adjustments, but it ensures that there is always an active critical eye on the work and that the piece is responsive to an audience.  This gives the work a quality of ‘liveness’ it would not have if it was simply polished and replicated.

Something that has contributed to this process is that the dates of the tour have been quite spread out, in order to be touring-parent-friendly. This has also given the opportunity to have time for reflection and to revisit the performance afresh.

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I come out of my experience of making and touring work with Third Angel incredibly proud of the show we have made together, but also enriched by their process and excited to let it infuse my own practice of making work

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Birth Plans: Partus and me

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. 

Big thanks to Stacey for sending this over. You can find her on Twitter at @OurStace. Partus is on tour at the moment - dates are here.

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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.

PARTUS rehearsal photos Helena Fletcher 

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. 


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