Twelve women with experience of the Irish maternity services in the past five years and midwifery students in Trinity College Dublin.
This project sought to reconstruct the experience of hospital-based maternity in an explicitly theatrical context in a way that would engage both women and maternity healthcare professionals in a process of dialogue.
The re-contextualisation of the experience of maternity from the public setting of the hospital to the public space of live performance creates a space within which the conflicts that underlie relationships between women and maternity healthcare professionals are explored.
The key themes were the conflict between women’s embodied knowledge and empirical medical knowledge, social attitudes towards pregnant women, and the industrial nature of the maternity services.
The project aimed to create a performance that would represent the multifaceted experiences of women by working towards a theatrical language that embodied women’s relationship with social expectations of maternity in juxtaposition to women’s desire for agency and bodily autonomy.
Daughters of the Revolution was devised by 4elements, a theatre company committed to social inclusion through the arts.
In the development phase of the project, volunteers were invited to participate via AIMS Ireland, the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services – Ireland.
The performance material was developed over ten weekly theatre workshops which took place in a community centre in Dublin.
The workshops used theatre games and improvisation coupled with sound and movement exercises to introduce the group to the mechanics of theatre, and to find common themes within the shared experience of the group.
What emerged were sounds and images of healthcare professionals looking at charts and machines but not at women, hierarchies of medical staff with consultants at the top and women at the bottom, and being pushed through a system as quickly as possible.
With the artist, the participants developed a theatrical language that utilized the dramatic elements from the imagery, incorporating lack of eye contact and mechanised movements into scene work to highlight the internal alienation the women felt in the hospital setting.
The wider cultural perception of maternity in Ireland was explored through cultural artefacts around maternity such as nursery rhymes, children’s stories, and Ireland-specific media responses to maternity brought into the workshop by the participants. These found places in the script through the voice of the different characters discovered in the workshop process.
The process of creating performance material in the workshops was further developed through a review of academic work on women’s experiences of maternity in Ireland. A partnership with The School of Nursing and Midwifery in Trinity College Dublin allowed for the experiences of midwifery students to be incorporated into the development process.
Following the workshops, Kate Harris, director of 4elements theatre company, completed a full script of Daughters of the Revolution and invited feedback from the participants.
Fact-checking on the final play text was supported by a lecturer and a PhD candidate in The School of Nursing and Midwifery, TCD, a hospital-based midwife, and an independent midwife.
The final script was cast with professional actors. One actor played the role of the pregnant woman, Evelyn, who was created as an amalgamation of the participants’ experiences. The roles of Mother/Midwife, Friend/Junior Midwife, and Father/Consultant were doubled up to theatrically explore the relationships and positioning of each of the characters in relation to Evelyn. Music was used, in the style of Brecht, to create an intellectual distance which playfully and satirically allowed the characters to enter a meta-theatrical world and speak directly to the audience.
Daughters of the Revolution was produced as a professional theatre performance for three shows in the Harbour Playhouse in March 2016.
As part of the engagement, four artists were asked to contribute visual art for the foyer of the theatre on the theme of maternity. 4elements’ Artist in Residence Coral Mallow transformed the space into an interactive art installation which included contributions from artist Anne Marie Kilshaw, Paul Timon from the Dublin Camera Club, and a piece from Keeping Mum by Martina Hynan and Clare Birth Choice. Centered on issues of agency and body autonomy as experienced by women in the Irish maternity services, the exhibition investigated the social perceptions around maternity.
Following each of the three performances, a facilitated post-show discussion was held between the audience and a panel of maternity experts, representing a range of perspectives on maternity in Ireland, including obstetric consultants, midwives, doulas, academics and service users.
The artist maintained a reflective journal of the process.
Workshop participants contributed written and visual feedback on the workshop process and responses to the final performance text.
The evaluation also encompassed audio documentation from the post-show discussions and a written thematic summary of audience and panelist responses.
The audiences were made up of women and men with direct experience of the Irish maternity service, people with no direct experiences of the Irish maternity services, and people working in the maternity services and related support industries.
The main issues raised in the post-show discussions were listening to women, choice and continuity of care, staffing level and morale, and a greater role for midwives.
The post-show discussions were recorded each night and edited into podcasts which are available as a public resource, along with video footage, on: http://4elements.ie/post-show-discussion-podcasts/
Based on the performances of Daughters of the Revolution, Kate Harris has been invited to bring the production with the same model of post-show discussions to the Rita Kelly Theatre in the Coombe Women and Infants Hospital (CWIUH) on 14 and 15 September 2017.
The process of bringing the performance from a theatre into a healthcare setting has been challenging in terms of contextualizing the project’s artistic aims for a medical institution. However, negotiating the concerns, values, and procedures between the artist and the hospital administration has resulted in the project fully reflecting the aims and objectives of both partners and has strengthened the relationship between the artist and hospital.
The process of developing the Daughters of the Revolution project with the CWIUH has also led to support for a tour of the work to Waterford in September 2017, Galway in October 2017, Cork in January 2018, and Limerick in March 2018.
Feedback from the audience:
‘The end scene transported me back to that place’
‘I could identify with every one of those characters in the play’
‘I thought it was lovely how the men in the situation [the father] were brought in with their vulnerability and confusion…if women don’t get a say, men have even less’
‘The power the system has, and how vulnerable you are in that system, really resonated with me’
‘As a midwife, I learned an awful lot from this performance’
‘I thought this was a fantastic production, I think it was polemical, I think it was controversial. It was also entertaining…I didn’t want it to end.’ – Professor Chris Fitzpatrick, Consultant OB and former Master of the CWIUH
Documentation and Dissemination
The play was performed over three nights to a total audience of 120 people.
The post-show discussions were filmed and recorded and are available through videos on the 4elements website and podcasts on SoundCloud.
Videos from the performances can be found on the 4elements website: 4elements.ie/daughters-of-the-revolution-videos/
A chapter on the project – ‘Performing the revolution, creating a counter-narrative on birth in Ireland’ by Kate Harris – will be included in a forthcoming book on maternity, Untangling the Maternity Crisis, edited by Nadine Edwards, Rosemary Mander, and Jo Murphy-Lawless, and available from Routledge in Spring 2018.
An article based on an interview with the writer and director, Kate Harris, appeared in The Irish Times in March 2016: ‘Down the rabbit hole of maternity, who knows what can happen?’
School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin
Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital