Learning to get under the skin: The power of performance
“Embodied” (view below) written and performed by Cristina Archetti; Art consultant: Camilla Eeg-Tverbakk is a performance lecture about involuntary childlessness. It deals with the questions: What does it mean not to have children in a society that is organized around families? How do we uncover the stories that are silenced? How to tell the stories that are written in our bodies? How to communicate what cannot be conveyed by words?
It ran as part of the Norwegian International Storytelling Festival that took place in Oslo (Norway) 12-15 April 2018 and was my very first experiment with theatre. Normally, though, I work in a university.
Why would an academic experiment with the arts? In presenting my research about involuntary childlessness to different audiences I realized that part of the difficulty of talking about this topic was related to the fact that, unless one has been through the experience of infertility, it is not really possible to understand what that actually means and feels like. To parents, people without children tend to look like individuals with lots of time in their hands and disposable income: their everyday is perceived to be “life-of-a-parent minus children.” Instead, I wanted to reveal the far-reaching repercussions of not having children: how childlessness is not “just” about “not having the baby,” but how it also has a truly existential dimension that affects all aspects of one’s life and every fibre of one’s being.
In my case, as I wanted to show in my performance, it involved (and still involves): an extended grief process comparable to bereavement for both the loss of the child I imagined I would have and my self-as-a-mother, neither of whom will materialize; social isolation; an identity crisis (if being a woman means being a mother, than what am I?); a disassociation from my own body; a sense of detachment from my own religion; even the development of an extremist-like view that endlessly divides the world into “us” and “them.” The list could go on.
To make my audience genuinely understand what it is really like to be childless I needed to create an emotional bridge with them that made them participate in the topic at a different level than just hearing facts or figures. I needed to get under the skin of my public.
Not having any background in performance, this was simultaneously a fascinating and terrifying experience—a jump into the unknown. I threw myself at the deep end to see what would happen and it was entirely worth it. I have had the opportunity to reflect on the role of the body in communication, which contributed to my academic research (I have now a new theory) and I have understood the healing power of being listened to.
The artistic consultant Camilla Eeg-Tverbakk, who is Professor of Dramaturgy and Performance at the Norwegian Theatre Academy and helped me develop the piece, also taught me the importance of treating stories with gentleness, letting them breathe. Leaving some silence, taking time, as she writes, ‘means to listen to what has not yet been formulated, […] what can only be perceived as a notion, a murmur, or as a light touch of air’ (Eeg-Tverbakk 2016, p. 24).
For an academic who thinks that every second of a presentation needs to be filled with content this was an eye-opening revelation. As she further phrased it during a rehearsal, ‘by leaving spaces you are not giving the audience one narrative. If there are ten people in the audience, at the end of the performance you will have ten different narratives.’
This also means that the story you will listen to in “Embodied” will inevitably be different from the one I told. Watching it on video is also a very different experience than witnessing it live. Depending on whether you are childless or not, on whether you are male, female or transgender, a teenager or a pensioner, you are or not in a good mood today, have just come from work, or are on a holiday break, the story you hear will ultimately be your version of my story. Handle it carefully and be gentle with it.
Reference Eeg-Tverbakk, Camilla (2016) Theatre-ting: Towards a materialist practice of staging documents, PhD thesis (Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance, University of Roehampton, UK).