Birth as Performance Art

I would be lying if I said I was able to think of much else at the moment other than my first two months of motherhood. I am constantly surprised at news that everybody knows unless they’re living under a rock – The Hobbit film is done? And out? Nelson Mandela is still alive? And I would be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking about writing this blog post while feeding my baby, and because there’s only so much writing I can do with one hand, that I decided to use it to do a quick Google search on “Birth as Performance Art.”

The first dozen or so links were for articles about the Brooklyn based artist Marni Kotak who gave birth to her son at a New York City art gallery. Mostly they focused on how radical her choice of location and context was. Apparently she is now turning the raising of her son into a work of art.

Whatever. I’d be interested to hear more about the actual experience. As far as I’m concerned, the interesting thing about giving birth is that it sure as hell feels like performance art, whether intended or not, and it sure as hell doesn’t require an audience to feel so. It’s like cathartic theatre that serves the performer (or performers, there are some acrobatics, subtle interpretations of time, and stylistic quips required of the baby for sure).

I was determined to do very little visualization of what I expected giving birth to be like. This was my way of being open to whatever might happen. For someone who is a bit of a control freak, pregnancy marked the zen-est experience of my life. I like to think that a long episode of uncontrollable vomiting in the first few months had something to do with putting me in my place. After that I just surrendered to whatever my body and the body growing in my body was up to.

When I started to feel my first contractions, I did exactly what my lazy pregnant self would do. Took the couch out onto the back deck and lounged in the sun, had a bath, tried to sleep sitting up, until at about 1am this seemed impossible so I got out of bed and said to myself with the hesitance of someone getting up early to get to work and who would really quite like to sleep in, “alright, let’s do dis.”

On went the short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back that was my grandfather’s. Out went the wake up call to various sleeping family members and friends throughout the house. And onwards went the experimenting with various positions and sounds while everyone else moved around at a steady and silent pace.

Once I made it out of the bedroom, our living room had been converted into nothing less than a faux Greco roman theatre set. White sheets covering all the furniture. Candles in lanterns. A fire. Oh and a blow up swimming pool and Dolly Parton soundtrack. The stage was set and I subconsciously felt a bit like some kind of combination of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and Grace Jones and Nina Simone. And also a gladiator. Fear-inducing and oozing with almighty power that is way beyond socially comfortable.

I thought that I might feel self-conscious about being butt naked and totally primal in front of a small and tending audience. But once the show started, I was just a heaving roaring woman with huge breasts and belly in a short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back and there was no two ways about it.

I embellished in making sound. High, low, loud, loud. I don’t think I made one single breath that wasn’t audible. My legs were exhausted so I tried various ways to support my body. The couch. The dresser. The door. My husband. The bed. I kept moving. Forwards and backwards, side to side, up and down. They don’t call it labour for nothing.

When things really reached the next level, I would start the sounds and then they would just take off on their own. This was the part where I’m pretty sure I blew the microphones on the home video camera. There was no screaming. There was no crying. No swearing. But there were demented gurgling roars.

It was slowly slowly fading from dark to light. I hadn’t made eye contact with another human being for a good 6 hours. I spent the last few with my eyes looking only in the direction of the sea out the window, where the sun was slowly rising and a ferry slowly crossing between the north and south islands. But I only actually SAW the view in my deep subconscious.

At some point I thought I heard my friend say “I’m going to read you a poem now.” She read aloud something about a bat. I was happy for the added touch of avant garde. I only found out later that she had actually drawn a card from a pack of Medicine Cards she had brought. The bat symbolised birth and rebirth. Bats hang upside down like babies getting ready to launch themselves out of the womb. It couldn’t have been better if it was planned.

With one of my final pushes I yelled out “come ooooon baby!” which brought some comic relief to the whole scene. And once she did come shooting on out and on to my chest, the audience that had gathered in a circle around the pool all burst into spontaneous tears of joy. I looked all around at them in a bewildered state that I could never ever pull off convincingly as an actor. Laughing, crying, in total shock as if I’d only just fully realised what I had actually been doing.

My midwife wrote in her records of the birth that immediately afterwards I announced “well, that was easier than I thought!” Clearly I was blathering and drunk on hormones.  I was just so relieved. I had improvised my way through birth, let my body lead the way and rode that magical uninterrupted wave of synchronicity right on through to the beginning of the rest of my life.



Presence: the fact or condition of being present

I’ve been thinking about presence quite a lot lately, for two purposes that are interconnected but from quite different perspectives; one psychological and philosophical and one in regards to performance. So I thought I would attempt to nut that out a little in words…

I have been seeing a psychologist about issues I have with anxiety, something that comes and goes in my life and which is occurring often at the moment. Anxiety is generally triggered for me by uncertainty, and much to my dismay I have learnt that I’m calmer when my life has a routine, so being a freelance puppeteer and sometimes not knowing where the money for my next rent payment is going to come from isn’t ideal… My psychologist has introduced me to the psychological theory of mindfulness, which uses techniques with roots in Buddhist meditation. There are many aspects to it, but a focus on ‘the present’ and ‘being present’ has piqued my interest in a way that connects elements of my art practice with my mental health.

A good definition I found is from Jon Kabat-Zinn who is an authority on how to use mindfulness techniques to address clinical psychological issues. He says that mindfulness is: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. For my own purposes mindfulness has been about trying to pay more attention and engage more fully with the present rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It is about observing what is going on in my mind and body, noting my thoughts and feelings as they happen but not trying to change them. I have been meditating as a one way to learn how to be mindful. At this stage I’m simply sitting for 10 minutes in the mornings and observing my breath going in and out, noting how it feels and what happens in my body as I breathe. Also noticing when my mind wanders and then bringing my focus back on to my breath. It is so simple, and sometimes so difficult! It is hard to be truly present because it is something we don’t do often in life. We spend so much time multi-tasking and letting our minds run away on us, it seems like the moments when we are fully aware of ourselves are few and far between.

And this is where the connection to presence in performance comes in. It is extraordinary how engaging it is to watch someone who is truly present on stage. A big part of being a performing artist training to achieve this state, and the history of this training is something that theatre theorist and director Eugenio Barba has spent much of his career researching. He wrote a book called the Paper Canoe, which talks a lot about the similarities in training between dance and theatre in many different cultures. He coined a term called the ‘pre-expressive state’, which I would call in more simple terms: stage presence. He observed that performers the world over train to be able to be present on stage, and this training always includes a focus on “certain physiological factors – weight, balance, the position of the spinal column, the direction of the eyes in space – produce physical, pre-expressive tensions. These new tensions generate a different quality of energy, they render the body theatrically “decided”, “alive”, “believable” and manifest the performer’s “presence”, or scenic bios, attracting the spectator’s attention “before” any form of message is transmitted. (Odin Teatret)

In his book he gave an example of Japanese Noh theatre performers who learn how to perform with their weight shifted unnaturally to the balls of their feet. The effect of this is that the body is always full of energy and ready to (re)act at any moment, and it makes a performer interesting to watch because as an audience we feel like something is about to happen. You don’t want to take your eyes away in case you miss something. You could say the same about the position a sprinter might take before the gun goes, or a fencer’s light-footed dance before they strike.

For me the close relationship between the training I do as a performer, all those strange and obscure exercises that sometimes seem a little-self indulgent, and the mindfulness techniques I have recently been introduced to has been a revelation. I have gained a stronger understanding of why performing and rehearsing make me feel so good and calm, performance training is often time spent being mindful, being aware of my body and focusing carefully on very specific actions. Just like I do when I’m meditating. Mindfulness and performance both demand that I am truly present, and one of the best things about that is that there isn’t much room for being anxious when I’m focusing on my experience of the present. And the more I think about it the more I see sport in the same light. The best sports players have learnt to put themselves into ‘the zone’, which, just like stage presence, allows them to perform at very high levels. I’m sure that anyone who has played a team sport has experienced those sweet plays where it seems like everyone shares one mind and you barely have to communicate to pass the ball and get it in the goal. I have a hunch now that the euphoria afterwards comes in part from the exercise and in part from spending that time being present and aware.

If you want to read more about mindfulness check out: and this video