In the eighteen-somethings, an operating theatre was where a surgeon literally performed. The audience, jostling for a better view despite the tiered seating, were there to be entertained as much as to learn. While the modern stage is a somewhat more sanitised affair, theatre remains a brave and bloody place for laying out and suturing bleeding hearts.
My play, Losing Faith, which performed over six sell-out shows at Edgewater Resort in Wanaka, New Zealand, in September 2016, is my story but not my story and not necessarily the story of any of the estimated 13% of young mums and 10% of new dads who suffer post natal depression either. It’s a story of missed moments, of Coffee Group, of parenthood, under a somewhat surgical series of lenses.
We marketed the play as a ‘dark comedy’, and the lens of laughter definitely had a place to play. The contrast between the amusements of bumbling through everyday early parenting and new mother Faith’s increasing withdrawal had to be shown, not told. And besides, when you laugh, you open yourself up, you’re more pliable for emotional operations. Theatre is a vital way to engage with stories as a modern audience; you can’t close the covers, switch it off, change the channel or turn the page, and the only anaesthetics you’re going to get are of the pre-show/interval alcoholic variety. The stories are plural—they have to be, by the very nature of their collaboration.
Losing Faith had a long gestation, and very nearly never saw the stage. The first drafts and workshops date from 2009. I was told it was a nice little woman’s story and I believed that right up until I described the play to director Fiona Armstrong. Two weeks later I had a ‘script ready’ Facebook message with a smiley emoji thing. And on she charged. Fiona’s lens brought some heartbreakingly beautiful physical moments to Faith’s story. The opening sequence that, in closing, is broken, plays again and again behind my eyes. She has rendered my words 3D in a way I could never begin to do. The Theatreview reviewer called it “the lovely dance which bookends the play”. I see it as my whole heart left raw, a truth beyond text.
The actors brought their kaleidoscope lenses to the production. During an early rehearsal, I stumbled in on a game of ‘Actor’s Truth’ where they shared their own experiences in each others’ words. They boldly went deep and emotional, and their trust stoked the story. Becky Plunkett and Bene Schwarz played Faith and her husband John in fine and precarious balance. Neither had been on the stage for five years. I’m so flipping proud and happy that this project enticed them in. I saw Becky take herself places I’ve been and it’s weird to be grateful for that. Gillian Pugh and her sensible shoes made a stalwart Lead Maternity Carer. (LMC. It’s a TLA. That’s a thing.) Samantha Stout entertained as Naomi, who sells sex toys and keeps secrets. Lisa Moore played Jen, too privileged to push or stir her gluten-free muffins. Alice Crowther and Will Cole were Carly and Pete, househusband and vet-in-training. “It’s a brave new century after all.” Fiona laid my dreams and fears at their feet and they more than took up the thread.
The lens of professionals was a super-important consideration and got us into some interesting conversations. Trigger warnings for theatre? Content advisory? And how, specifically, would you language that? And why? Maria Frewen of the Queenstown Lakes Family Centre gave me good and grounding advice. The Mental Health Foundation sent leaflets for us to have on hand and in the toilets. We also asked the local Royal NZ Plunket Society (an organisation which provides child health services) for a bit of realia which resulted in a surreal phone call from their regional office pointing out that “you can’t just say anything you want to about about Plunket or make her look like Nurse Ratchett” because “we have our values, you know”. Of course.
The litmus test: the lens of the audience, who laughed, cried, and brought their own experience to bear. Many conversations started afterwards, like: “I enjoyed it, no, I didn’t enjoy it, but … it was important/sad/moving/amazing.” We were told it was great “for regional theatre”—which is a rant for another day. Audience members got angry at the missed moments, got frustrated, empathetic, wanted to bust down the fourth wall.
This comment came in by email: “It was so hard to watch. But I realised there are people I know just like that and I just watch them too. I don’t know what else to do.”
Liz Breslin: Liz Breslin doesn’t know the difference between rhyme and reason but she can write her way out of a paper bag. Her writing is diverse—poems, plays, short stories and a regular column for the Otago Daily Times. Losing Faith is her third full-length play, and there are pipeline plans for a tour.
Liz is comfy on the page and the stage and was second runner up in the 2014 New Zealand Poetry Slam in Wellington. She’s delighted to have a poetry collection coming out with Otago University Press in 2017. Her website is www.lizbreslin.com