The rebirth of activist theater

Now in its third year, Puget Sound's BOLD theater group presents another round of consciousness-raising theater shows coupled with "Red Tent" events focused on the birthing experience.
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From <a href='; target='_blank'>BOLD in Seattle</a>.

Now in its third year, Puget Sound's BOLD theater group presents another round of consciousness-raising theater shows coupled with "Red Tent" events focused on the birthing experience.

Journalist Karen Brody became so interested in women's birthing stories that she interviewed dozens of women and collected their stories into a book. The book then became a play based on eight of the women's stories, and the play took on a life of its own. Birth became a tool to educate women about "mother-friendly maternity care," empowering women to take control of their birthing choices.

Communities around the country, and even internationally, can apply for rights to put on the Birth play for free, opting to also include a "BOLD Red Tent" event, which gives women the opportunity to share their birthing experiences with each other, or to do only a "Red Tent" and not perform the play. "Red Tent" is the designation of a sacred place for women to give birth or to live while they are menstruating, borrowed from Anita Diamant's novel The Red Tent.

Lynn Hughes, a midwife and the organizer of Seattle's BOLD Red Tent event, never wanted to produce theater. She was midwifery program director of Seattle Midwifery School for five years and now owns her own Web design, graphic design, video editing, and marketing consultancy. Once she heard about Birth, however, she felt that she had to produce the play, no matter what. Her goal was to dramatize how important it is for women to have more personal control and information about childbirth alternatives. According to her observations, the medical community often treats childbirth as an illness, and medical providers sometimes cause childbirth to become a medical emergency.

BOLD has often been scheduled for Labor Day weekend, so the acronym comes from "Birth on Labor Day," although future performances may not center on that date. In 2006, the first year Birth was available, Hughes found a last-minute venue, put a listing on Craigslist and TPS (an actors' Web site) and found a woman ready to direct. They had one month to put it together.

The actors watched films of actual births for realistic portrayals to model their on-stage performances after. What does birth sound like? Look like? How does a woman move when she gives birth? How does her face look when she is pushing?

Hughes produced one performance in Seattle in 2006, which sold out. Her second year, 2007, along with performances at the Bathhouse, Edmonds, Everett, West Seattle, Columbia City, Tacoma Theater on the Square, and Vashon Island, she took the play to the Women's Prison in Gig Harbor. She presented the play and also had a "Red Tent" event there. One hundred inmates participated.

Bold Action, playwright Karen Brody's organizational offshoot, works to change birthing practices, both nationally and internationally. Bold Action offers the play to community activists to raise awareness inside and outside the birthing community about how mothers can be encouraged to take control of their own birthing situation, especially when they are not being properly educated by their care providers.

Bold Action works to improve access and referral to natural childbirth experts such as midwives; promote the freedom to move around during labor; educate women regarding episiotomies, which, they argue, do little to improve the birth and cause pain and difficulties in healing; and endorse techniques such as massage, hypnotherapy, and hydrotherapy, which can increase effective pain management and decrease drug interventions. Bold Action staff also point out that inducing labor is a practice that has skyrocketed in recent years, and, they argue, this one intervention immediately increases risk and the possibility of more medically necessary interventions after that.

Brody's idea for the play came from attending a "blessingway," which is an alternative-birth community's baby shower. In place of playing silly games at a baby shower, it's ritual-based. Women might bring beads to place on a cord and give to the mother to wear, with blessings and good wishes for a good birth experience.

It's common for women to share their birth stories during a blessingway. Brody attended a blessingway in which the mother of the pregnant woman was present and was asked to tell her birth story. The woman gratefully said, "No one ever asked me to tell my story." That was when Brody decided to write Birth.

Brody admits she herself was naïve about the availability of birthing alternatives when she had her first child in 1999. "I had my son at home, had a powerful home birth. I had three midwives and husband attending. I was sure at least half of America was having this experience, maybe not at home but still able to access great childbirth choices. If they wanted a natural birth, they could walk into a hospital and 75 percent could get it (a natural birth). As I talked to women, I found the opposite to be true."

Brody was startled to learn that Caesarian sections are performed in 30 percent of pregnancies in the United States, and that the medical community sometimes turns low-risk pregnancies into high risk ones through drug intervention. A mother might be given several drugs during labor, and suddenly, her heart rate or the heart rate of the baby drops. This plunges a formerly low-risk birth into an immediate emergency C-section.

Brody says, "I was really shocked by what I heard. I wanted to take these casual conversations with mothers in a playground to a more formal conversation. I thought I was writing a book about the maternity care crisis in America. I thought 'there isn't a book out there to support what the data is saying: the C-section rate in the U.S. is astronomical for an industrialized country.'"

However, as Brody interviewed more than 100 women about their birth experiences, her approach changed. "I would be driving in the car and would start hearing voices. Maybe one person's story started to stick out. Like it was bigger than a book. I woke up (one morning) and said, 'I want to write a play. It's not a book, it's a play.'"

Initially, Brody was told that Birth would be a money-losing proposition. "I was told childbirth doesn't sell. The play has told everyone that from the artistic, and especially the commercial, aspect of the play, that's not true. Producers in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2006 thought they'd lose money, and they made $18,000."

When each play is produced, the organizers agree to do specific activities. Every production has to donate some money to an organization that does something to improve women's choices and maternity care, locally, nationally, or internationally. They must also videotape one performance and send a copy with a letter to three individuals in the community who have some power, to reach them and tell them why this is an important issue, to influence legislators and others.

Brody lauds these community volunteers. "The play has now become this movement to bring maternity care to a place where we're inspiring communities to make childbirth choices that work for women. What I found astounding is that the play has been embraced by people who feel passionate about the subject. People say 'I've never produced a show before, but I want to produce this show.' I lit the fire, but these women are taking off and going to the moon."


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