In January 2015, I was approached to write a short play for IMMPACT, a global research initiative based in Aberdeen which seeks to raise awareness of, and overcome, the various obstacles faced by pregnant women in low- and medium-income countries. The brief was pretty straightforward: a 20 minute production for the upcoming May Festival which would focus on the transport issues women in labour faced when trying to reach medical facilities.
Dr Julia Hussein, the Senior Director of IMMPACT, and Shelagh Barr, the group’s Business Development Manager, were very helpful in sending me resources for my research such as: articles IMMPACT had worked on detailing the reality of the situation; Touching Distance, a novel by Rebecca Abrams about Alec Gordon, a real-life Physician in 18th-century Aberdeen who had to face up to a deadly infection killing newly delivered mothers; and links to various campaigns partnered with or doing similar work to IMMPACT including Soapbox Collaborative and MamaYe!
While research for my PhD in Creative Writing would sometimes influence my creative work, this was the most closely linked project between academic research and the arts I’ve been involved with so far. Primarily from IMMPACT’s research, I planned out a narrative structure which progressively outlined the various obstacles many pregnant women in low- and medium-income countries are facing. I then had to decide between the following three options as the best way in which to convey this narrative:
set it in an Asian or Sub-Saharan African country where these issues are particularly prominent in rural areas, making for a true-to-life drama.
take inspiration from Rebecca Abrams’s novel and set it in 18th-century Aberdeenshire, conveying how these transport issues have long been overcome here, and ask why cannot this be the case the world over.
or, take a surreal slant and set the play in modern-day Aberdeenshire, provoking the audience to consider how they’d feel if these issues were taking place on their own doorstep today.
As a writer, the most appealing option initially was the third, as I am interested in surreal and absurd theatre, and often try make the familiar strange and the strange familiar when playwriting. I decided to work on a version of the script along these lines and completed a full draft relatively quickly, given that it wasn’t as constrained as the other options would given the factuality necessary. However, I decided to sit on it a week or so and see how I felt when I re-read it.
Going back to this version of the script, I realised just how tricky it was going to be ensure all of the audience were aware of what the intent of the piece would be; this was also complicated by the fact that problems with the NHS were in the media a lot at the time, and I began to realise that the play could be misinterpreted as a hyperbolic attack on our own health and transport services, rather than a true reflection of another country’s. Around this time, IMMPACT also put in a bid for Twin City funding to build a link with one of Aberdeen’s twin cities, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. As part of the bid, the play would be performed to medical workers from Bulawayo and, potentially, could be performed in the city itself as part of a longer project. This made me reconsider the setting of the play, and so I got to work rewriting the whole piece so that, while the narrative structure was the same, the setting would now be rural Zimbabwe.
The next few weeks I put my ‘researcher’ cap back on and got hunting in the library and online for various resources that confirmed the obstacles outlined in the play could happen in rural Zimbabwe, particularly things like the terrain and weather conditions. I also began re-adapting elements of the language such as the names of characters and using some Shona language like ‘Sabhuku’, the term for a village head. This part was tricky because, as I know from my own interest and research on using Scots in my prose, getting a balance between a use of the characters’ actual language for realism, and a use of standard language for audience accessibility and aesthetic reasons, is always a juggling act. All this effort was worth it, and in the end necessary, as IMMPACT were successful in their Twin City funding bid.
Once I got the play to a stage I felt comfortable showing to, and developing with, actors, I set out to cast 'A Mother's Journey', the title I'd agreed on with IMMPACT. The first actor I got on board was Vicky Parker, a medical student at the university of Aberdeen who’d appeared in various productions in the city including Hairspray, Sweet Charity and the 2015 Aberdeen Student Show, Tilly Elliot. I was particularly keen for Vicky to be part of the project as she helped found the charity Born Positive, which primarily supports children affected by HIV in Mozambique, and so had her own experiences with development in a low-income country. Vicky was up for the challenge of playing Evie and suggested I contact Tehillah Sihlabela to play her husband, Jo. I’d seen Tehillah perform brilliantly as Seaweed in Hairspray, and was pleased when he got back in touch to say he’d like to take part.
The rehearsal and development process then looked something a bit like this over the limited hours we could all meet due to work and study commitments:
We did an in-depth script read through which was great for helping me catch any uses of language that seemed unnatural or that were overt British or Scottish idioms that had snuck in from earlier drafts.
We spent the next couple of rehearsals blocking the play, which was also useful in terms of deciding the physical logistics of the venue we would be working in, and making my mind up over which props were really essential or would just get in the way of the flow of the piece.
Once Vicky and Tehillah had learned all their lines, one (long!) Sunday was spent running over the play again and again. I think this was crucial as it allowed them both to really consolidate what they were doing and saying in relation to the narrative structure of the play and their own character motivations at each point.
We then previewed the play to my friend Michelle Bruce, who has a lot of directing experience and who I'd recently taken part in Scrapyard with. We worked on the suggestions she gave us in time for another preview for the IMMPACT team at the Suttie Arts Space in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. This gave us the chance to iron out any final kinks in the flow of the play before the final performance. It was also when we got feedback from our two guests from Bulawayo, Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa and Mrs Sikhangezile Moyo. They were both very positive about the piece and said that they would be more sympathetic in future towards women who turn up so late on in their labour to the medical facilities they work in, given that it may be due to the numerous transport issues outlined in the play. Their comments alone gave us a much needed final confidence boost before the looming May Festival performance...
On the Friday evening of the festival, Vicky, Tehillah and I were all feeling pretty nervous as we arrived on Aberdeen University campus to prepare for the final, sold-out performance. Having worked as a Producer for the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, I’m aware of how tight time can be for tech rehearsals, so had tried to ensure everything was in order for the hour or so we had to run through the play in the Linklater Rooms, the first time we’d been able to practice in the space. Thankfully we managed to get through the whole piece and sort out all the technical issues that could have arisen during the performance: think feedback through the speakers and microphones jumping out of pockets onto hard wooden floors…
Before we knew it, the audience had filled the room and the Zulu lullaby ‘Thula Mtwana’ had begun playing through the speakers. A few years back, I would have been shaking with nerves, but the more work I have staged, the less my heart races before a performance. I was also quietly confident things would go well knowing how much work Vicky and Tehillah had put into learning their lines, but was hopeful that they would go all out for this final performance. That they certainly did, leaving me a bit choked up with pride as the audience applauded them both during their bows.
The performance was followed by a Q&A session; now there really were nerves! Thankfully, one of our guests from Bulawayo, Dr Makosa, joined in on the discussion. She was particularly emotional as she explained how the play wasn’t fiction, but something which occurred every day in Zimbabwe. One audience member questioned what real impact a staged drama could have on the situation, but many other audience members said that the play was a powerful and more human way of getting across IMMPACT’s important research. For myself and IMMPACT, this performance was a way of trialling this method of engaging a wider audience with these issues, and with the great responses from the May Festival audience, we now have the impetus to take this work further and do something on a bigger scale to really raise awareness and make a difference.