By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“One of the things that made it so hard was that you feel completely isolated — because it’s not something anyone talks about. I had no reference points. I had nobody to talk to, nobody who’d been through an experience like that…. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”
— Emily Steel
In 2016, the Welsh-born Australian playwright Emily Steel made a thorny (and inevitably controversial) decision. She had a late termination after her baby was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Just a year later, she made another hard decision: to tell the story of that real-life experience to people, honestly, in a play.
19 Weeks, getting its Canadian premiere Friday in a Northern Light and Azimuth Theatre collaboration starring the latter’s co-artistic director Vanessa Sabourin, is that play.
It’s a fall Tuesday morning in Adelaide, where Steel and her partner moved, from London, in 2010. And the playwright, a warm, thoughtful, cheerfully direct voice on the phone, has dropped her little boy off at kindergarten (he’s just started his first-ever term at school) and walked the dog. And she’s back home drinking tea, considering the harrowing, traumatizing experience of 2016, recorded so unflinchingly in 19 Weeks.
“You just don’t know what the path might look like. You just don’t know,” says Steel. “Having no reference points and nobody to talk to about it just made the whole experience harder. Not only are you going through something difficult you feel completely alone….”
“It’s the point of writing the play,” she declares. “I feel like one of the things theatre can do is it can make people feel less alone, if they can relate to a story they hear told onstage, connect to it…. As a playwright I want to tell stories about women, stories that are complex and not necessarily the ones that are normally told. So when all of this happened, I had to look at myself and go ‘are you the writer that you think you are?’ Then this is the story you need to tell….”
And tell it she did. Which required more than a little bravery under the circumstances — the cautious gravitate to secrecy — though Steel wouldn’t put it that way. She does concede she anticipated disapproval, maybe even rejection. “When I made the decision to have the termination I thought ‘this might mean there are a lot of people in this town who won’t want to work with me any more’.”
“But I also thought I’m not going to be able to keep this a secret.. I think if something has happened to you, you carry the experience and if you can’t talk about it, that’s extra weight.… And I was also a bit angry about the carrying the weight of the secret. I thought ‘there is no way I’m also going to do that…”
“In all honesty, I thought ‘if I write this play I may never work again’. And I thought I’d just do it anyway.” Steel pauses, a smile in her voice: I was feeling a bit bloody-minded at the time.”
“It was a difficult thing to write down,” she says. “But in the long run it’s probably been quite helpful; it means that the story is filed in a different place in my head now,” she says, “the ‘work region’ rather than the ‘difficult life experience region’.… For a lot of people the choice to not talk is the right one. For me, talking about it was the best one.”
And Steel discovered, through her play, she wasn’t alone. “It’s been extraordinary,” she says. People would come up after the show to talk about their own experiences, she says. “People are very emotional, in tears…. Quite often I get hugs. It’s quite beautiful. Very moving, very humbling to be trusted with stories they’ve never told anyone, for fear of being judged.”
“The feedback here from the Down Syndrome community is they think women are pressured into having abortions after that diagnosis. My experience was the opposite. I felt like the social pressure, unspoken, was the other way … to continue with the pregnancy even though I didn’t want to.”
Steel had tapped her own life in plays before, but there were, needless to say, particular risks attached to writing about her own late-term abortion. “I’m attracted to characters who don’t necessarily behave in the prescribed manner, who say things you’re not meant to say, do things you’re not meant to do,” says Steel cheerfully. “The idea of transgression and what that means….”
“Society has huge expectations about women, and what it wants women to do,” as she puts it. “And if you choose a certain path, you’re a bad woman, or a bad mother, or you’re not fulfilling your role. That’s something we need to tackle, and will continue to need to tackle. Probably for a long time.
“You’re in a position where the choice you are making is completely legal. There are medical, ethical, and personal justifications for it. But it still feels like a transgression. What is it that makes you think and feel that? Is it from a lifetime of being told what it is to be a mother, what it is to love, what it is to be a good person?”
“Some of what 19 Weeks is about is admitting to feelings you’re not supposed to feel but that everybody does.” Steel looks for an example. “In grief you might feel enormous rage but what you’re supposed to feel is (just) sad. Sad is O.K. Anger is ‘what’s wrong with you?’”
19 Weeks, which has sold out in every incarnation, is the third play Steel wrote in Australia and took first to the giant Adelaide Fringe and then to Melbourne. “If you’re in a new country and you don’t know anyone, hey, you can put a play in the Fringe!” — an inspiration thought that should resonate with Edmonton artists and audiences.
It premiered in a pool (“my idea, but I wasn’t entirely serious!”) at the Adina Apartment complex: an audience of 30 took off their shoes and socks, sat around the edge, and dangled their feet in the water. The performer Tiffany Lyndal Knight, in a red bathing suit looking vulnerable and alone in the intimate setting, played Emily, conjuring all the characters, including Steel’s partner Chris and her then-two-year-old son Frank, in, on, and under the water. “It made initial rehearsal quite a challenge,” says Steel. “For the performer it was physically exhausting; there were days I was afraid she’d drown..”
In the end Steel says “it was a crazy idea that turned out to be a good idea…. People read the water as a metaphor; there’s a lot of emotion in water. And they see different things in it: tears, amniotic fluid….” And it gave the production, despite its heavy subject matter, “a certain lightness.”
The Edmonton production directed by Trevor Schmidt at the Studio Theatre in the Arts Barns is the first production of 19 Weeks on dry land. And Steel would love to see it, she says.
Does she still recognize herself in the play? Steel, who rejected from the start the idea of starring in 19 Weeks herself, thinks for a moment. “The actor took on the role so fully that everybody, I and the audience, felt like it was her story…. even if they knew us.”
“I wanted it to be a piece of theatre, not a confessional,” Steel says. “I wanted the audience to be able to react in whatever way they want — to the story not to the person.”
“It’s not a story about making a decision,” she says, remembering the resolve of her slightly younger self. “I think in some ways the play wouldn’t be as confronting if it had been more about the difficulty of making a decision…. But it’s a story about how you go through a decision.”
Theatre: Northern Light and Azimuth
Written by: Emily Steel
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Vanessa Sabourin
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through April 13
Tickets: 780-471-1586, northernlighttheatre.com, or at the door