The Pregnant Body on Stage

Rethinking Accessibility

three actresses in a staged reading
Staged reading of The Bumps, January 22nd at the Women's Center for Creative Work, Los Angeles, CA. Featuring Sarena Kennedy, Emily Alpren, Jennifer Neala Page. Photo by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.

The Bumps is a new play written by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, developed in collaboration with director Deena Selenow. Part movement, part narrative, part labor politics, the play is written specifically for a cast of visibly pregnant performers. Loosely following the story of three expectant mothers over two generations, the piece sheds a new light on the classic theatrical questions: How do we make meaning as we wait? And what do our desires say about who we are?

Informed by her work editing The Feminist Utopia Project, The Bumps was playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s challenge to write a play built around our actual lives and bodies.

As a playwright/director duo working in Los Angeles, surrounded by innovative film and TV, we're driven to explore what kinds of stories must be told live and how theatre can be a model for the society we deserve. Given the primal power of pregnancy, we are surprised at the degree to which the theatre overlooks pregnant performers. In our industry, it’s common knowledge that a pregnant performer can expect to be out of work for the year. But why, as long as they are physically able, should this be the case?

The theatre, as an inherently ephemeral medium, ought to be the ideal industry to explore new strategies to embrace the pregnant experience—and that through our explorations, may even offer models for the rest of the arts and labor force at large.

While we’re developing The Bumps as an explicit challenge to what kinds of bodies we expect to see on stage, many of the lessons we’ve learned from workshopping the piece with pregnant actors can be applied to any play about any subject so that it can be a more accessible production. Some of these measures will take large grants to institute, while others can be adopted immediately. Many of our discoveries are not news, but rather, the same battles that feminists and labor activists have championed for generations. Our hope here is not to reinvent the wheel but to gather thoughts about accessibility and pregnancy on HowlRound because we believe that the theatre, as an inherently ephemeral medium, ought to be the ideal industry to explore new strategies to embrace the pregnant experience—and that through our explorations, may even offer models for the rest of the arts and labor force at large.

Our rehearsals with performers Jennifer Neala Page, Emily Alpren, and Sarena Kennedy for our first presentation of The Bumps at the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles inadvertently turned into consciousness-raising sessions. We now must ask ourselves: How can we create a theatre that is truly inclusive to the pregnant experience?

Here are some preliminary ideas that came from our rehearsals-turned-think tanks.

three actresses in a staged reading
Rehearsal of The Bumps at Pieter, Los Angeles CA during our January workshop. Featuring Jennifer Neala Page, Emily Alpren, Sarena Kennedy. Photo by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.

Towards an Inclusive Theatre
Explicit Casting Calls: When the cast members of The Bumps first met one another, they commented on the actor with the smallest belly by remarking, “Oh yeah, she can still totally pass in an audition.” Another actor described experiences of running out of a callback to throw up in the bathroom in secret. It’s 2016, and yet we’re still hiding this essential human process that half of the population may go through in order to protect our livelihoods. More explicit roles for pregnant actors need to exist. But also, let’s look at the roles that already exist with pregnant bodies in mind. Could an existing character be pregnant and not defined by this physical experience? This is often the case with real-life pregnant people, why not our characters too? Most importantly, we must be explicit in our casting calls about encouraging pregnant actors to audition (and, as Deena has written previously for HowlRound, this also applies to expanding the theatre to include anyone who isn’t cis, white, nondisabled, and slim). Unless you say it, pregnant performers who don’t “pass,” will assume that they will be passed over.

When casting the first workshop in Los Angeles, we were able to find dozens of talented pregnant performers within an hour of sending an email to friends and posting a casting call on Facebook. As long as the performing arts continues to discriminate, it’s a guarantee that a bevy of top-notch performers will have clear calendars at any given moment. If you think about it this way, opening casting to include pregnant performers increases the talent pool to choose from. We were thrilled to be able to work with an actor with substantial major motion picture experience alongside a stage actor, alongside someone who had in fact moved onto other creative endeavors but felt compelled to perform again due to the subject matter. Working with an entirely pregnant cast, it actually just felt like we got to work with the most talented people, period. No qualifiers necessary.

Writing or Retrofitting a Script for the Pregnant Body: Much of The Bumps is written so that the cast can remain seated. However, it felt like a crime to create a play specifically for a pregnant cast and have everyone just sitting and talking the whole time. So there is a little dance break too! During one rehearsal, a cast member asked what would happen if they needed to pee in the middle of the play (one never knows when the baby is going sit one one’s bladder). The play happened to be structured so that all members of the cast have enough time off stage to hypothetically run and use the restroom. But as we rehearsed, Deena and I wondered, why not bring this into the open? The play now has a designated pee break in between the acts. It’s a funny moment—and also reminds everyone that, with new works, we have the power to structure our own art around the human beings performing the piece. Because our play is about pregnancy, it makes it particularly easy to showcase these structural elements—but a play can also incorporate all these ideas without fanfare in order to include pregnant performers without having accessibility become the focus of the piece.

Understudies/Multiple Casts: Pregnancy is unpredictable. Yes, so is everyday life, but this process brought self-care to our attention in a profound way. Of course, everyone is different and some women may experience illness throughout pregnancy, while others experience none. We don’t want to presume or prejudge anyone’s own ability to perform—rather we want to create a supportive structure for the performers’ experience. While we didn’t cast understudies for our presentation (since it was a staged reading), when working with a pregnant cast it seems especially important to have a pregnant understudy or two—or even an alternate cast so that in the event of a tough day, we can offer the performer a stress-free “out.” The last thing we want to do is push someone’s health.

Rehearsal: As opposed to full day workshops, we scheduled shorter rehearsals, and took breaks whenever nature called. It wasn’t a problem for anyone. We simply agreed as a group that it was okay to stop at any point to rest, snack, or take a bathroom break. In this way, rehearsals unfolded organically, and even informed the meditative mood of the piece itself.

Compensation: Of course, everyone should be compensated for their labor. With a pregnant cast, this seems especially important. Unlike several countries in the EU, our country offers no financial support for pregnancy (unless you apply for disability—yes, disability—and even then, we learned from our actresses that the process is often so embroiled in bureaucracy that many women decide it’s not worth it). By paying actors in our play fairly, this play can be a small gesture towards the compensation pregnant people deserve. Additionally, because the play doesn’t offer long-term security (as everyone will transition out of the piece), it’s important to recognize the sacrifice of other job-security the cast might make in order to join the production.

Childcare: In the case of our workshop, our cast included one mother of a three-year-old. During one rehearsal, she explained how it’s often cheaper to be one’s own babysitter than to pay a babysitter and go out and audition or go to a rehearsal that doesn’t pay. While we know no one goes into the theatre to get rich, everyone should be able to participate in a play without losing money. When we apply for grants and make budgets for independent productions—why not include childcare as an essential component? The government/capitalist workforce may never be built around women’s bodies and the realities of parenthood—but the theatre can be a place where we can make our own rules and priorities. Productions often have no budgets to begin with—our budgets come from dreams. So why not dream inclusively?

Theatre practitioner Lisa Dostrova articulately outlines the challenges larger theatres face in instituting official child-care and offers a great list of less formal approaches to offering families support here. That being said, there are a handful of theatre institutions (many of which were profiled by American Theatre Magazine this winter here, including Cornerstone, the Cleveland Play House, the La Jolla Playhouse) that offer a range of childcare related needs already, from providing a private space for nursing, to stipends for childcare to offering childcare during rehearsals directly. Let us support these and all the theatre companies doing this good work with our patronage and our serious attention.

a rehearsal room
Director Deena Selenow and actors Jennifer Neala Page, Emily Alpren, Sarena Kennedy discuss the script during our January workshop. Pieter, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.

Embracing Ephemerality
The Bumps has three roles, to be played by actors of increasing stages of pregnancy. For an extended run, one actor can perform all three roles as they progress through the pregnancy, and another can play two before graduating from the piece—creating room for new performers to enter the process. In this way, the piece is structured to feature an ongoing cycle of performers. Our ultimate goal is to present The Bumps for a full nine-month run, featuring a complete rotation of the cast. Instead of thinking about the short timeframe of working with a pregnant performer as a limitation, we see each actor’s limited timeline as an opportunity to include more pregnant performers as part of the process.

The process behind The Bumps offers a meditation on performance, the deliciousness of transformation, and the ways in which a performer can subvert our expectations for a part.

It strikes us that there is no medium better suited to embracing the nature of pregnancy than the theatre. With The Bumps, we are interested in the idea that no single cast can perform this piece for an extended run. Even within the span of a few weeks, the same cast performing The Bumps will grow, look different and move differently. Every two months, the cast shifts roles. Like the content of the play, it is our intention that the process behind The Bumps offers a meditation on performance, the deliciousness of transformation, and the ways in which a performer can subvert our expectations for a part. In what other medium would this be possible?

Theatre compels us to appreciate the wonder of the ephemeral thing in front of us and embrace the possibilities of change. Pregnancy demands the same. The Bumps is our way to draw a connection between the two. But what are other approaches to new plays or presenting the classics that pregnancy might illuminate? We owe a great deal of credit to critical theorists and artists such as Maggie Nelson and Emily Mast whose recent works The Argonauts and Six Twelve One by One have respectively viewed pregnancy as a legitimate entry point to our wider cultural conversation. We know there is rich ground to explore here in theatre as well.

Rethinking Accessibility at Large
Instead of thinking of this process as accommodating something, why not simply start thinking about theatre as a medium that could be inherently inclusive? Where it would be redundant to say “accessible theatre.” As the artist Park McArthur writes: “What if we flip (and many people have) the terms of accommodation in order to declare that, instead, we will no longer accommodate the structural oppression that is accommodating us through tactics of inclusion: we will no longer accommodate racism, we will no longer accommodate the destruction of our planet, we will no longer accommodate sexism, we will no longer accommodate police brutality, we will no longer accommodate ableism in our daily lives.”

The first step in this radical process, we believe, is reimagining what we consider to be at the core versus the margins of our theatre practice. Sarah Ruhl, in her essay collection 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, discusses how easy it is to see the responsibilities of parenthood and the unpredictability of “life” as inconveniences for writing. But ultimately, at “the end of the day,” she explains, “writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.” Is pregnancy an intrusion on the theatre? Is parenthood something to be “dealt with,” or perhaps the path to a new idea or approach? Let us imagine a theatre that views the diversity of our bodies and our needs as a great gift.

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The only part of this article that in any way gives me pause is related to shorter rehearsals. In every field there are strong, healthy women who happen to be pregnant who do even physically rigorous jobs - many putting in 14-16 hour days. Please let's be careful of suggesting that a pregnant actress isn't physically strong enough to do the same job she was before she became pregnant? If we do, I think we then negate your point that a pregnant actress can play a character not specified as pregnant. And let's pay all the artists a fair wage, pregnant, mother, father, single only supporting him/herself. I know you aren't suggesting otherwise, but treating these women with the respect and opportunity every artist should expect vs as an exception because they made the personal choice to have a child sets all of us ahead - men too!

Thank you for bringing up these points, Marcia! Allow us to clarify: In terms of the shorter rehearsals, we are referring to our specific instance of tailoring the schedule to fit the needs of our individual performers - taking into consideration childcare, other work obligations, and individual needs (for instance, one of our performers was 7 months pregnant and shorter rehearsals worked best for her). By no means is this a model for all - rather a reminder that flexibility and self care are important to consider in any process!

And yes Marcia, thank you for your point about fair compensation for all! We certainly agree! We brought up compensation here as a way to draw attention to the particular ways in which pregnant people in the US are not financially supported by our existing labor and federal infrastructures, and how compensating through theatre work is one small gesture towards filling that gap.