peeling- a personal reflection

A note to start. This isn\’t a review, it\’s a personal reflection. I\’m Chair of the Board of Taking Flight Theatre, so it wouldn\’t be proper to review. But having seen peeling a second time this weekend, I have so many thoughts I needed to get them out. 
For those who don\’t know Kaite O\’Reilly\’s play was first performed in 2002. And I defer to Kaite\’s description from her own website here: 
An epic, post-modern production of The Trojan Women: Then and Now is in process. Stuck at the back, unlit, onstage, are the Chorus: Beaty, Coral and Alfa, three performers rendered almost immobile in their multi-layered, preposterous frocks. They spend most of the production waiting to say a few lines so that the management feel they have done their bit for \”social inclusion\”. While they wait, they gossip and bitch, lie and heckle. Gradually devastating truths are uncovered which peel away their layers of pretence, along with the layers of their clothes.
performed by 3 disabled actors and integrating captions and audio description into the performance text it was a ground-breaking work. Fast forward a little and Taking Flight have been doing integrated, accessible performance for 10 years. Fast forward a little more and they took on peeling, but with the added alteration of BSL for the character Alpha and an additional character in the form of a Stage Manager, who also is a BSL performer/interpreter. 

For the play itself, I feel I got a lot more from it the second viewing. And in fact stirred a lot of interesting thoughts, that I\’ll probably be processing for a long time to come. And I found myself having a deeply personal, reflective response to the play, more so as the days have gone on since. In first viewing I thought it was a beautifully put together evocative piece of work. On second a lot of elements really hit home and gave me things to think of about myself, and my own life.

It makes me reflect back on myself. Where I situate myself in that world. I talk often about my dyslexia (such as here) and its disabling effect on my life- and yet I don’t feel ‘disabled enough’ there. Equally I have a chronic illness (Ulcerative Colitis) which I talk a lot about (here) which sometimes I don’t feel ‘disabled enough’ or ‘ill enough’ to classify myself under an umbrella. But this time watching this play, more elements of the way you can feel separate from society did resonate. When Alpha constantly refers to being ‘behind a screen’ the idea of being a patient, a being without identity, being reduced to your disease truly resonated. The idea of being a slight step apart resonates, slightly cut off from ‘the action’ as the characters are. I feel hesitant to share that as so often it feels like if you ‘pass’ in society your feelings aren’t valid, and yet if your illness or disability cuts you off, then it is still a valid feeling. 

And I don’t share the exact experience of Alpha, Beaty , and Coral. But the point being, as with all theatre there are elements which resonate. That reflects back. And that is one of them. All the elements of society not wanting to know. I hid my dyslexia because society teaches me to be ashamed of that disability, (and that it’s not real) I hide my Chronic illness, and I’m called ‘brave’ for talking about it and its disabling effects, because society doesn’t want to talk about it (because admittedly it’s a pretty gross disease).  

But those elements ticking away in the background, I spent a lot of time thinking about the issues of Motherhood in this play. Because I feel them powerfully, but also feel powerfully excluded from them. Which in itself is a reflection of discourse around Motherhood? 
So often in life am I made to feel lesser because I\’m not a Mother. Not only less of a woman (we\’ll get to that) but lesser in life. We not only put this impossible burden on women to have children- then disadvantage them when they do in the workplace. But at the same time, through us saying ‘ah but you don’t have children’ to imply that’s why a woman has succeeded, or not done enough, we take away from women who don\’t- well if you\’re not going to bother having children, why haven\’t you achieved more. Look at your sisters with children, and all they\’ve achieved on top of that…. it’s a battle neither side can win. But I digress. 
And I am fervently pro-choice. I will defend a woman’s right to do with her body what she wants, what she needs to, in terms of her reproductive rights. And first and foremost, peeling is a reminder that we still need to defend that right. That we also still need to defend women against those who would force choices on them, whichever choice she wishes to make. And in a more holistic manner, we need to support and care for women through those choices. It’s as much a rallying cry for that as anything else.  
But beyond that, back to a personal level. Beyond feeling somewhat out of step with the dialogue in the play, it was, as came up in the post-show Q&A an area everyone has a story about. Motherhood, lack of it. Either.
And again, I felt myself reflecting on illness and disability and my own experience. I’ve made peace with the fact that my chronic illness may mean some challenging times in my future. From the very real possibility of an ileostomy to the increased likelihood of cancer. Both of these things I am aware of, I live with. But what we don’t talk about nearly often enough is all the knock-on effects around that. Only the day before on Instagram (where the chronic illness cool kids hang out) I read a whole host of information I didn’t know about the impact ileostomy surgery also has on gynaecology- an element not even Doctors often discuss. And when making decision about surgeries and treatments, often nothing beyond that moment the ‘being hidden behind the screen’ is talked about, considered. And beyond the biology, there’s the bigger impact. There’s the mental health impact, that isn’t explicitly discussed in the play, but is there clear to see. The fact I’ve even put it in this blog will be considered shocking or weird. And yes I\’m worried what people will think or say, or judge. Because we just don’t discuss any of this. Perhaps because we’re still so caught up on judging women for having or not having children full stop never mind what they went through to get to that point.
And having not had, or even tried to have children, even if I don’t share the exact experiences of the women in the play I found myself projecting all of this, in ways perhaps I hadn’t before. The what ifs, and the question of ‘well should you then?’ hang in the air. If I found myself with my illness progressing before I had a child (if, a likely very big if but for argument\’s sake run with me) there are physical implications, logistical ones…and emotional ones. Nobody can predict their future health but if you live with something you know for certain has long term resonance, it has to factor into your choices for reproduction. It feels irresponsible not to. But then that\’s the question, how much am I my illness or disability? And what of genetic responsibility? should I risk passing these things on?  but what of practical responsibility, if you\’re likely to be ill at some point…are you irresponsible for bringing a child into the world? Or even, is having a child a trade off for your own health?

These are all things that likely have not confronted a lot of women. But they have confronted a lot of others. Usually in isolation and silence. Because it\’s a set of conversations nobody wants to have, for so many reasons. Doctors, who are busy focused on the ‘thing’ in front of them that is ‘broken’ rather than the wider implications in your life. You don\’t want to bother \’normal\’ women with your weird problems…and then there\’s potential partners too.
And the latter raises the question the women in the play also raise; who wants to have a child with a broken woman. And that was something that hit me hard not in the play but in the Q&A after;  People are always shocked, as we discussed in the post-show Q&A that disabled people have partners, dare to have sex. And again, in my slightly different way I look at myself and say, yes, why would someone want a a slightly broken woman. In my case I look normal (ish) and healthy. So it\’s a troubling \’revelation\’ that there\’s something wrong (well not for anyone who reads my blog I now realise, perhaps I should add that to my dating profile!) But there is that nagging feeling anyone who is disabled or has a chronic illness has to face at one time or another: Why would anyone want someone who is broken? Why would someone want someone with lots of hospital appointments, potentially life-changing surgery in their future? Potentially life-threatening or life-limiting illness? And what does that mean as a woman, for having children? And it feels like thinking ten steps ahead because that\’s what you have to do. Because sooner or later one or both of these things might be a deal breaker. And again disability and dating, like disability and children, are not polite dinner party (or dating) conversations. 
And so, we don\’t talk about it. We don\’t dare to. Hell, nobody wants to date me or have my children anyway why would I risk bringing any of that up right? But I found it an incredibly powerful thing that hit home with this play too. That I might be judged for choosing to have children with a broken body. As much as I’m also judged for choosing not to. And asked to explain-not to justify- whichever one I choose. And above all that a painful reminder that actually it’s a reason why people might not want me. A reminder maybe that you are in some eyes ‘behind a screen’. I might not be a mother, but the question of motherhood, and my body\’s abilities to do it, hangs over so much of my life regardless. 

My personal reflection aside, I cannot begin to convey how proud I am of this production. Of the team that brought it to life. It is a hard piece of theatre, and making accessible work is hard. Take all the hurdles and challenges of making theatre and double, triple quadruple it. And still this is without qualification or reservation an incredible piece of theatre.
Halfway through watching peeling this past Friday, one day away from the end of its tour, I got really emotional. Totally removed from anything going on in front of me (I think it was a really funny bit actually) But I had to try very hard not to start sobbing like a fool. Because I thought \’this is why we do it\’. This is why for my part as Chair I send nagging emails, play the Big Bad Wolf some days, it\’s why we go to Arts Council meetings, and scrutinize budgets, and listen when it\’s all just a bit too much. It\’s to do that. It\’s for the performers, and for the audiences. For those who desperately need to experience something of themselves on stage, and for those who have never seen work like that before. It\’s to educate those audiences, but without preaching to them. It\’s to make damn good theatre. And for all of those things, I\’m incredibly proud of my small part in helping that get there. And even prouder of the team that get it there. 
It\’s also that this play has an all-female team. From performers to every creative and technical member of staff. And to which I say a resounding \’Fuck you\’ and an additional \’I\’m the one who signs off of these things, take it up with me[and also fuck you]\’ to any man who dares to have a problem with that. When men stop seizing opportunities and pulling the ladder up behind, I\’ll stop championing all female companies, until then, hear me shout it from the rooftops. 
But as well for the company, of whom I\’m obviously very proud. It was an important personal moment, to remember this is why we do it in the broader sense. To have some small part in something that feels important, something that will impact others. 
I took a friend of mine who hadn\’t seen work like that before. And his reaction to it, the strength of feeling and thoughts that he had about it, tells me that there\’s something worthwhile in all of that. It for me, in terms of art, in terms of any of it has felt like \’if you can impact one single person at a given time it\’s worth it\’ And so it reminds me why I do any of it. Even when it\’s a struggle. Even when it\’s the hardest thing. Because those moments of magic are worth it. But what it means beyond that more so. 

And because nobody says it enough: well done and thank you to every single person who got peeling on tour, and back again. To Elise, Beth and Louise who are Taking Flight, to every single person from drivers, to ushers to one small dog who go it there. 

peeling is back on tour in the autumn. Please follow 

@takingflightco on twitter here or visit the website here  

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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