Saturday, 8 September 2018

19 Weeks - Melbourne Fringe Festival preview

Creating theatre can often end up with the maker revealing the most personal details of their life to strangers. For Emily Steel this resulted with her award-winning play 19 Weeks, in which she opens up about terminating her pregnancy after her baby was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Staged in a swimming pool at the Adina Apartment Hotels, this site-specific work has actor Tiffany Lyndall Knight performing the lead up and aftermath of Steel's decision.

It was the loneliness of facing an experience such as this that inspired Steel to write this show, and while it is of a highly personal nature, 19 Weeks was something that she felt she had to do. "When you go through something like that, it can make you feel very alone. And then it feels like you’re not supposed to talk about it, which makes the isolation worse. I wanted to talk about it. I wanted people with similar experiences to feel less alone. As a playwright, I’m particularly interested in challenging stories and complex female characters. This is one of those stories. If I hadn’t told it, I wouldn’t have been doing my job."

"There wasn’t much hesitation in writing the play however and I had decided very quickly that I was going to do this," Steel continues. "That doesn’t mean I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t know if people would come to the show, didn’t know how they would react, didn’t know if anyone would hire me as a playwright afterwards. But it was worth the risk."

While Steel had wanted to find an unconventional performance space to stage the show, the decision of using a swimming pool initially began as nothing but an off the cuff comment. "While scouting for a venue for a completely different project, Daisy Brown (director of the original production) and I had seen a swimming pool," she recalls. "I suggested - half-joking - that we use the pool for 19 weeks. And that was that. The pool became an integral part of the show. The water has a language of its own, it has enabled the directors (with Nescha Jelk directing the 2018 touring production) to play with metaphors and imagery, and for Tiffany to give this beautiful physical performance."

Steel knew from the onset that she was not going to act in 19 Weeks, but watching someone play herself in a show she has written has been an interesting experience for the playwright. "In some ways it’s not that different from an actor playing any character I’ve written. I’m a bit protective of them, but I want the actors to own them, bring their own qualities to them," Steel says. "Tiffany and I were friends before she did 19 weeks, so she already knew me quite well, and I wanted her to be free to invent this character and not feel like she had to mimic me. She totally owns it now. I never thought about performing it myself. It would have been too difficult for me, and I didn’t want to manipulate the audience like that. I wanted them to see it as a piece of theatre."

There have been times through its initial development and staging where 19 Weeks has been difficult for Steel. "I did get a bit emotional at the first read through, and I got emotional when my partner came to see the show, but mostly when I’m watching it I’m thinking about sound cues, and whether Tiffany is warm enough," she tells me. "By the time I watched 19 weeks with an audience, I’d already watched it countless times in rehearsal, so it affected me much less than it affected the audience."

The practice of turning something painful or traumatic into art and using it as a way to heal is a process adopted by many arts makers. For Steel though, this has not been the case with 19 Weeks but she hopes it is for those who come to see the show. "I’ve been asked a lot if writing the script was therapeutic and it wasn't really. It was difficult, both to revisit that experience and to be honest about it, but crafting and editing it as a story makes it more manageable; it lets me file it in a different part of my brain," she says. "And the responses to the play, the thoughtfulness and empathy of audience members, have been amazing."

Five Quick Ones

1. Art is something a bit like…this,” says my four year old son, pointing at a drawing of a car.  
2. If you had to become an animal, which would you choose and why?
One of those immortal jellyfish that gets old and then goes back to being young again.
3. What song would you play on repeat to torture someone?
There used to be a show on TV on Sunday nights when I was a kid in the UK. It was called Heartbeat. The theme tune made me want to murder people. So that.
4. How long would you survive in a zombie apocalypse? 
I want to be the one wielding the samurai sword and vanquishing the zombies, but actually I’d probably get eaten in the first five minutes. 
5. It just isn't a Fringe Festival experience without something going horribly wrong.

Show Information

Venue: Adina Apartment Hotel Melbourne,
Level 5, 189 Queen St, Melbourne.
Season:  13 - 22 September | Tues - Sat 8pm
Length: 70 minutes
Tickets: $30 Full | $26 Conc
Bookings: Melbourne Fringe Festival

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