I lost a third pregnancy. It happened on Friday, during our first rehearsal back for Canadians Are Mean. One of my collaborators took me home in a cab and watched movies and ate Indian food with me while I cramped and bled. For some fucked up reason, all three rehearsal/development periods of this show have coincided with three pregnancies and three miscarriages. I am the creative lead on this project. Somehow I must manage a team, survive this physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, hormonally, cognitively altering experience, and make a show an audience is coming to see in about six weeks. How am I doing this? How do our private struggles coexist with our work? What have I learned that might help other people? This has been the messiest, ugliest and most transformative creative process of my life. How do we scoop up the hot mess life hands us and spin it into gold? Maybe there’s no spin.
Starting from the unknown
I’m a theatre artist. I’ve made emotionally and physically intense solo shows since 2008. I’ve also been a card-carrying, wave-the-flag-high perfectionist. Like: if anxiety was an Olympic event, I’d be there, tearing my hair out atop the podium. All of this foretold an artistic career that would flame out in under a decade. So, when I started planning my next show (the one I’m developing currently), there were a bunch of things I needed to do differently:
- Collaborate with an ensemble of performers. No more shouldering the responsibility of writing, producing and performing on my own.
- Make something funny. I’d mined the subject of depression just about enough, thank you.
- Develop a new work style. I stumbled on a performance practice I’d been calling Constructive Laziness. I thought it might be my key to artistic longevity.
- Own my Canadian identity. Enough of trying to fit into the New York scene. I was going to wave my maple leaf loud and proud.
I assembled a cast of Canadian weirdos. I booked a truckload of rehearsal space. I had a schedule of showings spread throughout the year.
And then I got pregnant.
Into the tangled wood
I was pregnant for eight wild and wonderful weeks, until everything went to shit. At my first prenatal appointment, they told me the baby was much smaller than it should have been. Two blood tests and a frightened weekend later, I learned that the baby had been lifeless in my belly for three weeks. I was booked in for a D&C for September 12. My first rehearsal for this show was five days later.
The studio is a place where I can leave my problems at the door and spend three hours thinking about something else.
I have only experienced grief like this one other time in my life. At the time, I couldn’t function and no one expected me to. But miscarriage is a strange thing. People don’t talk about losing babies. I went to rehearsal because I honestly didn’t know what else to do.
I was the creative lead on this new project. I was the writer and the producer. I literally ran the show. I had six weeks until our first showing, and seven expectant faces staring at me. What do you want us to do? I didn’t know. My hormones were all over the place and my brain stopped functioning normally. There were gaps in my thinking. I couldn’t clock all the pieces of information that seemed to come at me faster and faster. I was shocked and desperately sad.
Somehow, we made theatre. If someone were to describe my process, they might use the words “loose” or “raw” or “confused.” There were false starts and dead ends. There were scenes half-written and vague ideas I wanted to try. It seemed like nothing was getting done until three or four days before the showing when it all came together as a kind of interactive bureaucratic obstacle course, poking fun at the customs and immigration process. The audience loved it.
Going in circles
Over Christmas, I got pregnant again. I came to our first rehearsal in January, vibrating with a feeling I’ve since named Mama Needs To Eat. I chewed on a banana (and some almonds and another banana) as we debriefed the November showing and our goals for the next performance in three weeks. Two days later, I woke up in the middle of the night racked with cramps. I sat in the bathtub at 3 a.m. praying and crying and bleeding. A second baby was gone.
I arrived to rehearsal the next day shell-shocked and numb. My confidence as a human being, let alone as an artist, was annihilated. But, with two weeks until the showing, I shoved my feelings aside and got to work. There wasn’t time to second-guess myself. We worked quickly, making material, throwing things out, making choices. I survived by sheer velocity. And after the showing, I tanked.
I booked a vacation. I got a therapist. I did the tests you’re supposed to do when you’re a woman of a certain age who’s had multiple miscarriages. I told my husband I was too scared, for now, to try again.
On my vacation, I started noticing weird pains and twinges in my lower abdomen. I was plagued by headaches, which I explained away by all the rum I was drinking. But when I got home and prepared to go back into the studio with my team, I couldn’t ignore that telltale feeling: Mama Needs To Eat.
I couldn’t believe it. Pregnant again.
I went to our first rehearsal with that buzzy there’s-human-life-inside-me feeling. A half an hour in, a dull heaviness in my lower belly turned into a dull ache. It got more painful, more persistent. I went to the bathroom and saw brilliant red blood. Rejecting this information and what it might mean, I came back to the studio to finish our discussion. I even went to grab coffee with some of the cast afterwards. At the cafe, I called my mother, who didn’t answer. My husband was en route to San Francisco, so I dialled my dad. As soon as I heard his voice, I burst into tears. “All you can do right now is go home and lie down,” he said, his physician’s authority mixing with parental concern.
My collaborator Tanya put me in a cab and got in with me. At my apartment, she made me tea while I changed into sweat pants. She put on a Wes Anderson movie and, later, ordered Indian food. She stayed with me all afternoon while the fact of it slowly sunk in.
In the three work periods for this play, I have been pregnant three times and miscarried three times.
At no point have I felt like myself. At best, I’ve been euphoric and distracted. At worst, I’ve been depressed, even suicidal. My hormones have fluctuated wildly. I’ve been cognitively off the grid: confused and unable to track detailed pieces of information, like rehearsal schedules or props. My confidence has been shattered. My identity has crumbled and rebuilt itself again and again and again. And every day at rehearsal, my collaborators show up, ready to work.
In many ways, this show has saved me. Rehearsal is a pleasant, often therapeutic, oasis of creative problem-solving, deep inquiry, and some of the funniest shit I’ve ever made. The studio is a place where I can leave my problems at the door and spend three hours thinking about something else. My performers make me laugh. They challenge my assumptions. They see me as a functioning artist, not a sad woman with a broken uterus. They’re so personally invested in this project that I almost feel like, if the chips were down, they could keep working without me. I don’t want that to happen–but it’s nice to know that it could.
This experience has taught me about my own fallibility. It’s been a humbling lesson, obviously, but an important one. In my anxiety and perfectionism days, I could work myself into the ground if I needed. Whatever it takes. It’s nice to learn that surrender and depending on my team works, too.
It’s nice to know that “in progress” is a productive state as well. These showings are milestones, sure, but the old me would have wanted each of them to be perfect, shining jewels. This experience forced messiness and uncertainty into my process, and I’ve discovered that’s where the real potential lies.
In fact, one of my performers requested we get even messier, injecting more air and space into our process so the deeper creative DNA has a chance to knit itself together and a common vocabulary has a chance to form. One of my other collaborators said, while she wouldn’t wish this on anyone, there’s a chance this work is better for it. She’d know. She dealt with infertility while making one of her own shows. She’d run to the bathroom in the middle of rehearsal, inject herself with fertility drugs and come back to work. Now, she makes theatre as the mother of three-year-old twins (who sometimes come to our rehearsals).
The mess itself might actually be gold. I’ve had to let go more than I ever thought I could. I’ve had to trust the process ferociously. I’ve had to let my collaborators own the project and their creative choices within it. I’ve developed a leadership style and creative practice that is flexible. I’ve stepped out in faith when there’s no solid ground under my feet. I’ve let myself be vulnerable, fragile, and human. I’ve accepted that nothing is fixed or permanent—that this, all of this, is one gorgeous catastrophe with death and life and beauty all mixed up together. And if, one of these days, a kid decides to stick it out with me, man, will I have something to share with her.