Baby Dolls: reporting from the frontline of making zero-waste theatre while supporting actors at a vulnerable stage of their career
I really didn’t expect to write this. But I am delighted that I am because it means that we have received the Arts Council funding to make this project happen.
Baby Dolls started a long time ago. I think it started in Homerton Hospital, where I spent ten days on the maternity ward after my first child was born. It was such an intense time, and whilst I was incredibly happy to have become a mother, I also felt that my body was no longer my own. I was being woken up every time I’d just fallen asleep, either by the nurses checking my blood pressure, my baby wanting milk, or all the other babies on the ward setting each other off like neighbourhood dogs with their crying. It started a fascination for me with the body and how much of it is controlled by other people, especially when you enter motherhood. You’re told what to eat, what not to eat, when and how to start exercising again. You’re subject to check-ups and you’re being monitored. You’re touched everywhere, all the time. Your bodily functions are being recorded. There are charts. There are questions. Your mental and physical health is being monitored. Your body and your mind are no longer your own, they exist in relation to the child that is both yours but also somehow belongs to all these other people, who look after it and make sure it’s safe and healthy. It’s a strange time.
The idea for a play started to form, and the short play Baby Dolls was picked up and performed, at Hackney Attic, in 2015, directed by Milla Jackson. When my play The White Bike was published in 2017 with Nick Hern Books, Baby Dolls went into the back of the script as an additional short. It was then discovered by The Tower Theatre in 2022, directed by Lucy Moss and, looking into the sales reports of the book, it was one of the most read e-books of my published plays, with readers from different parts of the world. Clearly a story of three women at a baby shower set in a dystopian future where women no longer had control over their bodies and their fertility choices sparked an interest.
The idea for a full-length play emerged when I started working with director Anna Girvan on the Fizzy Sherbet podcast in 2020 and we were looking for a live theatre project to work on together. We both live in East London and use cycling as our main mode of transport, both because we love it but also for environmental reasons. When thinking about our production we wondered how much of a set can be transported on a box bike and when considering venues, we looked at their environmental record. We had a few conversations around how to work in theatre with minimal impact on the environment, which is quite hard to do especially when you work in the West End and with international touring, both of which Anna, who has recently been Associate director on Leopoldstadt and Orlando, is doing. And talking about dystopian futures, it became clear quite soon that climate change would be part of the longer version of Baby Dolls, and that this would be the reason why these women have given the control over their bodies up to the state, or why the state has taken it from them. Population growth is a huge factor in resources depletion after all.
The play turned into a very dark, but also extremely funny comedy set in a future where we’re just emerging from the immediate threats brought on by the climate crisis, but where women’s bodily autonomy has been all but decimated. Some of the women think it was a sacrifice worth making, others don’t. In the world of Baby Dolls, you need to prove via a parenting licence and practising with a baby doll, that you are fit to be a parent, and that the child will be brought up in a way that respects the environment. It is arguably done for a good reason: to save the world from human destruction. But this fight, as many others before, is fought on the battleground of women’s bodies.
We started thinking more about climate change and the reactions from different countries around the world to the challenges it presents. Women’s rights being chipped away at even in places where we never thought this would be possible. Politicians, almost exclusively men, signing away women’s rights to decide about what happens to their bodies with abortion being made illegal, or even how much they are to know about their own bodily functions, with talking about periods in schools being restricted to children older than twelve, an age when many girls have already started menstruating.
Anna and I also decided that we will aim to cast the play with actors who are either mothers or currently pregnant, both to add authenticity and experience to the roles, but also to support actors in a vulnerable stage of their careers.
We’re very grateful to the support from the Arts Council, Greenwich Theatre and consultant Danielle Pipe, who will help us develop the play and our practice in a way that is least harmful to the environment and to give us the space for us to develop the play towards its full production.
In this blog series, I will share with you what we discover along the way and how to be as thoughtful and green in the small and big decisions that we make. There is a letter from Claire Rousell from Letters to the Earth, which is called What We Do Now Matters. It ends with ‘We know what you are capable of. We salute you. Because what you do now matters.’ I find it hugely inspiring, and I hope that the work on this project will not only help us to change our practice and find new ways of making work, but that it will help others, too. Thanks for being here with us.