Embodied Dramaturgy and Solo Performance: In the Pool with Emily Steel’s 19 weeks

Sarah Peters*

Abstract

19 weeks by Emily Steel is a solo show performed by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight based on Steel’s own experience of terminating a pregnancy at nineteen weeks after a foetal diagnosis of abnormality. Drawing on interviews with Steel and Lyndall-Knight, along with my experience as an audience member of the 2018 season of 19 weeks in Adelaide, this article interrogates the embodied dramaturgy of 19 weeks with a focus on the conventions of bodily memory (Whitney) and frame of perception (Wagoner). These conventions curate the audience’s emotional proximity to the world of the play and emphasise the protagonist’s subjectivity. Through this interrogation we can better understand the embodied dramaturgy of 19 weeks and perhaps, by extension, the multifaceted languages of the body in solo performance more broadly.

Keywords: Solo performance, embodied dramaturgy, 19 weeks, Emily Steel

Embodied dramaturgy acknowledges the capacity of the body to communicate meaning through physicality, presence and performativity and describes a method for engaging the body experientially in dramaturgical practice and investigation. Katy Maudlin et al. propose “that an embodied dramaturgy is one in which the body is foregrounded and where the body and its kinaesthetic capacities are essential elements in forming and guiding meaning-making” (113). Solo performance further foregrounds the meaning-making capacity of the body by focusing the audience’s engagement on the single actor and their interaction and relationship with the scenography of a production.

19 weeks by Emily Steel is a solo show performed by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight based on Steel’s own experience of terminating a pregnancy at nineteen weeks after a foetal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. This article draws primarily on interviews with both Steel and Lyndall-Knight and my personal experience as an audience member of the 2018 season of 19 weeks in Adelaide. I discuss two elements of the production’s embodied dramaturgy which invite the audience to engage with the subjectivity and complexity of the protagonist and strategically curate the emotional proximity of the audience throughout the play; the subjective portrayal of peripheral characters through bodily memory (Whitney) and the manipulation of the frame of perception (Wagoner) between geographically located action and internally focused reflection.

If a dramaturgical mode of looking develops, as Maaike Bleeker describes, “an eye for how performances are constructed as a result of choices made in creating them, and for how these constructions work: how they take audiences along, invite interpretations, play with expectations, trigger associations, and bring about sensation” (81), then an embodied dramaturgy invites us to focus that eye on the body.

Set in a swimming pool, 19 weeks was performed by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight in its original production at Adelaide Fringe in 2017, where it was awarded both a weekly award and overall winner for Best Theatre.[1] The show toured to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne in 2018, has been adapted for radio by BBC Cymru Wales and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and made into a film which completed post-production in 2022.[2] In a review for GLAM Adelaide of the 2017 production, Pat Wilson paints a detailed picture of the opening moments of the show:

A woman in a ruched bright red one-piece swimsuit smiles at us through the glass door that separates us from the pool room. She mimes removing shoes. We comply. As we enter, bags are left at the far end of the long rectangular pool, and we’re ushered, barefoot and silent, to the other end. . . . The woman in the swimsuit smiles and starts to tell her story.

19 weeks. Playwright: Emily Steel. Tour Director: Nescha Jelk. Venue: COMO The Treasury pool, Performer: Tiffany Lyndall-Knight. February, 2018. Photo: Marshall Arts

In the 2018 production in Adelaide, 19 weeks was performed in the basement pool of the Adina Treasury Apartment building. As I sat down, and knowing that the play explored pregnancy and abortion, the scenographic choice of a pool setting instantly invites connections to the womb, to breaking waters and the life-sustaining quality of water. Wilson described how Lyndall-Knight:

swims, dives, crashes headlong into the water, sits in a floating round inflatable seat which is tethered (much like an umbilicus) to the bottom of the pool. The continuing physical dynamic between the actor and the water is mesmerising.

It is a physically immersive production, not least because half of the audience is seated along one side of the pool, legs dangling in the water as though we too might at any moment slip into the pool and join Lyndall-Knight. In our interview, Steel proposed that solo performance offers “access to a depth of humanity that I long for” (23), and I suggest that one of the ways this is achieved in 19 weeks is through the depiction of bodily memory.

19 weeks. Playwright: Emily Steel. Tour Director: Nescha Jelk. Venue: COMO The Treasury pool, Performer: Tiffany Lyndall-Knight. February, 2018. Photo: Marshall Arts
Subjective Portrayal of Characters through Bodily Memory

Elizabeth Whitney describes bodily memory as a powerful tool for solo performers, arguing that when “employed as a performance device, it offers transparency and vulnerability for an audience that cultivates an intimate relationship” (253). In 19 weeks, this intimacy comes from the audience receiving layers of insight to the protagonist Emily through her performance of memory and, in particular, her depiction of other characters in the world of the play. Steel shared that “if I’m writing in a single voice in the first person, everything that person says is subjective. Has to be” (3). However, she acknowledges that in rehearsal there were conversations “about which of these people were going to seem like more objective representations and more subjective representations” (3). While not indicated explicitly in the script, in the performance choices were made to present some characters with their own objectivity, with three-dimensionality and a set of given circumstances separate to the character Emily’s perspective and memory of them. Lyndall-Knight identified a moment with the social worker towards the end of the play as one where the character was “very very sympathetic” (4), and she is performed in this separately objective way. However, in the main the other characters in the play were performed through the lens of the character of Emily; they are performed as her subjective memory of them. The audience sees Emily’s opinion of the other characters through the way she voices them in the telling of the story, and we are therefore given further insight and depth to her character. This performance choice to depict some characters more or less objectively (as in, with or without the character Emily’s opinion of them informing their portrayal) influences how we receive them as an audience.

I asked Lyndall-Knight about her approach to performing this diverse web of characters, and she reflected that accent and gesture became integral. Both Lyndall-Knight and Steel do not have Australian accents, so “that was a pretty good grounding place to use my own voice as the protagonist. And that was a big part thematically of her [Emily] feeling isolated in a new country. So, it was pretty easy for me to slide into the other people by just using the Australian accent to define them in their different ways” (2). Thinking through the eyeline and gaze of each character were also strategies that Lyndall-Knight used to differentiate between the multiple voices of the script. Lyndall-Knight shared that some of the more challenging representations to make were Emily’s son, Mum and Uncle. She reflects:

how do you play a two-year old without being sort of naff? There were times we had to make a decision about when I didn’t actually embody the character. It’s Mum [Emily] doing the kid’s voice as opposed to me being the kid. That was a subtle distinction we had to figure out . . . Emily’s mum was really hard because of course she knows her mum and every daughter plays their mum in a certain way. So, there was an extra layer of her [Steel] trying to communicate to me what playing her mum was.

2–3

Lyndall-Knight described having to work through in rehearsal “how much judgement we’re putting in the frame” (4) for some of the peripheral characters. Across the course of the play, Emily has interactions with a variety of nurses and medical staff as she goes through the process of taking tests, waiting for results, talking through options. Lyndall-Knight reflects that in rehearsal they really had to unpack which peripheral characters were more or less sympathetic and that this was connected to how objectively or subjectively they were played. One nurse in particular phones Emily with results, however she’s quite distracted on the call, she can’t locate the exact paperwork and is in a bit of a rush. Lyndall-Knight says:

we had to nut out how uncaring she was; we had to finagle that to get just the right level of how busy she was without being completely uncaring. And it was a fine line to tread. . . . I think it was harder to play the characters that Emily had a more ambiguous relationship with. To nail how unlikable [they were] or how much judgement we were putting in the frame.

4

Lyndall-Knight is here elucidating the complexities and nuance of using bodily memory in performance, and by extension the embodied dramaturgy of researching Steel’s manner for playing her mum and then communicating meaning through the positioning of characters as more or less subjective based on how much judgement was brought into the portrayal. Lyndall-Knight states, “it’s a memory play. It was Emily’s habitus. So, she’s embodying the people she remembers, reliving her memory of them. It’s Emily’s point of view about these characters” (14). This layering invites the audience to engage with the complexity of Emily as a character, and through her portrayal of others, we are offered insight to the way she sees herself. Steel reflects that when writing her characters, she likes “to have in my mind the gap between how the audience sees them and how they see themselves. That’s the fun in knowing that the audience will see something different to what the character thinks” (8). Rather than require the character to tell the audience what they think of others (or themselves) in the world of the play, the convention of bodily memory shows us what they think through their voicing of other characters and invites a depth of engagement with the protagonist’s subjectivity. This juxtaposition between showing and telling is also at play in the curation of the audience’s emotional proximity to the story through what Michael Wagoner describes as “frame of perception” (104).

Frame of Perception: Place and Space, Action and Reflection

Wagoner analyses the difference in audience positioning and engagement between solo scenes and multi-character scenes when juxtaposed in the one play. He argues that:

openness is much more available within the solo scenes that lack the geographic specificity of a locus or place and instead embrace the indeterminate locale of the human body itself . . . the literal distance or proximity to the audience is unimportant but the sense of geographical fixity or fluidity becomes paramount.

100

Wagoner suggests that when there is a specific place indicated in a solo scene, this positions the audience to understand the character in relation to that place, situated in that context, with a more removed emotional distance between the audience and the outwardly events or action. When the character is not in a place but rather in indeterminate space, then the site of action is the actor’s body itself and the audience is positioned to attend more closely to the character’s body and their interiority. Playing with these two dramaturgical choices can help build tension and scaffold engagement with the audience.

Wagoner uses the term “frame of perception” (104) to discuss this scaffolding, arguing that in a solo performance, the actor can bring into the frame of perception a specific place and relationships with other characters or, alternately, the actor can limit the frame of perception to just the body of the one character, bringing the focus to them and their interiority. Dennis Waskul and Phillip Vannini argue that “[f]rom a dramaturgical perspective bodies are necessarily performative—which is to say that bodies are always in motion and, hence, a perpetual site of action—the fundamental unit of dramaturgical analysis and the most essential element of any drama” (200). While bodies may always be sites of action given their necessary performativity, I suggest that when accompanied by an internal frame of perception and not bound in a specific location, the body as a site of action is magnified and the potential for vulnerable connection with the audience is heightened through this embodied dramaturgy.

Steel and Lyndall-Knight both described using this tension between place and space, action and reflection to engage with the audience and structure the emotional rhythm and momentum of the play. Steel says:

what I’ve had to learn over the years is to find the right kind of recipe for how much action I need and how much reflection I need. . . . I tend to think that most of the time in a one person show you need your speaker to be saying “this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” That’s what they have to do because if you have too much reflection, it’s not a story, and it’s not interesting because the audience are there to hear about something and they want to know what happened. And so, it feels like the character has to earn those moments where they sit back and they go “inside” if you like. If there’s too much of it, it’s boring. If there’s too little of it, we don’t know enough about them.

The agency of the body is emphasised and highlighted in these moments of earned reflection where, instead of learning the what of action, we are offered the why of intention and reason. We are given the why of context and background, circumstance and choice. These moments of insight and explanation give audiences the opportunity to better understand the character and her circumstances, and perhaps be encouraged to push at the horizons of their own understanding around the themes of the play.

In rehearsal, Lyndall-Knight details how she considered the minimal elements they had around them in their pool setting and how these could be used to evoke place and time.

The pool was so helpful because it allowed us to transition between locations with that simple device of just going underwater or swimming . . . [And] we discovered that subtle was better. Our original director would say ‘oh, you did a little shadow movement with your hand. That’s enough, no more than that to indicate this thing’. Less less less, drill it down. We had two props, the towel and an inflatable ring. The ring was a really useful object to transform into different things. For example, when I was having the amniocentesis, I would say, as the nurse, ‘lay down there’ and then I would climb onto the ring and it would be transformed into the hospital bed.

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19 weeks. Playwright: Emily Steel. Tour Director: Nescha Jelk. Venue: COMO The Treasury pool, Performer: Tiffany Lyndall-Knight. February, 2018. Photo: Marshall Arts

These subtle echoes of action were enough to indicate a change in place and time. While action wasn’t usually performed in a mimetic sense, Lyndall-Knight recalls one moment where she really leant in to representing the physicality of an action:

When I climbed out of the pool and used people’s bodies to climb up to do the pregnancy test. I was dripping beside people, squatting, doing the test. That was probably the most “acted out” realistic moment. It was early [in the piece] and it was fun. It was sort of shocking.

7

I recall this moment, having been one of the lucky audience members who got to sit along the edge of the pool, our feet dangling in the water. Until this moment, Lyndall-Knight had been either in the water or on the other side of the pool, so to have her swim towards the audience and use our bodies for hand holds as she scrambled out was delightful. The droplets of water showering us suddenly took on the uncanny likeness of urine as the physical action of her squatting offers a trigger to our association with the familiar action of a home style pregnancy test.   

Embodied dramaturgy can also be employed as part of the research process in rehearsal, where the creative team engages physically and experientially with the context and themes of the play in order to inform the clarity and nuance of performance choices (Silkaitis and Kriegler-Wenk). Lyndall-Knight reflected that her capacity to bring externally grounded places into the frame of perception for the audience was informed by her embodied dramaturgical research. “I became really aware of having that lived experience, of painting the world in my imagination onto that 4th wall” (6). Lyndall-Knight visited the Pregnancy Advisory Centre in the lead up to performance, met some of the nurses and was stepped through the abortion process on site which meant she “had that first encounter to draw on” (3). She is also a close friend of Steel’s and knows her family home well, which is also depicted in the play. This embodied dramaturgical research in the rehearsal process informed Lyndall-Knight’s portrayal of specific locations.  

In contrast, Lyndall-Knight also shared a key moment from the play where the illusion of place and story were dropped:

you remove the illusion that this world that I’m in is separate from you [the audience]. It’s the difference between showing and telling. It’s literally telling and that’s very, very vulnerable. I was making direct eye contact with people. And of course, those were the places when the performance shifted the most in response to [the audience’s] energy or their facial expressions. The most pertinent example of that is when I stood up and I said, “let’s get this straight. I don’t actually think that a person with Down syndrome has less inherent value than one without.” And everything falls away. All pretence of character or anything falls away. It’s just: this is my truth, take it or leave it. It was really vulnerable. No bells and whistles, no gestures, no accents, no props. It’s just standing in a bit of water in front of the audience. . . . The last line of that monologue was “I don’t even know if I’m good.” And then I sink into the water. It’s like rinsing off that beat and then suddenly I’m back into story telling. . . . In the next moment, I’d say “I look things up on the computer.” So, we staged this section with me standing in profile to the audience, with my arm rested on the side of the pool, to suggest, I was looking at my computer. It was sort of a relief to go back into the imaginary world, and just be practical and do the tasks.

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19 weeks. Playwright: Emily Steel. Tour Director: Nescha Jelk. Venue: COMO The Treasury pool, Performer: Tiffany Lyndall-Knight. February, 2018. Photo: Marshall Arts

This moment of direct address and internal frame of perception reveals the vulnerability of the character and offers up a point of connection for the audience. While the convention of bodily memory discussed previously offers the audience an opportunity to see Emily’s subjectivity and invites a gap between how we see Emily and how she sees herself, moments such as this confront the audience with Emily’s own perception of self, potentially challenging our preconceptions and layering in further complexity. Given the themes of the play, some of these audience preconceptions are connected to the consideration of human rights and, in particular, the nuanced and complex intersections between abortion advocacy, a person’s right to choose what happens to their body and disability advocacy against ableism. The use of bodily memory and frame of perception are dramaturgical choices which can serve to acknowledge rather than simplify this complexity and which highlight rather than resist the tension of competing values. Steel reflects that this is why she “will go so far into the characters thoughts. And why I will have that character voice their thoughts, even when their thoughts are difficult to hear. Because I want the audience to understand what they’re thinking. But I don’t want the audience to feel that they have to think the same thing” (5).  

While it is beyond the scope of this article to explore the different audience responses to the play substantively, I am conscious that my experience as an audience member and this analysis as a playwright and scholar is informed by the fact that I do not have lived experience of abortion or Down Syndrome. I encourage readers who would like to learn more about the audience response, from people with and without experiences similar to those represented in the play, to read reviews available at www.19weeks.com/media. Lyndall-Knight also offers a nuanced and thoughtful interrogation of the audience response to the play in her article published by the Women’s Studies International Forum (“19 weeks: Performing Theatre About Abortion”).

Jonathan Kalb suggests that despite how “little we may really be interested in anyone else, we do seem willing to listen to people’s individual stories as possible keys to our own individual development” (16). The interiorly framed moments in 19 weeks invite audiences to consider Emily’s perspective and circumstances, not necessarily in order to agree with or celebrate them but to hear them, be challenged by them and, perhaps, begin to understand them. In “Visit to a Small Planet, Some Questions to Ask a Play,” Elinor Fuchs encourages readers and audiences to contemplate “what has this world demanded of me? [. . . and] how does it make this intention known?” (9). As illustrated across this article, 19 weeks demands a focus on the body of the protagonist through the use of bodily memory and frame of perception. These conventions curate the audience’s emotional proximity to the world of the play and emphasise the protagonist’s subjectivity. Through this interrogation, we can better understand the embodied dramaturgy of 19 weeks and perhaps, by extension, the multifaceted languages of the body in solo performance more broadly.


Endnotes

[1] Subsequently, the production was a finalist in the 2017 Ruby Awards in two categories (Best Work and Arts Innovation), a finalist in the Adelaide Critics Circle awards (Award for Innovation) and, in 2018, was a finalist in the Jill Blewett Playwrights award.

[2] A trailer for the filmed version, along with a variety of production images can be viewed at https://www.19weeks.com/.

Bibliography

Bleeker, Maaike. Doing Dramaturgy: Thinking Through Practice. Palgrave MacMillan, 2023.

Fuchs, Elinor. “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.” Theater, vol. 34, no. 2, 2004, pp. 4–9.

Kalb, Jonathan. “Documentary Solo Performance: The Politics of the Mirrored Self.” Theater, vol. 31, no. 3, 2001, pp. 13–29.

Lyndall-Knight, Tiffany. Personal interview. 3 August 2023.

—. “19 weeks: Performing Theatre about Abortion.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 78, 2020, pp. 1–7.

Maudlin, Katy, Rea Dennis, and Kate Hunter. “A Mothering Dramaturgy: The Creative Co-practices of Mothering and Directing in Contemporary Rehearsal Rooms.” Text and Performance Quarterly, vol. 43, no.2, 2023, pp. 111–22.

Silkaitis, Carin, and Zoe Rose Kriegler-Wenk. “The Need for Embodied Dramaturgy: The Laramie Project and Generation Z.” Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts, vol. 10, no. 3, 2023, pp. 177–92.

Steel, Emily. Personal interview. 15 August 2023.

Wagoner, Michael. “The Dramaturgical Space of Solo Scenes in Fletcher and Shakespeare, Or a Study of the Jailer’s Daughter.” Shakespeare Bulletin, The Johns Hopkins UP, vol. 35, no. 1, 2017, pp. 97–118.

Waskul, Dennis, and Phillip Vannini. “The Performative Body: Dramaturgy, the Body, and Embodiment.” The Drama of Social Life, A Dramaturgical Handbook, edited by Charles Edgle, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp. 197–209.

Whitney, Elizabeth. “The Dangerous Real: Queer Solo Performance in/as Active Disruption.” Comparative American Studies an International Journal, vol. 14, no. 3-4, 2016, pp. 246–60.

Wilson, Pat. Review of 19 Weeks by Emily Steel. GLAM Adelaide, 4 Mar. 2017. Date of access 21 August 2023. 


Photo credit: Jody Allen

*Dr Sarah Peters (she/her) is Senior Lecturer in Drama at Flinders University, playwright and book reviews editor for Australasian Drama Studies. Her research investigates collaborative theatre-making processes, dramaturgies of theatre based on lived experiences, and the impact of storytelling on participants and audiences. Her co-authored monograph, Verbatim Theatre Methodologies for Community-Engaged Practice was published with Routledge in 2023.

Copyright © 2023 Sarah Peters
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