“Feminism has emancipated us and raised our expectations, but unfortunately in the process we have found ourselves yoked to a timetable that ignores the constraints of our biological clocks.” Read what Simona Hughes told us about why she wrote her new play exploring the fertility timebomb, About 500, then book your tickets!
The drama, which Hughes also directs, runs at The Gift Horse from 18 to 22 March 2020 as part of Vault Festival.
“D’you realise that, as a woman, I’ll probably have no more than about 500 ovulations in my entire life? And for most of those, I’ve been either too young or too single or too whatever… And you, with your infinite capacity, tell me to stop overthinking!”
When Clem first dates Luke, she is a 32-year-old, ambitious go-getter woman (eggcount 115) with no interest in motherhood. Four years later, and happily in love, she decides she does want a child after all. Clem and Luke then find themselves in a crisis of infertility, in which Clem becomes increasingly obsessed with time, (insisting it is going too fast) and counting things (like her remaining eggcount). To make matters worse, Clem’s older and best friend, Ruth, accidentally conceives a second child, aggravating her despair.
By the time Clem is 42 (eggcount 7) she has become mentally and emotionally absent, slipping in and out of her own ‘egg-time’ (which runs faster than everyone else’s). Luke, fearing he has lost her, suggests that it’s time to give up on ‘project baby’.
About 500 combines an unfolding drama between three characters with an exploration of the subjective nature of time and a docu-theatre thread suggesting the real women’s voices behind the play. The text was developed through in-depth interviews with over 20 women of all ages and through a series of actor-workshops, with the help of dramaturg, Melissa Dunne.
Hughes’ play was developed in 2018/19 as part of her final year independent project on her MFA at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. In May 2019, a 15-minute excerpt was shared as a scratch performance at the Barbican’s Pit as part of Fertility Fest 2019 to an overwhelmingly positive response.
At Vault Festival, Stephanie Fuller leads the About 500 cast as Clem, with Dickon Farmer as Luke and Joanna Nevin as Ruth.
About 500 runs at The Gift Horse @ The Horse and Stables, 122-124 Westminster Bridge Road, London, SE1 7RW from 18-22 March 2020 with performances Wednesday to Sunday 7pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 3pm. Tickets are priced from £8.50. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!!
Simona Hughes on creating About 500
What inspired you to create About 500?
A deep sense of the raw deal that so many contemporary women wanting a family face who, rightfully, choose to go to university, build careers, wait for the right life partner to materialise and yet simultaneously have to grapple with the fact that post 35 years-of-age, their fertility will drop off a cliff. Feminism has emancipated us and raised our expectations, but unfortunately in the process we have found ourselves yoked to a timetable that ignores the constraints of our biological clocks, a timetable that is designed around male (potentially infinite) fertility and not female (very finite) fertility.
Why do you think talking about female fertility and mental health still feels taboo?
This is a really interesting question. Jessica Hepburn, founder of Fertility Fest, Fertility campaigner and author of the brilliant book 21 Miles, suggests that there are many complex intertwined reasons. There is definitely a blind spot or unexplored tension between feminism and reproductive rights that many women find difficult to own or unpick. (Prioritising our reproductive potential still feels like an insult to feminism). Also, there is definitely still a very strong societal force that encourages secrecy around infertility and this, of course, fuels the associated mental health problems. Many women will say that if you can’t do the thing that you are biologically made to do, then you just don’t feel like a proper woman…
The fact that the average age of first conception is now 30 in the UK has inevitably led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of women who are involuntarily childless. Recent figures suggest that only 10% of child-free women in their 40s are child-free by choice. The grief, stress and anxiety these women experience is complicated by feelings of shame, failure and deep regret that are very hard to own and openly discuss. The conversation remains very private.
How did the piece grow from final year project to fully formed production?
Gradually! And with a great team of creatives around me. Movement, sound and extraordinarily talented performers have all played a big part so far.
What research did you do to create the piece?
I interviewed about 25 women (ranging in age from 20-68 yrs) about their views on their fertility and time. I also interviewed four experts in both the fields of Fertility and The Nature of Time. We then had a period of Research and Development with my fantastic dramaturg, Melissa Dunne, and four actors, enabling me to begin to put together the script. I also had invaluable support from my mentor, the theatre director Caroline Steinbeis.
I don’t think the work ever stops, we continue to refine and shape as we rehearse for VAULT. I’m fortunate that my three performers have all been involved from day one.
What challenges have you faced both writing and directing the production?
The writing has been easier than I thought it would be – this is my first ever staged play. Partly because many of the best words seemed to effortlessly tumble out of my actors (during the R&D) and found it straight onto the page. Again, the support of Melissa Dunne and Caroline Steinbeis cannot be overstated. Directing for VAULT has and will present more of a challenge, simply because of the constraints of our venue. We performed a 15-minute excerpt at the Barbican’s Pit venue last year, (as part of Fertility Fest 2019), where we enjoyed a huge stage, state of the art tech and a large raked audience. The Gift Horse offers none of the above (but all the buzz of the festival instead, so not complaining!)
How do you feel to be staging the production as part of VAULT Festival?
We are very excited to be premiering this piece at VAULT 2020. Although the venue presents challenges (the stage is tiny!), we have the advantage of not having to contend with the sound of the trains (something that would not necessarily have enhanced this piece!). The buzz of the festival is contagious and I’m hoping to benefit from that – already we have some reviewers booked in. Hopefully a few more to come.
Are there other productions you’re excited to see as part of the festival?
I have seen (and loved) Everybody Knows, Everybody Understands (written by Melissa Dunne, my dramaturg). I’m looking forward to catching Don’t Talk to Strangers and If this is Normal.
What can audiences expect from About 500?
An unfolding drama between three characters, a docu-theatre thread that suggests the many voices behind this story and a mediation on the subjective nature of time. For Clem, the protagonist, Time, quite literally, goes too fast (and she races through some scenes faster than her co-performers) once she enters her period of fertility crisis. The audience are taken on a journey into her crumbling mental health as she grapples with this loss.