“It’s taken a massive amount of courage to even dare to do this.” Karen Bartholomew tells us why now was the right to to create her play exploring the realities of adoption reunion, Giving Up Marty. Read her fascinating interview, then book your tickets.
The Motormouse Productions show runs from 10 to 12 March at Vault Festival.
“Don’t you want to find your birth mother?”
“It’s history, what’s the point of raking up the past?”
But what if the past comes to you?
Until now he’s just known Mum, Dad and his sister. Life is safe, settled and secure. Yes, he’s been curious about his origins but no more than that. As he turns eighteen, much to everyone’s surprise, it’s Martha, his birth mother and Melissa, his birth sister who come looking for him. The events that follow, leave Joel embroiled in a family history, that changes his life and identity forever.
There’s long been a fascination with blood ties and those broken, reunited and reshaped. Adoption reunion is epic and complex in nature and never easy, but it’s this unease that needs to be heard.
Though the VAULT Festival season marks the premiere of Giving Up Marty, the piece has received workshops and rehearsed readings at Coram, Paines Plough and Soho Theatre. It has also received funding support from Arts Council England.
Giving Up Marty is supported by the UK’s oldest children’s charity, Coram, which has been helping vulnerable children since 1739. The organisation works with more than a million children, young people, professionals and families each year in areas including adoption, children’s rights, education and more.
Playwright Karen Bartholomew on Giving up Marty
Where did the inspiration to write Giving Up Marty come from?
I’ve never had a shortage of ideas and I always wanted to write something about adoption reunion, but it’s taken the right time and right point in my career to write about it.
Let’s face it; adoption reunion is an epic subject. How to stage something like this was always going to be challenging. There are so many people/characters in one story that need to be heard, so how do we do that on stage? For years, I thought maybe it was really a book, but no, I wanted theatre, I wanted the stage for the power, the communal space and the heartbeat of the piece. There’s no other medium as breath taking as theatre, when it works. I’ve never seen any story that comes close to the reality and enormity that reunion brings. This was my driving force, to write something from a place of experience and emotional truth, and tilt the balance with adoption storytelling.
Why did you feel so strongly that a more realistic story had to be told about adoption reunion?
There have been some films, the occasional documentary, that I felt was respectful and captured something of the truth of adoption reunion. But more often than not it’s treated with such sensationalism or one-sided stories that usually end in a loving embrace and everyone lives happily ever after. For me, it was happily ever before the reunion.
It’s different for everyone but I think it’s time we saw stories that have alternative narratives and at least hint at some of the complexity involved. No one play, book or film could truly cover the full picture, but what is seen needs to be realistic at least and convey the ripple effect across both families.
You have your own experience of adoption reunion, but this isn’t it. How challenging was it to keep the two separate and did you do other research around the subject?
I’m in my late forties. This wasn’t a play I could write as a young woman. I have children myself and am settled in life, and I’ve had distance from the reunion to be able to look at it objectively.
It’s taken a massive amount of courage to even dare to do this. It’s a volatile subject, I care about our audiences and, of course, I expect people to have strong views about adoption and its place in society. But I’ve written a play that invites reflection, debate and to encourage a sensory response to just what reunion can feel like for the adopted person.
In terms of research, because the piece is historical, the company have done some work around that period, which was explored in the R&D period. Adoption has changed so much since my generation but we were the shame generation, the ones to be covered up because of society’s issues with unmarried mothers and other prejudices of that period.
As you say, it’s a volatile subject. How careful did you feel you needed to be writing a play around this particular subject?
How careful does any playwright have to be? That’s what I mean about courage. Careful changes nothing. Careful is playing to an expectation or conforming to other people’s expectations. I’m not careful. There’s no point in it. Writers work sometimes happens for a reason at a certain point in life. I’ve reached that point. Careful doesn’t interest me.
How useful did you find workshopping the play, particularly with Coram, and how did it grow over that time?
Dr John Simmonds OBE, (Director of Policy, Research & Development – Coram) kindly came in and spoke with the actors and director during our R&D. His professional experience of adoption, law and attitudes over the years was invaluable for the team and also echoed my personal experience of reunion.
During R&D, we examined the play in context of the period. There were concerns around whether this play would speak to a younger audience and we tested it to industry and adoption community audiences, and found young people connected with it very strongly.
Adoption will change decade upon decade, but the emotional debacle will always be there and these stories will always relate for as long as adoption and families exist. The R&D was very well supported and we are grateful to funders allowing us to embed an important period of work before drafting the full play.
R&D kindly supported by Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, Kent Arts Investment Award, Arts Council England and Unity Theatre Trust.
How do you feel about staging Giving Up Marty at VAULT Festival and have there been any challenges?
Finance mainly. Producing is a headache. I’m an actress and writer, but producer by default. The play and story is epic in nature, it needs space to breathe. The Vault Festival is a brilliant opportunity to showcase new writing and connect with primarily younger audiences, as the play speaks about identity and the main character is 18 when his identity is re-examined.
We also want to play to diverse audiences, tour places where new writing is not always accessible. We need to distribute our artistry more evenly. This is a play for everyone, adopted or not, because it’s about family, love, pain, relationships the dynamics that bond and divide us. So we want to get it out there.
But with a cast of five, a team of 10 creatives, it’s not a cheap show. We are hugely grateful to our crowd funder backers and the support of the Arts Council funding that we are even able to do this. It’s important we deliver the play with high production values.
So what are your ambitions for Giving Up Marty and how do you take it forwards?
We want to engage with a producer who shares the same vision to deliver an extended version of the play. Coram want us to tour it around the UK and in addition, I want to connect with a USA theatre company to run an exchange programme of two adoption plays. I want to examine the cultural, social and political differences between our countries and how we can help improve and act upon adoption policy think tanks. We also want to deliver workshops using the play text and drama techniques to explore different aspects of what identity means in the context of adoption.
What can audiences expect from a trip to see Giving Up Marty?
Humour, love, pain and humanity. This play is hopeful.