Natalie Meisner is a widely produced author of stage plays and an award-winning multi-genre author. Her play BOOM BABY (about the lives of Maritimers working in the oil patch) won both the Canadian National Playwriting Award and the Alberta Playwriting Award and will debut at Eastern Front Theatre in 2020. Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family topped nonfiction lists and was a finalist in the Atlantic Book Awards. SPEED DATING FOR SPERM DONORS (Playwright’s Canada Press, forthcoming) was a hit at Lunchbox and Neptune Theatres. Her first children’s book My Mommy, My Mama, My Brother & Me is available from Nimbus Publishing. Baddie One Shoe, a new book of poems, is an ode to the renegades of the past and present who fight the powers that be with laughter. Legislating Love: The Everett Klippert Story looks at the life of the last person to be jailed for homosexuality in Canada. Meisner is a wife and mom to two great boys and a Professor in the Department of English at Mount Royal University where she works in the areas of creative writing, drama and gender/sexuality studies. www.nataliemeisner.com
To look up from my own work as a playwright and professor and edit this issue of Understory Magazine, with its focus on diverse stories of womxn on stage, was in some ways the pause that refreshes. It is inspiring to have this opportunity to engage with the unique and rich work being done by artists across the country. How invigorating to edit this issue at a time when equity, diversity, and inclusion are finally coming to the forefront of theatre and the performing arts! Pow.
Many thanks to Katherine Barrett for helping to shape and refine the idea for this issue. There were many ideas in the air when she asked me to edit an issue. Some might have easier but this, we felt, was the most needful and challenging. To have a glimpses into the lives, work, and artistic practices of the writers you see featured here, and to deliver their work to you, is a distinct honour. You will find excerpts from plays or performance texts, creative nonfiction about the inner lives of performers, and poems that capture the particular frisson of “liveness” and what it means to be on stage.
At the same time, editing this issue was also heartbreaking in some ways. As The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre, Equity in Theatre, and other similar initiatives reveal, there is a still a huge disparity between the challenging and rich work being done by womxn and what actually makes it onto Canadian stages. There are so many calls for “opportunities” for playwrights … that don’t offer much opportunity at all. There are so few opportunities for real play development and production. So much more work to be done.
It was a key and joyful part of this process to co-edit with writer and Mount Royal University student Audrey Jamieson. A colleague and I were recently discussing the fact that if you don’t have a mentee under thirty years old, you’re kinda doing it wrong. This is as true of editing a magazine as it is in the classroom or in the rehearsal hall. As I enter the middle (ahem, prime) of life as an artist, it is just as important to be a mentee as it is to be mentor. We must all strive to attune our ears to fellow artists in all stages of their lives.
We are really proud to offer you this issue, Diverse Stories of Women on Stage. It is in no way exhaustive, but it is certainly rich and diverse.
This thing always seemed
too tame or domesticated.
Beyond you with muscles & tattoos
your hitch-hiking skills and ability to tie
all seven essential knots (the clove hitch, the half hitch)
too fecund too essential
how could you make milk:
nurse or be nursed?
(the verb, the noun)
Sadly you picture a cow.
Nothing against the dear beasts but their
symbol; the music they make in the mind’s eye.
Nothing against them but their horrifying dugs
That hang so low. (the bowline, the square knot)
But these were ideas. And foolish ones.
All before the fact, but can’t know a thing until
you know it. (the sheet bend, the taut line)
Suddenly your body cinches and heaves with
Preternatural force: You are in the thick of it.
This is blooded battle, tooth and claw, life and death and
There is nothing, nothing
you wouldn’t do
To succour, protect
Yes, to nurse (the verb)
In the bleakest hours of labour the thought appears: Tigers make milk, too.
Clatters on a ticker tape ribbon in the telegraph machine in your head while contractions rule you like riptides and at the end when he arrives, beloved man first born, you get it: This is fierce. Not just the Tiger, the Cow, too
I am tiger, I am the cow, too.
I am she.
Natalie Meisner is a writer from Lockeport, Nova Scotia. She currently lives in Calgary and teaches creative writing, drama, and literature at Mount Royal University. In her forthcoming book, Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family, Natalie describes the decision she made with her partner, Viviën, to become pregnant–at the same time. Double Pregnant will be released on Mother’s Day, 2014, by Roseway/Fernwood Publishing. Here, we offer a preview of the chapter “Not Hollywood.”
We arrive in Nova Scotia with no further complications and make an appointment at the hospital on the South Shore where we will give birth. They need to do a series of tests in order to begin monitoring both us and the babies. Because this is a whole new world for us, we decide to take the optional tour that is run for couples expecting their first child. The head nurse shows us around the facility. We tour an observation room, a birthing room and a recovery room while she talks us through some possible scenarios of how our birth experience could run.
We are taking this tour with four other couples, and as we enter the birthing room, the nurse indicates some stools and chairs where we are to sit while she answers any questions we might have. Large padded chairs are grouped in pairs with utilitarian wooden stools. The nurse, indicating our swollen bellies, says she’s pretty sure the pregnant women need the comfortable chairs. The fathers-to-be head for the stools. The problem comes when we head for our set of chairs. Viviën is definitely showing and obviously pregnant but is still trying to be tough. She says she’s fine with a stool. She’s only six months pregnant, after all. She waves me toward the comfy chair. One of the fathers-to-be jumps up and darts into the corridor. He comes back with a padded chair and puts it in the place of Viviën’s stool. It is a little gesture, yet one that goes a great distance toward making us feel at home.
I give him a smile as Viviën settles in, and the nurse begins talking us through what to expect when we come in to have our babies. She explains that we should come to the hospital either when our water breaks or our contractions are five minutes apart. Then we will be put on the monitor for observation. Every woman’s labour is different, she stresses, and the hospital tries hard to accommodate different kinds of births. There are cots available that can be wheeled into the room so that our partner can stay over during the birth process. When we are determined to be in active labour, we will be given a birthing room, but we are free to walk the halls, take a bath, use the birthing ball or the mats and do whatever our bodies tell us. This hospital appears to be remarkably forward thinking compared to some that I read about.
The nurse handles a few more practical questions before she gets to the juicy part: pain relief. I can feel all the pregnant women around the circle shift forward in their chairs. No matter what our views on this subject might be, no matter what kind of birth we hope to have, we all want to hear what she has to say next. The nurse says there are methods of pain relief that work independently and also in conjunction with one another to assist women during the process. Of course breathing, relaxation, movement and bathing are all helpful. If those methods aren’t enough, you can request an intramuscular injection of a painkiller such as diamorphine or pethidine, but this must be given early in the labour. If it is too close to delivery, it might slow down the baby’s breathing. During the first stages of labour they use a numerical scale to notate the dilation of the uterus. In preparation for birth a woman must go from zero to ten, ten being fully dilated. This process, says the nurse, can be quite painful for some women, while others might only feel a kind of pressure. Once you are in labour, you can request a mask that is connected to a tank of nitrous oxide and oxygen. When you breathe in this gas, it can reduce pain but can also make you feel light-headed and sometimes nauseous. She hauls out the tank and mask to show us what it looks like.
I glance sideways at Viviën to gage her thoughts at this point and notice that she looks woozy. She has low blood pressure, and sometimes if she is ill, or distressed, or even if she sees blood or a needle, she faints. I recognize the twirling dark look in her pupils and lean over to ask her if she is okay.
“Of course the heaviest form of pain relief is the epidural. This is a needle in the back …” Suddenly the nurse jumps forward in alarm. Just as I am whispering in Viviën’s ear, she faints and is sliding down in her chair. Another pregnant woman and I grab her elbows and help her slide safely to the floor. She has told me this is a terrifying experience for her—she hates the feeling of losing control of her body. So, after helping her to the floor, I talk to her, stroking her back and then her cheek for a few moments until she starts to come around again. My only concern is that Viviën gets through the spell as calmly as possible. But the fathers-to-be, the other pregnant women and even the nurse are all pale with shock. One of the guys offers up his coat as a pillow for her head.
“Well I guess that concludes our tour,” the nurse says, shaking her head. “That’s the first time I’ve ever lost one this early in the game.”
It gives me a stab of panic to see Viviën’s strong body go down this way. Especially when I feel so vulnerable myself. There have only been a couple times when I’ve questioned the wisdom of what we’ve done, never the pregnancies themselves, but the timing. Maybe we shouldn’t have tried to get pregnant at the same time. Maybe I should have just supported her through this. Am I an idiot? What if I can’t get her to the hospital? Doesn’t the husband have to drive at Mach 2 through a blinding snowstorm to get his beloved wife to the hospital? Carry her into the emergency room in his arms in the nick of time…. Wait, that’s Hollywood.
The unfortunate thing about living in an age so saturated with cinematic images is that they can frequently pull a bait-and-switch on you for the circumstances of your real life. We aren’t the Hollywood version of a family. I couldn’t carry my woman over the threshold like the hero of the story even if we weren’t both pregnant! But just like anyone in love, I would do anything, I mean anything, in the world for her. Whatever we have to do for each other, we’ve always found the strength for, and this won’t be any different.