getting BOLD with Karen Brody

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Karen Brody with her children – photo by Anna Vasquera-Vasques

Karen Brody is another wise woman I met via the internet. Like Ahri Golden, she’s all about shining a big spotlight on the issues surrounding childbirth. Her play, Birth, is a testimonies play about childbirth in America, and moves between first person monologues, some dialogue, and the voices women hear on the day of giving birth. This year, the play will be performed in cities around the world (India, Malta, Bermuda and many cities in the US including Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Washington to name a few!)as part of an amazing project called BOLD (Birth on Labor Day)

BOLD is a global movement that brings communities together to raise awareness about the importance of mother-friendly maternity care. Our goal is to make maternity care mother-friendly because, let’s face it, in most communities throughout the world it’s not.We know it’s time to be BOLD and we think BOLD’s conrnerstones – education, truth, and action – will make a difference to improving maternity care. – Karen Brody , from the BOLD web site.

I hope you enjoy my interview with Karen as much as I did!

1. You conducted over 100 interviews with women across America about their birthing experiences, did you know you wanted to write a play when you did the interviews? What brought you to write Birth?

When I set out to interview women about their birth stories I planned to write a book. About half-way into my interviews the voices I heard began to follow me – when I was driving my kids to school, on my morning walks – and slowly I began to see these stories on stage with all the voices these women heard when they were giving birth. A “birth stories” book felt too easy and I was concerned nobody would read it. I wanted to write something that had an impact, that forced people to really listen to the passion, intimacy and alarm in these stories. There are so many great childbirth books out there to read, but not a serious play. This inspired me.

Of course having my two kids had the most influence on my passion to write Birth. I see myself as lucky in many ways. I inherently knew where I wanted to give birth (at home) and with whom (midwives) and I was able to find a situation in Arkansas where I could get both. I also had a husband who was 100 percent on board, believing that where and how I gave birth was more about me (ie: where I felt safe) than him. So we ended up in a loving, supportive birth community (albeit small, this was Arkansas) and I had my first son in the bedroom of our log cabin surounded by my husband, 3 midwives and a doula feeding me herbal ice chips all chanting, “You can do it!” Two months later I saw an episode of A Baby’s Story on TLC and saw the complete opposite scenerio and I thought to myself: I must do something. This made writing Birth an urgent calling.

2. Why now? What’s happening in the world that makes this play so important, so urgent?

Statistically, the fact that a half million women die per year from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes is tragic. In the US the c-section rate is almost 30% (the World Health Organization says a 15% c-section rate for industrialized countries is acceptable) and women who want VBACs (vaginal birth after cesareans) are being denied them at hospitals and many falsely think they’re unsafe. This is unacceptable – mothers deserve better. Beyond the statistics, when I listen to mothers talk about birth I hear too many frightening stories of how women are being violated in the labor and delivery room – whether it’s through unkind words or being forced to consent to proceedures they don’t want. It’s important for mothers to start speaking up, to not feel shame from a bad birth experience, but instead to tell the world the truth and understand it was wrong. When a 35 year-old woman from Chicago tells me about her horrible birth story and that the next morning she woke up with crusty blood all over her, that she “looked and felt like I’d been shot from the waist down” I cannot help but feel mobilized to create a maternity care system that never does this to a mother. Is this really the way we want to be treating mothers?

3. What are some of the considerations (and difficulties) you’ve had in bringing Birth to the stage?

Right after the first 2 readings of Birth, when it was clear people were moved by the material, I struggled with whether to let the piece become an educational play versus gaining theatrical respect. I hadn’t realized there were two catagories – plays for educational purposes and plays that theatre people saw as great, well-respected plays. I wanted my play to be taken seriously by the theatre community mostly because I think the topic of birth always ends up in the fringe section. We can show birth as an educational play, but not a serious theatrical piece. I want birth, and Birth, to be taken seriously.

I also found it challenging to pick only 7 stories. I heard so many great stories!!! Also, once I had picked 7 stories I struggled with what to cut out and what to leave in. Sandy’s story still bothers me. In the original play I had some of her postpartum story, but decided in the final version to cut it. This was tough because I strongly believe a woman’s birth experience is not just the day she gives birth. I still think about adding a bit back about Sandy’s postpartum. In New York City this Labor Day the real Sandy will read her story to the audience and I am working with her on adding her postpartum story because it’s important and it had long-lasting effects on her emotional and physical health. (Read a little about Sandy’s story and the other women’s stories that make up the play.)

Oh, Ami, I could really go on and on list a million considerations with bringing Birth to the stage! Here’s a list: the decision not to focus on poor mothers was tough (I was a community organizer for years in developing countries and know these stories are important), whether to bring in birth stories from other generations to offer an historical perspective on birth, being clear about my vision when confronted with many other people’s vision of what should be in the play (I was particularly moved by the number of mothers who contacted me about having a miscarriage and how when you’ve had lots of miscarriages your goal is really just a healthy baby, not the birth experience), and then finally a really tough one for me is the midwives who do not like the play because they do not like that they play has a story in it where a woman did not have a good experience with a midwife. It was hard for me to get this criticism, but I felt the play must confront the challenges midwives face to practice the midwife model of care in a hospital setting and how some women who use midwives do not in fact get a midwife. I heard this alot and I have talked to many frustrated hospital-based midwives. There are of course some who are able to provide midwifery care in a medical setting, but it’s tough.

Aahh, when there’s a difficult decision to be made I just usually take a deep breath, go hug my kids and then plough on.

4. BOLD is taking the play a step further than it’s gone in the past. What kind of power (I love your thoughts on power in one of your blog entries!) do you think BOLD will bring to your vision and your work? What are your hopes for this project?

As I mentioned in my blog I feel when a force is powerful it moves us forward. To me, the only way forward in birth today is towards community and towards a system that honors and celebrates mothers. Right now everyone is calling the shots in the birth arena (accountants first, then doctors) and mothers’ voices are often silent. BOLD is working to change this. We’re asking: what do mothers want, what do they deserve and do they know the truth about birth? My wish is that BOLD takes the conversation on childbirth closer to mother-friendly. We need a force to knock the pendulum in another direction. This is what BOLD hopes to do. I’m hoping BOLD finds a way into people’s minds and hearts; that through theatre people can gather in nonthreatening, nonjudgemental spaces to hear important, truthful stories about birth and after the performance they will ask themselves: what can I do to improve birth for mothers?

I also hope BOLD connects people. If there is one thing people are missing in birth today it’s connection – to themselves and other mothers. I think a healthy baby is of course a very important outcome of giving birth, but I want to go a step further and say, wouldn’t it be wonderful if every pregnant woman felt her body rocks before, during and after birth? This is BOLD’s goal. For birth to become powerful women need to start gaining trust and faith in themselves and I’m convinced we can’t do it alone. We need to let community feed us. BOLD is trying faciliate this through performance and BOLD Talkbacks after the show.

If my dream came true for BOLD it would be to use the arts to connect people to birth and every year BOLD would gather people to tell the truth about birth so that birthing voices are always heard. I believe if our voices are silent, birth continues down a bleak road. If we speak, and listen, this is when birth becomes powerful again.

Visit the BOLD web site (to find a performance near you…)
and stop by Karen’s blog, BIRTH for the latest on the project!
Birth in San Jose, California. City Lights Theater Company, March 2006. – Photo, Christy Scherrer.

By the way, the August 26 stops on the Wise Women Blog Tour will include Veronika Robinson of The Mother magazine and thoughts from a full-time doula! You won’t want to miss them.

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