Guest Blog: To Have or Not To Have Children by Artistic Rebellion

Real life couple and theatre-makers Linn Johansson and Matthew Coulton are the duo behind Made From Love – a “fiercely honest and inventive” performance that questions the pressure to become parents, the expectations around pregnancy, and the dominant societal norms. 

Through the show, Linn and Matt invite the audience to explore a question many of us ask ourselves – to have or not to have children? In this blog, Matt & Linn discuss their own personal experiences whilst also giving in an insight into Artistic Rebellion’s creative process.

M: Early in our relationship, Linn fell unexpectedly pregnant which set us off on a rollercoaster of working out what we wanted to do in that situation, coming up against questions and expectations around pregnancy, and societal norms.  As feminists, we want to create as equal a relationship as possible. How can we do that when society doesn’t necessarily offer support?  As a freelancing man the government gives me no support in terms of parental leave, which instantly sets up a dynamic which isn’t comfortable for us, as it’s not an equal dynamic.

L: I was in the middle of drama school training, but I was 29 so it wasn’t an insane age to have children but I was a student who had no money and lived in a house share in London. Those images that you have from a pretty young age – when you’re an adult you meet someone and you buy house and you have a job and then you have children – I found myself pregnant but nowhere near that narrative.

Then there’s the biological aspect – however much you want to be in it together and be equal, it’s still happening in my body and not in Matt’s. We were very intensely preoccupied with trying to figure out the logical answer to whether we should keep this pregnancy or go through an abortion. In the end, however,  we made the decision to keep it because we just felt like it.  And then about two weeks after, I miscarried.

In our society, we talk about forming your identity through choice and control, which is quite a false idea because the two fundamental things we have absolutely no control over are birth and death, and those two can hit us at any point. Sure, you have some control with contraception, but then ”shit happens”.  We got very interested in the relationship between the human need control and the uncontrollable powers of nature.

M: We’re people who process by articulating things and by talking about it openly. We realised how common miscarriage is and how challenging it can be to talk about it.  With miscarriage you go on this rollercoaster when these options are open to you, life you dream into and then it’s gone, taken away from you.  The statistic is 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

L: People don’t talk about it.  Women’s health and women’s bodies are under prioritised.  The medical professionals also don’t know.  They didn’t know why I miscarried.  I didn’t get any proper pain relief. You’re just left with all these questions and very few answers. It’s a tricky grief to go though because it’s very abstract, as the person you’ve lost is not even a person yet, there’s nothing tangible. People don’t know how to talk about it.

Has creating this show been a cathartic experience?

L: We’re in the middle of it and we won’t really know until we’ve performed it, and given the story over to an audience to see what they receive and give back.

M: It’s a tricky thing because we want the piece to open those conversations up. We have a very personal relationship to it, so our experience informs us when we’re making the show, and making the show informs how we process our own experience.

How much is it your story, how much research, how much imagination?

L: Loads of imagination.  But funnily enough imagination is sometimes closer to reality than trying to recreate exactly what happened.

What is your devising process?

M: We have a few different approaches to devising.  Sometimes it’s a more improvisational mode where we just get into a space and try physical images or physical games.  Or we try and play out what a situation might be.  And other times it’s more of a writing led process.  We approach it from lots of different angles and then it’s a case of smashing all that together.

L: We’ve gathered lots and lots of material, images, sounds, stories. I’m interested in ancient myths and popular culture, the narratives we tell ourselves. We have a lot of post it notes everywhere and then we start cutting.

M: Last year we did a scratch of the show at The Barbican as part of the Fertility Fest and it was still a very unformed piece at that time.  We had loads of different ideas.  We could’ve made ten different shows.

Matt, you often work as a Movement Director, is movement a large element of this show?

M: A lot of our material started from an image or a physical exploration.  We’ve also been working with an excellent Movement Director, Jodie Cole.  We’ll have a fair bit of movement and physicality in the show. Quite a lot of clown elements as well.

L: We brought two people into the creative process that have been essential:  Jodie Cole who’s helped with movement and been an outside eye and Claire Parry, who has helped us with dramaturgy, is the person who has helped us go ‘ah we can cut all this’ and has a bit of a directing eye.  It felt really important that we involved other women, because we have different expectations and pressures and a different relationship to pregnancy and having children.

Linn, you’ve composed music for the show, how have you gone about that?

L: Just experimenting a lot.  I use loops and record my own midi melodies and vocals.  I’m interested in mixing music with soundscapes and everyday sounds such as the noise from a washing machine.

You’ve mentioned before that you interact with the audience.

M: I feel it’s very important to involve the audience in some way in this conversation because it is something that isn’t talked about. It can be a dialogue, you don’t have to try and work it out all on your own. This is especially apparent for men, as it is such a silent, untangible loss. We want to capture that. There’s also the aspect of choice. One thing that’s not going to be part of this show so much, but we have talked about for the future – is exploring a way to involve the audience as a key deciding aspect of the show throughout.

Why do you think people are waiting later to have children, or not having children at all?

M: I think it’s partly society’s expectations. You have to be at a certain point in your career, you have to have reached a certain place in life, you have to be financially stable; but how can you achieve that level of stability when the rental market is so overpoweringly expensive that you can barely make ends meet. Then again, how much does that matter?  Do you have to own your own place before having a family? The pressures of having to build your career in a fast paced and ever-changing world, where 20,000 other people can do the same job as you.  The whole gender inequality aspect is a massive part.

L: We live in a capitalist society where social support has decreased which makes a massive difference for women; we don’t have affordable childcare; we don’t have affordable houses;  we don’t have free higher education. The women are the ones who do all those duties for free when society doesn’t cover it, and that’s how we get away with it, which locks women into the home.  However now because we’ve had some level of feminist liberation we are also allowed in the workplace, but instead of being freed, the workplace is still not adapted to us.  We still don’t get proper parental leave.  We are now in a double prison where we’re still doing 80%, in Sweden anyway, of the household work, and we are also trying to have a career which means we’re working around 200%. And if you’re not a high income taker you’re stuck in that.  And the women who are high income takers, employ other women – nannies, cleaners.  The woman are carrying this.  Feminism has failed as we’ve driven an agenda where we want the same as men but it’s within a discourse that’s about individualism and it’s not traditional female ideals of care giving, which is not valued.  The only way to liberate both men and women is to have a society were we collectively look after our children, where housing isn’t insane. The inequality between who has a lot and who has a little, those gaps are getting bigger.  It comes down to gender but also to class.

M: The double narrative that you have to be so successful in your career and bring home the money but be a perfect parent at the same time.  As a father you can’t slack off from work but you don’t have the parental leave necessary to achieve equality, depending on the employer.  At least in Sweden you get to divide the leave up between the two of you.

L: Even in Sweden most people have the woman take most of the parental leave, even if she’s the higher earner.

What do you hope for the future of this show and for Artistic Rebellion?

M: It would be great to have a future life for the show.  One of the things that’s very apparent in the devising proces is that you only really know how clear things are going to be; how it’s going to be received; what the show is, when you do it, when you have an audience there. You get that feedback from them both in the playing of it and in any dialogue you have afterwards.  For us, both in terms of the show and this being our first project together as a comoany, that’s going to be really important.

L: I’m really looking forward to having an audience, as much as that’s also terrifying –   we’ve made this, now you tell us what we made. We’ll see how that lands and if it communicates what we want it to communicate.  If there’s scope for it, it would be cool to take it to other Fringe venues, or to take it to Edinburgh.  With some Arts Council funding, we could collaborate with other amazing artists.

M: There are some great off-beat venues like Soho and Battersea Arts Centre I think the show would suit. CPT is so great as a platform for trying things out and experimenting.

L:  We’d love to take it to Sweden.  It would be great to have a base in both countries.  The art world in the UK is quite rich and the world in Sweden is quite small, but they are ahead in terms of parental leave and gender equality. As a company, we want to keep making political work and taking it on tour in both countries.

M: Yes – as a company, finding and questioning the stories that need to be told, that are interesting, that are common experiences, but aren’t necessarily everyday. And we want to keep finding an interesting theatrical language!