2019 so far has been a year of slowing down, of processing, of creating and being confronted by buried truths.

Allow me to expand. 

For me, 2019 has become a year of grief. This has come as a surprise on some levels, on other levels though, it feels like I’ve been heading in this direction all of my life. 

Here’s why:

When I was almost four months old my beloved twin sister Aisling died. This loss, of someone that otherwise would have been my closest relative, and possibly even my most important relationship, is not a loss I’ve stopped and thought about much.

Aisling and myself

When I was in my second year at university, I attempted to explore this story as part of a theatre performance paper, creating a small performance which involved scrunched up newspaper and retelling of dreams. I barely scratched the surface.

In 2016 I was living in Glasgow and shared an informal sermon like performance on the anniversary of her death, inviting theatre making friends to watch. Even then, I felt uncertain about telling this story, gut-punched by the photographs and home video of my family when Aisling was alive, I was caught more in the awe of my parents and their ability to survive such a loss. 

Last year my grandmother died, and again I was drawn to the story of my twin, my origin story if you will. New grief pulled old grief to the surface.

But this time has felt different. In part this is because, as I’m now in my late 20s, I find myself entering a deeper state of self awareness. In the past this story hasn’t felt like my own, I’ve often felt distant and disconnected from it. 

This has changed drastically. 

Early this year I began going to therapy. After spending months binging on self help books, podcasts and the like it felt time to seek professional help. 

It is not lost on me that I sought help at the same time that I began to face the intimidating challenge of making a performance about my experience as a twinless twin. 

Late last year when I told the story of Aisling to a more established theatre maker, she responded by saying that everyone has a story, and this sounded like it was mine.

No pressure.

So much pressure.

In May just been, which also happens to be the month that Aisling died, I went home to Nelson and spent three days at our bach at Lake Rotoiti with two boxes of Aisling related papers – letters, medical records, personal journals. pamphlets etc, as well as a bunch of my own written reflections, drawings and the like.

This was a sort of self created writing retreat, and it was a kaleidoscope of emotional experiences.

Some of these experiences involved dancing wildly to tunes by Earth Wind & Fire and The Temptations. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon eh.

Lake Rotoiti just before I jumped in
10th May 2019

On the morning of the last day, I jumped into the freezing lake. 

The next day, having returned to Nelson, I sat down with my parents and interviewed them about their memories and feelings surrounding the short life of my twin sister.

A week or so after my return to Auckland, I headed over to Waiheke island and spent time with a good friend and a large roll of paper, writing out themes, questions and ideas, and discussing the idea of creating a project about my twinlessness. We walked on the beach together before we began, spotting starfish corpses and colourful shells as we unfurled stories of love, loss and grief. 

The ferry to Waiheke island, coffee in tow

Next month I will spend a week in a rehearsal room with an ever increasing stack of written content, family photos, interview audio etc.

I don’t know how it will go. 

There are a lot of things I don’t know.

This morning, I walked down to the tepid baths through a delightfully foggy Auckland, white mists gently dampening my hair. 

Often, creatives question why we make. Especially when there is no guarantee of ‘success’. I like the philosophy that Liz Gilbert holds, which comes in the form of a question: ‘Am I curious about who I will become in the process of creating this thing?’

Exploring this story is challenging me in ways that are shaking me to my very core. It turns out, this story is very much my own. At times it feels like I have been hiding from it my entire life, shaking off peoples pitying glances whenever I end up explaining what happened. 

I am wildly grateful to be in therapy during this process, and honestly don’t think I could confront this personal history and all it contains without regular support. 

It is forcing me to slow down, to move far more gently than I habitually do. 

We race through life, don’t we?

I meditate regularly but still I find myself racing. We do it for different reasons, we understand it at different levels depending on how honest we’re willing to be with ourselves.

When you finally slow down, after all that racing, a lot catches up with you.

As you can tell, I am deep in this creative journey. It is taking a lot from me and there is pain.

But it is also, cliched though it may sound, a total gift. 

There are a lot of things I don’t know.

But one thing remains clear to me: this is exactly where I’m meant to be. 

It is frightening, but it is also important. Not in a heavy way, but in a simple way.

I am deep underwater, learning to breathe.

I don’t know what will come of all this. A lot of learning has begun, and I suspect a lot more will follow.

Rosemary publicity image by Andrew Gunn

Over the last few months I have been working as a dramaturg on a multidisciplinary dance work titled ‘Rosemary’ for the Auckland Fringe Festival.

‘Rosemary’ is a meditation/exploration of the elusive symbol of the Mother/Virgin Mary. This was a wildly rich and at times daunting starting point for creating performance, and one I was instantly attracted to. The journey around and into the depths of Mary has been both gentle and explosive.

I have not worked as a dramaturg before – though I have discussed it with potential collaborators. Luckily though, I had taken a few papers in dramaturgy during my undergraduate degree at Vic Uni in Wellington, and paired with my rigorous Masters degree in Acting and text interpretation I felt equipped, albeit fresh.

Rosie & Jazmine performing Rosemary – production still by Carl Naus 

Rosie Tapsell – one of the co creators of the piece – described my role as one of ‘midwife’ to the creative process, with herself and the extraordinary Jazmine Rose Philips as the ‘mothers’ or ‘life givers’ of the piece – interesting how even our metaphors were mother inspired.

During the process, I dug up a beautiful ezine created by Andy Edwards and Paul Hughes titled ‘Talking Dramaturgy’ to start unpacking how I might be of service to the work.

It is a strange role – and depends entirely upon the specific project being made and how the creative team is built up.

In this instance, there was no director, so at times it was simply a matter of being an outside eye and providing some notes on how things looked, though for me it came back to asking questions in order to gain clarity – as well as simply being present during the creative process – a sort of stand in audience – in order for the creators to consider how things might be interpreted.

‘Talking Dramaturgy’ has a variety of excellent pieces on what is a very elusive role – but the writing that I found most useful was Andy’s description of dramaturgy as :

“a form of soft, or gentle, idiocy – that’s a quality of being open to the work, being open to what I don’t know, being able to, after Simon Ellis, call things as I see them, rather than call things as I think they should be seen.”

This is a surprisingly tricky task, and I know there were points where I was receiving the work very much through the lens of someone who went to a Catholic school for the first eight years of my life. But then, Rosie was aware of this background when she asked me to come on board – so I had to trust that this lens was useful.

As a performer who is typically in the work, rather than observing it, this experience was both a challenge and a freedom. A chance to stand back and view the creation process with a looser attachment.

A production still of Rosemary – taken by Carl Naus 

The shows run at Basement Theatre is over now, and on Sunday 3rd March it won the Auckland Fringe award 2019 for Best Dance – a lovely cherry on top of a deliciously fragrant cake.

‘Hail Mary full of grace’…the paradoxes and contrary constructions surrounding Jesus’s maw are seemingly never ending and absurd. But there is also something rich and important about her once all the bullshit is shoved aside – something I think we glimpsed in the creative process – something abundant and charming and messy…something a little beyond our grasping.

I remain in awe of the ways that Rosie and Jazmine navigated and unfolded their creative relationship. The waters were not always calm, and during the creation process Jazmine experienced an assault and subsequently protested the assault and the disappointing police response by utilising her performance art skills, for more info check out the spinoff article – https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/14-02-2019/k-road-naked-protester-i-was-feeling-the-violence-towards-all-women/

A painting of Mary by artist Steven Thomas – gifted to American author and speaker Rob Bell

Mary’s contrary

She makes the sun shine bright

She’s full of grace…

Energy

She sits in her full palette

We’ve stretched her in many directions

Opened and explored

We’ve been specific

And curious

Musical wizardry

Twitching dynamic physicality

Sacred

Profane

Reverent and irreverent

Meeting and sparking

Rats birthed

A korero about a statue

Spines

Video game Mary

Blurred with debutante balls in white shiney gowns, vulvic symbols, suspended herbs

“Are you going to Scarborough Fair”

Pleasing others in sacrifice of ourselves

Betrayal and denial

“Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme”

Deep front line Myofascial muscles

White flowing fabrics painted red

And the sacred heart of Mary pulsing to Ne-Yo’s ‘Closer’

As the gentle idiot midwife, I did my best to stand by and guide the various surprising births which occurred in response to what is a deep rooted iconic birth and life within western tradition

I checked which direction things were moving

I monitored heartbeats and temperatures

Now in post show reflection, with a cup of tea and a laptop, I can see clearly how this process challenged and shaped me by placing before me an unsolvable mystery.

Rosie with a spine (maybs Jesus’s?) – production still by Carl Naus


Mary is someone whom a lot was and is written about, but, as Uta Ranke-Heinemann puts it “Theologians wanted to teach people ABOUT her, not to be taught BY her.”

To attempt to listen to and learn FROM her, after all this chatter around and about her, requires such a deep patience and gentleness – the kind many women are taught not to have with ourselves.

“Many people may well have hankered after the image of a queen of heaven, but many more would have preferred a human being…”(Ranke-Heinemann)

Her mystery still entices me, and I suspect it will for some time yet…