‘Lights up, Cardiff, 2023.’ I clearly remember typing those words over seven years ago. And I remember Zoë Waterman, the play’s director, reading them aloud in a rehearsal room for the first time.
2023 has been a long time coming to fruition. For a play which contains ideas regarding fertility, its actual birth in production follows a period of extremely slow gestation. In 2005, I was in a London pub theatre with a newspaper when I read coverage of a law change that meant in 2023, for the first time in the UK, children told they were born from donated eggs or sperm, upon turning 18, will be entitled to know the identity of their donor parent. The coverage was limited – a couple of lines – but it piqued my interest. Stories about donor siblings in other countries meeting for the first time began leaping out at me, the resultant UK decline in sperm donors as a consequence of the law change started to worry many. I bought a scrap-book and started gluing the articles in. But the lack of debate at the time amazed me. It wasn’t that I had particularly strong feelings either way about the law change, but I was staggered that something which would have such a huge impact on many lives had not really entered the public consciousness.
I wanted to explore it and I started to write. I had my trio of characters from the off –Mary, her genetic dad Chris, his husband John. I knew Chris and John would be figuring out how to have a child, and that this would be derailed by the arrival of Mary somehow, but I was struggling to settle the world around them. It was a future world – what would be going on? Would we be living with the consequences of global warming? Would Scotland have won independence and Wales be trying to follow in its stead? At the time, Brexit wasn’t even on the horizon. And I was having an interior debate with myself over whether such a story would be ‘too domestic’. It was a time when women were fighting to get their work onto main stages and feeling pigeon-holed on subject matter because of gender. I showed the play to a few people, it won a couple of competitions which gave me a boost, some people I respected said some nice things, and I threw it in the back of the wardrobe.
But it kept bugging me. I kept on with the scrapbook. I worked on other projects and plays but the ideas in 2023 wouldn’t leave my head.
Then the wardrobe’s contents were packed and unpacked again following a move to Cardiff. I blew the dust off its envelope wallet and contacted Zoë Waterman. I’d worked with Zoë several times before; her directorial instincts are phenomenal. She was up for doing a week’s R&D and we borrowed a room in the basement of the Sherman. I began rewriting but the birth of my first child somewhat derailed the process. Then, when he was still tiny, the then-opening scene was read at an event in Birmingham and I was contacted by actor Rob Harper who organised a week’s R&D at Chapter, bringing Zoë and myself together again, but also Professor Jacky Boivin from Cardiff University. Prof Boivin is an expert in development and health psychology whose research has focussed on fertility. She watched rehearsals and spoke to us at length about recent developments – scientific and cultural. For example, in New Zealand, gamete donation is listed on a birth certificate; the parents do not have the option of remaining silent, unlike in the UK. She also spoke of the pull the donor child feels to see their genetic parent’s face; after which they feel a bigger pull for their half-siblings.
With a fixed location in Cardiff and the future not too far away, the world around the three characters started to settle. But something was still missing; something I felt I needed thematically which linked Mary to Chris’ family and its absence much more. Then I read how, in America, a D/deaf lesbian couple had requested a deaf sperm donor so their child would, in all likelihood, be born deaf. I started to wonder –what would happen if I made Mary D/deaf? The idea felt a bit left-field. Even though I felt it would thematically work, I didn’t want to just write it. I’m a strong believer in write what you know – but also write what you don’t after a crazy amount of research. You have to own your subject matter. There’s an obligation and a responsibility on the playwright to get things right. I didn’t know if the D/deaf idea would work. I’m not D/deaf and I didn’t want to be glib. Zoë and I were in the process of setting up Illumine Theatre and we decided to try it. We received ACW funding for some R&D and worked with a deaf actress and experts like Jonny Cotsen and Maggie Hampton. It did work and there was a feeling we were doing something exciting –putting a D/deaf character on stage in a play that wasn’t actually about deafness. I checked the scientific validity of it as an idea. Embryos can now be screened for deafness, but not sperm. It was entirely possible that a determined donor could have slipped through the net. I rewrote the play.
Writing this piece has been the biggest juggling act to date of my creative life: combining its development with time off for two babies and also within it, combining the themes of genetics and D/deafness. I’m very aware of our responsibility as a company to both the D/deaf community and the gamete donor community and their offspring and how we need to create something sensitive, debate-provoking but not sensational or extremist. I believe that’s what we’re doing.
In addition, I cannot express how proud I am of the creative team we’ve assembled for Illumine’s first show; and also the fact that we have a play on in Cardiff, set in Cardiff with Cardiff actors – Stephanie Back, Tom Blumberg and Richard Elis. I’m also insanely grateful to everyone in the theatrical community here, who’ve all supported us from the off. I really hope people enjoy it.
This blog originally appeared on Arts Scene in Wales.