Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Zena Forster: After Birth

By | Published on Friday 18 February 2022

As a mother – but also just a human being – I was very interested when I heard about ‘After Birth’, a play about postpartum mental health by playwright Zena Forster.

It is one of a number of productions originally due to be on as part of the cancelled Vault Festival which are instead being hosted by the Omnibus Theatre.

It sounds like an intriguing piece, not least because it takes us inside the mind of its central character rather than observing from a distance, but also because of the mental health focus and its darkly comical nature.

I spoke to Zena ahead of the upcoming run to find out more about the play and the creative force behind it.

CM: Can you start by telling us about what happens in the show? What story does it tell and who are the central characters in the piece?
ZF: ‘After Birth’ is a recovery story. Ann was once a popular singer at a holiday camp – she loved the glamour, the parties, the fun. She loved her life. But since having children Ann has lost herself, lost her voice. ‘After Birth’ is the story of how she finds it again. It is a story of resilience and hope, it is a celebration of love and friendship and care.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
ZF: Ann has been accused of being a Bad Mother and is awaiting trial on a mediaeval plague island. The royal family want her dead, they want her baby. The Virgin Mary is detained in an adjacent cell. ‘After Birth’ is set inside Ann’s head during an episode of postpartum psychosis.

The play uses the extreme experiences of Ann and Mary, the patient next door to her, to dramatise and explore motherhood. Ann is paranoid, Mary has grandiose delusions – but what new mum hasn’t felt like everyone is judging her? What new mum hasn’t strained to live up to an ideal? The onstage experiences may be extreme, but they are also highly relatable.

CM: How would you describe it in terms of style or genre? Is it a funny show?
ZF: This is a dark comedy set in a complex world. There are moments of tragedy, but there are also moments of pure farce. And because the play is set inside an entertainer’s head, there’s a lot of music and a lot of bantering with the audience.

CM: Who is it aimed at? What messages do you want to convey?
ZF: The play is aimed at people who enjoy new writing and like comedy with sharp edges. It will appeal to audiences who want to engage in honest conversations around female roles and motherhood. ‘After Birth’ also seeks to raise awareness and reduce stigma around maternal mental health and in particular postpartum psychosis.

CM: What was the inspiration for the show? Why did you want to create something with these themes and subject matter?
ZF: I wanted to create a play where mothers took centre stage, and after talking to women with lived experience of postpartum psychosis I was determined to tell a relatable story that people could connect with. I set the play in Ann’s head, because once we see what Ann sees, when we feel what she feels, then it becomes very difficult to judge or stigmatise her.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process? Did you do lots of research before writing it?
ZF: I always start my writing process with a character. I have lots of characters in my head – they are very real to me.

When I have an idea for a plot I survey my characters and choose who is going to live through it. It’s a bit like casting. Ann has lived in my head for a long time – naughty, clever, blunt and funny. She’s indomitable and has much in common with the funny, resilient people I interviewed as part of the planning for this piece.

Those interviews were probably the most important research I did for the play, but I also spent time exploring the work of our academic partners, the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit – or NPEU – a multidisciplinary research unit at the University Of Oxford.

Their research informed many of the choices I made about the characters I focused on and the story I wanted to tell. It was NPEU research that exposed the shocking fact that in the UK today black women are up to five times more likely to die in the perinatal period than white women.

It became important to include diverse characters and different story arcs in the play. NPEU research has also shown that suicide is the number one killer of women in the year after giving birth.

This tragedy is particularly poignant given that maternal mental health conditions are some of the most curable – if women get the right support, they can recover. So it became important for me to tell a story about extreme danger, but to show that there is a way out of that danger.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the team involved in bringing it to the stage?
ZF: We have an incredible team, including director Grace Duggan, who is an award-winning theatre maker, director and community artist from East London. The Omnibus run and tour will have a new cast, including Sally Tatum as Ann, plus Leona Allen and George Fletcher.

Our creative team is made up of set and costume designer Sascha Gilmour; assistant set designer Hattie Lewington; lighting and sound designer Will Alder and associate Gareth Weaver; emerging young composer Harris Grant-Forster; stage manager Niamh Percy; and graphic designer Molly Dunne.

We also have incredible charity and academic partners on the show. Action On Postpartum Psychosis – or APP – is the national charity for women and families affected by postpartum psychosis, a severe mental illness which begins suddenly following childbirth. Anyone looking for further information or help can find it here.

And, as I mentioned, our academic partners are the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, whose mission is to conduct research that will provide evidence to improve the care provided to women, babies and families during pregnancy, childbirth, the newborn period and early childhood.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself now? What drew you to a career in the arts? Was it what you always wanted to do, and how did it begin?
ZF: I am a playwright based in Oxford, and have written for stage and radio. I think I always had characters and stories in my head, so writing was always going to be something I did.

I think I was rather naïve in the early days and I spent far too long writing and not nearly enough time networking. I had no networks and connections and then I had children.

As soon as I learnt to take every opportunity and make personal contact with people then I started to get work.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
ZF: I would like to be in a position where I can focus on my writing. Producing and fundraising take up a lot of time and headspace, and although that’s been a great learning experience, I would like to now refocus on my writing again. There is one particular character who is absolutely desperate to make her entrance.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
ZF: I think I’ve found a story for my insistent character and now I’d like to spend some time writing it.

‘After Birth’ is on at the Omnibus Theatre from 22-26 Feb, read more and book tickets here. The show then tours to Norwich, Gravesend, Wolverhampton and Lyme Regis.

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