Sunday 21 July 2019

'I asked GP for morning-after pill. He gave me a lecture on abortion and I left in tears' - star of new show Eggsistentialism

Actress Joanne Ryan is confronting a most fundamental question - to be a mother or not - via her new one-woman show, equal parts hilarious and serious

"Trying to make the decision is hard, because what it means in practical terms for my life, our lives, is pretty grim," says Joanne Ryan on motherhood

Emily Hourican

'We had to do this exercise where we had to stand up and, off the cuff, talk about things we're afraid of or angry about for one minute. So I did my minute. At the very end, they said 'time's up', and I said '. . . and I don't know whether or not I should have a baby'. The room just went quiet, and I said 'I don't know where that came from, but that's the question'."

Actress Joanne Ryan - shortlisted for an Irish Times Theatre Award for best leading actress in 2014 for her role in What Happened Bridgie Cleary - is talking about the genesis of her new show Eggsistentialism, a one-woman examination of whether or not to have a baby, with all the many and myriad considerations that wait upon that decision.

As she says herself, this is very much a personal, comedic journey through the last nearly-two-years of her life, but it is also an examination of the social and political structure within which we all live, explaining: "On the one hand, it's just about me and my decision, on the other, it's politically and socially fraught. The more I thought about it, the more complex the question became."

Joanne admits she is "not great at decision-making anyway . . . I tend to over-analyse, over-think myself into a quandary" (although she is later at pains to clarify "I'm making myself sound like a lunatic now and I'm not; I quite enjoy analysing things, I don't have any anxiety problems"), but here, she is far from exaggerating the impact of the choices in front of her.

"The thing that really strikes me about this decision is it's so final," she says. "If I decide not to, that's it. If I decide to, there's no going back. You can't un-have the child. It's not a house or a car, or a relationship that you can end. It's an intense decision."

But let's go backwards a bit, to the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick almost two years ago, which is where - as part of a four-month theatre incubation scheme - Joanne first blurted out that fateful question. Did she know, before she said the words, that the issue was so much on her mind?

"In hindsight, maybe a bit, but I didn't know I was going to say it," she says. "The course coincided with my 35th birthday, which is sort of a loaded day. At that age we're told it's the point of decline for fertility. It's the cliff edge. At that point I didn't feel any different, mentally or physically, than I had 10 years previously, but I was being told I had to figure this thing out, and I didn't know what the answer was at all."

Add to that the fact that Joanne's father had died a short time before, the very week she had been due to move to Dublin from Limerick to pursue stand-up comedy and writing.

"I had accommodation sorted, a part-time acting job to pay the bills, and my father died very suddenly. That put the kibosh on everything," she recalls.

And so, she says, the idea of children "had been percolating. I feel it had been partially triggered by my dad dying, because you become more aware of your own mortality when you lose a parent."

Simple awareness, however, was not - could not - be enough to make the decision easy. So how did she feel?

"Terrible," she says. "It was really stressful."

She says this with a big laugh, although she clearly means what she said. Throughout the interview, Joanne - who is thoughtful, careful as well as hilarious, and analytical in what she says - goes off into occasional peals of laughter that nearly double her up. It's an infectious laugh, deep and raucous, but it doesn't in any way take away from the seriousness of what she says. The show has a similar dynamic. Despite the fundamental gravity of the question, it is full of fun.

"I did some wacky stuff," Joanne says. "I went to fortune-tellers as well as fertility clinics." So what did the fortune-teller say? "The reason I went is because I thought 'maybe I know the answer to this already. Maybe I have a gut feeling and I'm over-thinking it'. So if the fortune teller told me I'd have a child, I might have an emotional reaction - relief, excitement, disappointment - and then I might figure out what I really felt," she explains, before adding "it didn't work".

So, what insight did she gain? "She told me 'don't pick up anything heavy, you might put out your back…', and 'tell your mother to get a pair of wide-fitting, comfortable shoes, she might have an ingrown toenail'. You actually couldn't make it up," she roars laughing.

And the fertility clinics? "The difficulty increases with every passing year. Forty was the number that really came up - it gets much trickier after that," she says. "I did get my eggs counted early on, because I thought 'maybe I'm wasting my time, and the decision had already been made for me by nature'. But it hadn't. I was completely average, so back to square one!"

At this stage, I have to ask - what about a partner? Was this soul-searching happening within the context of a relationship?

"My boyfriend, Rob, and I had just met," Joanne tells me, adding, "the day I had to tell him, 'I'm trying to figure this out . . .' we had been together a couple of months, at most." At this stage, she's laughing so hard that no more words come out, but I can imagine.

"We met on Tinder, he was my first date on Tinder. I took a break from men for about a year after my dad died, then went on my first date, and we're still together," she says. "So I had to tell him about this nuts stuff, and that I was thinking of writing a show about it, which was even more nuts. And he took it very well. He brought a lot to it. He said 'it's really interesting, it's important - people don't talk about it and it's a thing'. Also, for him, as a man, he didn't have the same time pressures as me, but he still had to make the decision. And he didn't know what he wanted to do either, so he said 'maybe the show will help me too'."

There is, she says "so much shame still around being able to reproduce. It feels that we haven't caught up socially to where we are demographically. It's estimated now that one fifth of young Irish women will never become mothers, and that's an increasingly legitimate choice, but there are no positive role models represented in the media."

Instead, we agree, there is the same old two-hander: prurient interest in whether or not certain celebrities are pregnant, along with the sneery assumption that no woman's life, no matter how successful, can be complete without children.

So does Joanne feel that her generation have been sold a pup? Encouraged to be ambitious, work hard, forge a career - then berated for not having children earlier, for leaving it 'too late'?

"Yes, absolutely," she says. "There's a bit in the show where I look at what would happen if I was to get pregnant tomorrow, and me and Rob were to have a baby," she adds. "Only since a couple of weeks ago, he'd be entitled to two weeks' paternity leave. The State would give €230 a week to him for those two weeks, and that's it. That's the end of it. Men are not, culturally and Constitutionally, supported to parent their children in this country."

She mentions a recent, shocking report into unpaid childcare and who does it, carried out by the Overseas Development Institute. Out of 37 countries surveyed, including Iraq and Algeria, Ireland finished last, with 93pc of childcare done by women, as compared with Sweden, where the split is 63:37 female-male.

"I knew things were bad," says Joanne, "but the split . . . I'll get emotional talking about it, because I find it upsetting."

Sure enough, she is visibly moved by the enormity of the battle, falling momentarily silent, before saying: "I'm kind of speechless, still. Trying to make the decision is hard, because what it means in practical terms for my life, our lives, is pretty grim. I'm an artist and a theatre-maker so, unsurprisingly, Rob makes more money than me - it wouldn't be difficult. I see my friends with babies, and it's hard enough already without having to also be a professional and creative trail-blazer."

Joanne's mother appears as a character within the show, in recordings and clips taken from conversations the pair have had.

"In the show, she's passing remarks on everything - she's a very Irish mother, pass-remarkable - but she's also the generational link. She's interesting and, I hesitate to use the word eccentric, but she was quite ahead of her time. At my age, she was on her way to a kibbutz."

Joanne herself lived in Bangkok for eight years, where she taught English and worked as a journalist, before coming back to Ireland and getting a job on TG4's Ros na Run.

"My mother lived all over the place," she says, "which I don't think was that common. She was sure she wouldn't have children and wouldn't get married - and she didn't get married - and I was kind of an accident that she got on with."

Joanne's dad was from Kerry, and she is an only child. "We're massively close," she says of her mother. "She's a single mother, I'm an only child. She's been really involved in the process from the outset."

The show also contains what Joanne describes as "elements of documentary. I started thinking about Ireland's sexual history. My grandmother was born in 1916, and so was the nation, so we kind of start there.

"When you put everything down, even things that happened in my lifetime, I'm still shocked. The date marital rape became a crime, the sale of the morning-after pill, by prescription - there was still a caveat that a doctor could choose not to prescribe it - and I had that experience. I was in Dublin, I needed the morning-after pill, I went to a doctor and he refused. He gave me a lecture on abortion, and I left in tears.

"I was 21, so that was 2001. Then, in 2011, Boots started selling the morning-after pill, without prescription, and then you could buy it in any pharmacy. But again, a chemist could refuse to sell it - as happened to me. I was filming in Connemara, Ros Na Run, and I was with my boyfriend at the time when I needed the pill, and again, I was refused. It really struck me, because I was in a rural village and I wasn't driving. Luckily, I wasn't pregnant - but the impact those kinds of laws and loopholes have on people's lives."

Where did her interest in feminism come from? "It's weird to hear it described like that . . . 'an interest in feminism'," she says, adding with a mock-serious voice: "The interest in being a woman and living in an equal society, when did that start?"

She goes off into peels of laughter, then adds in a serious tone: "When I was younger, I had the feeling that gender was irrelevant. I thought 'we can do anything, there's no real difference between men and women'. I know now that's not the case, that there are lots of ways we're different, and that's wonderful, but I don't know when I started to realise that things were different for me because I was a woman, and started to feel sad that I was alive at the time that I was."

Really? She felt sad to be alive? "Yeah. I have done," she says. "Less so now. But I think it's sad for everybody when things are unequal. No one benefits from an unequal world. Now I try to come to terms with it, because you have to, and I'm quite optimistic and positive - I can see it changing all the time around me."

For now though, Joanne is "overwhelmed with excitement. It's been nearly two years in the making, and now we're three days into rehearsal. It's amazing, after so long, to get it on the floor."

So how differently does she feel about the baby question, compared with the start point? "I don't want to give too much away," she adds. "I do feel differently. The panic and anxiety has gone, although it got worse before it got better. I'm much more at peace with the whole thing. I think that was made possible by writing the show. But I don't want to give anything away."

And I wouldn't want her to. From what I've heard, this is going to be a clever, thoughtful, hilarious show. The thing to do is see it.

Eggsistentialism plays Belltable, Limerick, 8-10 September and Smock Alley, Dublin, as part of the Tiger Fringe Festival, 12-17 September.

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