Sara Juli’s Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis
Underbelly Cowgate (Iron Belly), 66 Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1JX Thursday 3rd – Sunday 27th August 2017 (not 9th, 14th, 21st), 16:10
Sara Juli’s Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis is about motherhood - its beauty, challenges, isolation, comedy and influence on the human experience.
Using humour, movement, sounds, songs, text and the audience, this show seeks to reveal ‘all that is awesome and all that sucks’ when it comes to being a mother.
Tense Vagina focuses on the seldom-discussed and taboo aspects of motherhood, such as loss of bladder control, libido, tears, monotony, loneliness and dildos.
The narrative is anchored in sharing the physical therapy Sara received at The Pelvic Floor Rehab Center of New England for her treatment of post-childbirth urinary incontinence.
What was the inspiration for this performance?
My work has always been about sharing personal stories with the public. These stories run concurrently with my life. They are my outlet for how I deal with problems that keep me up at night, but that simultaneously connect me to the rest of the planet.
Anything that is plaguing me is bothering millions of others at any given time. For example, in my twenties, I created and performed a solo called, How to Forgive Yourself in Bed about reconciling my promiscuous behaviour. Years later I made a piece titled, The Money Conversation about my fears around money as I began to combine my finances with my new husband. These topics, promiscuity and money issues, to name two, are universal. Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis simply addresses the next chapter in my life: being a mother to two young kids: the sacrifice, the adoration, and the fact that your body and mind take a real toll. The piece pretty much wrote itself, in my small NY City apartment, when I was attached to a hospital-grade breast pump and couldn’t move.
Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
Absolutely. I’m a firm believer in the power of live performance, mainly because I have been so fortunate to experience its power to transform lives. I use humour in all of my works, and while I love making people laugh, it’s about something more. It’s about using humour as a portal to discuss taboo topics.
It’s about peeling back a layer and exposing what’s underneath. It’s about having an audience member sit with you, in a sacred space for a period of time, and experience something, outside of themselves that allows them the opportunity to leave their day to day brains and think about something personal - something they are struggling with, perhaps related to the performance topic, or not.
Either way, the opportunity for personal reflection is there (which to me, IS a form of public discussion since everyone is accessing those thoughts at the same time, in the same space). Ultimately, it’s absolute magic, a scenario that rarely presents itself outside the realm of bringing people together publicly to share art in a meaningful way.
How did you become interested in making performance?
I have always loved having eyes on me. When I was little, I used to knock on the door of every house in my neighbourhood, with my boom box in-hand, and ask each person if I could dance for them in their front yard.
My parents signed me up for a creative movement dance class and I’ve never looked back. I like to tell people that I have danced every day since I was three years old. Fast forward to my senior year of college when I took an intensive performance workshop with the Judson-era choreographer and performer, Deborah Hay. She taught me about the magic of performance and, in doing so, opened-up my use of voice, text, sound, and song in a way that totally expanded my dancing. It was explosive.
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
I usually wait until a topic finds me. Since my performances run concurrently with my life, there are always present struggles, which become the material from which to source ideas. However, I usually wait until a particular topic has become so distracting or overwhelming that the only way to move past it is to create a piece around it. I can often track how hot the topic is based on how I often I’m speaking about it to my therapist. I suppose if I ever felt like I didn’t need to see my therapist anymore - what would my works be about?
Once I nail down the topic, I then journal about it until I can’t see straight. After that, I’m ready to go to the studio and create.
For Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis, I pretty much made the entire piece in my head, while being attached to a breast pump or sitting on my toilet in my small NYC bathroom. I couldn’t find any time or space to go to the rehearsal studio since I was working and raising two kids, so I would periodically write down hilarious phrases my kids said, experiences that happened, feelings that surfaced. And then there were the tears - so many tears (on my part) so I wrote that down too.
When I finally moved out of NYC (after 15 years) and found a place (and actual time) to rehearse, the piece poured out of me in several hours. And then while making the piece, I found the courage (and time) to seek treatment for the post-childbirth urinary incontinence I was quietly experiencing. At my first appointment at the Pelvic Floor Rehab Center of New England, my new physical therapist put her hand in my vagina and diagnosed me with a “tense vagina”. That was it. Piece done!
Does the show fit with your usual productions?
Yes, it does, however this is the first time I’m using so many damn props! I used to pride myself on being a “low-maintenance” performer in that I could just show up and do my thing. That’s certainly not the case with this show - although I do believe that all of the components of this piece act to deepen the audience experience.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I want the audience to reflect upon at least one of several topics: 1) their own vagina, 2) someone else’s vagina (although I’m noting that thinking about your mom’s vagina is way too weird, I’m more referring to your partner’s vagina, if appropriate) 3) post-partum depression 4) depression that is not post-partum, but that can just happen 5) laughter - I want them to laugh so hard they pee in their pants 6) after they pee in their pants, I want them to know they have options to seek treatment for having just peed in their pants 7) bravery - you can be brave when it comes to getting the help you need for your own body 8) access - I would like them to use the time and the laughter during and/or after the performance to reflect upon any of these personal ideas, and relate it to themselves.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Strategies? Hmm. I do always want the audience to have a great time at my shows while highlighting something deeper underneath. I always have some sort of audience interaction, as I want the audience to be involved. I don’t like the idea of people sitting and solely watching, but rather watching and engaging somehow. I leave the lights on during the show so that I can see everyone - I like holding us all accountable for being in a shared space.
No fourth wall. One time, there was a person eating a sandwich while I was performing. I do some stand-up monologues in the show, so of course I did a riff on this person eating this huge sandwich. Oh - speaking of which - I also give the audiences snacks during the show. Snacks are a must, but a sandwich - now that’s hilarious.
Sara Juli comments: I have discovered that Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis resonates with universal audiences, both men and women alike. Older women love to share their personal vagina stories with me after the show. Men think about their mother's differently. Others have thanked me for providing them with the courage and the humour to pursue their own care. Younger woman have commented that my show was the best birth control ever!
This is a poignant and hilarious feminist work, empowering women to think about their lady parts while highlighting the underbelly of motherhood. This show is perfect for anyone who has a mother. Arrive prepared to pee in your pants from laughter.