Theatermaker and researcher Dr. Marisa Carnesky is the mad genius behind Dr. Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman, a devised theater production which reinvents menstrual rituals. Based in Brighton, UK, Carnesky spoke with us about how she synchronized her cycle with her team of “Menstruants" and took a literal bloodbath in the name of art.
How did your personal experiences lead you to examine menstruation?
I tried to get pregnant starting at age 37 and was having recurrent miscarriages. After seeing a lot of different doctors and getting very piecemeal information, it turned out that I had a MTHFR mutation which makes it difficult to process folate (and may cause early miscarriage).
Every time I got my period and went through the disappointment of not being pregnant, it felt like I was going through a small miscarriage. So I thought, “How do I turn around this so I embrace my cycle?” I wanted to look into the ritual and symbolism of menstruation so that it became interesting and fun, rather than a signifier of the absence of a pregnancy. Since we created the show in 2015, we’ve been building on it and touring every since. It actually became part of the autoethnographic thesis for my Ph.D.
What kind of research questions informed your work?
The cultural implications of menstruation are huge. Anthropologists from the Radical Anthropology Group argue that the menstrual cycle is one of the biological processes that separate us (and primates) from other mammals.
Chris Knight’s “Blood Relations,” which informed some of the ideas behind the project, suggests that it could be menstruation that made us sapient and contributed to the development of our language, rituals, and the calendar itself.
If this is the case, how do we understand and embrace our body's cycles by viewing menstrual blood not as a waste product, but as something with sacred meaning? Was menstrual blood ever thought of differently in traditional human cultures, did it ever have a higher cultural status? And if so, when did we start thinking of the menstrual body as a cursed body? And how do we then reverse the curse?
How did you assemble the amazing team behind the show?
The “Menstruants" are the strongest team I have ever had on a show. We worked with individual stories and skills of each participant, so it was really important that they came from different representative backgrounds. I brought together a company of performers with diverse skills, across live art and circus. We were an intersectional group including BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic), Jewish, and trans identities. I’d known most of them for over a decade and had been in productions with them before.
Your development process was like a ritual and communal experience itself. Can you explain how you decided to structure it?
I come from a cabaret and performance art cross-over tradition. I’m interested in where the popular and the fine art meet. I was also influenced by theories of menstrual synchronicity, the red tent movement, and psychological studies about women's pain.
Following anthropological field work on menstrual rituals in hunter-gatherer cultures, we met on the dark moon to create the performances. In between meetings, we kept dream diaries and tracked our energy levels. We tried to coordinate sleeping and waking up around the same time to get our bodies to work together as a team. We also slept with our curtains open to control for light.
For three months, we convened at new moon time at the artist residence house Metal in Southend-on-Sea, which was perfect because there’s theories that menstrual synchronicity has to do with exposure to light and proximity to water. We did roundtable talks, shared life stories, brought in significant objects, gathered research, and created text and image-based work, which were refined down to monologues and visual performance pieces.
I read that Martha McClintock’s research on synchronicity has been contested, and I’m not a scientist so I wasn’t measuring the data as a scientist. I see this as a cultural project. However, we did synchronize some of our cycles and some incredibly bizarre things happened over the course of the production!
What were some of the craziest, most “magical” things that happened?
Besides synchronizing our cycles, two of us got pregnant and we both had been trying for ages. (I miscarried in the process but nonetheless, I successfully conceived at age 44 after three months of doing these group rituals.) One of the members, a trans woman who was born without a womb, began to mimic the rest of the group’s dream activities and energy levels once she began tracking her cycle. Two stage managers who worked on the production got pregnant, as did the producer of my Australian tour. Whether you call it magic or self-awareness, turning attention inward toward your cycle seemed to affect everyone’s fertility (culturally speaking, even if not scientifically proven).
How did the performances emerge from this communal process?
Instead of replicating existing rituals from any specific culture, we were making new feminist menstrual rituals by gathering material that spoke to us personally. Under this model, we got material from the moon phases, dream diaries, memory recollection, our own family and cultural traditions. All of this became a blueprint for creating a piece of performance. The end result might might be incredibly simple but it had to contain an action, an image, and an intention—distilled into a dreamlike, surreal vision.
In my piece, I looked at the mikveh, coming from Jewish tradition. When you're entering a new phase of the month, the mikveh is supposed to cleanse you and make you ready for the ovulatory phase by washing away menstrual blood and the past month. So, I filmed a menstrual blood bath inside a former morgue where my friends were staying and incorporated that footage into my final performance.
Did this work accomplish the goal of helping you move past your miscarriages?
Often, I wonder if it’s too hardcore to be talking about miscarriage in public, but it’s been so healing for myself and for other people witnessing that. When I first told my therapist about the idea, she said words to the extent of, “Oh no, don’t do it, don’t touch it, don’t look at it, it’ll be bad luck.”
Deep, deep inside, people still believe that if you talk about menstruation, it is a cursed problem.
As artists, we have to go to the heart of the taboo and expose it and explore it. In revealing it, we break the taboo and change the culture. This was an act of subversive performance to politicize the experience of miscarriage. In a strange way, I kind of made menstruation my baby. It was a positive catharsis.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
There’s something to be said for having a greater relationship with your body and its relationship with the environment—and therefore its relationship with the community of people around you. Gathering communally, and marking our cycles in a monthly lunar phase to create menstrual rituals is a powerful tool: for fertility, for catharsis, for reproductive issues, and for collective action.
I want people to ask themselves: what is the power of menstruation beyond a sign of fertility? Is it a sign of the witch and the collective? Could we bring down the government if we synchronized our cycles? What if the most devalued, taboo human process is the key to our entire culture?
To stay in the loop about Dr. Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman and other projects, check out www.carnesky.com. She will be doing a 1-hour radio show on Resonance on International Women’s Day 2019, and will also be appearing at the Barbican on May 3, 2019.
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