The topic of motherhood seems so relevant this year in light of the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US and the removal of Paragraph 219a in Germany — but in fact Mother Tongue has been around a lot longer?
I’ve been working on this project since 2018. We first did it in Bologna and then in Madrid. This is the third edition. The concept has been the same, but the text and performers are different because it is based on their experience. But for me the project really started years ago, with my own experience of motherhood and also with the debate in Argentina around abortion. We had been campaigning for many years to legalise abortion, which eventually happened at the end of 2020. It was part of the global discussion around reproductive rights — and what it means to force people to have a child. Political battles are being fought around the uterus and who owns it. So it’s a very interesting moment for the feminist movement, to think about how we continue this battle — especially when things we already gained are being dismantled.
And you were thinking about this as you became a mother yourself?
As an artist travelling the world, you are expected to be child-free. Festivals didn’t want to pay for tickets for my child or pay for child-care; children are often not welcome in theatres. So everything around you is telling you not to have children. I was what is called a ‘late’ mother — I was 38 — though now I don’t think that is late! I felt like everything was against me having children, but I had the desire to become a mother.
What I also saw when I was interviewing people for Mother Tongue, was that people who wait later often face health problems. More and more people are becoming sterile. So it’s also very tricky to decide to wait. We live in a world where some people wait too long to have children and in some places 10-year-old girls are being forced to have children. Something doesn’t add up.
Tell us a bit about Mother Tongue — and the process of creating documentary theatre.
There is something that theatre has that other art forms don’t, and that is the encounter.
I’m not really keen on defining types of theatre — but I would say if you understand documentary theatre as based on research, documentation and stories, then that’s what I do. There is a lot of prejudice in the artistic world, as if there is high art and then documentary theatre, like comparing literature and journalism. But I come from a literature background and have written fictional plays, and I find writing documentary theatre harder. It is not just copying and pasting intervicapews. In this case, the performers were people who were struggling with parenting — mothers and fathers, but specifically mothers because of the battles around the female body.
We have eight performers with different experiences — for example a lesbian woman who has a child with her wife and is fighting to also be recognised legally as a parent. Then there is a gay man who came from Turkey with his boyfriend and wanted to have a child and has ended up in a three-way co-parenting situation with a German woman. We have a transgender performer, who is raising a little girl with two other women, a woman who has chosen not to have children, grappling with this decision, a foster mother, a mother with a disability, a woman with a biracial child, a woman seeking fertility treatment … It’s a very heterogeneous group. The idea was to have lots of versions of motherhood. The performers all reconstruct and perform their own stories.
Are there multimedia elements?
That’s why it is so important to say they are performing their stories, not just telling them. They are not just speaking — they use their bodies; they make music. There is a big screen where we also see the children of the performers. I’m working with a close artistic team including a video artist, a choreographer and a set designer, two dramaturgs, and a musician, with whom I made all the versions. It’s a big team effort!
As you said, you have also made films and written fictional plays — so why did you choose to tell these stories in this form?
There is something that theatre has that other art forms don’t, and that is the encounter. You actually meet people in the theatre — you are in the same room with other spectators and performers. The here and now is so important, and it became more important after the pandemic. These are places of telepathy, because we are all thinking together. With Mother Tongue, I love that you get to meet these people — they are not abstract ideas on a screen, they are real people. And maybe the first reaction is to judge them — to question people’s stories of motherhood.
So how do you want the audience to react?
I think it’s very interesting how the queer community is always one step ahead with new ideas.
The audience starts asking themselves: What do I want? So we start to question things like the idea of the nuclear family. In a capitalist society, we see motherhood as holy and all about sacrifice, so of course you accept that you have to do this hard job without recognition or payment to keep the system going. But in fact that is exploitative. I think it’s very interesting how the queer community is always one step ahead with new ideas. I interviewed a woman who founded a German organisation called Familyship, a co-parenting coordination group. It started as a queer project, but now she said it is mainly heterosexual people who use the website. Specifically women, who are around 35 to 40 and don’t want to submit to a marriage or relationship, but want a partner to have a child with.
Do you think these very specific versions of motherhood and parenthood are universal?
There is no way you cannot relate to the stories we tell because everyone was born from someone. You have some kind of relationship with the person who brought you into the world, so even if you are never going to be a parent, everyone has a relationship with motherhood. And in fact the stories in the show represent a lot of people. Of course the big topic with motherhood and reproduction is the future — the question of who the next generation will be, and in what constellation they will grow up in terms of what future they will bring.
Speaking of the future, it seems like there are more young people choosing not to have children because of the state of the world — because of the climate crisis or overpopulation concerns. Do you see this as something new?
I think it’s always been there, especially for women. Historically, men have been allowed not to have children but women were stigmatised for this decision. Now, of course, there are people choosing not to have children because there is not enough food, no clean air, no earth to sustain us … this is very interesting. [US postmodern feminist] Donna Haraway talks about how in the future, in the developed world, 10 people might get together to raise one child. In countries ravaged by pollution, it would have to be a collective decision. This is a utopian idea that some people find frightening — but maybe some people would love it.
And is this utopia far away?
Of course. It has been interesting creating these stories in Germany compared to in Spain or Italy. For example, Spain is the surrogacy capital of Europe, and that is a more common arrangement for queer people there. A lesbian couple with a child can both be recognised as the parents straight away, unlike in Germany. But we think of Germany as this progressive country. It’s wonderful to see people creating these other versions of parenthood like co-parenting, but actually in the eyes of the law there is only one parent. And abortions are still technically illegal in Germany. So all we can do is share knowledge with each other to try to make progress; to try to learn more. I’ve been working on this for four years — and I never stop learning.
- Mother Tongue Sep 11, 12, 18, 19 Maxim Gorki Theater, Mitte, in English and German with surtitles.
- Lola Arias is a Berlin-based theatremaker, filmmaker, writer and actor was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She studied literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and Dramaturgy at the Escuela de Artes Dramáticas (Buenos Aires) and Casa de América (Madrid). Recently her work has focused on documentary theatre. Her first feature film, Theatre of War, was selected for the 68th Forum of the Berlinale. Her work has been performed at the HAU and Maxim Gorki Theatre. She won the prestigious Preis der Autoren in 2018.