UI faculty member's stillbirth experience inspires Playwrights Workshop alumna's award-winning play
Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A celebratory moment—the bestowment of the 2013 Yale Drama Series Award—is one that grew out of painful loss and honest conversation between a University of Iowa professor and a student (now alumna) of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

jen silverman wearing hat
Jen Silverman

Still, a play by Jen Silverman, received the aforementioned honor earlier this spring. The production revolves around the lives of three women, each experiencing the trials and tribulations of childbirth. The play interweaves female narratives of unwanted pregnancy, midwifery, and stillborn children.

It is that last narrative that involves Elizabeth Heineman, associate professor of history and gender, women’s and sexuality studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In 2008 her son Thor was stillborn, and Heineman felt a great need to communicate her experience. She kept a journal as an outlet for her grief, and later she realized she wanted to write—and publish—a memoir. (Feminist Press will publish her memoir, titled Ghostbelly, in February 2014.)

lisa heineman portrait
Elizabeth Heineman

“When something like a stillbirth happens, there’s a sense that even the best-meaning people don’t really understand what you’re going through,” Heineman says.

The collaboration with Silverman was another outlet. In 2009, Heineman joined a faculty seminar on publicly engaged research and teaching. There she met Loyce Arthur, associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts. Arthur felt that theater would be a great vehicle for connecting Heineman’s story with a larger public; Heineman was put in touch with Silverman, who was then working on a Bachelor of Fine Arts in the Playwrights Workshop.

“Jen and I started out just by having conversations. It takes a lot of personal trust to collaborate on something like this, and Jen and I had to feel that we shared a core understanding of what this experience was all about—its emotional core,” Heineman says. “I’d already seen a production of one of Jen’s plays, and once we met I read several more. I absolutely loved her work. And she saw something in my story that sparked her imagination. So we decided to collaborate.”

This is not to say that Still is a true adaptation of Heineman’s experience. Rather, Heineman’s story would serve as inspiration to Silverman’s imagination.

“I wanted to pass the story on to someone else, to let it evolve in a whole new way,” Heineman says. “After all, that’s what happens with kids: you mold them for a while, but at some point they go off and interact with other people and develop in ways you never would have imagined.

“I wanted my child to have his own life, not just to be the product of my grief. And given the kind of artist Jen is, there was no question that she’d create a more powerful work if she could let her imagination roam free.”

So the women agreed: this would be Silverman’s play, inspired by Heineman’s experience. Heineman did have one mandate: the play had to be emotionally true to Heineman’s experience. “But since it was the emotional content of my experience that had drawn Jen to the story in the first place, we were on the same page. I read her drafts and gave her feedback, and Jen asked me questions along the way, but Jen is the author of the play. The award is fully her accomplishment.”

“Jen Silverman wrote a play that, in both style and content, shook us to our bones. It is called Still, and will leave you sitting that way for quite a while.”
—Marsha Norman, Yale Drama Series judge

One particular aspect of Heineman’s experience struck Silverman: a strong frustration with the cultural uneasiness and silence around stillbirth. That makes the accolades around the finished work all the more satisfying.

“This award means so much to me, not only because it is an incredibly generous gift for any emerging playwright, but because it is a recognition of a story that has often gone unheard, and a subject that is taboo,” Silverman said shortly after news of the award broke. “Women’s bodies are such fraught objects in our current culture: territory to be negotiated, controlled, and rendered ‘safe.’

“Given that Still is a play about a grieving mother, a queer dominatrix, and a giant dead baby on a scavenger hunt*, and given that it is in many ways a darkly comedic exploration of unsafe territory, this award is deeply meaningful to me in ways that are simultaneously personal and political.”

(* — Again, not a strict adaptation of Heineman’s experience.)

The UI held a staged reading of Still in 2012. Heineman sat in on the rehearsals as well as the reading, and was fascinated to see the circle of collaborators widening: the director (Meredith Alexander of the Department of Theatre Arts), the actors, the stage manager, members of the audience providing feedback, and the Intergenre Explorations Working Group at the Obermann Center, which devoted a session to discussing the project after seeing the reading.

“It was exciting, because I could see the characters growing yet further as the actors invested them with their own personalities,” Heineman says. “And I could see how beautifully the play reached its audience.

“But it was also a very moving experience for me—in a way, it really was like seeing my son come to life.”

As winner of the competition, Still will be published by Yale University Press, receive a staged reading at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater, and Silverman will receive the David Charles Horn Prize, a cash award of $10,000.

Read Heineman’s article “Still Life with Baby” in New Millennium Writings.