Performance and the Maternal: Motherhood in the Live Stage Encounter

Dr Emily Underwood-Lee

Performance and the Maternal is a collaborative project born of Lena Šimić and my desire to explore how the maternal functions in, and beyond, representation in the particular disciplines of performance and live art.  As Mike Pearson notes, ‘performance’ is an inclusive term that can bring together a variety of practices from across forms (Pearson, 2010, p.1).  I use the term ‘performance’ here to signify artistic work that focuses on live bodies making real actions intended for consideration by an audience. It seems that performance offers a unique space to explore the maternal due to its durational, live and relational elements: 

  • Performance is a durational phenomena: it is lived in real time and therefore using a performance studies perspective can help us to explore the time-based nature of the maternal. 
  • Performance is located in our bodies: the lived, embodied nature of performance parallels the lived, embodied experience of the maternal. 
  • Performance is relational: the performer is always in relation to the audience and the event of performance is only created in the moment that performer and audience member come together.  I am not here referring to performance that is participatory – instead I am suggesting that performances are co-created at the moment they are received by an audience, be they a participant or the more traditional theatre spectator.*

Further, as Dolan (2005) asserts, the performance event creates a temporary community in which collective imagining of another way of being in the world can be glimpsed, this collective space of imagining opens up the possibility for a radical rethinking of the maternal through performance. 

The maternal in performance, as opposed to other artforms, is able to move from pure representation into the realm of lived and immediate experience; that is, when we present our mothering on stage in a live art encounter we are not simply performing it, we are doing it – we are negotiating identity in real time, in an immediate and shared encounter with an audience.  The construction of a maternal identity is happening before our very eyes.  The very sharedness of this encounter has the potential to remind us of our relationality, that we do not come into this world in isolation but are always negotiating our identity as mothers and daughters in relation to an other, a concept at the heart of much of the discipline of maternal studies (cf. Baraitser, 2009; Ettinger, 2006; Benjamin, 1992).

Lena and my collaborative Performance and the Maternal research is ongoing but there have been a number of outputs to date.  We are in the final stages of editing ‘On the Maternal’, a special issue of Performance Research journal (Routledge, due August 2017), a conversation ‘Performance and the Maternal’ has been published in the Backpages of Contemporary Theatre Review (December 2016).  In addition we have hosted three research gatherings at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home (Liverpool), Edge Hill University (Ormskirk) and the University of South Wales (Cardiff).  These gatherings brought together academics and artists working in performance. The network established as a result of these gatherings has continued to grow and a further gathering on Maternal Ethics took place at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at home in April 2017.  We have also published the Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal (Simic and Underwood-Lee, 2016).  This was launched at LADA in October 2016, where a number of the artists featured in the guide met to discuss their practice. 

As I looked back over the work we have done to date in order to write this blog post, I was struck by the memory of one exceptional event.  For the launch of our ‘Study Room Guide on Live Art and Motherhood’ at LADA in October 2016 we asked each artist featured to speak for ten minutes about their maternal performance practice.  Helena Walsh, a London based performance artist whose “practice explores the relations between gender, national identity and cultural histories” (Walsh, n.d.) responded to this invitation by presenting a short performance in which she was interviewed by her young daughter, Ella Walsh Biderman. Helena and Ella’s conversation was far ranging taking in feminism, motherhood, live art and the very particular socio-political times we inhabit; but it was also personal, tender and witty. It was an interaction between an adult mother and a child daughter which demonstrated a radical togetherness that was co-operative, democratic and a conversation between equals. Difference and differing levels of experience were respected but there was no hierarchy and neither mother nor daughter was privileged in the conversation. This moment demonstrates the radical potential of performance as a means of exploring the maternal. Here, in relation to one another, in real time, with an audience and in an act of mothering (Helena was not representing a mother – she was genuinely mothering her daughter before our eyes), Helena and Ella created, performed and reimagined the maternal. Through examining such innovative moments which move beyond representation and renegotiate the maternal we hope to be able to rethink the maternal both in performance and in the wider context in our Performance and the Maternal project.

*For a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between the performer and audience as co-creators see Lehmann (2006).    


(2013) ‘Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real’, Studies in the Maternal, 5(1).

(2016) ‘Performing Everyday Maternal Practice’, Studies in the Maternal, 8(2).

(2016) ‘On the Maternal’, Performance Research, 22(6).

Baraitser, Lisa (2009) Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. London and New York: Routledge.

Benjamin, Jessica (1992) ‘Recognition and Destruction: An outline of intersubjectivity’ in Skolnick, N. and Warshaw, S. (eds) Relational Perspectives in Psychoanalysis. New York, London: Routledge. 

Betterton, Rosemary (2014) Maternal Bodies in the Visual Arts. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bright, Susan (2013) Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood. London: Art/Books.

Dolan, Jill (2005) Utopia in Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Engel, Laura and Mcgirr, Elaine M. (eds). Stage Mothers: Women, Work, and the Theater, 1660-1830. London: Bucknell University Press.

Epp Buller, Rachel. (2012) Reconciling Art and Mothering. London: Routledge.

Ettinger, Bracha. (2006) The matrixial borderspace. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies (2006) Post-dramatic Theatre. New York, London: Routledge.

Liss, Andrea (2009) Feminist Art and the Maternal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pollock, Griselda (1999) Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Writing of Art’s Histories. London: Routledge.

Simic, Lena and Underwood-Lee, Emily (2016) Live Art and Motherhood: A Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal London: Live Art Development Agency. 

Simic, Lena and Underwood-Lee, Emily (2016) ‘Performance and the Maternal’ Contemporary Theatre Review 26(3).

Walsh, Helena (no date) ‘Bio’ Helena Walsh. Available at Accessed 11 May 2017.

Dr Emily Underwood-Lee is a Research Fellow at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales. She is interested in the gendered body as it is represented in performance with a particular focus on autobiographical stories by women in the contexts of illness, health and motherhood.  She has shared her work in a variety of contexts including academic journals, hospitals and arts venues.  She is currently co-convener of the ‘Storytelling for Health’ conference, and co-editing the special edition of Performance Research ‘On the Maternal’.

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