Last October, I went to see Hannah Ballou’s critically-acclaimed show ‘hoo:ha’ at Camden People’s Theatre. A hilarious exploration of nudity, body image and feminism, Ballou also blurred the lines of performance and reality. She revealed that she and her husband were trying hard for a baby and that, so far, they hadn’t been successful. Then she got out a pregnancy test. Which she’d peed on. And hadn’t checked yet.
Cue suspense! The show therefore led to a an incredibly tense conclusion where Ballou finally revealed whether she was pregnant or not (spoiler alert – she was! And it was wonderful). There were tears, we all felt happy for her, and we went home.
This year we were back again, and Ballou was now nine months pregnant (she’s actually – second spoiler alert – given birth now, which shows how close we were to a seriously graphic show). In ‘goo:ga’, Ballou applies her usual intellectual analysis to the topic of pregnancy: its cultural connotations, its impact on the way society sees women and how women see themselves, what it tells us about gender in 2016, and the possibility of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ methods of childbirth and child-rearing. There is also, of course, a dance routine (this is a Hannah Ballou show after all) and plenty of audience participation. The dance routine and other physical elements of the show are more subdued this time than in ‘hoo:ha’ because the performer is extremely pregnant, but the lack of movement does make the show feel more like stand-up comedy than theatre at times. It comes as no surprise afterwards that Ballou is an ex-stand-up comic. Under the circumstances, however, the lack of movement is entirely forgivable and there is still enough clowning to balance the academic theory with physical comedy.
Another Ballou staple is a ukelele song, and one song in this show covers the increase in respect, benevolence and privilege that Ballou’s ‘bump’ affords her as a white, middle class, pregnant woman of “the right age” (the song pointedly asks how people would react if she were a teenage mother). It raises an excellent point about the status of pregnant women, and leads nicely onto an examination of the media’s enthusiasm in pitting pregnant women against each other e.g. the ‘Battle of the Bumps’. One of Ballou’s examples shrieks that pregnant Kate Middleton is too thin, but that pregnant Kim Kardashian is “a whale”. I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you the irony in de-humanising someone as she LITERALLY CREATES HUMAN LIFE. Guilty editors, take note.
‘goo:ga’ focuses strongly on gender and pregnancy, and so the obvious meeting point of this is “gender reveal” and whether a gender reveal is necessary before (or after) birth. In the US, this has escalated to the point of expecting parents throwing gender reveal parties or making gender reveal videos in order to tell the world whether their child is a boy or a girl. Woe betide an intersex or non-binary child. Ballou showcases some of these videos and it’s clear that to some parents the gender of their child is of utmost importance, strongly affecting their relationship with their unborn child. Ballou even admits in the show that she and her husband have a secret preference for their gender of their child. Worried about bringing “another white, middle class male into the world”, they both guiltily wish for a daughter.
This is where things get interesting. Prior to the performance, Ballou asked her doctor to write the gender of her child on a piece of paper and seal it into an envelope. During the show, she lets the audience decide whether to shred the envelope or to reveal the gender. Considering the cheers as Ballou describes parents who rejected gender norms or refused to reveal their children’s gender at all, it seems likely that the majority of the audience are out-and-proud feminists who would very much like to live in a post-gender society, and so a shredding seems inevitable. However, when it comes to asking Ballou to put her money where her mouth was, we all hesitate. After hearing her secret desire to know the gender, we all want to grant her wish. In the end, only a few vote to shred the paper – we’re all guilty of letting principals slide when a very nice, emotionally invested person is the subject. It’s thrilling to see someone ready to engage politically with the gendering of their child, however, and exciting to think of the possibilities of gender-free parenting.
At the climax of the show, Ballou’s husband opens the envelope and projects the sex of the baby onto a screen (via a diagram of that sex’s typical genitalia). Being careful not to look, Ballou gives out balloons and pens, and asks us to blow up the balloons and draw the genitalia onto them. With her word, we release them! And as we do, the show ends.
I won’t spoil for you the gender of Hanna Ballou’s baby as I’ve checked her Twitter feed and it seems she’s still keeping things quiet. Arguably, Baby Ballou has been a part of a nine month long piece of performance art, with her conception and gender staged for all to see (not quite the conception I suppose, perhaps the knowledge of conception). They deserve a wee bit of privacy.
Interestingly though, Ballou had a different version of the show lined up for the following night. As the same reveal couldn’t be used again, she instead gave the audience a selection of names chosen by her and her husband, and the audience got to choose which one the baby would have. It seems likely then that we can expect a future show where she explores parenting, with some audience interaction and decision-making thrown into the mix. Where will she take it next?
I for one hope it happens and that I get to see it. I’d happily listen to Ballou’s take on most things and parenting is particularly ripe for debate and discussion.
One more spoiler from ‘goo:ga’.
Nigel the Pug does make an appearance.
And it’s glorious.