Hot on the heels of her performance in Nude Tuesday, Morgana O’Reilly is baring all – both physically and emotionally – onstage, in her new show, Stories About My Body.
To most of us, it likely sounds like a hideous fever dream: having to read aloud from the diary you kept as a teenager to a room full of strangers, then running around on stage topless before giving everyone a front row seat as you give birth.
But for Morgana O’Reilly, it’s just another night at the office, performing her stand-out stage show, Stories About My Body. Throughout the show Morgana lays herself bare – quite literally, physically and emotionally as she looks back over all that her body has endured, enjoyed and created.
The International Emmy Award-winner (yes, thanks to the show, INSiDE she starred in during lockdown!) is bringing the show back to NZ next month after successful stints abroad, including Aussie, where she is perhaps best known for her role on Neighbours.
Ironically, the morning I’m about to talk to Morgana O’Reilly about her body, my own body does something weird. I text her to let her know we should probably reschedule because I thiiiiiiink I may have mastitis. “OH BABES,” she says (I have never spoken to Morgana before, but at this point I already love her) and goes on to list all the things she thinks may help (for the record, that long list includes filling a clean nappy with warm water and wrapping it around your angry boob) as well as giving me a pep talk (“your body is being a magician right now! It’s amazing!”).
When we do catch up a couple of days later, boobs come up almost immediately. “God, boobs are so funny, aren’t they? Why don’t we talk about them more?”
There’s actually a lot of things Morgana – who may also be a familiar face, thanks to her role on Three’s Mean Mums – thinks we should be talking about more. For a start there’s how our bodies start to change and morph into something a bit different as we reach our late 30s (who knew?! “Not us, because no one talks about it!!”) and the transformation they go through if we embark on the wild journey of carrying a baby.
Here, we have a chat about her show, nudity, birth, teen angst and foot fetish parties…
Capsule: So, tell me about your show – how did this all come about, and what made you think that this was a topic that you could mine for entertainment?
Morgana O’Reilly: [Laughs] I think the show has been sitting inside me for a really long time. And I keep saying that I just made the show that I needed to see: I’m about to turn 37, I have two babies and I just wanted to discuss, like how I know that my body is shifting and changing into another chapter of itself and how that’s not reflected really in pop culture.
Also, I remember telling a friend ages ago that I wanted to do a show, where it’s gonna start with me reading on stage with no top on as though I’m running late, because boobs are hilarious. We never make boobs funny. They’re always just like sexy or like revered and mumsy. And then I’m going to tell the story of how I worked at foot fetish parties in New York, and then I’m going to show my birth video. Yeah, that’s the show.
I hear that you also read from your diary from when you were about 12 years old. What were you like back at that age and what was your relationship like with your body?
Probably similar to most, I guess? Well. I don’t know, I was really angry with it. And I felt really betrayed by it. I became acutely aware that whenever I lost weight, the world responded to me in a different way. I think that was quite intoxicating. Especially because around intermediate age, I was probably a little rounder – I wasn’t like those girls, you know, that just had those perfect little bodies. I was so jealous of them! But then in third or fourth form, I lost some weight. and all of a sudden the boys paid attention to me, which was glorious. Like I really liked it. But it probably meant that I got into boys quite young.
God, puberty is a mad time. From there, probably the next biggest change your body can go through as a woman is if you choose to carry a baby – which you definitely discuss in the show! What was the experience like for you? How had your relationship with your body changed by then?
I remember that it was… well, you know how you have to go through that weird first 12 fucking weeks? It’s so long before you tell people! Argh! I was working on Neighbours at the time, and so, of course, at some point, the costumes started to get too small and too tight. I hadn’t told anyone, no one knew, but in the end I just had to tell costume, because they were like, ‘I feel like we need to get you some more jeans for this season!’ I was like, “NO DON’T GET ME ANY!’
It’s a strange time, because on the surface absolutely, everything’s wonderful and everyone’s really happy for you, and nobody cares that you’ve grown your clothes. But of course, it’s like trigger and then little do you know that like, that’s just the start of it…
There are so many chapters in the mothering space, that you have to navigate – that constant shift and change of your body shape, although I guess some people don’t have to so much because of genetics. But yeah, I’m nearly seven years into motherhood, I guess eight considering that there was a good 40 weeks before a baby was in my hands. And, yeah, I feel like I’ve just sort of figuring out how to navigate my feelings around my body.
And, now you’re at a place where you’re comfortable playing your birth video for a bunch of strangers!
[Laughs] I am! Yes, I play it at the show. I don’t know why really, but it turned out from my first labour and pregnancy, I really started to get into it. It really resonated with what I know, as a performer, if that makes sense? I think giving birth sort of has a parallel with the rehearsal period and then going on stage. It’s a really big moment, and people in our society are terrified of the idea of getting on stage. But I do it! And it gives me much joy.
I’d never thought about it that way, but I can totally see where you’re coming from. Birth is quite the performance!
Yes! I also saw parallels and in the mental preparation of like, fear equals tension and tension equals pain. It’s one of the things you’re taught really early on in acting: that tension is the death of acting. Like, if you’re tense, or if you’re so nervous that you can barely breathe, it’s going to affect your performance.
That’s so true for feeling fear and nerves around giving birth too! I got really interested in trying to unstitch that fear for myself. As a result, I’m lucky to have two really amazing births and then the second birth, the midwife just filmed it. I didn’t even ask to do that! But I am so glad and now I literally show anybody who wants to fucking see it’s in my favourites folder in my phone. Because it’s like this great piece of work. It’s so great.
Ha! I love that you’re sharing it! Because, to be honest, it’s not that easy to come by good birth videos… I don’t think I’ll ever forget the one we were forced to watch in fourth form health class. But other than that, all I’d seen was it depicted in movies and TV, so I decided to have a Google while I was pregnant and… wow, I regretted that.
Well, I also think, you know, my industry has a lot to answer for in terms of the fear around birth, right? Like, they’re always depicted as hysterically terrified women strapped to a bed on their back. And it’s the worst day of their life.
It’s like, the other day I realised, it’s sort of like how, for a long time, it was just accepted that women didn’t really enjoy sex. And if they did, it was kind of a secret – historically that has been the narrative. But in the last 60 years, that has changed, profoundly. I would love to see that happen with birth now. Where, instead of like the main narrative of birth being the worst day of your life and you having to push a watermelon out of a pinhole, it’s actually a very transformative and possibly even enjoyable thing that sets you on your path to motherhood. Birth is actually so awesome and natural.
What would you say is the biggest surprise your body’s ever given you?
Well, I think that’s it. Getting into birth! I mean, I know how hard it is for people who can’t make babies, so I don’t want to alienate anyone – but it would be birth and labour. And now, it’s a real surprise to me, to find myself as somebody who’s a real advocate for birthing people, to feel like it’s a transformative experience. I remember at the start being pregnant, newly pregnant, and the way I thought about it all is so incredibly different to how I feel about it now.
Do you have any regrets when it comes to your body?
I think now, I understand that eating well, and exercising is for my mental perception of myself as opposed to trying to lose weight. I think that was always the goal before – how I looked on the outside. I mean, it still lingers there a bit, but now I just know how that how peaceful I am in my in relation to my body. If I’m active enough, I can fight the demons off.
How would you describe the relationship that you have with your body now?
I think we’re friends. I think I think I feel more connected to my body. But it’s an ongoing relationship. Sometimes it gets away on me. And she’s still the scapegoat.
I don’t know about you, but I felt like – especially in that last level four lockdown – it was just really challenging. Obviously everyone was just sitting in a place of high stress, high anxiety, annoyance over it all those feelings… but then, I was just stuck in my house, and all I could do was reflect on myself. I can imagine the sales of like, all every sort of skincare product and body shaping everything just going up astronomically! Because when you’re stuck in your shit, you’re just stuck with your shit. Nobody cares about your body and your fucking tummy except you.
God, it’s such a hard industry to be in, in the regard, where your body is a tool for your job.
Yeah, it’s, it’s sort of odd. Like, it’s hard in a way only because it asks you to be aware of your body and your face and your wrinkles and things in a way that in your usual other professions, you’re maybe not as aware. But it’s still a reflection of your internal, because it’s not actually real.
Life has got pretty weird that’s for sure! Now, one of the things I really wanted to ask you was about this parent friendly show you do. So besides your night shows, you have one at 10.30am which little babies are also welcome to come to, right?
Yes! I really want to get the word out, because I’m sort of hoping it will become a thing and like other people will do this too!
This one is 10:30am on a Friday, which is I sort of designed hopefully so that gives people enough time to drop kids at school, kindy or grandma’s and then you can go to a proper night-time play and go have lunch afterwards. This is my offering!
But yes, as you can guess, it’s not a kid’s show so let’s not get it confused with being a kid friendly show. But, your little babies are welcome! I’ve been seeing – which is so nice – mums coming with their baby and bring their mum as well, so when the baby gets a little fussy, grandma will take them for a little walk around outside and come back.
Oh I love it! It’s like all in one, you’re helping change the narrative around birth AND give new parents a little place of refuge.
Ha, I guess! Actually, I had this really lovely moment at one of the shows in Melbourne. My producer, when I came out after this show, was with one of the young ushers at the theatre – she must have been in her early 20s. And she said to her, “Tell her what you just told me!” And she said, “I’ve never wanted to have kids is not really something that I want to do,” – which is totally fine, by the way. I really respect people who don’t have kids! But she said “after seeing your birth video and hearing those stories, it made me really interested in the prospect of what my body is capable of.” I don’t know, it just felt really cool, that you can get up and tell these stories about your body and it’s not just that it’s a bit funny. You can also sit there and go, wow, they are crazy, amazing things what they can do and what they go through and how they change, right? I love the idea that people might go away and appreciate their own body and what it is capable of a bit more.
Morgana O’Reilly is performing Stories About My Body at Auckland’s Q Theatre from Thursday August 4 – Saturday 6 August at 8pm nightly (as well as the Caregiver Session at 10.30am on Friday). Tickets are available directly from Q Theatre.