by Len Lear
The FringeArts Festival (formerly Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe) brings thought-provoking theatrical events to many venues in the city every September, but even by their standards, “ENDOME” stands out.
“ENDOME,” which will be performed at The Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy on Friday, Sept. 11, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 12, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m., is a multi-media memoir dramatizing a woman’s experience living with the disease of endometriosis.
“ENDOME” infuses medical records and surgery reports with memories, songs and dreams. Boundaries and bonds are examined between patient and physician and art and science. The audience will be immersed in a panoply of light, sound and imagery.
Endometriosis is a chronic disease affecting 176 million women worldwide and one in 10 girls and women in the U.S. It is present when tissue similar to that of the lining of the uterus is found in other parts of the body, often causing chronic, severe pain and complications such as cysts and infertility. There is no confirmed cause or cure, and many women go undiagnosed for years, being told it’s “all in your head” or just a “bad period.”
Holly Bittner, 39, who wrote “ENDOME,” is a resident of Roxborough who was diagnosed with endometriosis at age 29. She has been teaching at Moore College of Art in center city for 14 years and has been Director of Writing since 2011, when she founded and established a writing center there called The Writer’s Studio.
“By the time I was diagnosed,” she told us, “my case was quite advanced. I had experienced severe pelvic pain, menstrual problems and gastrointestinal symptoms on a regular basis since I was a teenager, but doctors tended to brush it off or shrug their shoulders. Finally it was discovered that I had cysts on both ovaries, and I underwent three surgeries to remove them as well as endometrial tissue in other areas of my body, including my appendix. One common effect of endometriosis is infertility, and I struggled for years to have a child. I am happy to report that in-vitro fertilization enabled me to have a daughter, who just turned 8 years old.”
As a frequently-published poet, Holly took to exploring her symptoms and medical treatments through writing and, seven years later, ended up with a book-length poetic manuscript that had led her on a deep psychological journey.
She also had a strong desire to share her experience with others and to raise awareness for this insidious yet often unacknowledged disease, so Bittner collaborated with several artists and technicians to adapt her work into an experimental multi-media performance for this year’s Fringe.
“I first adapted my book-length poetic manuscript into a smaller performance in 2010,” said Holly, “more like a poetry reading with a backdrop of moving images created by a colleague from Moore, Heather Ujiie. The feedback I received from that performance, as well as a ‘vision’ I had to expand it, made me want to turn it into a performance installation that an audience could walk through.
“’ENDOME’ first began as a way to make meaning out of my confusing and often painful experiences with the world of doctors and medicine. Now that I am performing it, I hope to raise awareness of endometriosis and how it affects women physically and psychologically as well as in a larger sense, socially … Finally, I would love to see a support group for women with endometriosis grow out of this. Too often women suffer in isolation with this disease.”
$5 from each ticket for all four performances will be donated to the Endometriosis Foundation of America, which works to increase recognition of the disease as well as providing advocacy and surgical training and funding research.
Directed by Catherine Pappas, most notably of Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill, “ENDOME” draws on the talent of actors Pierlisa Chiodo-Steo and Tony McNichol, also Stagecrafters veterans, to bring to life the poetic script produced with light, sound and image. Other contributors are Patrick Martin, (sound & tech, also a Stagecrafters veteran) and Heather Ujiie, images (Interdisciplinary Assistant Professor at Moore College).