On May 15, Alabama’s governor signed the most restrictive anti-abortion law in recent American history, banning abortion with limited exceptions and turning it into a felony. The next day, in response to Alabama, Will Brumley, a playwright in Wichita, Kans., put up a Facebook post offering his play The Clinic royalty free for anyone who wanted to stage a benefit reading. In 24 hours, he received responses from more than 60 organizations across the country.
Over the past summer, while the news headlines have pulled our focus hourly from scandal to outrage to absurdity, some theatre artists are keeping their eye on, and creating work about, a crisis that’s very close to home for most if not all Americans: the precarious state of reproductive healthcare in a nation still ostensibly under the Roe v. Wade decision. The case has become urgent, as this year alone, six other states have passed legislation that would make abortion nearly impossible for their residents. And the conservative-leaning Supreme Court is soon likely to consider cases that could either chip away or obliterate federal abortion rights as we know them.
Brumley’s The Clinic is an ensemble piece about abortion providers in Wichita over nine months, which traces the way their lives change when they are faced with providing service under impossible circumstances. In the past 14 weeks, 10 readings of The Clinic have been staged in cities like Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and New York City, with more to come this fall.
The readings have not only raised money for organizations such as the Yellowhammer Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and independent health clinics. They have also help create activist communities in many locations. One reading at Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence, R.I., was sold out, and followed by a panel discussion with state Senator Gayle Goldin, Jordan Hevenor of the Womxn Project, and Tiara TyShae of the Women’s Health & Education Fund.
Actor Rebecca Gibel co-organized the event with costume designer Jessie Darrell Jarbadan, with the goal of educating her community about the Reproductive Privacy Act, a Rhode Island law recently passed with the help of Senator Goldin. The RPA was a 46 years-in-the-making bill that would enshrine Roe v. Wade’s abortion protections into Rhode Island state law, with the idea that if Roe were ever overturned, providers in the state would still be able to legally provide abortions.
Both Brumley and Gibel speak about the importance of using their skills as theatre artists to educate, to, as Gibel puts it, “give people the tools so that they don’t just walk out of the theatre and go, ‘Wow that was an amazing play, what do we do about abortion rights?’ How do you make theatre and give people the tools to respond?” Says Brumley, “People don’t know what goes on in an abortion room, people don’t know about the waiting process or about the TRAP laws; they don’t know that state by state it’s different.”
They also want to draw attention to the fact that for many low-income women, abortion might as well currently be illegal. “People don’t live near clinics, because so many of them have been shut down,” says Brumley. “By the time they realize that they’re pregnant, it could be too late where they live, so they might have to go to another state. Depending on how far along they are, the clinic nearest to them might not even be able to help them.” He takes a breath, then adds, “There’s so much, I can’t even keep it all in my head.”
While some artists are inviting audiences into their space to have conversations about abortion, others are taking to the street. Lizz Winstead, co-creator of “The Daily Show” and longtime political comedian, runs a nonprofit she founded in 2015 called Abortion Access Front, which uses comedy, music, and street performance to advocate for access and reproductive freedom. In July, Winstead organized a seven-day event called Garbage Fyre Fest in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisc, where the anti-abortion group Operation Save America was hosting a week long protest. Their goal was to use street performance to counter-protest, by acting as what Winstead calls “the pied pipers of joy.”
Their tactics included colorful costumes and public demonstrations aimed to entertain and educate at the same time. Examples ranged from a revival meeting with a female-presenting “Shesus” testifying about a kinder God, to a “human fake clinic,” a moving facility created in which 20 live performers acted out what goes on inside of a crisis pregnancy center, which are designed to present fake information about reproductive health to deter women from getting abortions.
Winstead believes that comedy can help encourage people to be activists. “ A lot of people’s lives right now, they’re working two jobs, they have a limited income,” she says. “So if I can provide a funny thing for you that also helps you become an activist, even if it’s just for that night in a large or small way, it’s a win/win.”
On July 29, the Hysterical Womxn’s Society hosted an event at New York’s Cutting Room to raise funds for the New York Civil Liberties Union and for the National Network of Abortion Funds. The night combined performances from Broadway stars, including Ali Stroker, Caissie Levy, Ashley Park, Alysha Umphress, and Celia Keenan-Bolger; live auctions for prizes, like a meet-and-greet with Tina Fey at Mean Girls or tickets to see Cher at Madison Square Garden; and educational speakers such as Planned Parenthood doctor Meera Shar and Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. The night not only raised more than $55,000 for these organizations, but also provided the audience with information about national legislation and about incorporating reproductive care into mainstream medicine.
Hysterical Womxn’s Society was born on social media when actor Lora Lee Gayer posted an Instagram story, asking if anyone wanted to do something about the Alabama bans. For many of these pro-choice organizations, social media has been a way to rally artists and activists and launch an event. To Gayer, social media is “so amazing at getting people congregated in one place for a purpose.”
Hysterical Womxn isn’t the only theatre artist-led organization fighting for reproductive rights. In 2012 Kellie Overbey and Martha Plimpton founded the nonprofit A is For. The title of the organization is a reappropriation of the A in The Scarlet Letter, historically used as a symbol of shame. Instead, the women of “A is For” believe that A can stand for advocacy, autonomy, artistry, or abortion. For four years the organization has hosted “Broadway Acts for Women,” an event that has raised over $109,000 for beneficiary organizations for reproductive healthcare. The event has featured such stars as Sara Bareilles and Cecily Strong. On Sept. 24, A is For is hosting a benefit reading of Paula Kamen’s documentary play Jane: Abortion and the Underground, starring actors like Cynthia Nixon and Ana Gasteyer. They are also launching a national play contest for works that change the stigma around reproductive rights.
Plimpton says she believes it’s important to create conversation around the topic because people are conditioned to not talk about something commonly considered shameful. “You can’t make people understand if you don’t talk about it,” she says. “One in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime. That’s incredibly common. And the focus of this contest is not just abortion, but reproductive justice as a whole. This has to do with environmental realities, this has to do with the realities of parenting and childcare, it has to do with the danger of Black and brown children being subject to violence by authority figures.”
While some artists are creating one-night activist events, others are pursuing long-term projects to benefit their communities. ZACH Theatre in Austin is even making reproductive healthcare the cornerstone of its season coming into the presidential election year. ZACH will be producing Lisa Loomer’s Roe in 2020, about the landmark Supreme Court case and its aftermath, and using it as an opportunity for activism, with a suffrage celebration and a mentorship program to educate young female activists. “The motivation is wanting to activate young feminists, bridging the gap between older feminists in our community through a mentorship program,” says producing artistic director Dave Steakley.
Theatre can be an ideal platform for activism, with its ability to get groups of people to share an experience in the same space. “Netflix and chill is great,” says Gible. “But it’s a different thing if you’re sitting in your home and watching Norma Rae and getting fired up about women’s rights, but there’s no senator sitting next to you to tell you what they’re working on and what bill they need help with. Theatre is the space to make those connections happen and get the same people sitting in the room that need to connect.”
Indeed, while at times it can seem that politicians hold all the power over the national story being told about reproductive rights. But artists have the skill and the power to raise awareness about our rights and to correct misconceptions about a necessary facet of women’s health. By providing information in a way that is clear, accurate, and moving, perhaps artists can change the minds that can change the laws.
Emma Forgione is an NYC-based writer, lyricist, and director.