A play the bigots will hate

October 22, 2013

Radical theater artist Madeline Burrows has worked on her one-woman project, MOM BABY GOD, for the better part of two years. In the show, Burrows plays several characters from the U.S. anti-choice movement, which she created based on extensive research and undercover work. The show is touring, with stops in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Burrows spoke with Brit Schulte about the project in an interview for Red Wedge.

MOST RADICALS dream of infiltrating the bigots to get the scoop on what makes them tick, but what propelled you toward this project and investigation?

BACK IN 2011, when there was the threat to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood, I became fascinated by the rhetoric and tactics of the anti-abortion movement. At the time, NARAL was conducting undercover investigations of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), and I was involved with a local campaign to expose a CPC in Western Massachusetts.

As part of the campaign, I went undercover to see what kind of false medical information they were giving out. It was a totally jarring and eerie experience--there were baby clothes pinned to the walls and medically-inaccurate fetal development kits--and even though I wasn't actually a teenager facing an unplanned pregnancy, I experienced firsthand the kind of intense emotional manipulation that takes place in CPCs.

That experience left me convinced that in order to fully understand and represent the movement, and understand how it shapes the way we think and feel about abortion, I needed to experience it from the inside.

Madeline Burrows in Mom Baby God
Madeline Burrows in Mom Baby God (Cat Guzman)

DID YOU have an endgame in mind when you set out? Was it always performance or theater?

MY GOAL was always to create a solo performance based on the material, but what that has looked like has changed a lot. Originally, I wanted to do a more documentary theater-style piece that included both pro-choice and anti-abortion perspectives. So in the early phase, I did a really broad range of research and interviews, including a number of interviews with older women who were abortion rights activists in the '80s and '90s, as well as women who had had abortions. Their stories were incredible, and it was really hard to say goodbye to them.

But I felt like if left-wing audiences came to the show and saw their own views represented, it would let them off the hook in a way. I didn't want this to be a comfortable piece of theater. I wanted audiences to leave with the same kind of urgency that I felt after immersing myself in the anti-abortion movement--a feeling that this is happening right now, and we need to figure out how we're going to respond to it.

WHY THE vehicle of theater? Or what do you think theater can accomplish?

THEATER HAS the unique ability to give audiences an opportunity to step into another world. And unlike a movie which you can pause at any time, theater forces you to engage immediately. It is also an art form that creates a space for people to experience something collectively as an audience, which I think can be a powerful thing.

DO YOU think a project like this will resonate with a certain audience, or more broadly? What has the response been so far?

THE SHOW follows a teenage girl who is dealing with her emerging sexual desires inside of this completely sexually repressive and sexist context. I think any woman, or really anyone, who has grown up in the era of abstinence-only sex ed, will relate to experiencing the contradictory sexual atmosphere that exists, where girls and women are encouraged to "be sexy," but "don't have sex."

We've had some audience members who grew up involved in right-wing youth activism and have since broken from it, but you definitely don't have to be a full-on right-wing youth activist to be affected by the political climate that attacks women and reproductive rights.

The audiences so far have been largely pro-choice and left-wing audiences. But we've had some surprises, too. At one performance, during the post-show discussion, two women got into a heated debate. One of the women described herself as being "middle ground" on the issue, and the other was a staunch abortion rights supporter who had had an illegal abortion as a teenager pre-Roe v. Wade. A third person, who I later learned was a crisis pregnancy center director and abstinence educator, stormed out in the middle of the performance.

HAS THERE been any backlash to speak of? Or are our opponents oblivious? Tell me about the whole Students for Life American wanting to be on the mailing list--ha!

YES, THE executive director of Students for Life just asked to join our e-mail list, and another higher-up in the group "likes" us on Facebook. Other than that, we've received a few pieces of right-wing hate mail, but not a ton.

We're very up-front with what our political position is, so I think they're keeping an eye on us for now. If they want to come to the show and protest it, they can go right ahead. But I imagine they're pretty perplexed with how to respond, because everything in the show is based on real events I attended. This is their rhetoric. I've seen no need to exaggerate it. So if they protest, they will be protesting themselves--not a very strong tactical choice, right?

WHAT HAVE you learned about yourself--personally and politically--from this project?

THAT CREATIVE ideas don't just happen out of nowhere. We grow up learning so much about the "great man" theory of history, where brilliant ideas supposedly just sprout effortlessly out of the heads of individuals--who, incidentally, always happen to be rich white men--but that's not how ideas come to be.

Being an artist requires a creative practice that means a lot of work and a lot of trying and failing. And it's never a solo pursuit. It means collaborating with other creative people who you can bounce ideas off of and who bring other skill-sets to the table.

I think there's an idea, particularly in the U.S. where there is such a low level of federal funding for the arts, that artists should be doing what we do for free, as a hobby on top of everything else, or that it is selfish to want to be able to live comfortably as an artist--and by that, I mean be able to afford food, rent, health care and vacation. So one thing is that I've become more convinced that there needs to be arts funding to pay artists so they aren't having panic attacks every month because they're working full-time jobs on top of unpaid creative work.

HOW DO your other art-making endeavors inform your performance?

I'M A musician, in a feminist punk band called Tomboy. I've definitely been inspired by the fearlessness I've felt in the punk scene to just get up and perform and make mistakes and take your work on the road, and I've wanted to bring that into theater.

WHAT ARE you trying to move your audience toward? A position? Awareness? Action?

I WANT audiences to feel a sense of urgency. The right wing has a lot of momentum and they've gained a lot of ground in the past 40 years, particularly in rolling back reproductive rights. And I would say that they've won so much ground because they've been building a grassroots, in-your-face, unapologetic movement.

That's what we need to build, and I think activists are starting to grapple with how to do that and learn from movements of the past. So I hope this show taps into that conversation which is already happening.

Every show will be followed by a short post-show discussion, and I hope those can be a place for people to digest the right-wing rhetoric in the show and talk about what we're going to do to challenge it.

First published at Red Wedge.

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