In a packed theater in Washington, D.C., a spotlight illuminates an actress staring at an unopened pregnancy test. “I’m scared to find out,” she tells the woman next to her, who’s playing her friend and fellow college student. “You’re going to be okay,” her friend responds. For the next few minutes, they talk over her decision to end the pregnancy. She wants to graduate and she’s not ready for a baby. When the lights dim, the audience bursts into applause.
Then, another woman takes the stage with her own pregnancy test burning a hole in her pocket. This is a play about abortion.
Almost two decades ago, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues — a collection of monologues about women’s sexuality that spans from having orgasms, to giving birth, to being raped — was performed for the first time. Since then, the play has become nearly ubiquitous on college campuses and has helped launch V-Day, an international campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. While Ensler’s production has inspired its fair share of backlash from conservatives and liberals alike, it was groundbreaking for its time, providing young women with a space to explore stories that they may not have otherwise felt comfortable talking about.
Now, pro-choice advocates want to create a similar space for the women who have chosen not to continue with a pregnancy.
For the past several years, the reproductive health organization Advocates for Youth has been collecting hundreds of personal abortion stories through its 1 in 3 Campaign, a name that reflects the fact that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime. This week, some of those stories were brought to the stage in Out of Silence, a new play composed of 13 different scenes about abortion each based on real people’s accounts.
When the play ran in the nation’s capital on Tuesday, it was performed by five professional actors appearing in multiple roles. But, starting this fall, Advocates for Youth is hoping to bring Out of Silence to college campuses. The idea is to make it available for students and activists to stage it for free. There aren’t any concrete plans for a repeat performance yet, but advocates are hoping that Tuesday’s event may help drum up interest in staging the play in other places.
“The success of the Vagina Monologues with young people across the country has been exciting to see, and we’d love to see this play as another opportunity for students to really bring some of these conversations to their community,” Julia Reticker-Flynn, the associate director for youth mobilizing at Advocates for Youth, told ThinkProgress.
Like Ensler’s play, Out of Silence is made up of vignettes that each illustrate a different woman’s experience, ranging from comedic to serious to tragic. In one scene, a recent college graduate tells her accountant she’s unexpectedly pregnant and asks him to figure out how much money it will take her to raise a child. In another, an out-of-work mother struggling to make ends meet is forced to sell her engagement ring to pay for an abortion. One vignette seamlessly switches between English and Spanish. One portrays a lesbian couple forced to end a very wanted pregnancy after discovering the baby won’t be able to survive outside the womb.
But the two works diverge in an important way: Unlike the Vagina Monologues, which was written by Ensler after she interviewed about 200 women about their relationship to their vaginas, the real-life abortion stories that appear in Out of Silence were adapted for the stage by 10 different female playwrights from different backgrounds.
That intersectionality was very intentional, according to the main playwright, Jacqueline Lawton, who was first approached by Advocates for Youth about the project over the summer. She wanted to make sure that the theater production effectively captured the central mission of the organization, which has a lot to do with the diversity of real women’s experiences surrounding abortion. (One of the central critiques of Ensler’s play, meanwhile, is that it’s too narrow because it’s written through the lens of one straight, white, middle-class woman.)
Lawton told her group of playwrights to read through the 1 in 3 Campaign’s abortion stories and find one that resonated most deeply with them. “They themselves are intergenerational and multracial, so it all worked out really well,” she explained to ThinkProgress. “We wanted to have a nice variety.”
This effort especially came through in the vignette featuring a woman named Maria, who experienced two unintended pregnancies. The first time she got pregnant, she opted to have an abortion; the second time, she knew she was ready to have a child. Her story unfolds in nearly equal parts Spanish and English, including a meditation on the Spanish phrase for giving birth — dar a luz — which literally means “to give light.” It’s a poignant reflection on the power of pregnancy decisions, and what it feels like to make an empowered choice to bring a child into the world, that would have been lost without a bilingual story.
Out of Silence was first performed at the Urban Retreat — a conference that brings together youth activists who want to work on issues of reproductive health — in the fall. Lawton said she immediately knew the production was able to accomplish what she intended it to do. The young people in the audience were brought to tears, and afterward, they couldn’t stop talking about the play. She’s hoping those reactions will be replicated at future performances on college campuses.
“What’s cool about the play is that you get to see how women talk about the choice to have an abortion,” Lawton said. “You see women talking to their mothers, sisters, partners. You even see one of them talk to a random stranger. When we get to see these stories play out, we see that we have more choices and we have more options.”
It’s not a message that everyone is comfortable hearing. In downtown D.C., outside of the theater space that premiered Out of Silence, about a dozen protesters picketed the entrance with graphic signs portraying bloody fetuses. While Ensler’s play has made its way onto at least a handful of Catholic campuses, a play specifically about abortion is bound to inspire more push back from the right. A particularly self-aware vignette in Out of Silence involves an author dealing with hate mail and death threats after publishing her abortion story.
But Lawton says the nature of the theater world is to push the envelope on controversial social issues. From depictions of interracial relationships, to storylines about AIDS victims, to pointed critiques of war or gender relations or abstinence-only education, plays and musicals frequently bring themes to the stage before all Americans are comfortable discussing them around the dinner table. With that in mind, she hopes other advocacy groups will be inspired to follow in Advocates for Youth’s lead and attempt a partnership with playwrights.
“When it comes to social change — when you specifically address an issue like abortion or immigration or poverty — the theater can put it out in front of you in a way you just may not have ever seen it before,” Lawton said. “It’s the only art form where we actually see the live interaction of human beings with each other… Especially when the person on stage is someone unlike anyone we may know in our real lives, empathy forms. We’re able to see for the first time how other people live.”
Watching the actors embody a range of characters on stage on Tuesday night drove home that point. As a reporter who covers reproductive rights, a lot of women have told me their abortion stories. But it’s different when you’re watching intimate scenes about family decisions play out between multiple people — the supportive partner, the emotionally distant mother, the kind best friend, the slightly judgmental friend who questions the choice. It adds the rich landscape of people’s individual lives to what is often framed as a purely political conversation.
Reticker-Flynn, who has recently helped college activists organize speak-outs to give them a safe space to share their own abortion stories, thinks that theater could also provide an important new avenue for reproductive rights allies. Obviously, not every college student has chosen to have an abortion, just like not every college student has had the type of traumatic experiences with sexual violence included in some of the Vagina Monologues’ acts. But getting involved in a play allows them to lend their voice to the cause anyway.
Out of Silence isn’t the first play to focus specifically on abortion. But, particularly as advocates look for new opportunities to highlight real abortion stories — as opposed to the pregnancy storylines that typically appear on TV shows and movies, which tend to either depict the abortion procedure as much more dangerous and dramatic than it actually is, or result in a convenient miscarriage that absolves the character of any decision making — it’s a refreshing look at how the issue might be better addressed in the media. Like the recent indie flick Obvious Child, a romantic comedy that happened to include an abortion, Out of Silence illustrates that women’s experiences with abortion can be funny. They can also be painful, or sad, or easy, or political. And ultimately, as the stories about the procedure add up, the closer we get to abortion just being portrayed as normal.
Alicia, the woman whose college-age abortion story was transformed into the opening act of the play, told ThinkProgress she hopes Out of Silence will help other people understand that opting for the procedure doesn’t have to be a life-altering tragedy.
“Girls need to hear success stories. People need to know that women have abortions every day and they go on and live their lives,” Alicia said. “I had an abortion 15 years ago, and I’m fine. I have a great life! And now I’ve got children.”