“Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents…come out to your relatives…come out to your friends,” San Francisco politician Harvey Milk said in the 1970s. “Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.”
Reproductive rights organizers are taking these words to heart. The world premiere of the new play Out of Silence at Studio Theatre tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 20) will feature 13 true-life narratives about women deciding to get an abortion in an effort to humanize that choice and show the variety of paths people take to get there.
The tales all come from Advocates for Youth‘s 1 in 3 Campaign, which encourages women to share their abortion stories. Named for a national abortion stat (nearly three in 10 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45), the campaign seeks to “address abortion access with a proactive strategy,” says Advocates for Youth’s Julia Reticker-Flynn. “We only hear about abortion in a political context, but there’s power in hearing stories directly. It gives a more complete range of unique experiences.”
The 1 in 3 Campaign began with Advocates for Youth staffers sharing their stories in 2011, following “an unprecedented legislative attack on reproductive rights,” Reticker-Flynn says. As more people started coming forward, the organization launched a website in early 2012 and compiled more stories. Abortion rights activists brought the stories to book clubs and college campuses and, sensing a growing demand for sharing them in a public setting, Advocates for Youth began reaching out to convert some of the stories into theater.
“Theater is a powerful tool for creating empathy and compassion,” says Jacqueline E. Lawton, co-producer of Out of SIlence and one of the 10 playwrights who collaborated on the work. The writers each focused on one story from the 1 in 3 Campaign, converting the inner dialogue into conversation for the stage. Each tonally distinct story is about four to five minutes long and features one or two actors, each of whom play multiple characters during the show.
“We will get at the diversity of race, class, gender, age, and sexuality,” says Lawton. The play features the perspective of a lesbian couple facing an abortion, for instance, and a woman who really wants a child but cannot afford to raise one.
Unfortunately, with advocacy-based theater, there’s always the risk that the audience members will feel like they’re getting hit on the head for an hour. Lawton acknowledges that in their first drafts, some of the stories sounded preachy, but a strenuous process of workshopping fixed that. “If you focus on the deeply personal, it’s not didactic,” she says. “You move it to the realm of the individual.”
After tomorrow night’s show, Lawton, actress/playwright Anu Yadav (whose In Love and Warcraft is currently showing at Signature Theatre), and playwright Nicole Jost will host a question-and-answer session. Then, the producers will begin their quest to turn the show into the next Vagina Monologues.
The Vagina Monologues, written by Eve Ensler, similarly features a number of short soliloquies by and about women. On the surface, it focuses on each woman’s relationship with her genitals, but it gets at questions of domestic violence, confidence, sexual health, and other broader issues. While the play has courted controversy since its premiere in 1996 (most recently, Mount Holyoke announced it would stop performing the play out of concerns about offending transgender students), it has also created a robust tradition of raising money for women’s shelters through annual productions at universities and regional theaters.
Unlike most plays, which require that production companies pay a fee to perform them, troupes can access the Vagina Monologues script for free under a creative commons attribution. Out of Silence plans to follow that model, making the show widely accessible for any college organization or community theater troupe to produce.
Following the Out of Silence premiere, the cast will head out on a tour. “We want to make sure people know plays will be made available to present,” says Lawton. “We’re going to get the play into fringe festivals in New York and D.C., go to big conferences and universities across the country, and talk to regional theaters.”
Lawton thinks Out of Silence is a perfect fit for regional theaters. “Artistic directors want urgent, passionate discussions about the decisions that affect our lives,” Lawton says. “Abortion is one of them.”
The world premiere of Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign is tomorrow, Jan. 20. There will be a reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by the 7 p.m. show and a Q&A at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. RSVP here.