Theater coverage at Impose is relatively rare, but Madeline Burrows' one-woman play MOM BABY GOD demands our attention. The play is centered around a teenage pro-life supporter, Jessica Beth Giffords, who gleefully educates her audience about the anti-abortion movement in a high ponytail and sparkly handmade t-shirt. As a vlogging Jessica, Burrows takes her audience to the Students for Life of America Conference, where we are introduced to a number of characters, including Jessica's mother and a right wing pop star. It is rare to experience the right wing through the eyes of a teenager, but especially from one who defies prude stereotypes and battles her own burgeoning sexuality. I interviewed Burrows before MOM BABY GOD's New York run to ask her about her concept behind the play, undercover research, and pro-life punks.
Did you have any theater experience before devising MOM BABY GOD? Also, how did you create the play?
I've been performing and doing theater since I was a kid, but it wasn't until college that I decided I really wanted to be an actor. Actually, I think I always knew that, but college was the first time I admitted to myself that this is what I really wanted to do. The creation process took a few years. I conducted interviews and did immersive research in the anti-abortion movement, and then wound up with way too many pages of transcriptions and had to learn how to edit and find the story amidst all this text. One thing that was crucial was having the opportunity to workshop stuff in front of an audience throughout the development process. I think that's really crucial for any creative process. Otherwise you get too precious about what you're creating and forget about the audience. Sometimes you perform something and think it's the most brilliant thing and then the audience is like…”What was that? I didn't get it. That was confusing.” That happened a lot! It was a lot of trial and error, and it helped refine the play. The audience is like a ghost writer during the workshop phase. I was also so lucky to work with a team of people — my director Emma Weinstein and designer Allison Smartt in particular—who were invested in the development of the piece. I think the idea that plays, or any art, is created in isolation by one brilliant person is total bullshit.
What was your goal when creating MOM BABY GOD and has it changed?
My goal was to create a piece of theater that could be an active part of the political conversation about feminism. And I wanted it to be able to travel easily. Before we left for the first tour, there was always a part of me that felt like, “This won't actually happen.” So it's been incredible to see the show do that. Our goal is the same, but we're always trying to reach a bigger audience.
How do you get into character?
Normally I'd spend the ten minutes before the show getting into the body and mind of the character I'm playing. With MOM BABY GOD, it's really different, because it's a solo show where I play 8 different characters. I can't just get into one character. So I do this very frenetic thing backstage before the show where I jump between characters to find the physicality and voice for each one and get back into the habit of quickly transitioning between them. And I think about where each of them is coming from at the start of the play, and create new scenarios for them that you don't see onstage — like I'll decide that one of them just started her period or just got locked out of their car — little secrets that give me something to keep it challenging and fresh. Then I go out into the lobby before the show starts, as one of the teenage characters, and hand out cupcakes and interact with audience members. It's a blast.
You spent a year attending anti-abortion conferences, fundraisers, and rallies. Can you tell me about your experiences at these events?
Where do I begin! It was like stepping into an alternate universe. I found myself in some truly bizarre situations that I never imagined I would, like drinking beers with self-described “feminists for life” outside the March for Life after party — yes, that is a real thing. Or going to a crisis pregnancy center fundraiser in the same banquet hall that I used to go to bar mitzvahs at in middle school. And having a priest there try and explain to me why “women can't get pregnant from rape.” Or being in a 2,000 person convention center with 21-year-old guys chanting, “We love babies yes we do, we love babies, how 'bout you?”
I grew up in a part of Florida where it was not uncommon to see gruesome anti-abortion billboards on the side of highways. The images were shocking, but not necessarily compelling. What tactics did you see used by anti-abortion protestors and how effective did you feel they were?
There is big debate in the anti-choice movement about the use of what they call “graphic images,” which are, let's be real, photoshopped images of babies covered in ketchup. People realize that those images aren't very convincing, and they're looking for new ways to win control over public opinion. They're very aware that feminists see the anti-choice movement as being dominated by men, so in my experience there was a lot of co-opting of feminist language on their part to try and gain credibility, like describing pro-choice activism as “the real war on women” because, in their words, it denies women's most amazing and important function — making babies. There is also a big shift towards investing in crisis pregnancy centers, which are seen as a more gentle approach. But CPC's are equally misleading and problematic. They just give you false medical information with a smile.
While you toured the country with MOM BABY GOD, Students for Life of America created a smear campaign against you. In response, you wrote a piece for The Nation in which you say that MOM BABY GOD “holds a mirror up to the anti-choice movement and exposes the sexist and sexually repressive nature of their politics.” You wonder, “How, 40 years after Roe v. Wade, have we lost so much ground?” and “What are we going to do to fight back?” It seems like one answer is through theater. How can we continue to change the discussion about reproductive rights?
We need to mobilize people on our side. You know that Le Tigre song “Get Off the Internet”? The lyrics go “Get off the internet / I'll meet you in the street / Get off the internet / Destroy the right wing.” Sometimes people talk about marches and demonstrations as being cliche, but I think they're crucial. The anti-choice movement has an annual March for Life that brings out thousands of people to D.C. and they spend that time organizing and coordinating a national movement. That's what we need to do. We need more demonstrations like the occupation of the state capital in Texas. The last big national pro-choice demonstration was the March for Women's Lives in 2004. That was ten years ago, and look at how much ground we've lost around reproductive rights just in the past few years. I just saw that in Seattle, activists are organizing a demonstration in response to the misogynistic murders in Isla Vista, and it's called “#YesAllWomen Live,” so it's taking all of these amazing conversations that are happening on the internet, and happening in the ones and twos, and bringing it into the streets. I'm very inspired by the role artists, and musicians in particular, have been playing in keeping the conversation about feminism alive. I think as political artists we can't be isolated from building a movement in the streets. Political theater and art have their place and protesting in the streets and organizing coalitions have their place, but you need both to build a movement.
Are their teens with their own pro-life vlogs?
Yes! Look them up on Youtube. When I first started the research for this play i became a total internet research junkie. the “I'm a Pro-Life Teen” vlogs were some of the first things I found, and immediately I knew I wanted to incorporate it into the show. That's also how I learned about National Pro-Life Cupcake Day, which is in the show and is a real thing.
You play drums and sing in the rad Boston band Tomboy. Do you know of any pro-life punk bands?
Unfortunately, yes. There is an organization called Rock for Life that puts out compilations and does music festivals with conservative Christian punk bands. It's a completely different scene. The Christian Right has a good sense of how to mobilize young people by creating spaces that are both causal and music-oriented but also political. These bands aren't afraid of being political. I actually talked with some women who fronted a band at this Christian rock concert at the Students for Life Conference. I went up to them after the show and we started swapping stories about sexists experiences we've had as female musicians. But that's pretty much where our similarities begin and end. I got a little carried away and mentioned Tomboy to them, and then walked away and was like, “Oh God. I hope they don't Google me.”
What are your plans once MOM BABY GOD ends?
I'm in the very beginning stages of working on a new theater project that I'm very excited about and Tomboy's first record comes out in the fall so we'll be touring. I'm also just excited to start auditioning “in the real world” and keep training as an actor. I never want to feel like I'm not learning something.
Finally, following each show you conduct a Q&A session. What have you learned from your audience?
I think the biggest thing I've learned is that if you're a feminist and if you're angry about the attack on reproductive rights, you're not alone. There are so many people around the country who are angry and looking for ways to fight back. People are connecting the dots. The attack on reproductive rights is very real, but the talk-backs are the momentum in the room every time we do a show leaves me feeling very hopeful.
MOM BABY GOD will be performing in the Planet Connections Theatre Festival June 3-7
Where: Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street
When*: Tuesday June 3 at 4:00pm
Thursday, June 5 at 7:00pm
Friday, June 6 at 3:00pm
Saturday June 7 at 7:30pm
Tickets $18 at www.mombabygod.com/schedule
*Show starts promptly on-time due to festival scheduling. No late seating.