When Madeline Burrows was in college, her thesis research didn’t just take her into the bowels of the library—it took her into the depths of the anti-abortion movement. Burrows, who graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 2013, spent two years performing undercover research in anti-abortion organizations, emerging with a one-woman piece of political theater that exposes the absurdities, humor and tragedy of that wing of activism. The play, Mom Baby God—which Burrows will present at Refuge PDX tonight and tomorrow—follows a peppy teen named Jessica Beth Giffords. She’s an anti-abortion activist, but she struggles to reconcile her normal impulses as a hormonal teenager and political beliefs that demand sexual purity. In a phone interview with WW, Burrows discussed what it’s like to go undercover, the criticism the play has received (including on the website of the National Review) and how humor makes a political theater more effective.
WW: Is this show just preaching to the choir?
Madeline Burrows: I definitely think most of our audiences have been pro-choice liberals, but not necessarily people who are already involved with feminist activism. Our target audience has been people who may be angry about the attack on reproductive rights. As far as reaching right-wingers, we’ve had at least one right-winged audience member who actually came to our first show in New York, filmed it with undercover glasses and tried to do this whole exposé about the show. That’s all we’ve known about people from the other side coming to see the show. As far as preaching to the choir, it’s not a piece that’s just interested in getting a whole group of people who already share the same ideas together in a room and laughing and nodding and congratulating each other for being on the right side. It’s really a call for action. For right-wingers to come, that would be interesting but it’s not really our intention to convert the other side.
You mentioned the right-winger who filmed your show in New York. That audience member went on to write a piece in the National Review. That writer, Kristan Hawkins, wrote: Burrows “admitted that she had to fictionalize the conference, and, in the Q&A session after her play’s premiere, she said that she even had to change information about fetal development relayed in the play because the truth was causing some of her (mostly left-wing) audience to question their pro-choice views.” What’s your take on that?
That’s their spin on it. They simultaneously are claiming that I had to lie and make up all the information about their movement in order to have anybody listen to it, but then they’re also claiming the show is convincing people to become pro-lifers. They very much manipulated something that I did say, which was that as a playwright and as a theater artist, the play has gone through different stages. What I felt was really missing in the show was the sense of tragedy of how these right-wing politics affect young girls and how it shapes their sexual lives. But in the newer version of the show, it’s much clearer how these sexual purity politics and abstinence-only talks that the teenage protagonist attends affect young girls. It’s not the case that we had to lie because right-wing politics are so convincing. Rather, it’s the case that in the first show we structured it in a way that didn’t give a clear sense of the impact of this misinformation.
How did you create the character of Jessica Beth Giffords? Is she supposed to be a stereotypical “pro-life teen”?
I created her based on my observation of young people in a movement who are really pumped up and excited but who are also really awkward teens and tweens. Young women, especially, are simultaneously trying to be hot and sexy to get the attention of teenage boys, because that’s what we’re encouraged to do, but also trying to be sexually pure and a perfect example of what a woman should be. I also was fascinated by video blogs I saw called “I’m a pro-life teen,” which are YouTube videos made by young anti-abortion activists. It was fascinating to see these girls justify, to themselves and their peers, reactionary politics. I think whether you’re a right-winger or not, you can relate to this character because she is struggling with the same things we’re all struggling with as we come of age in a society that has such unhealthy expectations, especially for girls and women.
What was the most memorable experience when you went undercover in the anti-abortion movement?
I would say going to a crisis pregnancy center where I was the youngest by decades and was seated at a table with a group of priests, who explained to me the science behind why women cannot get pregnant from being raped. Another one that stands out is having a conversation with a guy at the Students for Life conference, who was very earnest and really wanted to explain to me why sex between a man and a woman is so much better than gay sex. I was really trying to bite my tongue and not give away more information than he would ever possibly want to have.
How do you balance the humor of the show with the sense of urgency you’re seeking?
Comedy is a huge tool for engaging in issues that are difficult to talk about. I think it would be really hard for an audience to see a piece of theater where they’re constantly being hit over the head with horrible right-wing voices. It’s like watching Fox news: How much can you take? I find a lot of humor in relating to this young teenage girl and the way she’s combining pop culture references and right-wing ideologies. It’s a lot easier to be laughing and smiling at the theater. It allows space to digest what’s happening.
For you, how does abortion relate to broader issues about women, gender and sexuality?
Underneath the surface of the anti-abortion movement is gender politics. There’s a big perspective within that movement arguing that women would be so much happier and men would be so much happier if we didn’t gender-bend so much. There’s also a ton of homophobia. There’s more of a move toward “love the sinner, hate the sin” as it’s becoming more and more unacceptable to actively discriminate against LGBTQ people. We’ve had a lot of young queer people come to the show who did not identify with the politics in the show. There are a number of ways that gender and sexuality are involved.
What kind of backlash or criticism have you faced?