Reproductive Rights and the Arts

Source: January 2006 Newsletter of the Fund for Women Artists

Cindy Cooper:  Theater offers the possibility of transformation

Sarah Browning: What first inspired you to develop Words of Choice?

Cindy Cooper: Politicians blathered about reproductive rights, but completely ignored women’s lives.  Activist groups responded with fact sheets. I wanted to reach people in their hearts. Theater is especially good at doing that; there is a magic in theater where people can begin to reflect upon their own experiences while watching well-told stories unfold in front of them.  Theater offers the possibility of transformation.  My daily work involved reproductive rights and I became convinced that reproductive freedom, under steady attack, needed the breathing space and hope that theater provides.  Words of Choice is the result.

Browning: Did you have any concerns about addressing such a controversial issue?

Cooper: I don’t think reproductive justice is a controversial issue.  I think it’s a matter of human rights and freedom.  The only controversial thing is the way that our rights have been hijacked by a small minority and used to divide people and amass power.  That is a scandal of outrageous proportion.

Choice, by the way, is a very broad canvas to me, encompassing contraception, abortion, pregnancy, sexual relations, gender identity, the right of privacy, and individual liberties.  Choice is about whether and when to have children, if at all, and the right to raise healthy children once you do.  It is about the right to make intimate and personal decisions for yourself, without the government dictating what you must do.

Browning: Can you describe your creative process in compiling it?

Cooper: Words of Choice is a compilation of works by several writers.  I wanted to show the broad panorama of people and stories affected by choice.  I began by building a collection of material (luckily I had the help of some interns.)  Comic pieces were the hardest to come by, so I wrote some humorous selections to consider.  The full compilation came together like Legos, by selecting and fitting the best pieces into a theatrical arc.  I worked with a co-adapter, Suzanne Bennett, and a wonderful collection of writers agreed to the inclusion of their works.  I must say, as with any good play, finding the right ending proved the most challenging.  (We now close with a rousing spoken word piece written by Alix Olson.)

Browning: Please tell our readers about presenting Words of Choice and the kinds of reactions you’ve had from audiences.

Cooper: Audience responses are powerful: profound and moving.  The play is presented with a post-show discussion, and I have journals filled with comments.  A conservative student newspaper in Kansas printed an editorial saying that no matter what opinion a person has about abortion, “the play presents a golden opportunity for proactive dialogue.”

A few snapshots come to mind.  Recently, in Missouri, a young woman at a college came up to me in tears. “Are they going to take away our rights?  Are they?” she blurted out.  (Actually, I wanted to cry, too, but we talked about action.) A woman in Oklahoma, who said she thought her underwear was older than most of the students in the audience, wanted to tell her story of times before Roe.  She found herself pregnant, tried to self-abort and ended up in a hospital, where they hung a sign around her neck that said ‘ABORTION.’ Talk about the scarlet letter!  In Minnesota, a woman of Southeast Asian origin looked puzzled: “I never hear these stories in the newspaper,” she said.  And in Wisconsin, a young woman said that she had grown up in a pro-life household, but after seeing the play realized that she is pro-choice.

Browning: Did you face any difficulties getting the piece presented?  Is so, how did you address those difficulties?

Cooper: Most people understand that this is art.  Art tells truths and shares stories.  We generate an opportunity for people to talk about the real impact of the issues, and at times we get media coverage, as well.  Sometimes we’ve had protests from people who are dogmatically anti-abortion; usually it reflects poorly on them.  We deal with those situations as they come.

The harder tasks, quite honestly, are organizational – planning, outreach, marketing.  I do much of the producing and formed a nonprofit.  Plus, we often find ourselves in the position of educating activist groups about the importance of art, and how to best use it, which is a whole job in itself.

Browning: Did creating or presenting this work alter or affect your own attitudes toward abortion?  In what way?

Cooper: Words of Choice has deepened my feeling about the great need for people to be able to express their feelings and concerns about reproductive freedom.  Anti-abortion rhetoric has become so pervasive that I’ve been shocked at the great silencing of women’s experiences.  I recall several women at one college telling me they would consider getting an abortion if they needed it, but they would never tell anyone about it. Creating the work offers me a positive outlet for letting people know that their pro-choice beliefs are okay.  It has altered me to this extent: without it, I might just be furious all the time about reactionary efforts to roll back our rights.

Browning: How do you think Words of Choice has contributed to the debate on reproductive rights?  What role in general do you think art and artists can play in a debate as polarized as this one?

Cooper: Words of Choice gives people an opportunity to think and reflect, without having to ‘debate.’  We are breaking open the discussion.  A student in Kansas recently emailed: “Being a more liberal person is a difficult task here.  However, Words of Choice was truly a blessing.  It motivated me to keep organizing in my community … The play was inspirational …I will never think about reproductive choice in the same way again.”

What difference does it make?  It affects our personal and our public lives. One woman wrote me that she brought her boyfriend to the play because she didn’t know how to discuss her feelings about choice issues, and they stayed up talking for hours.  A state legislator in Kansas came up and thanked me after a show, whispering, “I agree, but I could never say so out loud.”  In Virginia, organizers signed up a busload of people to go to a pro-choice lobby day.

Art gives people the opportunity to feel comfort, power, reinforcement that they may not get in their daily lives, and the grace to empathize. And sometimes to laugh. One woman said she was 72 years old and had been working on choice issues for over 30 years, but this was the first she could remember laughing about it in a decade. Art helps people recognize themselves and the world around them; in this case, the importance of freedom to women in a free society.

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