Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Alice Yorke of Lightning Rod Special & Elicia Gonzales
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Alice Yorke, lead artist of The Appointment and Co-Director of Lightning Rod Special and Elicia Gonzales, Executive Director of Women’s Medical Fund, sat down to talk about the research and rehearsal process Lightning Rod Special went through and what the American abortion debate really means for issues of health care, education, race, and more. Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below!
Conversation with Elicia Gonzales and Alice Yorke
Alice: Hey Elicia, I’m Alice. I’m the Co-Director of Lightning Rod Special and the lead artist on The Appointment.
Elicia: I’m super happy to meet you again. So I’m Elicia. We met before, from Women’s Medical Fund. I’m the Executive Director there and excited to be able to talk with you some more.
Alice: Yeah, me too!
Elicia: So we worked together, I guess last fall?
Alice: Yeah, just over a year ago.
Elicia: Right, and I was newer to this role then. I think a lot of stuff has changed since then. Can you just refresh me on a snapshot of what that first encounter looked like for y’all?
Alice: So, summer and fall of 2017, we were working on this show The Appointment which then was called Unformed Consent. We had been developing it in longer processes for maybe a year or two before then, and so summer/fall of 2017, we knew we wanted to do a public first-draft showing. But the more we were working on it in isolation, the clearer it was to me that that was the wrong way to be going about it. There are people and organizations that do the work that we’re talking about, and I really wanted to be like, boots on the ground and find out what was going on in there. So in conjunction with our development processes, I got connected to Susan Schewel, who used to be the Executive Director at Women’s Medical Fund, and so she and I had a couple conversations about the project. And they invited me to come listen to the help-line, and she gave me a bunch of books and DVDs to watch –
Elicia: She’s thorough.
Alice: Yeah, I had to find a DVD player. She was a great resource and then she put me in touch with people at Philly Women’s Center. They let me come in and tour their offices and shadow patients and chat with their doctors and really get to see what happens in an abortion clinic from the time you walk in to the time you leave. Which was super, super helpful, and both of those experiences are now directly – sometimes even word for word – in the piece.
Elicia: Oh wow. I don’t think I realized that sequence of events.
Alice: Yeah, it was really helpful. I got to come in twice, I got to sit and observe the waiting room, and then be in a patient advocacy consultation, which is an opportunity for both the patient to check in with the clinic about how they feel and ask questions, and then for the clinic to check in with the patient about how they feel and make sure they’re clear about what’s going on.
Elicia: I’m reminded of the book Shout Your Abortion, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, which just came out. The book takes you through the stories of folks who have had abortions, and it’s really beautiful because it’s not just monolithic, right? It’s like some folks wanted it, some folks had to have it, some folks would have carried to term, some folks were super happy, you know all these different reasons. I think there’s still such a mystery around what happens when you go to get an abortion, and/or there’s all these assumptions based on what’s in the media or what we hear being spewed from these ‘amazing political figures’ who don’t ever need to access an abortion. So the work that you’re doing I feel like is just really valuable – like, to be able to interpret what happens in that clinic setting for folks is really powerful.
Alice: Yeah, I mean because so much of the show is satire, it does have a lot of dark humor to it. And every time that we started working in the clinic world, we were like – that stuff isn’t full of satire. That dark humor, that satire – that doesn’t feel good here. We don’t want that here. Because one of the goals of the project is – I mean, similar to Shout Your Abortion – is reducing stigma, is getting people to talk about it, is asking people to be more aware of what goes on, we were like, those scenes need to be no filter. They want to have very little theatricality, no humor other than the humor of what happens when two people sit next to each other in chairs, you know.
Elicia: Yeah, like chair farts and stuff.
Alice: Oh yeah, chair farts. Like, I’m uncomfortable, you’re uncomfortable, you’re very comfortable, you’re like talking on the phone – like all that stuff can be very funny, but without satirical layering on top of it.
Elicia: Right, like without gratuitously poking fun at a thing.
Alice: Yeah. The first time we did the abortion scene in our rehearsal room, it was like the wind changed a little bit. It was like everybody was just like, oooh.
Elicia: Yeah, we’re actually here for that.
Alice: We’re here for that. And in the way that we make work, we just create so much material and so little of it ends up getting in the show. Sometimes you rarely know right away, but we made the abortion scene and we were like, oh, so, that has to go in. That has to go in the show.
Elicia: Right, because unless you’re the person that’s getting that abortion, you’re not ever necessarily going to be in that space. I worked at Planned Parenthood back when I was a little puppy, and I asked them if I could see an abortion. I just felt like if I’m out here telling people about the procedure, I need to be informed. So I went to a couple of procedures at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver, and I really watched the whole thing up close, cause I need to be honest with people, you know? I think what happens sometimes in an effort to be “right” we sometimes skirt over the fact that, no actually – if left untouched, right, this thing would probably possibly maybe turn into a full-fledged fetus, and then later on from there, maybe a baby, right? At that moment it was the same thing, the wind kind of changed. I’m curious to know from you – someone who’s done a lot of thinking about the prep and the portrayal, did you feel as though you were placing significance to the procedure that may or may not actually be felt by the person getting the abortion?
Alice: Oh my god that’s such a huge part of the thing that we talk about when we’re scripting. I feel like there are so many narratives around getting abortions, and so many of them are not what’s really going on –
Elicia: Or not told by the person getting the abortion –
Alice: Right, exactly – which is what’s so great about Shout Your Abortion, right, it’s so powerful because you hear people telling their own stories. Those stories are oftentimes glorified in either way. Either it’s horrible, demonized, what’s-going-on-in-that-crazy-room, or it’s like, hearts and flowers and like Lisa Frank. Like, If These Walls Could Talk, that HBO show?
Elicia: Oh god. Yeah.
Alice: Yeah, so it felt really important to be like, how do we just show? When we showed the piece in August, the character who’s getting the abortion doesn’t say very much. Just the facts, name, date of birth, does this hurt, look over here, you know like, there’s very little story, which was really purposeful. As soon as you start giving that character any backstory, then like, boom the audience is going to box her away, and box away by proxy anyone getting an abortion. They’re going to see that I’m a middle class looking white woman, and they’re going to think that this narrative is only about middle class looking white women and abortions.
Elicia: But what’s really cool too is that you leaving it open to interpretation reminds people remember that this is actually just about health care, y’all. You know? It’s not about this ritualistic, witches-in-a-dark-cave, coven conjuring whatever. This an actual medical procedure. Is it different than getting a tooth filled in? For sure. We shouldn’t actually even be having this conversation, right? It’s crazy. It’s a medical procedure, people need to be reminded of that on a constant. There was a study done not too long ago that found by and large that the connection to abortion for most folks is a hyper politicized, hyper negative, a demonized kind of thing and completely divorced from the fact that it’s actually health care that we’re talking about. So the fact that y’all are showing abortion in a sort of this-is-what-it-is, non-scripted, non-skewed way is super cool.
Alice: Thanks. What felt important for me to learn is that having an abortion is just as risky and just as safe as carrying a pregnancy to term.
Elicia: Oh my god, yeah. I mean, and then you still have to carry that child for eighteen years, you know? And maternal mortality in Philadelphia, especially for black women, is just awful, and nobody wants to talk about that. I keep plugging Shout Your Abortion because I feel like it’s just so powerful. One of the editors, Amelia said that nobody wants to talk about abortion in this country, because it’s a reminder of everything else that we don’t want to talk about in this country. You know, sex, religion, rape, racism, like all the things. And I was just like, oh my god, that’s it, that’s it.
Alice: I feel like that’s just put into words something I’ve been trying to communicate about this process in the show – it’s not an isolated issue, you know? We don’t want to talk about abortion because then we have to talk about neighborhood safety, then we have to talk about accessibility to food, to education, to sex education. It just feels so easy for us to box it off in our minds and be like, that’s bad and we don’t touch it, we don’t talk about it. But actually it’s the same as looking at white feminism and looking at intersectional feminism. Right, like let’s widen the scope a little bit. We can recognize that finding equality for women is not an isolated issue. We also have to look at finding equality for people of color, for trans people, for gay people, we have to look at finances, we have to look at class, etc.
Elicia: Yeah, I know. For real. All of these issues are intersected. It’s like, “if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s white supremacy.” It’s just a reminder that the work is still happening, we have work to do, and at Women’s Medical Fund, we’re grappling with that really intensely right now. Since 1985 we’ve existed as this fund, and it’s pretty radical, right? I mean we’re literally putting our money into the hands of the folks who can’t afford to get an abortion. Folks who are making less than $8800 a year. Since its inception, WMF has existed in a pretty straight-line kind of way. We generate revenue, we raise money, and put it directly into the hands of the folks who call the help-line. We are able to help so many people, but not nearly as many as the number who need our services. The former ED you mentioned – Susan Schewer – she was very visionary and recognized that funding abortions is critical but doesn’t go far enough. Why is it that 80% of the people who call the help-line are black and brown folks? Why is it that the folks who are calling the help-line are making so little money and have all these other complicating, intersectional oppressions that are affecting them differently than other folks? What do we do with the fund to address how abortion is connected to racism, classism, all the isms. Like, how might people walk away from your show and say, ‘Oh yeah, lack of abortion access actually is a manifestation of the racism in this country.’
Alice: Right. And for me as an audience member, if I already accept that I care about the rampant racism in this country, then can I also get myself to care about lack of access to abortion, reproductive healthcare, sex education? I remember hearing many years before I heard the words intersectional feminism someone call it ‘open door or closed door feminism.’ That your feminism could be closed door where you just care about rights for women, and for much of history, that meant upper-middle-class white women. Or, it could be an open door. If I am an open-door feminist, that means I also care about LGBTQ issues and it also means I care about POC issues. And see how they’re all connected.
Elicia: The metaphor of the door also means that you’re actually being invited in, there’s an intentionality to it. These conversations aren’t just going to magically happen, people aren’t just going to magically say like, ‘let’s talk about racism in America!’ Someone has to open the door and invite you into this space, and we need to be sitting at this table and having these kinds of conversations. I think that term is great. I’ve never heard it put that way before.
Alice: Yeah, it’s always really stuck with me, again because I think it felt inviting. You know, and it carries on into what we’re trying to find with the programming that we’ll do around the show. How can we make spaces for audience members, like you said, to sit at a table together? They’re being handed an opportunity to watch someone have an abortion onstage. How do you feel about seeing a group of people in a waiting room, waiting to get an abortion? How does that make you feel about your place in the world?
Elicia: Yeah. Even if you’re not a person who has ever needed to have an abortion or have access to an abortion, you probably have at one point or another felt fearful, or uncertain, or just in a hurry to get this damn thing over with, right? As an audience member, it’s important to remember that there’s so much you have to do first before you get to the scene where you see the abortion. You have to walk through all these scary people outside. You might have had to leave your kid somewhere that’s maybe scary. Most of the people who call our help-line already have two kids at home. Maybe you’ve already had to fight with your work to get the day off, or lie to somebody to get there. And in the state of PA, you have to wait 24 hours. Because you haven’t already thought about your decision long enough, right? If you’re under the age of 18, you have to get your parental consent – not notification, consent. If you don’t get their consent, you have to go in front of a judge and get that person’s consent. By the time you get to the procedure, you’ve already gone through hell and back. I’m hoping that audience members are able to connect with that level of struggle in some way, or notice that absence of the struggle that they may encounter in living their day-to-day lives.
Alice: One of the things we looked at are the informed consent materials. So many states – too many – have mandated informed consent materials that are written by the state, by politicians that have to be given out to patients before they come in. And I’ve read through maybe let’s say half a dozen of those materials, and it’s just – they’re so pejorative, they’re paternalistic, you can tell that they’re written to minimize the patient’s life experience and intelligence. They often refer to a fetus as a baby, already – like your seven week old baby – just stuff that is so coded. There’s a ton of really blatant misogyny and paternalism in it, and then there’s also such deeply internalized misogyny too. Like the fact that the government thinks that someone hasn’t thought about it before they’ve come to the doctor’s office? Like what do you really think is going on here?
Elicia: Right, and it’s just also like, it reminds me again about whose body it is. The fact that you even think that you have any say over what somebody does with their body, period, whether they want to have a child, whether they want to transition their gender, whether they want to have a tattoo, whether they want to have ten kids, whether they want to wear nothing and walk down the streets in Philadelphia – all of these things that people feel like they have the right to tell somebody else what they can do with their very own bodies really only is about certain bodies in this society, right? It’s not all bodies, it’s certain bodies. If audiences are coming to your show because they already feel concerned or passionate about this issue, my hope is that they leave there feeling impassioned to actually then do something about it. It’s not just enough to feel uncomfortable, or inspired, or relieved. What do you hope will happen when folks see your show and then do after?
Alice: I mean, that was a big part of why when we did this show in the summer/fall of 2017 that I wanted to have you and the WMF, and folks from Philly Women’s Center come and speak. It felt really important to contextualize the work, and to say – cool, we’ve just seen a piece of theater that deals with this issue. You might be feeling something, you might not, you might leave and walk into the night, that’s cool. But in case you are feeling something, here’s more information. Here’s information about what Women’s Medical Fund is, what Philly Women’s Center does, what the restrictions are in Pennsylvania. If you care, here’s where to sign up for those email lists, here’s an opportunity to toss in your change. If you care, here’s an opportunity to sign up to be a clinic escort.
Elicia: And because of that, you were actually able to impact the patients directly. I know that you guys made that $5,000 contribution in order to be able to help people actually access the very same thing that folks were there to see, so it worked! It wasn’t just this thing that happened in theory, it was in real life practice. You practiced a model that worked. I don’t think a lot of folks necessarily root their work – whether it’s political or legislative or artistic – in community. How is it actually affecting and impacting communities? How might it be led by communities? I was really appreciative not only that you reached out that first time, but that you were also open to hearing, how it landed on folks. That’s scary! You were so vulnerable and open to the feedback!
Alice: Yeah! I mean, I remember you emailed me and we got together to talk about how the show felt for you, with really specific questions. It was cool for me as maker, especially because the show wasn’t a fixed entity, and frankly won’t be a fixed entity after March either. I got to see how it was landing. Because it’s satire, some of the discomfort is on purpose, but if it’s not quite landing, then we still have work to do. You talked about the people who are coming to this show – I feel like I have always really been interested in the theater-going public on an East Coast city. Most of us are lefty-lefties. But I continue to be really interested in the show being an open book.
Elicia: Yeah. Your show is an open door.
Alice: I hope so. So if you don’t necessarily think abortion is the right choice for you or your family or your community, I still welcome you to come to the show.
Elicia: Right. I also welcome you to find someone in your community who hasn’t had an abortion. You know? Everybody that we know has had an abortion, has been impacted by somebody’s decision to have an abortion, or will be impacted by that, so it’s not an isolated incident that happens to the poor girl in the corner. So, there’s that too.
Alice: I heard this amazing story last summer when I was working on the show. Someone told me about a mom’s group she was a part of in the early 80s. One of those groups where they all just had their first kid and wanted to be in a room together. There are thirteen women in the room, and somebody posed the question – who here has had an abortion? There were thirteen women – one woman didn’t raise her hand. One.
Elicia: It’s part of our lives! This is fascinating – I just learned that in Cuba, up to about six or eight weeks or so – so still pretty early on in the pregnancy – they don’t even call it abortion. They call it “menstruation regulation.” They say, “I’m here to regulate my period.” It took some time for American doctors and health care providers who were studying in Cuba to figure out what they were talking about, because so many people just kept coming in for menstruation regulation. It’s just a reminder about how politicized and alarmist this thing is that’s actually just a normal part of our lives.
Alice: The history of the politicization of abortion is crazy. It’s preposterous.
Elicia: It’s preposterous! And it’s also on purpose, it’s not an accident. All of this stuff is intentional, it’s all designed to keep folks in certain positions of power and to hold other folks away from that power. None of this is an accident, you know, I just really continue to look forward to figuring out creative ways of reminding people that that’s not just me saying, “Abortion! Abortion! Abortion!” But we have your show with dancing fetuses and whatnot, so that could be fun.
Alice: Yeah, that’s the hope! A way to shout, “Abortion!” that’s fun.
Elicia: And doesn’t harm.
Alice: And doesn’t harm, right! And like, if someone feels like it harms, I mean, my email is on the booklet. I would be happy to talk with someone about why they felt it was harmful. After the first draft showing, I did have people reach out to me and say they felt personally harmed by it. I’m so grateful that someone would take the time to do that. Not only because I’m making a piece of art that I don’t want to harm people, so now I can think about how to fix that, but also because we have an opportunity to talk human to human about what just happened and also what’s going on with you that you saw something that was harmful.
Elicia: I also think that that is an unintended harmful consequence unlike what’s happening right now in cities, especially in Philadelphia, around crisis pregnancy centers that are deliberately and maliciously lying to people about their options. They are not medical professionals. That is a very different level of harm in our communities that is violent, malicious, and actually intentional. Right? So – I just had to put that out there because I think unintended consequences that harm, that’s just going to happen no matter how well you try to control for that, and in fact like you said there can be true growth and healing when those things happen. But when it’s an organized effort to harm on purpose, on that scale, and actually getting money to do that – that’s where we have a problem.
Alice: On our next next podcast.