According to statistics from 2008, one in three American women will have an abortion in their lifetime.
It’s a commonly cited (and sometimes contested) statistic, one that illuminates a greater reality: many women in this country will need access to safe abortion care at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, of the abortions that take place each year, a significant amount ― global statistics have estimated around half ― remain medically unsafe.
An organization called the 1 in 3 Campaign is attempting to look beyond the numbers its name imparts. In its play “Remarkably Normal,” director Marie Sproul and writer Jessi Blue Gormezano are sharing stories from the real women ― the one in three ― who’ve received and provided abortion care. Described as a “documentary play,” the production is based exclusively on interviews and experiences submitted to the grassroots movement by women who want to end the stigma attached to abortion. From a Planned Parenthood educator to a teenager living in the South, the storytellers aim to express the emotions and humanity of a common experience that political discussions underplay.
“I believe that theatre is a great tool in helping to drive and direct social change by opening people’s hearts and minds,” Sproul explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. Two years ago, she helped co-produce and direct “Out of Silence,” a series of five-minute scenes ― also based on true stories ― created for student activists to perform on their college campuses “to help create a dialogue around the issue of abortion.”
Today, she’s not only continuing to bring awareness to the issue of abortion, she’s helping women directors, writers, designers and actors do so in an industry dominated by men ― in a national tour of her full-length play. “One of the things that we lack in the theater are stories about women, being told by women, being directed by women, being designed by women,” she told HuffPost.
We checked in with Sproul and Gormezano following the a performance of “Remarkably Normal” in Cleveland, Ohio last month:
”Remarkably Normal” is described as a documentary play. Can you elaborate on this?
Jessi Blue Gormezano: All the text in the play comes straight from written stories or videos submitted to the 1 in 3 Campaign or from interviews that I conducted. Names have been changed for anonymity but every word that is spoken in the play was spoken or written by someone in real life.
What is it about the “documentary” nature of “Remarkably Normal” that sets it apart from more fictionalized plays?
Marie Sproul: The interview play is a really powerful tool in telling the real stories of people who have actually had to make these decisions in their own lives. For those who don’t know what an interview play is, it is a play in which the playwright interviews people on a particular subject and then uses that material to create the play and the characters in it. The audience experiences the play as the interviewer, hearing the responses of the people to whom the questions were asked.
This type of play allows for several things to happen that are really exciting. One, the characters have more freedom in telling their stories to you, because you (the audience, who is now the interviewer) have asked them to tell you their story. Two, the characters are telling you about things that have happened to them in the past, so they are not living in the really heavy emotions of that moment ― not that these emotions don’t come back up in the present.
It is a completely different experience to have someone look you in the eye and tell you their story. When this happens, it is impossible to just dismiss them. It immediately humanizes a them.
What is it like, as a director and a writer, threading together the stories of various people willing to share their experiences with abortion?
MS: Challenging! I certainly felt the weight of responsibility in telling these real stories from real people ― giving voice to the unheard. I was determined to tell these stories in a way that would honor those who bravely shared them with us.
JBG: It was a honor being entrusted with these stories. Each person’s story could be its own play, so editing was the most challenging element of creating the script. The question I continually asked myself as I was editing, was, Is this an experience or an opinion? When something was an opinion rather than an experience, I would usually have to let it go. It’s so easy, particularly when exploring such divisive content, to shut off our ears when we start hearing opinions that differ from our own, so my goal was to keep the bulk of the stories firmly rooted in personal experience, which is much harder to dismiss.
Can you tell me a little bit about the decision to call the play “Remarkably Normal”?
JBG: Finding a name for this play was harder than writing it! So many of the titles that we brainstormed felt very heavy ― and while the play certainly tackles very challenging moments in people’s lives, it isn’t dark or bleak. The script is composed of very honest, straightforward, personal stories about a subject that is rarely talked about. There is actually lot of humor in the telling of the stories as well, so we wanted to find a title that embraced the tone of the piece and welcomed audiences into these stories rather than created yet another barrier.
What, in your opinion, is contributing most to the stigmatization of abortion today?
JBG: The silence. The fact that so many people receive abortion care in this country and yet there is so little space in our culture to share those experiences. That silence, in many cases, creates shame or a sense of ― no one wants to hear about this so I’ll just keep this to myself. Or ― what if this person judges me for my choice to have an abortion? Many people that are aligned with the anti-abortion movement have saturated their homes, the media and the internet with such strident messaging, and have effectively diminished the space for nuanced, honest dialogue about the realities of abortion care to take place.
I spoke with a woman who identifies as pro-life but believes people should have access to comprehensive sex education as well as safe and legal abortions. She didn’t feel comfortable identifying as pro-choice because she wanted abortion care to be the absolute last alternative, but she still believed in bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. Hearing her point of view made me realize that so often black-and-white labels simply do not suffice. And the more we cling to them as a society, the more and more we regress.
MS: I think a big part of it is that it is easy to think of abortion as just a political issue. Doing so makes it easy to dehumanize people who have had or need abortion care. Hopefully “Remarkably Normal” will help to bring the focus back to the people involved and help people empathize [and understand] that when one in three women have an abortion, it is indeed a remarkably normal occurrence. And that more than likely, someone they know and love has probably had one.
How do you see storytelling playing a part in the destigmatization of abortion in the future?
JBG: The telling of our own stories and being witnessed in our truth is a powerful thing. But I think the real power lies in the listening. Listening, really listening, to our “enemy,” or people who simply disagree with a belief we hold strongly is one of the scariest things we can do, but it’s also one of the most powerful. By listening, we find common ground ― maybe not initially ― but eventually it emerges and that’s where we really start to unlock our empathy and compassion. The more we can see ourselves in someone we may disagree with, the harder it is to vilify or stigmatize them.
MS: When you listen to someone’s story, it humanizes them. People can have very strong opinions and beliefs about issues like this, and then they meet someone ― or someone they love is faced with making this decision ― and suddenly, it isn’t quite so black and white anymore. They begin to understand that the people faced with making these decisions are normal, everyday people just like them who are trying to make the best decision for themselves and their families.
What do you hope the next American president will do to support safer access to abortions, big or small?
MS: My hope is that the next president will use their pulpit to advocate strongly for the rights of all women to have access to safe health care.
JBG: I hope the next president puts aside the failed political rhetoric and truly listens to people’s experiences with abortion. We need someone who sees that the restrictions and stigma, not abortion care itself, have been the real cause of harm to our family members, friends and neighbors. And then they need to fight (like hell) to ensure that abortion care is affordable and accessible for all that need it. It’s beyond time.
Editor’s Note: Throughout the course of our email exchange, Marie Sproul credited the following people for their involvement in the production of “Remarkably Normal” ― Rachel Cooke (producer), Ty Hallmark (tour and company manager), Catharine Miller (choreographer), Jessi Blue Gormezano (playwright), Taylor Reynolds (assistant director), Ellen Houseknecht (stage manager), Paige Hathaway (set designer), Kelsey Hunt (costume designer), Palmer Hefferan (sound designer), and Samuel Brown (lighting designer and technical director), along with cast members Shanta Parasuraman, Tracey Conyer Lee, Gisela Chipe, Evelyn Spahr and Joshua Everette Johnson. She also thanked KJ Sanchez, “a master of the interview play,” and 1 in 3 playwrights Allyson Currin, Caleen Jennings, Jacqueline E. Lawton, Anu Yadav, DW Gregory, Nicole Jost, Kristen LePine, Jennifer L. Nelson and Karen Zacarias.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.