doing feminism in the rehearsal room and the classroom

How lucky am I? As a feminist theater director, I seek out plays written by women about women. They are, statistically speaking, more likely to be feminist and on the whole they provide more opportunities for women actors. But one of the benefits of having an established reputation for doing a certain kind of theater is that when producers I know read plays that deal with women’s issues, they think of me. I directed a gender-confused Twelfth Night at the University of California at Riverside in 2011, so when they contacted me about doing Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children and I read it, I thought, “Awesome. They get what I do.” Little did I know.

At first I connected to the play primarily on the basis of it’s frank discussion of abortion, it’s illumination of the troubling valorization of teenage mothers that has necessarily resulted from the Bristol Palin debacle, it’s recognition that total reproductive autonomy for women necessarily calls into question the role of men in reproduction and fatherhood, and it’s stylistic representation of these issues through the tortured point of view of the artist. It wasn’t until we began rehearsal that I was forced to confront the fact that the play is also about an writer suffering an identity and creative crisis as a result of his divorce. Ha.

Whereas I often choose material that is foreign to me because I love an excuse to do research, this time I have been hired to direct a play that I feel, more than ever before, is about me. How to deal with that while also providing undergraduates with an experience to make something that is about them? Aesthetic distance, of course: an Expressionist concept that makes use of the fact that the story is told from the point of view of the main character and his creator, Adam Rapp. The play is essentially an expression of a very personal worldview: One forged in pain, confusion, and fear, and one which leads us back to the central issue of abortion.

Of all the plays by women and about women that I have directed before, no other play has given me the opportunity to do feminism in the classroom that this play has given me. Not only do I have to, as a director, make the personal political (in other words use my personal experience to tell a universal story), I actually have to make sure the students understand the difference between medical abortion and surgical abortion, the difference between vacuum aspiration and dilation and extraction, and the rare and yet over-represented-in-the-imagery details behind intact dilation and extraction or late-term abortion.

And it’s not just that I have a chance to clarify the facts on these issues. I assigned a student dramaturg the task of researching those facts and differences and explaining them to her colleagues, and what did she, after a Google search for “side effects of abortion” come in with? Articles from I don’t blame her for it. In fact she accidentally made for me the point of the play: Accurate information on abortion is hard to find, and extreme emotions on the subject tend to be inspired by extreme ideas about what it entails. As a result of this, I asked all of the students to compare the information on Life News (an anti-choice site) with the information available from Planned Parenthood (a pro-choice site) with the info on WebMD (a presumably neutral source of medical information). In a few days, the student dramaturg will present the points of view of pro-“men’s rights” group and anti-“men’s rights” groups as well as the positions of men and women genuinely interested in addressing the effect of reproductive legislation on both women and men.

Again, this is not an opportunist exercise. Rapp actually cites a particular abortion apparatus by name: the SU-507 180-watt Crown Suction Unit. To act a line that includes a reference to that, the student must know what it is. But the opportunities as well as the dangers of this are evident: I do not wish to impose my point of view on anyone, but rather hope to engage them in a discussion of the issue based on a clear understanding of the facts.  Likewise I do not wish to make the show about my particular grief upon the end of a marriage, though I share many experiences with the main character and the author. These precipices are dangerous but they are necessary, it seems to me, to the practice of feminism in the classroom.

Despite the misconceptions of Fox News and their fellow travelers, it is not the goal of feminism in academia to persuade people to our point of view. It is our goal to educate citizens about the facts and to teach them to think critically about any and all information they may encounter. That I get to do this while also directing a play about an archetype of me, starring some outstanding students who are invested in the liberal arts’ goal of connecting fields of study through the act of critical thinking, is lucky for me indeed.

The Metal Children will run at the University of California at Riverside from November 8 – November 17.

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