Interview: Can artists with differing views on abortion find common ground through a Catholic musical?
When I started writing the piece that would one day become “The Inconvenient Miracle: A Mysterious Musical Birth”, I was going through a bit of an existential crisis. I had spent the past four years at Saint Mary’s College, a Catholic institution for women where it seemed like everyone, including me, was a pro-life feminist. Now I was in New York pursuing an MFA at The New School and suddenly discovered that many people considered my self-description as a “pro-life feminist” to be a contradiction in terms. I struggled to connect with my classmates and even began to wonder if there was a place for me in the secular theater community.
I wrote a play about a young atheist who becomes mysteriously pregnant. It dealt with the place of women in religion, sexuality, consent and autonomy. He also dealt with abortion. Writing it was extremely cathartic, but I didn’t think it would interest many other people. Then I met Ria T. DiLullo.
Many people considered “pro-life feminist” to be a contradiction in terms.
Ria is the Artistic Director of The Skeleton Rep(resents), a new work development company whose mission is to explore modern myth. They immediately recognized the piece as something that fit the company’s mission. Later, Ria suggested that we make a musical out of it. That’s when London-based composer and lyricist Emily Rose Simons stepped in. Emily had explored the female experience in a Jewish context through her musical “Confessions of a Rabbi’s Daughter.She felt like the perfect person to turn my play into a musical.
The three of us knew we had different views on the ethics of abortion, but we never saw that as a sticking point. In fact, we rarely talked about it outside of how it informed the characters. But when rehearsals for our showcase production coincided with the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, we found ourselves at the center of a controversy.
Suddenly, the press we had invited to cover or review the upcoming production of “The Inconvenient Miracle” responded with questions about abortion. My friends, family, and fellow Catholics would also ask me if the musical was ultimately on the pro-choice or pro-life side.
We have never viewed our differing views on abortion ethics as a stumbling block.
I caught up with my friends and collaborators Ria and Emily Rose on Zoom to discuss our views on abortion, as well as our thoughts on working together effectively when we disagree.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emilie Schmitt: Let’s start our discussion of abortion by saying where we are on the spectrum. I said I was pro-life. I no longer use this term because it aligns me with a political movement whose methods I do not agree with. I agree with the moral principle that a fetus is a human being. However, I’m much more interested in support and community than legal coercion. I played with the term“life-affirming”, but that doesn’t really help with politics.
Emilie Rose Simons: I’m pretty strongly pro-choice, but I also think abortion alone isn’t enough. I hope we are all working towards a world where there are so many other choices. It is a question of obtaining contraception, sex education and reinforced maternal and paternal leave more easily. I’m sorry to be the little socialist here, but if someone can’t afford to give birth, it’s not a pro-choice world.
ES: Everything you just said, I agree.
Ria DiLullo: I find it interesting that so many people [critics, actors, audience members] want to know this about us. I have a degree in American Civilization, so I could have gone into politics or been an activist. However, I made the choice to become an artist. I find the desire to confuse arts and activism problematic. I don’t need to agree with my collaborators to make good art. When the mission is to explore a modern myth, it inherently involves things I don’t understand or stories I’ve never heard. I have to make room for it.
ERS: I would agree and argue that even giving this space is political action.
DR: It is an action. It’s not political.
I find the desire to confuse arts and activism problematic. I don’t need to agree with my collaborators to make good art.
ES: When I say that I believe a fetus is a person, that is a very controversial statement. How do you address someone who says you shouldn’t work with me?
DR: No one has told me that yet, so I haven’t had to find an answer. But not working with you would be an outright reaction, rather than a considered response. I choose not to spend my time with people who have absolute reactions to things. I prefer to measure myself against my best instincts rather than my worst.
ERS: The main thing is to see people as full human beings. And this is related to the musical. People who arrest those with different opinions have less rich lives. If they are artists, they also make less rich art. I also think there are so many occasions where discomfort can help you grow. I’m very used to being uncomfortable, being a Jewish person in the UK. It often happens that a little anti-Semitism comes out of nowhere from someone I love and respect. It happened yesterday! But I see this person as a full human being, and I will not exclude him from my life.
I choose not to spend my time with people who have absolute reactions to things.
DR: There is this idea of the “little o” orthodoxy. Rules for rules. When you start going in that direction, that’s when you come up against the inability to really listen to yourself. Part of the reason we’ve been able to work so well together is that there really isn’t a “little o” orthodoxy in our communications. This is what allows the humor to really shine through. In Orthodoxy, there is no place for humor, because humor requires twisting our understanding of things a bit. When there’s no ability to get things rolling, people end up getting stuck. As someone who works with people’s bodies, I have been exposed to situations that challenge orthodoxy on all fronts. There are circumstances beyond anyone’s imagination.
ES: If there was one thing each of you could change in the abortion debate, what would it be?
ERS: As a foreigner [to America], it seems incomprehensible that people want to completely end abortion, when they don’t support health care and support gun rights. The pro-life movement has other things to work on before abolishing abortion. People with a female reproductive system also need to sit down and talk to each other. If more normal people would sit down and talk, I think we’d find a way forward.
It seems incomprehensible that people want to completely end abortion, when they don’t support health care and support gun rights.
DR: To spotlight one thing is to ignore the rest of the scene the spotlight is on. This notion has pervaded American culture that “If I’m stronger than someone else and more persistent in my point of view, then I get more attention.” But many people it affects don’t want to be the center of attention. They want to have the space to make the choice that suits them. And when they begin to communicate their context, their dignity is almost never respected.
ES: Being uncomfortable causes people to run towards the absolute. I will talk more specifically about the pro-life movement. There is an attitude that because a fetus is a human being, every bad thing that can happen to a woman is irrelevant compared to fetal death. It’s based on fear. It is the refusal to sit with the reality of what is being done to women, so that we don’t have to take responsibility for it. I wish people were a little braver and a lot kinder to each other.
Being uncomfortable causes people to run towards the absolute.
DR: There is also the presumption that human life is more valuable than any other life. Life is life whether it comes in the form of a human or non-human animal or plant. When we isolate the concept of life to elevate humanity above all, it gets us into trouble.
ES: I have a very deep conviction on the importance of humanity in particular. But it is difficult to talk about it without theology.
ERS: Honestly, I haven’t given it enough thought to form an opinion.
ES: Ria and I could have a much longer conversation on this topic, but it’s important to recognize that this whole debate is about human life. We are not talking about all of the living beings in the universe.
DR: But if we’re talking about politics and we’re talking about legal systems, then we also have to consider what life is in its totality before we can get to the specifics of humanity.
ES: It’s true. We need to understand what life is by definition. It’s something we don’t have a clear scientific answer for, which is part of why we have these problems.
DR: We can agree on that.
“The Inconvenient Miracle: a mysterious musical” takes place at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild Hall in New York from August 11-27.