Julia Samuels, Co-Artistic Director of Liverpool-based young people’s theatre company 20 Stories High, reflects on a controversial and eye-opening project that she worked on called “I told my Mum I was going on an R.E Trip…”
“I told my Mum I was going on an R.E Trip…” was a verbatim theatre piece about abortion I created a couple years ago, which we subsequently adapted into a theatre-film hybrid for BBC.
At 20 Stories High, we make theatre for young audiences, through creative collaborations between artists and young people. Instigated by a conversation about my own abortion, “R.E. Trip…” was developed through workshops, debates and interviews with young people, as well as with healthcare professionals, activists and faith leaders.
The title of the piece “I told my Mum I was going on an R.E. Trip…” came from one of our interviewees – a young Muslim woman, studying at a Catholic college, who had her abortion under the guise of being away from school for a Religious Education trip.
“R.E. Trip…” is made from real face-to-face interviews that we recorded, and the interviewees continued to influence the development of the piece. The single story that was not from a recorded interview was that of a young woman from Zimbabwe, a relative of one of our interviewees, who had recently died from an illegal abortion. A fictionalised version of her story is included through spoken word and song.
Photo Credit: Gary Moyes
The aim of the piece was to start a conversation – to help break the taboo about a very commonplace but highly stigmatised part of women’s lives. As I was making it, I had to keep asking myself, ‘how does someone who is so committed to a pro-choice perspective make a show that doesn’t just force my own opinions and beliefs onto an audience?’ Abortion can bea divisive issue, and it’s been clear that in the last couple years – with Brexit, Trump and more -that with these divisive issues, shouting your point of view to people who already agree with you doesn’t really get anyone very far. It was important for me to create something that respected audiences that come from a range of cultures, religions and perspectives, while still being able to challenge positions which are incompatible with fundamental women’s rights.
One thing I was struck by as I researched the play was how difficult it was for some of the pro-choice practitioners and activists to acknowledge grey areas. For them, there was a clear message that needed to be given -‘abortion is fine, it’s simple, it’s medical, it’s necessary, it’s not emotionally difficult’. Anything that delved into more nuanced territory was seen as giving ammunition to the pro-life/anti-choice lobby. I have a lot of sympathy for this instinct. I understand that abortion rights have a level of precariousness in society – and are limited and even non-existent in many parts of the world. I understand that from a pro-choice perspective, it could be politically very dangerous to do anything that might increase this precariousness. As a theatre-maker interpreting this predicament with an artistic perspective, I also understood that it is essential for me not to over-dramatise something, as the majority of abortion storylines on film and TV tend to do – that it is fine and straightforward for many women.
However, some of the interviews I found most fascinating were the ones within the grey area territory, such as pro-choice doctors who personally couldn’t do late term abortions, or women who knew they’d done the right thing for themselves with their termination, but still felt an empty hole inside them. I felt like it was really important to acknowledge these nuances – and that an artistic response to the issue would be a good place to do so, as it can embrace complexity and contradiction. I have come to believe strongly that these nuances do not undermine, but in fact contribute in a positive way to a pro-choice narrative. We have to start from a place of honesty if we want to have a conversation across a spectrum of opinions.
“R.E. Trip…”had a really successful UK tour, subsequent BBC broadcast and film festival programming. I felt that the aim of starting a conversation was really happening.
I am now applying similar principles in explorations about a new play about Anti-Semitism – my first piece of work which will explore my Jewish identity. As a UK Labour party member (in a constituency which has been at the centre of allegations of Anti-Semitism, and where our Jewish MP has recently resigned from the Labour party), I want to address the urgent need for a nuanced conversation, one that embraces complexities and which challenges polarised discourse. As with “R.E. Trip…”, I’ve begun the process with a series of interviews, and I’m interested in hearing from people who would like to be part of this conversation in some way.
“I told my Mum I was going on an R.E.Trip…” was co-produced by 20 Stories High and Contact Theatre. For inquiries about the film and other projects, please contact Julia at Julia@20storieshigh.org.uk. You can also follow her on Twitter at @juliasammee or @20storieshigh.
Photo Credit: Robert Day