Blog: Julia Samuels

The US election makes political theatre more vital than ever, says the artistic director

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In June, I was lucky enough to go to Washington DC as part of an Arts Council group attending a US not-for-profit theatre conference. The conference focused on diversity – how was the theatre sector responding to the urgent issues around race and gender in the USA today?

The timing of the conference coincided with the Brexit referendum. The day after a long night of watching the result come through, many American theatre colleagues approached our group of depressed Brits to talk about what had just happened. They were scared. They were scared that if Britain can be that isolationist, that hostile to immigration and immigrants, well, what did that mean for the USA? They could see Trump on the horizon. They’d assumed that he’d never win a majority of votes, but our result made them realise that the things that you think might never happen actually can happen; that there was an international pattern to a new extreme right wing way of seeing the world – and it was gaining momentum.

Amidst these feelings of trepidation, I heard lots of amazing artists talk about lots of amazing work that’s happening in the States, celebrating diversity and challenging racism. This included a national collection of short plays exploring #BlackLivesMatter and a verbatim theatre performance by Anna Deveare Smith about young black men and the police. It reminds you of the incredible role that the arts can play in societies in crisis.

And today we need them more than ever.

If we think we have an issue with abortion stigma here, things in the States are a whole world away

One of the things I was talking about to people I was meeting at the conference was a show I’m developing at the moment called I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip. I had to explain the title as, interestingly, they don’t have any state religious education and didn’t know what I was on about. But what they did get was the subject matter.

The show is about abortion. It’s a verbatim theatre show using real-life testimonies told to me in over 50 interviews by young women, health practitioners and campaigners from both sides. One in three women in the UK, and in the US too, will have an abortion in her lifetime. And if we think we have an issue with abortion stigma here, things in the States are a whole world away. And as for politics and abortion – well, I still can’t believe that it’s a crucial vote-winner or loser for US candidates, that their pro-life or pro-choice perspective is often one of the first things that’s stated in a manifesto. The right to abortion is only a millimetre away from being taken away – whether that’s through a change in the law or in the practical ways US states are trying to undermine the law by closing clinics and making it impossible in practical terms for many women to access abortion at all. There are now, for example, only two abortion clinics in the whole of Louisiana.

And that of course brings us straight back to Trump and his vice-president, Mike Pence – a self–described “evangelical Catholic”. Anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim but pro-life. Domestically they have threatened to stop funding Planned Parenthood, the non-profit reproductive health service, and consequently activists are now urging women to stockpile the morning-after pill. And the choice of a new Supreme Court judge could threaten the famous Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion back in 1973.

Internationally the aid budget is threatened with over £480 million of support for reproductive health rights at risk – money that is absolutely vital to provide support for African women like Cousin, whose story features in our play.

I had always hoped that we would take our abortion play to the US to share it with the people we met at the Washington conference but just four months ago I did not anticipate how politically important the content of the play might become.

Julia Samuels is co-artistic director of 20 Stories High. I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip is a co-production with Contact, Manchester and opens there on 1 February

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