By nature of being a Fringe festival, DC’s Capital Fringe often sees provocative or pioneering work that pushes the envelope. This year, one unsuspecting play in particular has struck a nerve with the outside world. Theatre Prometheus’ production of Abortion Road Trip by Rachel Lynett has attracted the attention of the Far Right Pro-Life community.
When protesters with megaphones and gory signs began showing up outside the Trinidad Theatre at Capital Fringe’s headquarters, the DC theatre community did what it does best, rallying together in an outpouring of support and love, volunteering to act as peaceful escorts for artists and audience members entering the theatre, shielding them from the shouts of the protesters.
Sarah Scafidi sits down with Tracey Erbacher, Artistic Director of Theatre Prometheus and the director of Abortion Road Trip to discuss:
Tell me a little bit about the play.
Abortion Road Trip – it’s all there in the title. It’s about two sisters who are traveling from Texas to New Mexico so that the younger sister can get an abortion. On the way, we learn more about them and their pasts and the past of their driver via their memories. We see three other characters: their mom, Minnie’s partner, and the driver’s partner, and get their rich and nuanced backstories, each of whom has some relationship to the topic of abortion as is revealed throughout the play. And it’s a comedy!
So what has been going on with these protesters?
It’s been a whirlwind! It had occurred to me briefly that there might be protesters. I’m sure I’m showing my naïvete, but I didn’t expect it because we didn’t choose the play to be provocative or controversial, we chose it because it is a beautiful script. I read it and fell in love. It wasn’t until opening night when, during the performance, I started to hear a sound outside. At first, I thought, “oh no, something has gone wrong with our sound design,” and then it stared to dawn on me that it was actually these protesters out there shouting through a megaphone.
There is a line in the play: “Do you think there will be protesters there? Are they not the worst?” It isn’t usually a laugh line, but suddenly, the whole theatre just lost it, because we had spent half an hour with it slowly dawning on us that there were people on the other side of the wall shouting at us.
Abortion Road Trip
Details and tickets
So, that was unexpected, and it snowballed from there. We’ve had two very devoted protesters. But then, we got some press coverage from various outlets that were reviewing us, especially the Washington Post review, which the Far Right “blog-o-sphere” took great exception to. So things got even bigger than we were expecting – at least in terms of the internet response. Somebody wrote an essay on a major Pro-Life site about the Washington Post review and the show, and that got picked up by a whole bunch of other Far Right blogs. And then, a piece came out specifically targeting me – which was extremely surreal. It has my headshot with the word “INHUMAN” in giant red letters across it. The first line is something like, “this is the face of Tracey Erbacher,” and it’s this dramatic piece about how I personally don’t value human life even though I, too, passed through the fetal stage of human life.
So, we’ve had to respond of course. We had not even gotten home from opening night when we were inundated with responses from the community asking “how can we help?” It has just been incredible. We are really fortunate to be a part of such an amazing community. We’ve had volunteer escorts forming a peaceful barrier between the protesters and anybody who is trying to get into Fringe or just pass on the sidewalk without getting shouted at by these people with megaphones. The escorts sign an agreement that they won’t in any way interact with the protesters. That’s not what we’re here for. It’s just to be a peaceful barrier to make it easier for people to access Fringe.
After that piece came out targeting me, the amazing people at the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force (WACDTF) have been working with us to make sure that things stay non-escalated. Their security advisor actually had to do a rundown of all of my social media profiles to make sure no one could find me. It didn’t occur to me that it was going to be this way.
How did it go having the escorts at the performance on Saturday?
It’s been really good. We made everybody red sashes, and that’s their only signifier that they are a part of anything. It’s actually been a very smooth process. Everybody who is interested in volunteering have been emailing email@example.com and our incredible Managing Director, Natalie Thielen Helper, has taken the lead, assigning one Prometheus member on call at every performance. We don’t want to dramatically overwhelm the protesters with our numbers because we don’t want to instigate them to escalate or feel like they need to call in reinforcements. It’s gone very well we haven’t had any incidents of any kind which we are really happy about.
And people have responded – it’s been really moving, actually. People stopped and bought Gatorade for our escorts who were standing out in the hot sun. The stage manager and the actor playing Matthew Shepard in the Laramie Project, whom I’d never spoken to before, saw what was going on and said, “We have time before our show – can we join you? Can we go help escort?” and they jumped in and helped. It’s been that kind of an experience. I think it’s going to really smoothly thanks to Natalie and thanks to WACDTF and their help in making sure it all stays safe – or as smoothly as standing in front of people with megaphones making incredibly offensive references to metaphors of the Holocaust and slavery can go.
How intense have these protesters been? Is it affecting the show and the audience experience?
They are extremely aggressive verbally, but there has been no physical aggression on either side. As for the audience, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I haven’t heard of your show, but I’m seeing it now!” The protesters may be helping us more than they are hurting us if I am being perfectly frank. It happens to be a very liberal city, and people don’t appreciate being shouted at with offensive metaphors or extremely gory photo-shopped images of fetuses. So, the response has been mostly one of support – which has been wonderful.
Also, I definitely didn’t plan this as an immersive theater experience, but this is a small sample the aggression that abortion providers or people who are trying to seek reproductive care and abortions face outside of clinics – in terms of the terrifying threats and online aggression and real aggression. It’s terrifying, but this is such a small sample of that. So, people who are coming in get at least a little taste of how hard it is for a person to go through this to get basic, guaranteed-by-the-supreme-court reproductive care.
So it’s been a little bit of a teaching moment.
Yeah. We never planned it this way because it is a terrible inconvenience to the incredible people at Fringe who I want to call out for never wavering in their support of free speech and the arts, making it work even though these people are standing just outside the Fringe bar shouting in at their patrons. But it is an exercise in perspective, I think, because you can read about it: you can read about the protesters and the terrifying online vitriol of these circles towards people who provide abortion care, but there is something about having “inhuman” stamped across your forehead that puts it in a crystal-clear perspective. On that level, I appreciate that it’s bringing all of those reactions out of the woodwork for us to see and examine and understand more fully.
You’ve touched on this already, but what has the response of the Fringe been?
I have been so moved and so proud be a part of this community in the last few weeks. I’m always glad to be part of DC theatre; I think it is an amazing place filled with talented people doing really interesting, exciting, and important work. From Julianne Brienza, the President CEO and Founder of Capital Fringe, who has been amazing and never wavered in her support, to the Fringe tech team, who moved their speakers so they are facing out toward the protesters so you can’t really hear them in the back, to the folks in the DC theatre community who I didn’t know two weeks ago and I know now because they just showed up to be supportive and to make sure that we had everything covered, it has been really inspiring. I’m really proud to be a part of this community, and I feel really lucky.
That’s one of the things I really love about the DC community.
I’m sure I’m biased – that our community is the best. But it really does seem to be exceptionally giving. It’s not a cutthroat community. It’s not, “if you succeed, I suffer.” It’s, “we can, all together, make a stronger community.” I think that this is just been a really beautiful illustration of something that I feel is there all the time.
You mentioned this briefly, but do you think the protesters are keeping people away or generating interest?
I try to be careful in how I approach this because I don’t want to do anything that is going to make the protesters feel that they need to escalate. But to be frank, it’s not hurting us. You know, when you were chilling at the Fringe bar as everyone does, you talk about your show, and people already seem to know us. And maybe, it’s because of the title, it in-and-of-itself is so attention grabbing, and maybe it’s because of the protesters. I wouldn’t say they are hurting us.
Is the play really that controversial?
That is such a good question, and I don’t know if I can answer it because I don’t think it is. First of all, it seems to me that it should be basic that nobody should be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. But beyond that, the point is not salacious, or aggressive or provocative. It’s just a really beautiful story of these women on a journey and these other players in their lives and how that brought them to this moment. I’m sure that the people protesting would not be convinced, but I do almost wish that they would read it or see it. Because it is such a beautiful, nuanced, empathetic look at the journeys of these women – which includes abortion.
It’s not just about abortion. I try to avoid “message” plays – the ones that feel like after-school specials. It’s not that. It’s hilarious and smart and true. And I think that is maybe even scarier to these folks, because if we were doing a message play, they could fight that one message. But these women are just being human, living their lives, and we get to see how complicated it is, and how, for some women, it actually isn’t this big, tragic, horrible thing to have an abortion. Sometimes, that is just the truest, best thing they can do. It’s really not that controversial of a play – or it shouldn’t be.
Sure. And it sounds like it covers multiple perspectives as well.
Definitely. You see the various women choose their choice with varying degrees of ease. We see the sister who is getting the abortion go back and forth, discussing it with her sister and herself. There is also one strongly Pro-Life character. She doesn’t come off as a beaten down character in the play, nor did we approach her as a villain. That was very important to us. We don’t approach people who are Pro-Life as villains. That’s not what this is about. It’s about how different people come to their own perspective on this issue, and it was very important to us that we give that character as much love and nuance and weight and empathy as we gave everyone else. And I think the playwright has done a beautiful job of that. The character is not written one-note; we get to see her struggle with it too.
How did you find this play and decide to produce it?
I must give credit to my truly outstanding literary director Caitlin Partridge who heads up our season planning initiative. She found the play on the New Play Exchange, which is this epic database of plays. We knew which themes we were interested in. We are very passionate about showing the lives of women across a spectrum of identities (not just straight white women), and she read a bunch of plays, and this is one that she pulled to the forefront as part of a lengthy list that we were all reading. And when I got to this play, I got this fizzy feeling in the tips of my fingers, and I was like “oh, this is the script. I have to work on this one. I need to tell this story.”
What is your favorite thing about the show?
That’s such a tough question! I feel like every day it would be a different answer. The serious answer is that the play loves each of its characters, and it lets each really fully go on their journey without either trying to sugar coat them and make them perfect or make them villains. My fun answer is that there are so many good jokes. I got to one page and there was a lesbian joke, a #notallmen joke, and a Dr. Who joke, and I was like, “sold!”
Is there anything else you like us to know?
I hope people will come see the show and be as touched by the stories as I am. I hope the protesters do not keep them away.
Abortion Road Trip plays at the Trinidad Theatre in the Logan Fringe Art Space. They have two more performances: 9:15 pm on Thursday and 4:30pm on Sunday. Escorts will be provided at all remaining performances. Details and tickets