A Conversation with Winter Miller
Winter Miller’s ferocious, forward-facing energy is contagious. In her words, in her work, in her sense of humor, she champions action and raises vital, challenging questions. Especially in a week like this one where fear and darkness feel paralyzing, speaking with Winter Miller calls me to action, to open up the conversations that are uncomfortable, to ask the questions that prompt complicated answers, if there are any answers to be had. Her upcoming piece, Spare Rib, hosted by Gloria Steinem and friends, and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, is a fundraising celebration honoring the legacy of Dr. Willie Parker and broadening the rhetoric around female reproductive rights.
Corey Ruzicano: I’m so excited to hear about your new project – maybe we should start there. Will you tell me about Spare Rib?
Winter Miller: Yeah, I can talk a little bit about process. First of all, the place of inspiration came from an intellectual idea, but out of urgency. Just thinking about how, in this country, we don’t have a way to talk about abortion beyond the semantics of pro-life/pro-choice, this is a fetus, this is a baby. We got really stuck in what those labels meant and the consequence was that our access to reproductive freedom has been chiseled away and is in deep danger of not being accessible to people who need it. That’s how it is. There are not enough clinics. Rhetoric got in the way of a movement for equality. And I was thinking about how the way the gay rights movement moved ahead was by being about pro-love and pro-family and that if we could say the same thing about abortion – that it is pro-love and pro-family because it allows us to choose the kind of family we want and to be able to love and care for them as we are able without stigma or shame, whatever that decision is. That debate had sort of been snatched from liberals by the Christian Right and the consequences of that are dire. So the inciting action of this was: how could I write a play that could be about the subject of abortion but could involve us in such a way that we could show up with whatever beliefs we had and come away with a broader understanding?
CR: Yeah, absolutely.
WM: So it’s not just about–
CR: –that binary.
WM: Yes, exactly. I think what I try to do with all my work is to get out of the binary.
CR: And I think that’s something that’s so particularly enlarging for me about this piece is that it expands that single-story narrative model. Because that single narrative is so seductive, we as humans are so compelled and attach so easily to that protagonist, part-for-whole structure. It’s so exciting to have a piece that’s really a quilt or a community of stories that are all confronting the same thing. And being able to talk about the way we talk about these different issues and open up the rhetoric is revolutionary.
WM: Well what’s challenging – what’s exciting, I’ll say that – is that this is a play with multiple narratives. There’s not one protagonist and we’re time-hopping throughout history. We’re time-bending and gender-bending and genre-bending. The play invites you to engage with it in kind of a Coney Island way. Welcome to the amusement park, get on whatever ride you want and some are going to scare you, some will make you howl with laughter, and – probably not that many rides make you cry – but some of this will make you cry. There is humor, you have to have levity with the deeply true.
CR: Yeah, totally. I’m always so fascinated with the different lenses and openings and ways in that writers provide audiences with, especially when the subject matter is something that every human body has to engage with, and I think humor is an incredible tool.
WM: Yeah, I’ve not written a play without it. I don’t exist without it.
CR: That’s really useful and important. Are there places that you’ve drawn inspiration from, in the realm of humor or beyond?
WM: There are different kinds of humor that I connect with. I like silliness. I like wordplay. I also like the juxtaposition of two ideas that don’t belong together. There’s a scene in the play where all these different women from different times and different eras are sitting around and it’s somewhere between a consciousness raising and an AA meeting and at the end of an introductory speech about herself, one of the characters says, oh is there reindeer milk? Like is there cream or milk, but it’s particular to the goofiness of time-hopping. It’s unexpected and probably many people will breeze right by it, but I giggle every time I hear it. I don’t know, is there reindeer milk? What would that be?
WM: Most everything in my play is fact-checked, but I have not fact-checked whether or not there is reindeer milk.
CR: Well, it’s nice to have questions like that in there, more full of whimsy–
WM: Yes, there’s definitely room for whimsy. In researching the play I visited Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe and they have vast archives of first-person accounts of feminists and abortion providers and I read through a bunch of those accounts just to get a deeper knowledge. I spent a weekend in Michigan with these women who do really thoughtful work around de-stigmatizing what it is to be an abortion provider. They invited me to come and pitch creative ideas to them and part of that was spent at a Planned Parenthood shadowing one of the doctors but also several patients as they came in. I didn’t know the steps that people go through when they arrive at a clinic, and I followed a young woman throughout her visit.
CR: Could you talk a little more about what that was like?
WM: What struck me is just the precision and skill of someone who does her job well and has experience. When I walk down the street and see sanitation workers and watch the way they arc the trash perfectly into the back of the truck, I’m looking at skill and experience and athleticism, and I marvel at it. It’s the same thing with watching this doctor perform an abortion. I’m not sure the words to describe it. I was seeing experience and prowess and grace. I thought, of course, she’s skilled at this. But I haven’t sat in on anyone else’s dental or doctor appointment to see what anyone else’s experience looks like outside of myself as the patient, so I’m sure I would experience much of what doctors do, to be like that. It was impressive. This is something that this doctor has done over and over again and she’s good at it; the same way that the sanitation workers perfectly arc the trash.
CR: Yeah, there’s a procedure and precision to it.
WM: I sat on the other side as someone got an ultrasound to make sure that she was pregnant. I watched as someone was given a medical abortion, the pills that you take. You take some in the office and you take some at home later. The conversation is all very straightforward. This is what this does and this is what this does. It’s not particularly dramatic. Then I watched some surgical abortions and it was something that I had never seen. At the end of it, there is what’s been removed, blood and organs and the tiny beginnings of what will become a person. The doctor sifts through it to make sure they’ve gotten everything out; she’s looking for two hands, two feet. And that’s a fact. You can’t hide from the truth of what you see at fourteen weeks, but that doesn’t make it a person with any kind of rights that should supercede those of a woman. Women are not incubators, we have a choice. What is inside is something that is alive in as much as it is growing, just like a plant is alive and growing, but it’s not a person. It does not have personhood. It has been scientifically proven a fetus is not a thinking or feeling being.
CR: And I wonder how your connection with these different organizations changed the way you’re looking to tell this story? How do these different connections and conversations impact the way you’re trying to tell these many narratives?
WM: Any time that you see something that is new to you, it has an effect on the totality of the play. For instance, when I wrote In Darfur, I’d read many, many things and I’d heard many first- and second-hand accounts, and I’d looked at many photographs – things the general public wasn’t seeing but I was seeing because I was working with Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times – but I still felt I have to go to Darfur to see what I don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know more. I wanted to know: what is the ground like? What is the dust like? What does the terrain feel like; what does it smell like? All that stuff you can’t get from news accounts and things people don’t include in their stories because they’re it’s unremarkable to them. You don’t know the smell of blood until you smell it. That’s just how it is. You’re taking someone else’s word for it unless you’re seeing something or hearing something firsthand, and that matters to me.
CR: So this project is about to have a public showing?
WM: We’re just doing Act I. It’s a big play. I just keep slicing it down.
CR: That sounds so hard – it’s scope is so multivalent; it would be so hard to make it shorter!
WM: Yeah, it is. I think, Oh I want to include that. But there’s great discipline in cutting. One of the nice things about this upcoming reading is that it’s a chance for more discipline. I know that the length of this first act needs to be an hour, so knowing that I’m just choosing even more specifically what needs to be included and what doesn’t. You can fall in love with characters and then realize they have to go. I tell that to all of my students, so I have to take my own medicine.
CR: Always hard to kill your darlings. In a perfect world, what action steps does this play want us to take away?
WM: It’s broad. First of all, I hope that we open up for a greater dialogue about abortion. There are so many people that don’t know that their partners or sisters or friends or mothers have had abortions. It’s not something to be ashamed of, so I’d like to decrease the stigma so people can actually think: can I choose this for myself without fear of being judged? Can I talk about this without being slut-shamed or called a murderer? We have to make room for people to be able to say, “I had an abortion and it was really painful emotionally.” But there also has to be room to say, “I had an abortion and it was not a big deal and such a great relief.” We have to have room for the vast experiences in the way that we might talk about going to the dentist: “I had a tooth pulled but it was fine,” or, “I had a tooth pulled and it was upsetting.” Not to make light of when people have emotional thoughts about something, but to actually say let’s not project onto people what we think they might feel.
CR: Bodies have responses and you have to be able to talk about them without fear of being reduced.
WM: Or being stigmatized. I want to create a space where people feel included. I want to have a way of helping to create more community for people who are abortion providers. Because there’s an idea that they’re either killers or heroes, and they’re people doing their job. Some of them have a real attachment to the mission, for others it’s their job and they think it’s what needs to happen. But they can’t talk about that in front of many people without fear of how they’ll be responded to. That’s isolating. How many people are comfortable coming out as abortion providers in environments that are hostile to them? Not to mention the number of people that harass and threaten and in some cases murder abortion providers. So I think that we as a society could be less binary about heroes or killers and just say they’re people and this is the job they do. That would be less isolating and more people would be willing to provide abortions. It’s an area where we need skilled workers and access.I hope the play will galvanize people to stand up for reproductive freedom, regardless of what their personal choice is, that they would stand up and say that each person deserves their own choice. We’re dealing with issues of privilege – who has access to clinics, who has money, who can afford childcare for their already existing children, who has the ability to get time off work… We have to make sure that reproductive freedom is truly free, that it’s accessible, so that people can choose their families.
CR: Yeah, and that bottom line people should have control over their own body without jurisdiction from any of the systems that are at play.
WM: Yes. The parental consent laws are terrible. They leave young women with the option of a judge deciding their fate if they can’t tell their parents. Not only that, there are so many instances that are tied to incest or rape and it forces people to have to confront people in environments that may not be safe if they want to have an abortion. We have to do better at supporting reproductive freedom, whether or not we ourselves need it.
CR: Of course. Are there any other resources or things that are happening in the conversation that we should know about?
WM: Sure. I think campaigns like Shout Your Abortion – people underestimate how important that is. I think the organization that Martha Plimpton founded, A is For, is important because this is how we create acceptance and tolerance and support for something that is legally a fundamental right. But also I am inspired by Dr. Willie Parker, his life story and his mission are of great interest to me and I want more people to know about him. We need more Dr. Willie Parkers. I’m excited to hold this event to honor him and I hope we raise substantial funds for the National Network of Abortion Funders, they help they help provide money for people who cannot afford travel their abortion, to pay for what they need. With waiting periods, people have to factor in a place to stay – they have to take a bus, whatever it is; it’s doubly and triply expensive based on legislation that exists to prevent people from getting abortions. So this fund is allocated directly to people that need it. I think it’s great to that we all stand with Planned Parenthood, but it’s also important to stand with the clinics and the funders that are directly involved with making reproductive freedom a reality. Watch the movie Trapped – it’ll be on PBS – and see the sacrifices people are making; what they’re up against to keep these clinics open and for people to get their abortion. I’m so inspired by Dr. Willie Parker and I’m excited to hold this event to honor him. Two-thirds of the proceeds of this event will go to supporting the NAAF in the areas where Dr. Parker worked in the Southeast. The other third goes towards whatever the next Spare Rib event will be so we continue to grow. It’s not so difficult to arrange an abortion in New York City. It is in much of Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and I could go on. But this is where we as a community help out the people who need it. This is sisterhood, this is brotherhood. Reproductive freedom affects all of us.
For more information visit Winter’s website. Ticket information can be found here. For those unable to attend but would like to contribute can do so here, even after the event has passed. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Winter Miller is an award-winning playwright and founding member of the Obie-recognized collective 13 Playwrights. She is best known for her drama IN DARFUR which premiered at The Public Theater, followed by a standing room only performance at their 1800-seat Delacorte Theater in Central Park, a first for a play by a woman.