November 20, 2013

Spotlight: Madeline Burrows

She's the equivalent of a cupcake AND a birthday.

After walking into the event space for the DC production of MOM BABY GOD, Madeline Burrows burst into the main room asking attendees if they liked cupcakes and birthdays. I thought, damn, this is going to be even better than I imagined; I love cupcakes! But almost immediately, Burrows' face falls and she follows up with, "Because one in three babies won't see their first birthday." From there, the audience is hurled into the whirlwind that is the anti-abortion movement, and it's as disorienting and heart-breaking as it sounds.

If you read our write-up on MOM BABY GOD, you know that the show is a one-woman theater production based upon Burrows' undercover experiences amongst anti-abortion activists at the Students for Life of American conference (among other things). She becomes the various characters, men and women, young and old (including male sex kittens [sex tomcats?] of the anti-abortion world...yes, they're real), embodying their naivety, anger, aggression and manipulation in a way that makes the audience uncomfortable and enraged in the best kind of way. In my notebook I have written, "PLEASE DON'T CALL ME OUT" (I can be horrendously shy), because the world she painted was so real, so horrific, and something I didn't want to be a part of.

Burrows is not only the sole-actress in MBG, but its writer as well. Her personality fills the entire room, her creativity and devotion to her craft almost overwhelming. Not to mention she's also in the band Tomboy and is facing a West Coast tour of MBG in the very imminent future and doubleheading a Massachusetts production with JD Samson and MEN. We're not even sure how she's still standing anymore, but we're incredibly happy she is. We chatted with Madeline about MBG's production, embodying characters and what's ahead.

THE LE SIGH: Did the idea to write a show based on your experiences at an anti-abortion conference come before or after you attended?

MADELINE BURROWS: I first went undercover to a crisis pregnancy center in 2011. The county I lived in had no abortion provider but several CPCs, and I was involved with a campaign to expose the false medical information at CPCs. It was a completely bizarre experience – there were baby clothes pinned to the walls. The counselor there told me that most women who have abortions become suicidal as a result, and she gave me a plastic fetus doll to take home to envision "my baby." I began to work on a performance based on the experience, and it grew from there. I got a grant and registered for a bunch of anti-choice conferences because I was convinced I would learn more and create a more honest piece of theater from immersing myself in the anti-choice movement than just reading about it in a book.

TLS: How did you alter your personality to "fool" the people at the conference? Did you even feel like you were "fooling people?" If so, did that ever completely drain you?

MB: It was definitely draining! My rule was to tell the truth but only as much as I needed to. I never had a fake identity or made up stories about being a pro-life activist, but I tried to fly under the radar. It was like being sent back to middle school and trying to fit in with the cool kids. I wore this red, white and blue t-shirt because I thought that would send the right message. I didn't even own an item of clothing that looked like that, though. I had to borrow it from my sister!

TLS: A phrase I jotted down while watching the show was that I found you "effortlessly schizophrenic." I mean it as a compliment! The way you shifted between characters, voices and personas was really incredible. What preparation went into becoming these different people (aside from researching them)?

MB: Thank you! To start, lots and lots of rehearsal. I feel like at some point it became cool to not care about your art, but I'm a total workaholic. The quick physical transitions are one of my favorite things about solo performance. It requires an intense amount of focus. As an actor, I like to work from a really physical place – finding different characters not just psychologically but really embodying them physically as well. When I was doing interviews I spent a lot of time studying people's mannerisms and vocal inflections, and then I worked closely with my director (Emma Weinstein) to carve those out in rehearsals. Once I found those physical and vocal distinctions, a lot of the transitions between them became muscle memory – almost like dance choreography.

TLS: Who was the most difficult character for you to depict?

MB: That's a tough one! For a while in rehearsal, I had a hard time creating "John Paul," who's this teen boy character. Now he's one of my favorite characters to portray. He's very "swaggy."

TLS: MOM BABY GOD is going to the West Coast! How do you foresee this part of the tour being different than what has already come?

MB: The last tour was our first time bringing the show on the road, and before we opened in NYC, I had only performed the show for an audience of four people. We had no idea what to expect. There was the unpredictable experience of walking into a venue and finding out the lights and heat were broken or that there was a giant immovable fireplace set piece center stage, and having to work with it. So I'm excited to go on tour this time with more experience dealing with the unpredictable nature of live performance. And who knows, maybe Students for Life of America will decide to picket the whole tour, which would be fantastic.

TLS: You received some backlash from the same group you infiltrated to write MBG – while it's sort of to be expected, as you definitely pulled a fast one on them, did reading their negative words/comments startle you? How do you cope with that kind of negativity and move forward to continue doing what you're doing?

MB: Seeing my face in National Review was so wild. But being panned by the president of Students for Life is probably the best compliment I could get. She was so paranoid that she had someone illegally film our NYC show with undercover glasses. My first reaction was, "what are undercover glasses?!" She says the footage is "too vulgar to release to the general public." Amazing. They're on the defensive, which means we're doing something right. The comment section of these right-wing articles speak to how sexist and homophobic the politics of the anti-choice movement are at their core – people calling me a "mean girl on steroids" and claiming I support "terrorism and witchcraft." And we got a submission to our e-mail list with the fake e-mail, "fuckoffdumbbitch@rugmuncher.cunt."

To have a young, queer, socialist woman expose their bigotry in front of an audience of feminists? God, I'm like their worst nightmare! So there's definitely the awareness that some of these people are openly violent and would love nothing more than to tear me down. And that's infuriating. But I try to focus on the humorous and positive side of the whole thing. And they've given us great press. Probably not what they had in mind. 

TLS: You're also in a band! How has the show either inhibited, facilitated or worked in tandem with Tomboy? Do the two interact or are they very separate?

MB: Tomboy and MOM BABY GOD are like my creative fraternal twins. There are certain feelings and ideas I feel I can communicate or explore more effectively through music, and others I want to explore more through theater. I've learned a ton about collaboration and performance and improvising from each project that informs the other, and Hanna and Ali (from Tomboy) have been a huge support system for me. There's also nothing like playing drums to get out your rage about the right-wing. The only challenge is not having enough hours in the day; touring MOM BABY GOD has meant having to turn down Tomboy shows, but I'm really excited for our record with Ride the Snake coming out this year and to tour behind it. I feel incredibly blessed to have so many rad women in my life whom I work with and learn from creatively.

TLS: A lot of MBG is really humorous, but in a sad, disparaging way, because this is actually how some people act, think and above all, manipulate. Throughout the process of preparing MBG (through research) and bringing it to fruition, did you find yourself ever getting discouraged, and if so, how did you overcome it?

MB: I remember seeing an academic speak a few years ago who was a specialist on the Christian Right. And I thought, damn, what a depressing job! But I think it only becomes discouraging if you're studying the right-wing without fighting back against it. Throughout my research, I had so many conversations with fellow reproductive rights activities which grounded me in reality and allowed me to keep my sanity. I also read a lot about the history of feminist activism in the U.S. that won reforms like Roe v. Wade. Learning those hidden radical histories made it easier to see the long-term strategy of what we're fighting for. So coming face-to-face with the right-wing only gave me fuel for the fire to see what we're up against and keep fighting.

TLS: What comes next? You've done performances on public education and now reproductive rights – is there another social issue you're itching to tackle?

MB: I think when people think of feminist art, they think it begins and ends with The Vagina Monologues. But there's so much more. Our next show this December is going to be a double bill with JD Samson and MEN, which I'm really excited about. In the meantime, we're planning our West Coast MOM BABY GOD tour, and would like to do a tour in Texas and other battleground states further down the line. And then this summer we're shooting for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and I'd be really interested to see how international audiences respond to a show that's very much about sexual politics in the United States. As for the next project, I have a couple of ideas up my sleeve. Keep your eyes peeled!

Read more about MOM BABY GOD here.

Artwork by Faye Orlove

Written by Molly Morris