In order to do research for The Givers over the past year, Kauder Nalebuff shadowed doctors, abortion providers, activists, and workers at clinics in Connecticut and four other states. She spent time as a resident writer at Planned Parenthood, attended the National Right to Life Convention one weekend in Washington, D.C. and interviewed all the friends and acquaintances she knew to hold anti-abortion views.
The play follows a doctor and her hairdresser as they deal with the private and public implications of changing abortion law in the present-day U.S. Scenes of grimness and pathos are laced with humor, alternately warm and prickly. At times the connection between the tragic and the comic is made explicit: “I’m funny because I’ve suffered,” says Andrea, a beautician and avid (bordering on manic) anti-abortion activist whose young daughter dies of a heart defect (played by Bonnie Antosh, PC ’13).
What follows are condensed scenes from Kauder Nalebuff’s writing process, based on an interview with the playwright. “There was so much narrative potential there,” she said, of the project. “Though this play was an amalgamation of three doctors I spoke to, set in North Carolina around a particular 20-week ban, each doctor I interviewed had enough stories for a play.”
Uncertain what she wanted to do after graduation, Kauder Nalebuff decided to shadow an obstetrician in Yale-New Haven Hospital late in the fall term of her junior year. Some of her experiences there would add new texture to the pro-choice position she had occupied for most of her life up to that point.
The setting: Winter 2012. An office in YNHH in which a female patient rests in bed, groggy and under covers. Enter obstetrician, followed by Kauder Nalebuff. Slowly, the doctor explains that when the woman came in last night, four months pregnant, she had an infection that spread rapidly, and her husband had to make the decision, while she was unconscious, whether to keep the baby or save her life. The woman becomes visibly stricken.
My poor baby in heaven. I’m so sorry. It should have been me.
Initially surprised by this reaction, Kauder Nalebuff would witness other similar moments of decision and judgment that would complicate her thinking about the range of reasons for pro-choice stances, many of which made their way into The Givers. Kauder Nalebuff next followed an abortion provider in Bridgeport, Conn., that same year.
Spring 2012. Outside a medical building in Bridgeport. Enter doctor, followed by Kauder Nalebuff. As the two walk into the clinic, protesters emerge and spit at them. Others try to sprinkle holy water on them. A security officer holds the door and accompanies the duo inside.
Within the clinic, the officer demonstrates for the doctor how to hold a gun, and how to carry and conceal it. The doctor is also advised to take a different route to work each day.
“So much of what these doctors described, which I felt I couldn’t convey even in drama, was a constant sense of paranoia that they learned to live with,” Kauder Nalebuff said of events like this one.
Returning home from work, one of the doctors Kauder Nalebuff has been following finds a 10-foot wooden cross erected in her backyard.
In The Givers, a medical professional, read by Willa Fitzgerald, JE ’13, is subject to similar scare tactics and harassment. In one scene, the fictional doctor learns to take in her mail promptly, to avoid displaying her address. In another, her daughter returns home to find their housecat’s throat has been slit.
One of the show’s main narrative threads concerns Fitzgerald’s character’s sacrifices of time, energy, privacy, and possibly safety, in order to testify in a court case, while trying to care for her own daughter. In parallel, Antosh’s character finds herself distracted from the day-to-day well-being of her nephew, Will (Gabe DeLeon, JE ’14) by her concern for the pro-life cause. DeLeon sensitively depicts a young man whose own experience of the abortion debate is colored mostly by his loneliness, ambiguously muted sexuality, and desire for love and acceptance from his aunt.
Despite her expressed wish to convey both sides of the conflict, Kauder Nalebuff said her considerable feelings of gratitude toward and admiration for the doctors she met during her research made it difficult for her to sympathetically depict the anti-abortion perspective. “Those arguments were harder for me to humanize, because I’m less familiar with them,” she said. “In some ways, I found myself blind-sided to the pro-life perspective after speaking with these doctors and seeing what they were put through.”
In an attempt to keep the play from becoming one-note or lopsided, Kauder Nalebuff attended the National Right to Life Conference in D.C.
Sitting in the audience at the RTL Conference, Kauder Nalebuff observes a moment of silence for “the lives of the unborn.” She listens to the speeches of a high-school competition in rhetoric on the subject of abortion, and copies down portions of the dialogue. She feels like a spy.
“That was an idea that pervaded the conference— ‘the lives that are missing around us,’” she said. “I hadn’t encountered that before.”
Kauder Nalebuff sits with a representative of Planned Parenthood, after a six-month background check and vetting process to be allowed access to interview workers.
PLANNED PARENTHOOD REPRESENTATIVE
The doctors will speak only on the condition of anonymity. You mustn’t reveal their identities, describe what they look like, or write down where they live. You can’t use idioms, expressions, figures of speech, or phrases that may give away anyone’s personality or character. You must password protect your computer at all times and destroy all your notes once you’ve completed your research and writing.
One of the most worrying insights from her time at Planned Parenthood, Kauder Nalebuff said, was that policy experts there feel that Roe v. Wade is not in a place right now where it can be challenged or tested. “The main takeaway for me,” she said, “was that huge hits have been made in the past few years to women’s access to abortion in this country, but people aren’t necessarily talking about it, because they’ve been done in piecemeal ways, on a state by state basis. There’s not one big, sexy front we can march against.” Rather, small bills and pieces of legislation chip away—whether requiring sonograms, extending bans and waiting periods, or calling for parental approval—to the same effect. The intimate scale of The Givers speaks to this trend, in which the debate over abortion plays out at the local, interpersonal level, rather than in the political arena.