Oral History: Out From Under The Rug [Austin]

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On Monday, October 10, 2016 Oral Fixation (An Obsession with True Life Tales) produced its first-ever show outside of Dallas at the regionally recognized Zach Scott Theatre in central Austin. 150 Austinites packed the jaw-droppingly beautiful space with anxious energy. “What is Oral Fixation? And what will a show about abortion be like? Not depressing I hope,” they may have been thinking.  But the group of men and women who shared their own, true personal stories related to abortion took them on an emotionally positive and healing journey through women’s reproductive lives. After the performance, the lobby was buzzing with strangers greeting each other. With tears in their eyes, they shared deep gratitude to the storytellers for their courage in speaking out. Some people divulged their own abortion stories in show of support. The show in Austin was undoubtedly impactful and made even more special by the presence of two documentary film crews. Stay tuned for more #SweepOutTheShame to come!

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After a gorgeous video of downtown Austin landing on the Zach Theatre played, producer/director/editor Nicole Stewart took the spotlight. Her enthusiasm to be connecting with a new audience showed as she explained the origin of “Out From Under The Rug” and her intention in bringing the show to Austin. She briefly shared her own abortion story. And then, stating the statistic that one in three women have had an abortion, she asked for audience members to take a deep breath, step out of their comfort zones, and stand up if they have had an abortion. Women from all walks of life and ages rose, about 1/4 of the audience. “Now, if you are an audience member who knows someone who has had an abortion, please stand,” added Nicole. Nearly the entire audience came to its feet. It was a heartstopping moment to feel so connected with others affected by abortion.

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Carole Wall started the show off with precious enthusiasm about a very wanted baby girl. But at the 20-week sonogram, she and her husband learned that their baby was sick. Having to go through the painful process of terminating this pregnancy inspired Carole to speak out about late term abortions. She has testified in the Capitol several times and her testimony resulted in the addition of a fetal anomaly exception to HB2. Her testimony is what Wendy Davis was reading aloud when producer Nicole Stewart tuned into the live stream before her abortion consultation. Carole is being featured in a documentary about Wendy Davis’ filibuster and her experience in “Out From Under The Rug” was filmed.

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Mayela Gutknecht brought so much passion to the stage from San Francisco all the way to Austin. She spoke candidly about her complicated childhood in the Mission District, surrounded by drugs and gangs, being raised by a single mother. After leaving for a better life at college, she fell into a pattern of destructive romantic relationships and frustratingly ineffective birth control which led to several abortions in her twenties. She shares how finding the copper IUD has allowed her to not be a statistic. She earned her Master’s degree in Public Health and got her dream job as a nurse. Having her mother in the audience to hear her share her plans to now have a planned pregnancy made the moment even more poignant.

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Valerie R. Peterson had been a single mom of two daughters for almost 20 years when she found out she was pregnant again. But this time, her baby boy was sick and there was nothing her doctor could do to help her because the restrictions of HB2 were in effect. Not even knowing about the bill, Valerie gets educated quickly then makes difficult decisions. For her own sanity, she receives an abortion in another state. Having to go through such obstacles for her health ultimately affirmed her desire to advocate for women’s rights. Her performance is full of emotion, strength, vulnerability, and deep belief in herself. She is an inspiration to single moms everywhere.

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When Elise Bilodeau became sexually active at 16 and soon after, pregnant, the situation turned her life upside down. Although her family was devoutly Catholic, her parents wisely let her choose her own path. But choosing to terminate her pregnancy brought gossip and shame. Instead of drowning in that pain, however, Elise chose to heal by finding purpose and passion in becoming an abortion doula and counselor. Once, after counseling a minor through an abortion, Elise received a note from the girl’s Catholic mother, expressing how difficult it had been to allow her daughter such a choice, but how Elise’s counseling lessened the burden. “I read the note and cried,” Elise recalled, “thinking how I, the rebellious daughter who had caused my mother such pain, had eased that pain for another woman.”

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Scott Ross never thought he would be speaking in an almost all-female cast about his abortion experience. After he fell in love with his wife Jeni, he wanted things to move fast: from NYC to Austin, from the honeymoon to parenthood. But with humor, insight, and humility, Scott tells the tale of their tragic first pregnancy. His skilled writing and strong point of view as an introvert invite the male listeners into the conversation, recognizing that they have stories to tell too. His fresh delivery was welcomed by the audience and moving for all.

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Shiloh Venable has come out before, about her sexuality about some years ago. When she saw the ads looking for storytellers for “Out For Under The Rug”, she was inspired to come out and tell her abortion story but she was unsure. Would people in her life now understand how a queer girl could have once had an abortion? She writes beautifully about her upbringing and the shame she carried about the abortion she had in college. We watch her inner calling to fight for the socially marginalized evolve into who she is today: a fully integrated woman engaged to her dream spouse and willing to share how abortion affects the LGBTQ community too!

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Longtime Emily’s List staff member and women’s rights advocate Sherry Merfish came in from Houston to share her story of getting an abortion before the landmark case Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion in 1973. The shame imprinted on her from her abortion at age 20 motivated her to keep her abortion secret for decades despite being a very public pro-choice supporter. It was through a combination of her incredible relationship with her daughters and being present for Wendy Davis’ filibuster that she gained the courage to speak out, in a most powerful Op-Ed written by her daughter. It ended up published in The New York Times the summer of 2013 and is entitled “My Mother’s Abortion.” This performance, however, marks the first occasion Sherry speaks of her abortion herself. She does so with conviction, dignity, generosity of spirit and grace.

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At curtain call, these amazing storytellers received an instant standing ovation. Baring one’s soul before hundreds on a topic that remains horrendously stigmatized is a courageous act. And this crew, they delivered ad infinitum: they decided to remove their abortion stories #OutFromUnderTheRug and #SweepOutTheShame once and for all! Producer Nicole Stewart was also lauded for the breadth of stories and tightness of the production as a whole.

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Storytellers and attendees mixed and mingled after the show, often with tears in their eyes. Everyone felt uplifted. Amongst the cast members after the show, one refrain was heard: “I cannot believe how freeing that was. I have never felt lighter!” And amongst the audience members in the lobby after the show, another refrain was heard: “I just can’t believe how moved I am. There is real power in hearing people’s true stories. I work for civil rights every day but this brings my feeling of purpose to a new level.”

Next up for Oral Fixation is our “Best of Season 5” event at Dallas City Performance Hall on Wednesday, November 16th at 8pm. With a stellar cast reflecting the very finest storytelling Dallas has to offer, this show is not to be missed! $25 tickets are on sale now!

If you think you might have a story to submit for Oral Fixation, themes for Season Six will be announced this week! Keep a close eye on our website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed—and sign-up for our e-mail list to be notified. You too could grace the Oral Fixation stage! In the meantime, keep telling and sharing stories!

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