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Singing and Dancing Fetuses: Art, Life, and Abortion at “The Appointment”

Singing and Dancing Fetuses: Art, Life, and Abortion at “The Appointment”

My earliest days in healthcare were at abortion clinics. First as a counselor and then as a nurse, I cared for hundreds of patients seeking abortion care. At clinics, I learned how to perform ultrasounds with the screen angled away from my patient; I learned how to tell which patients would be relieved in the recovery room and want high fives, and how to tell which patients would need gentle, low-voiced post-procedure instructions, and tissues.

The off-Broadway revival of Lightning Rod Special’s “The Appointment” was an emotional and celebratory homecoming–both as a former abortion nurse and as a lover of theater. This devised musical was originally performed in 2019. Its timely return to the stage in 2023, exactly at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, came less than a year after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned Roe. This essay reflects on the experience of attending this show, from the perspective of a former abortion care provider, and explores how art imitates and parodies life in this important play.

The show, while clearly positioned as a pro-choice, pro-access project (a portion of proceeds went to the National Network of Abortion Funds), addresses the complex realities of both accessing and providing abortion services in the clinic setting, and does it through American style show tunes and a stylized method of clowning. These over-the-top parts of the show are contrasted with the quotidian and functional aspects of clinic-based abortion care. The required warnings, the repetition, and the waiting. So much waiting.

Rather than the abortion “debate,” this satirical play presents an abortion-themed variety show, with cooing, demanding, singing, and dancing fetuses, which takes place almost entirely separately from the pregnant people whose bodies they occupy, while music is performed by a live band dressed in abortion clinic escort outfits.

When I was a newly licensed registered nurse at Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island in 2006, I routinely had to walk through the parking lot and across a small crosswalk to get to the clinic while I was subjected to the screaming and pleading of our “regular” anti-abortion protestors. They believed I went there as a patient—for the first few weeks, anyway. Upon realizing that I worked there, they changed their pleas from “Save your baby!” to “You can get another job!”

On my days off, I liked to take my toddler to the children’s museum that was just around the corner. I chose to take a longer route to shield my child from the gory signs. Our protestors brought the typical, iconic posters, including images of fetuses with translucent skin and sealed-shut furry eyelids, juxtaposed next to a quarter for scale. The urge to protect my child from those images and people who claimed to also protect children was a discomfiting irony.

That same child, in 2023, sat with me in the audience at the WP Theater in New York City. The curtains opened to reveal a single actor, dressed in a skin-tight bodysuit, salmon-colored with faint blue and red lines crisscrossing the body, a fleshy head covering, and a prominent and dangling knotted cord of material hanging from her abdomen. The actor moved her limbs in exaggerated aquatic motions, as though swimming– in amniotic fluid. She was a fetus, and she cooed: “Hello Mommy. Can you see me? I’m your little bean. Hiiiiii!”

A group of actors in flesh-toned body suits gesticulate wildly.
The cast of Lightning Rod Special’s 2023 production of The Appointment. (Courtesy Michael Kushner Photography)

This scene reminded me of my first confrontation with fetal tissue—or “products of conception,” as I learned to call it as an abortion worker. It was both more and less overwhelming than those familiar poster images that anti-abortion protesters wanted people to believe. The pathologist kindly showed me fetal tissue from a range of gestational ages, including one 22-week anencephalic fetus with an eerily natural stillness. It was helpful to be able to clinically correlate what I was measuring on those ultrasounds—volume all the way off, screen turned away from the patient—with what was being removed from my patients’ bodies.

The confrontation with the stage fetus—crying for its mommy, its daddy, snacks, and demanding both to be named and to be rated for “hotness” through playful and pointed teasing and taunting of the audience—was a much different and, in some ways, more emotional encounter. This fetus—and the whole cast of campy, vampy, cranky, and snarky fetuses—was conceived for this piece in the performance tradition known as bouffon, developed by French theater educator Jacque Lecoq in the mid-twentieth century. Bouffon characters and bodies are meant to be viewed as exaggerated, grotesque, and even disturbing—and do not adhere to stage conventions, even for clowning or improvisation. As Lecoq writes, “In a bouffonesque body, the person who mocks can say the unsayable, going so far as to mock what ‘cannot’ be mocked: war, famine, God,” and in the case of the Lightning Rod Special chorus of bouffon fetuses, abortion.[1] In the “womb world,” as the creators call it, nothing is off limits.

Conversely, in the “clinic world” of “The Appointment,” a physician calmly describes his responsibilities to one of the patients we meet during the show. These include having to “just write something down” while she tries to describe what the shadowy image on the ultrasound screen looks like to her, and describe the risks of the procedure even though he acknowledges that much of the information “is actually false, but in order for me to continue providing this service in this state, I am required by law to share with you all of the following information.” Having worked as an abortion counselor in Pennsylvania, which requires a 24-hour waiting period and a physician speech similar to the one in the play, I felt the tense and frustrated contradiction: I must share this with you; it is false; it is harmful; but without it, we all risk the greater harm of even less access to abortion care. This scene is calm and functional. The providers, all men, are kind in the show. This kindness easily masks the indignity of the state requirements, because they are executed so gently and with matter-of-fact paternalism. The three male actors sing “What Have I Done?,” a dark and maudlin song about abortion regret, at the end of the scene.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the show, one fetus plays “Pastor Grant,” an over-the-top, charismatic, and slightly sleazy evangelical preacher. This character has a pasted-on handlebar mustache, a swinging umbilical cord, and a passion for saving fetal lives that includes the declaration that “I would kill for you!” Immediately after his song, another fetus stumbles onto the stage, disoriented and trembling, wearing a torn black plastic trash bag and a conspicuously bloody menstrual pad stuck to the side of his head—understandably, the others all run away in fright. This fetus painstakingly and painfully makes his way to the abandoned keyboard to play his swan song, crooning “I never learned the distance between the tips of my toes and the top of my head/I never learned right from wrong/But I learned how to feel the way I gotta feel to write this song.” The Billy Joel-style ballad by a fetus about his own abortion (and never knowing his own crown-rump length, a measurement commonly used to estimate gestational age) is both moving and absurd.

These two scenes capture the essence of what is so wonderful, weird, and resonant about this play. The exaggerated fervor of Pastor Grant, along with the inaccurate (but frequently believed) “baby in a trash can” portrayal of the disposal of the products of conception, brings all the worst suspicions and fears from both anti-abortion and pro-abortion believers to the surface. As an abortion nurse, I laughed in the way I do when I see nasal cannulas used as peripheral intravenous lines on TV—a misrepresentation almost comical in its wrongness. But there was something more, in this scene, that I only realized once the character of “Katie Fetus” was in her Pastor Grant leather jacket and swagger: Katie Gould, the actor playing Katie Fetus/Pastor Grant, was visibly pregnant.

This realization made my experience of the show even more personal: as an abortion nurse, I became pregnant with my first child. I knew that once I was showing, there would be no way to hide this difference between my choice—an intentional pregnancy that I was fortunate enough to continue—and my patients’ choice: most often an accidental pregnancy, or sometimes a wanted one reconsidered, ending. I took more care with my recovery room high-fives; but I also had many patients smile, congratulate me even as I was performing their ultrasound, and ask the usual questions: How far along? When are you due? Are you having a boy or a girl? These contrasted with the questions they—like the patients in “The Appointment”—were asked repeatedly: first name, last name,  date of birth, date of last menstrual period? But somehow, we were able to coexist, room enough in our clinic world for their choices and mine.

Notes

  1. Bim Mason, “Bouffons and the Grotesque,” in The Routledge Companion to Jacque Lecoq, ed. Mark Evans and Rick Kemp (Oxford: Routledge, 2018), 157-164.

Caitlin is a nursing PhD student at SUNY University at Buffalo, as well as a faculty member at the SUNY Upstate Medical University College of Nursing. Caitlin's areas of interest include norm-critical approaches to nursing and education, LGBTQ+ health, and reproductive justice.

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