Playwright Taps Abortion for Off-Broadway Drama

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Poster for Steven Somkin's play "Melissa's Choice."

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–"Melissa’s Choice," running from May 5 to 22 at The Lion Theatre here in New York City, set on a campsite in Oregon, is a play about a young woman who is both a fierce advocate for population control and proponent of abortion rights. When she finds out she is pregnant, these ideals come into conflict.

Recently, the playwright Steven Somkin, a resident of New York City, discussed the play and what brought him to the subject matter. After completing his M.D. from Mount Sinai Hospital in 1968, Somkin turned his attention to the world of theatre: he has written nine full length and four one-act plays. His work has been produced off-Broadway and has had many readings in a variety of venues. For several decades he wrote for the pharmaceutical industry in diverse formats, including film and video. He is a founder and artistic director of the Golden Squirrel Theater, in New York City.

Q. You practiced medicine for a decade; one of your duties was to counsel pregnant teens at a clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital here in New York. Why did you leave it and choose this? Would you say that your work now is heavily influenced by that decade in medicine?

I left that life because I should have been a writer from the very start. I grew up in a medical family; my father was a doctor, my brother is a doctor. I grew up thinking that the only thing a man can do in this world, and call himself a man, is to be a doctor. So I became a doctor, but that didn’t turn out to be what my real calling was.

As far as influence goes, everything we produce is influenced by our life experiences. Melissa’s character in particular is based off the many girls I counseled at Mount Sinai. One of my frequent functions was to advise girls who were pregnant and these could be 14, 15, 16 year old kids and my instinct was to say that you should hurry off to an abortion clinic as fast as possible, and do that because you’ll ruin your life and never be able to get an education and you won’t have an economic foundation for you or your child. But I couldn’t say that and be true to my role as advisor and confidant of these kids so I had to bite my tongue and I guess actually that for me was the key thing. My id and judgment were going in different directions and that was the internal conflict. And that’s the kind of conflict that moves me, and I think most other playwrights. For playwrights, it’s not about just getting the emotion out, like a poet or a novelist would. There is an internal conflict that needs to be expressed and to some measure resolved. So yes, the conflicts we experience influence our work.

Q. Four of your last five plays, including "Melissa’s Choice" and "Between the Rains," address environmentalism. Would you agree that you could be described as an environmentalist? And how did you time up the conflict associated with environmentalism with Melissa’s concerns?

Environmentalist is not really a conflict for me; it’s a dimension of my beliefs. I believe that environment degradation is the most serious challenge that’s presented to the modern world and one the great drivers of this is over population – particularly over population in areas with scarce or limited resources. That’s not a conflict within, that’s a reality that we deal with.

In the play, Melissa deals with this reality: because on the one hand she believes in population control and abortion as a right, but she also has a desire to have this baby. The tagline of the play is "An American dilemma" and the meaning of that is that most countries have laws either permitting or prohibiting abortions. In this country while abortion is legal, there is a very strong force against abortion. And it seems, at least from the headlines, that those forces are gaining power and influence. So there are many states that either restrict or limit abortion in many very devious ways, particularly with financing, or with the insistence that a woman who wants to get an abortion jump through a number of very difficult hoops.

Q. "Melissa’s Choice" isn’t only about abortion. There are other feminist angles: a discussion of her rape in college, her father’s dismissal of the rape, her mother loving her brother more than her, the way one of the characters sexually harasses her. There is even the camp administrator’s story about raising three children on her own. So it is in fact a play that investigates various aspects of feminism. Would you agree?

When I wrote the play, I didn’t see it as a feminist play or a feminist argument, but I wouldn’t object to your putting it this way. For me, the most important question is what is love and where does love fit into all of these decisions? She has to figure out what love is and whom she loves in order to make these decisions. Love is the key to unlocking the ability to make a decision.

Q. Would you say that writing plays with these strong messages about abortion rights and environmentalism makes you an activist for these causes? Or is your work purely literary?

I don’t know that you can separate activism from theater. I take plays as an opportunity to make a statement and in that sense I am an activist. But a play also has to be entertaining, and so there are many comedic elements in the play.

But in terms of activism, what I hope for is that after people go away from the show they will talk about it. A lot of the opposition against abortion has to do with the sense that "oh yeah, I’ll have lunch and then I’ll go over to the abortion clinic." These questions are much more difficult and complex than that. They very often involve one’s entire personality and in the case of Melissa’s story they involve the act of participation by the men in her life. Abortion is not really just an issue for women, it’s a social issue and it’s an interpersonal issue for men as well.

Another theme my work always involves is tolerance. One has to be tolerant of the opposing point of view. Hitting someone over the head with a hammer to win them over to your side won’t work with everyone. Somebody who is beating the drums for abortion rights has to recognize that sometimes that’s very offensive. The same way somebody who is totally opposed to abortion has to recognize that this is very important to some women and that there is no such thing as a universal set of beliefs.

Q. In other plays you have written, has the protagonist often been female? Do you think that is more or less challenging than writing a male character?

All of my plays have men and women in them. There are different challenges. One of my plays–which has my wife’s favorite character actually–is based on a real person: a black woman who is a grandmother. The play is about how she accidentally becomes an environmentalist, and now she finds herself learning about these toxins and the politics of it. She became a national and then an international figure. So not only did I step out of my gender, but also she is black and the racial component of her struggle is very important. I go where the conflict leads me. Every writer has to feel comfortable writing different characters. Some of my most interesting characters have been women.

Q. Do audiences seem thirsty for these kinds of ideas or are they just interested in entertainment?

I think plays have to be entertaining. If it’s not entertaining as a play, you might as well write an op-ed. The theater is an entertainment medium and if you just lecture people you turn them off.

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