It was around 2010 that writer-actor-director Julie Proudfoot was sitting in a Starbucks at the IC station downtown, waiting for the South Shore line to take her home, when she became aware of two young couples sitting at an adjacent table. “And the males were not only saying sexist things to the young women,” Proudfoot recalls, “they were saying pointedly violent things to them. And the girls were laughing. And that was it. That’s when I said, ‘Wow, how have we gotten to this point?’”
Proudfoot had noted for years that “a rollback of women’s rights that the far right has been working on for decades now was really starting to take its toll.” But this was the tipping point for her. “I knew I had to do something.”
And what she did was found Artemisia, a feminist theater now celebrating its 11th season. Named in honor of Artemisia Gentileschi, the until recently greatly overlooked feminist Baroque-era painter, the theater is “a 100% women led organization . . . committed to creating career-altering opportunities” for women.
The idea had been brewing for years, ever since she and her husband had moved to Chicago from LA in 2006. Tired of LA, the cost of living, and the crazy life, they were hoping for a fresh start in the midwest, but soon after Proudfoot started auditioning for roles, her excitement was dampened.
11/25-12/18: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, artemisiatheatre.org, $25-$44
“I was very surprised by, at that time, the lack of opportunities for women in Chicago. There was so much great theater that was not female focused. The idea of a fully complex leading female character and it being her journey and her world—I was not seeing that.”
Artemisia was created to remedy that. And over the years, Artemisia has carved out a niche on the theater scene, producing plays and an annual Fall Festival of works on feminist themes.
Proudfoot’s current project is codirecting a play she began writing during the time we all sheltered in place two years ago. The play is called Title Ten, and it is Proudfoot’s take on the state of women’s rights and ways women’s bodies are controlled in America during and post-Roe v. Wade.
Proudfoot first began thinking about the play that became Title Ten when she was hired in 2016 to research Donald Trump. “I read like 18 books about Donald Trump. So I learned way more than anyone would ever want to know about him. One of the things Trump did was use the right-to-life base as a way to really garner votes and momentum politically.”
Proudfoot continues explaining how once he was elected, he naturally began messing around with Title X to please his right-to-life voters.
“Title X was started in the 1970s,” Proudfoot explains. “Its purpose really was to help lower-income women and families plan their families and get prenatal care. Title X funding required three things: When a woman went to be examined at a clinic that was funded by Title X and discovered she was pregnant, the clinic first—if she wanted to have the child—referred her for prenatal care. If she wanted to give the child up for adoption, they also had to refer her for legal and free adoptive services. And if she chose to exercise her right to have an abortion, they had to refer her to a clinic that performs a safe, legal abortion. Trump imposed a gag order. If you got Title X funding, you were no longer allowed to tell the woman that she had abortion as a choice.”
“When I first read about this, I saw red. And I started to think about the way in which women’s rights are constantly on the chopping block. Whether we’re talking about safety in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, or the right to exercise your right to choose. So that’s what got me cooking on Title Ten.”
Title Ten consists of the stories of eight characters, all women in some way touched by Title X. In the play, which spans two and a half decades, Proudfoot presents “very different women in very different places in their lives, in very different settings and environments who are making a decision or struggling to win an argument.”
“So we have Rachel,” Proudfoot continues, “in the Long Island Clinic, Long Island City Clinic in New York, of course, in ʼ78. We have Norma, who is part of Operation Rescue. [Right-wing activist Randall Terry’s anti-abortion campaign]. So she’s at an abortion clinic in Lafayette, Indiana, in ʼ88 as part of an Operation Rescue protest. “
Proudfoot interrupts herself, “I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a setting of a gay woman in the early 2000s in Central Park, and we don’t know it at the beginning, but she’s meeting her daughter.
“But the first scene and last scene is anchored by the same character, Rachel, who at 17 in the beginning, is in a clinic in Long Island City to see if she’s pregnant, talking to herself in the room alone, trying to figure out what she’s going to do if she is pregnant. And the same woman comes back to us at the end as a mature woman and talks about the impact of the right to choose on her life.”
Proudfoot references Anna Deavere Smith’s plays (which include Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror, about the 1992 LA riots and the 1991 Crown Heights riot, respectively) as an influence, though unlike Smith, her play is not based on interviews with real people. They are, however, based on Proudfoot’s research—research that led her to read material by and about people at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
One of the characters in Title Ten, for example, is loosely based on a woman who served in Congress from Nebraska and is an active pro-life advocate. “The character is rallying her pro-life crowd,” Proudfoot explains, “but she’s coming at it from the opposite place of a Randall Terry, who came at it violently, almost, and criminally. She’s coming at it with Christian love. And she’s coming at it from, ‘We will rescue these poor women.’ Because the whole trauma story that the right to lifers like to tell is that, ‘Yes, well, you had an abortion, but now you’re traumatized by it, and you are a victim of your own choice.’”
Proudfoot pauses a moment to reflect. “I thought about that a lot, and I thought about the sincerity of some of these young—especially these young women, who are the pro-life generation, and they really believe that they’re coming from a place of love. When you listen to them, when you watch them being interviewed, when you see how they dress and how they interact with each other, when you saw them weep with joy after Roe was overturned, you begin to understand how this is based on a fable—the idea that you can have a perfect world in which every fetus can be born into a happy, healthy family, right? And that no women will get sick and no women will die and no pregnancy will be complicated. This is a fable. This is a sentimental, ridiculous lie.
“These young women have become the pro-life generation, and they’re talking about all these babies they’re going to save and all these innocent lives they’re going to save. And these are the same folks that don’t care about day care, childcare tax credits, school lunch programs, any of the things for mothers, any of the things that allow a woman, especially a single parent, a female single parent, or a male single parent for that matter, to raise a child effectively and lovingly and in a safe home.”
Every story Proudfoot tells serves her larger goal of portraying the struggle of being a woman in a world dominated by men, she said.
“The stories don’t all directly deal with abortion rights,” Proudfoot continues. “Some deal with the lack of equality in the workplace, which leads to, often, sexual harassment, sexual violence against women. But the play unifies around an overarching theme of where we are right now, of where we find ourselves in America. As a parent, as a person who loves and knows people, as a concerned citizen, you’re just looking at probably one of the worst, worst periods of my life for women’s rights and trans rights. It’s really shocking and horrifying, and the only way to deal with it is to move through the mess and start challenging and confronting the choices.”