All I wanted to do was check the spelling of a name. I was going to do a story about a new play called Jane: Abortion and the Underground. The play’s director, Karen Gorrin, told me that it was the true story of the underground abortion network called “Jane,” founded in Hyde Park in the late 1960s. Karen mentioned that she had written it together with Paula Kamen. I remember I was a little confused because I had been under the impression that Paula was the play’s author. I hung up the phone, then realized I didn’t know how to spell Karen’s last name. But I was too embarassed to call her back, so I called Paula to ask. I got her roommate, Amy, on the phone and explained that I needed the spelling of the coauthor’s name. I heard a gasp. “She told you what?”
That should have been my first due that another story was lurking offstage. But I was interested in Heather Booth, the activist who had helped found Jane as a student at the University of Chicago. I wanted to share the story of Lori Layman, a woman who described her experience of having an illegal abortion in 1971 as the “most humiliating thing I ever did in my life”–but said she’d do it again because she had no choice. I wanted to talk about how 11,000 women, mostly poor and minority, got low-cost abortions through Jane from 1969 to 1973. I wanted to tell the story of women helping other women, even going underground as criminals to perfom a service that many people today take for granted.
But then who could resist the story of two young dramatist wannabes getting so disillusioned with each other they ended up hiring hotshot lawyers to do battle? And how often do you see a playwnght picket her own play?
About a week later, it was a Tuesday early this month, Paula sat on a couch in the lobby of the Theatre Building on Belmont with her roommate Amy at her side. They were eating sandwiches before heading into the rehearsal that was just starting. They seemed a little nervous. I asked Amy what she was doing there. “Moral support,” she said.
“Mostly moral,” Paula added.
It should have been a pleasant run-through for her. But she was there to monitor the rehearsal word-for-word, line-for-line, to see if her script had been altered.
One of the actors walked over to Paula during a break and offered an awkward condolence: “I’m glad you’re back,” she said. “I hope whatever was going on is over.”
Paula told me that something was up and she and Karen had been told by their lawyers to avoid the media. She handed me a copy of the script. Her name was the only one in the byline followed by a scrawled copyright symbol. The packet included her notes from the previous night’s rehearsal. It had been Paula’s first glimpse of the play onstage. She requested 11 changes; the one next to act one, scene 11, read “Put back my original words in the ending!!! You cannot change my script without permission! The present ending that you wrote and used, without my permission, is melodramatic and contrasts with my original intent of the play to not insult the intelligence of the audience by not spelling out a message too clearly.”
As I left the lobby I noticed the stark black-and-white posters for Jane tacked to the wall. They told a different story: “By Paula Kamen and Karen Gorrin.”
The next day I called Karen on the phone. As we spoke her call waiting beeped. She took the call and returned a minute later. It had been Sid Smith from the Tribune calling about the play. Karen didn’t seem to know it then, but the feud was going public. Both sides had kept quiet about the dispute for the first few days–Paula says that she had wanted to take the moral high ground, but was advised by someone from the Dramatists Guild in New York that playwrights who stayed quiet got bulldozed.
Paula, who’s 25, is a journalist by training. Last year, she cut her teeth as a media maven hawking her first book, Feminist Fatale: Voices of the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Future of Women’s Movement. It was reviewed widely, making her something of a hot Roledex entry for reporters on the year-of-the-woman beat. She knows how to drum up publicity and she went to it.
Two days later I met her at the Melrose Restaurant on Belmont. She didnt seem too burdened by the at this point, wryly referring to the director as “Ms. Gorrin” and talking earnestly about the play. As we sat there I didn’t know that her attorney had faxed a cease-and-desist order to demanding that rehearsals stop under threat of a lawsuit. Paula had registered the play in December with the Library of Congress and had the copyright certificate to prove it. As 7 PM neared, an old friend of Paula’s arrived to escort her to the Theatre Building.
Karen had gathered the cast and crew to read them the fax from Paula’s attorney, as well as her own official statement. When Paula walked in Karen was announcing that rehearsals were to be suspended until further notice. Karen had considered telling them the news by phone but decided that the group, which had grown close over the weeks of rehearsals, needed a “group emotion.” And they had one: everyone cried. Then they all went out for a drink.
I met Karen on Friday at the Uncommon Ground coffeehouse in Wrigleyville. I was an hour late but she had waited. She said it was the first time all week she had been able to sit and collect her thoughts. Karen, who’s 28, founded the Imagine Theater Company last February with six friends as a vehicle to “blend art and politics.” She has worked full-time for three years as a computer consultant and had dreamed of starting a theater company for as long as she could remember. For Imagine’s debut production she had been thinking about staging a play on a feminist topic. She met Paula at a panel discussion last May, along with a veteran activist who spoke about Jane.
They decided to dramatize the story of Jane, or the Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, as it was officially known. It seemed an intriguing story as the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade neared. In fact, they set opening day for the anniversary itself, January 22. Paula had read about Heather Booth in a Ms. magazine article and was tying to track her down. By chance, Karen happened to attend a Carol Moseley Braun rally in July and heard Booth, who was Braun’s field director in the general election campaign, introduced as the next speaker She couldn’t believe it! Could this be the same Heather Booth? She and Paula were both giddy with excitement as they embarked on this new adventure together.
A meeting was scheduled for 11 PM at Braun’s Loop headquarters. Paula and Karen both speak reverently of Booth, who responded to their questions for an hour while simultaneously writing a speech for the next day. They were so impressed by her eloquence and conviction that they decided to adopt an oral history format for the play, to document the words and stories of actual women involved in Jane. Karen claims it was her idea to structure the play as a mix of dramatized dialogue and monologues based on interviews with former organizers and clients. Paula says it was her idea, a device she used in her book.
But what happened next is where it gets really sticky. “We collaborated from the beginning,” Karen says. “We both brought wonderful things to this script. That is absolutely true.” Paula says she was the sole playwright, that Karen told her as much and, in fact, had introduced Paula as the playwright to cast, crew, and Imagine’s board of directors. Even an early draft of the play’s advertising poster–which was faxed to her on December 23, Paula says–listed her as the sole playwright.
“I never heard any mention of her as a playwright until two weeks before opening,” Paula says. “She gave suggestions just like any director would. We never talked about writing it together.” Paula claims Karen did not write one original line in the play, and although she made 48 line edits, only 12 of those made it into the final script. “I don’t know how she could claim to have written it without having written one line.”
A week passed without rehearsals. I kept checking back with Karen and Paula for progress reports. My story was in limbo. The opening was moved to Sunday, missing the Roe v. Wade anniversary.
A verbal agreement was finally reached late on Thursday, January 21, the day before the scheduled opening, that would have given Paula a percentage of the play’s gross earnings, subsidiary fights, and the right to consultation for my script changes. It also specified that the unresolved dispute over authorship would be worked out later. Depending on who you believe, rehearsals then resumed either on Thursday (“Absolutely not” any earlier, Karen says) or as early as Wednesday (as Paula swears, having sent two friends to the Theatre Building to check, and having spoken to one of the building’s owners).
Paula changed her mind the next day after seeing a draft of the agreement. It didn’t help that she was asked by the stage manager to either be quiet or leave the rehearsal. Karen said Paula was disrupting a run-through of the perform by getting up and passing notes to the literary manager. She left in tears and called her attorney.
Paula says script changes she requested 11 days earlier still had not been adopted, including changing several sensitive lines that could jeopardize the anonymity of one of the interviewees. “I could never trust her to uphold the agreement,” Paula says. “I just thought the contract was meaningless. It’s like signing a contract with someone who just robbed you.” Paula decided she didn’t want the play to go up after all, but her lawyer said there wasn’t much they could do over the weekend.
Karen says Paula refuses to talk to her. “I have called her six times this week and she has not returned my calls or she has hung up on me,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going on in her head. I would really like to know what happened. A play is an art form that involves a lot of people and I think that’s something new to her.
“This play is about women working together and that makes this so tragic and so sad,” Karen says. “It’s really against the work we’re trying to do.”
Paula still argues that she is the play’s sole author. She isn’t satisfied with a temporary concession made by Karen listing Paula in the program as dramatic scriptwriter and Karen as consultant. Paula didn’t attend the opening and says she has no plans to see the play. As the first full weekend of performances approaches, she and her attorney are still considering legal options. She would like to find another theater company to stage her version of the script and may even protest outside the theater. “I don’t want any part of this production,” Paula says. “It’s a travesty for them to get any publicity.”
So much for my story
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.