Revisioning the Wild West and women's choice


Jill Connell is a playwright, director and producer based in Toronto. She wrote and directed The Supine Cobbler, which shows a woman going through an abortion procedure on stage. It’s also, as Jill describes it, “a western for girls”. I spoke to Jill on the phone this weekend. Here’s part of that conversation.

SG: An abortion and a Western seem like two things that are worlds apart. What made you want to put them together in a play?

JC: The abortion was the first thing. I knew I wanted to put an abortion on stage – the procedure. That was my main first impulse. Theoretically the length of the play would reflect the amount of time a woman would be in a clinic. After that it became a Western quite early.

I was always interested in revisionist Westerns. I really love the anti-hero and the outsider; I actually find the classic Westerns incomprehensible. The male hero stories we’re interested in now, superheroes, they are heroes with faults, like Batman.

SG: Batman is an anti-hero but he’s still doing big things – things that involve flipped over cars and explosions. What I find interesting about the play is that the procedure is such an anonymous, small act. I love it in the end when the Cobbler leaves the clinic and just walks down the street – she’s absorbed into the mass. In a Western the hero rides off into the sunset but it’s usually after a massive gunfight that everyone knows about. It’s a very public event, whereas in The Supine Cobbler the abortion is a lonely act. She’s a quiet hero, but the action and the bravery it takes to go through the procedure it massive and it’s literally life and death.

JC: Exactly. That’s exactly what connected it to the Western for me. Westerns deal in life and death and they have a certain comfort, a cavalier attitude toward life and death that excited me and opened me up be more playful.

SG: How does this play revise the view of a woman getting an abortion?

JC: The main revision I was interested in was making the abortion procedure public by inviting public witness and gathering people together around it.

SG: Is there anything you would revise about getting an abortion?

JC: I would revise any shame around it and the dangers around it when there are barriers to access and the lack of genuine conversation about it. It’s an action that so many women take. I would revise it so it is an action that is acknowledged. And I would revise it so there is safe access for all women, in all places.

SG: It’s refreshing that the play has an abortion in it but no accompanying shouts of protestors from the outside, etc.

JC: Having volunteered at the Fredericton Morgentaler clinic, and having had an abortion, I just found that issue so boring, the idea of whether abortion is moral. I’ve never met a woman who has taken this decision lightly, without a degree of real seriousness. But engaging with the idea of protestors or the ethics of the decision just seemed so reductive. So that’s why it is not included in this play.

I was interested in turning a Western—a male hero-myth genre—on its head. I wanted only women in front of us and only women speaking. An abortion procedure is an action that only a body with a uterus can take. I wanted to invite myth-making around that.

SG: When we talk about a feminist revision, is it enough? The content may be female but isn’t the overall structure of a Western still male?

JC: Absolutely. You had written me the question: “Any other (male) genres you’d like to revise?” I thought: aren’t all genres male?

SG: Yes because these were forms that were developed by men. How do we make an organically female form is something I don’t have the answer for. We’ve grown up with these stories developed by men. This was fed to us from an early age. These male models are very pervasive models of storytelling in our culture.

JC: It’s interesting also because we are asked so often to make something “that works”, that is comprehensible to society, that you can sell so you have a job, which I struggle with a lot. Partly in engaging the Western genre I wanted to make my play accessible. It’s a genre in Canadian culture that many people are familiar with. And then from there I can begin to experiment.

(Jill and I then talk about Harvey Weinstein and systemic problems…)

I do I think it’s about who’s in charge. I’m excited about the idea that the most marginalized people should be in charge, because then the decision-making will include everyone. Under this rubric I should not be in charge. Who should take charge and take voice is a very important question right now.

There’s this sense that “this is the way it has to be”. You’re an underdog until you get in, and it’s not until you’ve got some power that you can exact any change, but you’ve gotten this power by joining this system that’s so shitty and oppressive and based on money. So. I’m wondering if there’s a way to do things differently. I would like to be a part of this conversation.

SG: The play is about an abortion but it’s so many other things.

JC: The play is really about female relationships and trying and disappointment and love and how do we have integrity in a world that is chaotic and doesn’t always make sense. That’s the core of the investigation and the clinical procedure is the container for those bigger questions.