Interview: Nicole Stewart – Creator of Oral Fixation Series
Nicole Stewart has stories to tell and in her Oral Fixation series, she wants to help others tell theirs. On September 21st she’ll be presenting the first of two live storytelling shows called “Out From Under the Rug: True Life Tales of Abortion”. For tickets and more information, please visit oralfixationshow.com.
A Is For’s David Avallone spoke to Nicole about the upcoming show, and her personal journey to “artivism.” This is Part One of that interview.
David: To start off, growing up were abortion rights on your radar? Was it something that you thought about or your parents ever talked about?
Nicole: No, it wasn’t. I grew up in a very tony part of Dallas called Highland Park, in a family that had been in these parts for generations. But my parents were both kind of hippies even though their parents were more conservative. When I was 14 years old, I learned that Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas had a theater troupe for teenagers called TACT: TeenAge Communication Theatre. They’d go and perform skits about issues that face teens, at churches, community centers, schools and places like that. I auditioned and I got in. There were kids there that came from very different backgrounds from me and I loved that about it. We had a lot of training, everything from homosexuality, alcoholism, and teen pregnancy. People would come and talk to us. So I learned facts through personal stories and then went on to perform them. That began a relationship with Planned Parenthood, which then continued as I became an adult and lived in different cities, pursuing acting. I would always go to the PP wherever I was. It was one of the first and only places that I would donate money to, because it was a place that made me feel safe, no matter where I was.
David: In your own community or in any of the places where you performed the skits do you remember any push back or protests?
Nicole: I remember protesters. Because we rehearsed at the Planned Parenthood, there would be protesters holding up signs when my mom or dad would be driving me into rehearsal. When we had opportunity to perform at the Planned Parenthood national luncheon, there were tons of protestors outside of the hotel holding up signs of fetuses. I didn’t really… I wasn’t afraid of them. I don’t know why. I acknowledged them, but I felt like they couldn’t hurt me.
David: But there weren’t any protesters at the high schools?
Nicole: I don’t think so. But the coordinator of the group would select the skits that we’d perform for each venue, so it may be that they were careful in choosing… like, we may not have used the word “abortion” that much when we were talking about the options of pregnancy. I can’t remember if it’s still this way, but Texas was either the number one or number two state for teen pregnancy in the country, so I felt very motivated to share the information that I had. About contraception, particularly.
David: So you moved to L.A. to be an actress. Tell me about the transition into storytelling.
Nicole: It came from one of those painful times in my life. I had been a Northwestern University acting student. I moved to NY to do the theater thing, then decided I wanted to be the sassy redhead best friend on the sitcom. So I moved to LA. That was around the time the reality show boom started, and they weren’t making as many sitcoms… but I kept plugging away. Then my agent, that I worked so hard to get, dumped me and my heart shattered into a million pieces, because I just didn’t know if I had it in me to go and start over again. I think I was 26 or 27, and I’d had blinders on for the previous ten years that all I wanted to do was act. I think acting was a way to channel all the myriad emotions that were gurgling through me as a young person.
I thought, “What if I just take a pause here, and instead of immediately reacting to this, let me just see what comes in?” I had always written about my own life… journal type writing. I had already written a little epistolary novel called Tales From the Road, about a non-Equity tour of Cinderella I did, which started on September 10th of 2001. Then I had a synchronistic meeting with this woman who was also a Northwestern graduate, Karin Gutman. She was a producer at Spark, a storytelling show in Santa Monica. She invited me to come and I was stunned by the community feeling, which… I had been living in LA for five years at that point and I’d never experienced anything like it. People who didn’t know each other talking to each other, looking each other in the eye, after stories had been shared. I loved it. I thought it was fascinating. I also really was excited by the idea that people were on stage, but they weren’t acting. They were being themselves. So I decided to submit a piece.
The theme was faith. I wrote about my relationship with my grandmother and how when she died I had to find faith in myself. It was a really exciting experience. And then I started digging around, and I started taking classes from Karin and I performed at Spark again, and at another show called Tasty Words… and I felt like “this is the new me. This is the new way for me to express myself creatively.”
A series of personal circumstances (among them the fact I didn’t want to be in TV or film anymore) led me to move back to Dallas after 12 years away. Back in Dallas, I looked around and there was absolutely nothing going on as far as storytelling. I thought, “Dallas needs this.” This is a great way for our community to break through this lovely little southern way of ours, which is to stay really sweet and to sweep every little thing that isn’t pleasant under that rug. I thought if I could create my own version of Spark or Tasty Words, people are going to respond to it, and they did. That was in 2010. I started in a tiny little theater charging five dollars, and now I’ve grown the show into a 750 seat space and we sell $25 tickets. It’s very competitive to get your story selected. When we were in a 300 seat space we would sell out. It’s been really exciting to see the community respond.
David: When you planned your Oral Fixation about pregnancy you were pregnant, but you didn’t know how that story was actually going to end.
Nicole: No, I thought I was going to be 8 ½ months pregnant with this huge belly and I’m five foot two. I thought it would be funny. We were 20 weeks pregnant and we went in for the sonogram to find out if it was a boy or a girl and were told that there were several markers indicating there could be a severe problem with the baby. We had no idea that was even possible; we were so ignorant. As we went through the next couple weeks of testing and being asked whether we wanted to terminate the pregnancy and figuring out the answer to that question, we were completely isolated. I didn’t think that this had happened before to anyone, anywhere. We knew about the bill coming to the Senate floor and we didn’t understand the law, so we didn’t know if this bill comes on the floor and they pass it, it says a woman can’t have an abortion after twenty weeks, and I was already past twenty one weeks at that point. My husband was doing the bulk of this research, because the doctor had told me to stay off the internet. We devised a Plan B, where we would have to go to New Mexico, and we decided to go ahead and make an appointment at the abortion clinic because in Texas at the time, for a twenty-two week abortion it was a four day process.
David: Just to be clear, even before the law changed, it would have been four days.
Nicole: Yes. The first day is a 24 hour waiting period, mandated by the state, and that’s for any abortion at any stage. On the first day of the actual abortion, you have this Laminaria, which is essentially seaweed, inserted into the cervix, which is a treatment to dilate the cervix. On the second day you have that taken out and another one put in, to dilate it again. On the second day they stop the heart of the fetus. The third day when everything is fully dilated they remove the fetus. So we had decided to go ahead and make the consultation appointment before we had fully decided to have the abortion, because of the timing.
David: New Mexico is definitely not the closest state border to Dallas, off the top of my head that’s about 700 miles. Why was New Mexico the Plan B?
Nicole: We’d have had to fly, and get a hotel, and take time off work and not be recovering at home. But this doctor who has a clinic in Dallas has a sister clinic in New Mexico. That was why the Plan B was Albuquerque. That Albuquerque clinic is actually one of the few in the world that specializes in late term abortions.
David: But meanwhile, Wendy Davis was having her filibuster…
Our interview with Nicole continues tomorrow.