Supporting creative work by women
Cecilia Copeland is a playwright and artistic director. Her company New York Madness brings together playwrights, directors and actors to put up wild, unpredictable new short plays. As a playwright, she has two plays on the New York boards–R Culture, a look at rape culture, and Biolife, a Sci-Fi drama.
She spoke with Works by Women about rape culture, her inspiration for the play and how The Kilroys and the League of Professional Theatre Women are changing the landscape of American theater.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You were commissioned to write R Culture about rape culture in our culture. What was your original spark for the piece–how to address a large, pervasive issue?
CECILIA COPELAND: My initial inspiration came from living in Hell’s Kitchen and dealing with street harassment on a daily basis getting to the point when I felt exhausted by it. It was a constant issue living there and it had nothing to do with what I wore or what time of day it was. There was nothing I could do to predict when it would happen so I was constantly on the lookout. It was so bad that on several occasions I was followed home and ended up running from the corner to the front door of my apartment building. The first scene I wrote for the play was “Harass-Me-Not” and then came the others that were reflections of different elements in our culture that impact how women are perceived, how we perceive ourselves and how we’re treated in ways that add to our being a society where rape happens as often as it does. My starting point was street harassment, but soon after that as I began to do research I discovered a lot of things about rape culture that I didn’t know including homophobia and hyper-sexualized maleness identified with dominance, which informed a lot about the “College Orientation” scene. Each time I did research I would learn something new and apply it to either an existing scene or create a new one.
WBW: R Culture is described as an edgy, dark comedy. Sometimes people shy away from comedy when dealing with tough issues. Why was humor a necessary component of your play?
CC: My first instinct was that if we didn’t use humor, then people would tune out and it would be too much for audiences handle. I believe that comedy helps us heal and laughter is the antidote for shame. My own background as a Jewish woman positions me within a long tradition of dark humor or gallows humor. “Lakhn mit yashtsherkes” is a Yiddish phrase which literally means, “to laugh with lizards” but translated properly it means ‘to laugh bitterly through one’s pain/to laugh to keep from crying.” When something is as bad as ‘rape culture’ people, especially women, need to find a way to laugh or we’ll lose hope that things will ever get better. We need the laughter, because there is already so much awfulness we can barely accept the whole truth without feeling lost to despair. I wanted to offer hope that things could change and I needed laughter to do that.
WBW: How can/does theater address or critique or engage with societal issues and change?
CC: I think just by being in a room with others, collaborating, discussing, working together and investing time and resources we are actually changing the world through those endeavors. Those efforts are en end unto themselves. Beyond that, each audience that comes to see the work is impacted by spending time with it. The world at large is impacted by all those who engaged with the material, so by the very acts of creating and engaging we make change.
WBW: Why theater? Why were you first attracted to being part of theater?
CC: I like all modes of art, but I don’t have any talent in a lot of them. Writing on the other hand is something I have always had knack for, and I love it. I never get tired of it. I would be happy to write screenplays and films as well. In fact, I’ve written one short screenplay already that was produced in Australia. Theater just happened to be what was around and most immediate in my circumstance. I do enjoy the live-ness of theatre and the fact that I think it’s easier to take bigger risks in theater than in other modes entertainment where there’s more money at stake. It seems to me that the more money is at stake the less risks you’re able to take as an artist. That might not be true, and I can’t say 100% that is the case, but I know that’s certainly true with other financial investments so logically that seems true in art as well.
WBW: What’s next for you?
CC: I’m opening my Sci-Fi play, BIOLIFE at the Chain Theatre on Nov 14th and I am participating in the upcoming One Minute Play Festival at INTAR. I’m also developing a two person play called, The Box and will have a reading in the Julia Miles Reading Room series with the League of Professional Theatre Women.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
CC: Some of the problems are economic, some are perception and others are personal. There is a perception that a female story is not universal whereas a male story is, and that’s false. Then there’s the issue of needing to produce plays by well-known playwrights, but if most of the well-known playwrights happen to be men then it’s hard to make that number shift in any way. That the highest paying theaters produce less women than the lowest paying theaters makes longevity in the theater a hard sell for women, especially if they want to have a family.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
CC: I’m excited by the work of countless women I see in our field. I’m thrilled that other women like the LPTW members and The Kilroys have made it a priority to advance the careers of other women.
For more information on R Culture, visit IRT Theater’s web site.
Production photos by Jody Christopherson.