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The Writer's Block: Playwright Cynthia Cooper

Updated: Aug 22


TR: Welcome to Writer’s Block Cynthia Cooper! I know you are very dedicated to activism and to helping other playwrights and we will get to that but first, tell me how you discovered that you were a playwright.

CC:

I'm kind of an accidental playwright. I always loved journalism and I thought it was a way to make a living. I was a kid journalist and had a little neighborhood newspaper. I went with journalism in mind and then took a little detour and became a lawyer. I always had this kind of split between activism and journalism and didn't see them as compatible. I thought I could be a better advocate as a lawyer and then I reeeaallly missed journalism. I started the law school newspaper and I was on the law review and was writing skits for the annual review.


I practiced law and I had a fellowship to practice in an area that served people who were marginalized. This fellowship sent me to Minnesota where the pull of journalism led me to a TV station for a few years doing investigative reporting. Eventually I took a year off to write a novel and it wasn’t that good. Meanwhile, a friend encouraged me to take a playwriting class at the Playwrights’ Center and I just fell in love with playwriting. I immediately got a Jerome Fellowship and then I became addicted.


It sounds weird but I liked the size of a play because it wasn't as long as a novel but it wasn't as short as an article. I liked that I had control over it. The first play that I wrote was about sexual abuse, sexual assault, and restorative justice. There were a lot of things I was encountering as a journalist and lawyer working with marginalized communities, but I didn't have any way to express them or to articulate them. It brought together this blend of activism and writing. It just really suited me.

TR:

Let’s talk about the activism piece of your work. I was looking around your website and discovered, the Repro Freedom Arts website. It’s even more relevant now unfortunately. When did it start? What was the impetus?

CC:

I was a communications director at the Center for Reproductive Rights. I wanted to do art-related things and I convinced them to let me rent an art gallery. We put up our own display based on cartoons of reproductive freedom along with art that women in the gallery had submitted.


I realized, wow… we have a space now we should do some theater! The gallery show was expansive in its view of reproductive rights and I wasn't able to find a single play that I felt addressed the topic. So some interns went out to identify pieces of writing that a director and I wove into a single play. That became a piece called Words of Choice. It was a collection of all kinds of writers on a huge variety of topics.

People started asking for those pieces so I decided to spin it off into my own entity. The first performance was for Planned Parenthood in New York City. We did some in DC and Virginia and it kept growing and we formed a nonprofit. We had one benefactor who was quite generous and supported two tours around the country.


We changed the name to Reproductive Freedom Arts because the word "choice" didn’t reflect the severity of the issues. Some people saw it as a privilege to have a choice. A lot of the people who are seeking reproductive services are quite poor and their choices are already limited. We did a film, we did a couple books, and then we did our own livestream festival before livestream was seen as a ‘thing.’ We basically built a TV studio in a rehearsal space, and did 34 plays with seven directors and livecast it in conjunction with a group in Ireland. We designed a walking tour with performances along the way in lower Manhattan. Now it's called the Reproductive Justice Walking Tour.

TR:

Tell me about the walking tour.

CC:

It’s a cross between performance art and education. Basically reproductive freedom 101 from the civil war to now. We try to help people understand the whole trajectory of reproductive freedom in a different way.


Getting people walking and talking is so valuable… consider that everybody has experiences with their freedom and/or reproductive health and so people bring a lot to it. They get to talk about it and meet other people and have activism tips or ideas. Before the pandemic, we had people from all over the world, Ireland, China, Japan, Latin America, just all over…and it could be really fun. One of the lead campaigners from Ireland came on a walk. We had some women from South America, trying to organize. We often got doctors and I just let them add information too.

The tour begins down by City Hall and talks about how after the civil war, Anthony Comstock was the first person to really get anti-abortion laws around the country.


The Comstock laws made contraception and abortion illegal. And then Comstock became the enforcer and started arresting people. At the same time there was a very famous woman named Madame Restell who had Restell pills, which were contraceptive or abortive. She also did abortions and had an adoption service. She wasn't the only one but she became very famous and well known. Comstock arrested her; he arrested just about everybody.


One of my favorite stops is the former headquarters of Trojan condoms and then there's the first emergency hospital in New York along the tour. And there we talk about maternal mortality and what the situation is in the US. It's worse than the industrialized world (and that’s before Roe v Wade was overturned). We cover everything and we end up at Washington Square Park and talk about the activists of the seventies.

The tours are like “Let's get out there and get to work! New York is gonna be a safe state and here's some things you can do to help.” I've always believed reproductive freedom has to be a one-on-one conversation. The world got away from that. It got to be conversation just with the media which wasn't doing a good job of holding up the perspective of reproductive freedom and the dangers that have been developing for a long time.

TR:

They’ve been chipping away state by state for decades.

CC:

I consider the attacks on abortion clinics to be the precursor to people like the insurrectionists. The right wing has been allowed to run rampant for years. They tried all these tactics and they succeeded in a lot of them. 23% of the people are anti-abortion and that was the case in 1973, nothing has changed. Most people support reproductive freedom and the ability for someone to decide for themselves without the government interfering.

I remember we did a show in Chicago and this young woman came up to us with her mother who was about 40 years old. The mother said, “I never heard of Roe v. Wade. I'm gonna go home and look it up.” So I come back to New York and tell that to the people in the field. And they were like, “That's impossible, how could that be?” Because she was a working person, she was raising a kid, she was living her life. She doesn't necessarily read the newspaper. So the conversation got so insider. There wasn't this wider conversation with teenagers, with people coming into their reproductive age. I think there were a lot of assumptions. People didn't believe you could lose a right.

A woman in Kansas who came to a performance with her daughter thanked us and said, “It reminds me of my abortion story.” The daughter said, “What abortion story?” The mother said, “I told you all about that. I had one and my mother did too.” The daughter didn’t know. Another time this woman came up, in the parking lot after a show and she said, she had three abortions and had daughters, “Do you think I should tell them?” I was like, “Yes!” Even when it was legal people experience some unwarranted shame.

TR:

I also wanted to ask you about Honor Roll an advocacy and action group of women+ playwrights over forty. How did that start?

CC:

It started organically. Brooke Berman wrote a rant on Facebook and other people responded to it, and it led to a gathering. Several of us agreed to form a committee and it grew rapidly. We were able to get two anthologies published: She Persisted: Thirty Ten-Minute Plays by Women Over Forty and She Persisted: One Hundred Monologues from Plays by Women Over Forty. The thing about Honor Roll is, experience makes you better. I know I’ve gotten better as a playwright.


So I'm gonna go backwards for a minute. When I went from law journalism into theater, I was asked to put this conference together. It was the first women's playwriting conference at the Playwrights’ Center. I was shocked at the amount of sexism and misogyny. And there was no awareness about it. Nobody seemed to care that women were not being produced. There was this attitude, “It'll happen eventually”. But it doesn't happen without some kind of push. People were perfectly happy to stick with the status quo because it served them in some way. I became immersed in how sexist theater was as I entered playwriting. And, I don't know if that was good or bad. It means I spend a lot of time advocating. If you don't have to advocate, then you have more time to write. When I first moved to New York, I knew a lot of amazing women playwrights who hadn't really been given their due with the usual excuses you know, “We don’t know who they are” and “if they were good, they would've broken through.”

I remember Terrence McNally did a theater conversation with Jane Wagner who wrote Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It was a huge hit and on Broadway and then a film. So he did this discussion with her and somebody from the audience asked why weren’t more women produced on Broadway? Terrence McNally interrupted Jane Wagner to say, “Because you need to write better plays.” It’s just everywhere. There were these kinds of myths that got carried forward and were really hard to pierce. I always looked at it as a movement. Until people came together and organized and said, “It's about me but not just about me, it's about how everybody's treated” – we weren't going to make any headway. Women, and hopefully men too, need to band together to make these issues known.

TR:

And do you feel like there's been progress?

CC:

You know, it's hard to gauge. First of all, you have to define progress. There was a report in 1988 or 1990, and like 7% or 10% of the writers on Broadway and off Broadway were women. Now it's like 20 or 30, maybe it's gone up even a little more. I still don't think women writers are treated with the same credence or are recognized for their capacity and their thinking and their philosophy. I consider playwrights to be essentially philosophers bringing their point of view into the public realm. It's obviously a problem with people of color as well. It’s been a field that has been really dominated by white men and privileged wealthy people. I mean, I don't think you hear much of the perspective of people who are marginalized economically either. I guess when I question things, I question the whole field of theater sometimes and how narcissistic it can become.

The fiction world finally woke up and they were like, “You know, women are the ones buying books, why aren't we publishing more women?” And that happened over a space of maybe 15 or 20 years. I think nonfiction, which is the book area that I mostly write in, is still evolving. Non-fiction is still much more male dominated than female.

TR:

And with all this advocacy you're doing and activism work, how's your writing? When do you find the time?

CC:

You have to cram in as much as you can any given day.

But, could I say one thing? Cause this is what I didn't say. What I think about theater compared to the other art forms is it allows people the possibility of transformation. It allows people to absorb information in a different way than film or television or fiction or the newspaper. They actually might hear or see something that gives them a little change in how they perceive the world and so that to me is the most magical part about theater. That you're actually having a conversation with the audience. It’s no coincidence that most progressive movements have somehow engaged with an involved theater. And so I feel really hopeful about the possibilities of taking ideas to people through the theater in a way that you can’t with the other media.


TR:

There's no screen to intervene, it’s human to human. I've been thinking about that a lot too these last few years, about how much art can move the needle even just a little bit.

CC:

Yeah. Yeah. And when I first started doing Reproductive Freedom Arts, I had seen something from Africa where this woman was going town to town talking about AIDS and they did a show. And they did this education thing afterwards and I was like, “Why aren't we doing this in our area?” After shows audiences will say “What can I do?” And I was like, well, one thing you can do is just say “Last night I saw…” And it's it gives people some really simple tools for opening up a conversation with their own circle.

TR:

Yep. And the car ride home after the show. It gives people an opportunity to talk about important topics in a way that’s not so personal, they’re talking about the characters.

CC:

I almost consider it an obligation to create. And a lot of times playwrights will say, “Oh, I did the play, that's my job.” They don’t think they have to do anything to help people understand or to continue the conversation. I think that should be added to the role of a playwright. Not just the talk back, but you know, a walk back.

TR:

Yeah. I'm thinking about that because it's rare that talkbacks, for me anyway, are impactful. You need a good facilitator. But I like how you're framing it. That the job of the playwright is more than the play. But what other than a talk back can help the conversation?

CC:

Well, activities.

TR:

Yeah. Like your walking tour, that's effective.

CC:

We would do activities after a play too.

I'm doing our blog right now in response to somebody I know -- she said she had a group that wanted to do something about abortion and what ideas could I give them? So I did this standard list, you can host people in New York, you can donate to a fund. People are starting to create abortion kits for an abortion patient when they have to travel to a safe state. This woman in Mississippi sent me a list of what would go into a kit. Because again, people wanna do something. They will donate but they want to feel more involved in some way. And it might not be marching, but maybe it's writing postcards. Sometimes at these events, we'll have postcards and just ask people to fill 'em out and we'll send them. It could be to a representative, or an abortion provider. We were very close to Dr. Tiller who was murdered in Kansas. We did performances with him twice and loved him. So we would collect cards for his family. We're creative people I think we can come up with a second step for audiences.

TR:

They don't know that they can do something. You’re letting them know that they can. This was great. Thank you so much for doing it. Is there anything else you wanna get in or any last words of wisdom before we break?

CC:

Well the one thing I do feel is that everybody who's capable (and that's most everybody) should be contributing in some active way to the broader community. Whether it's the theater community or society. Just have one little project, like an hour a week or something where they’re contributing and helping the community at large. I just feel like that's an obligation of being an adult and a citizen. Particularly people in theater, they have an opportunity to use their skills and they should try and commit to that.

TR:

I agree. Thank you so much.


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