New Play Takes Satirical Swab of Rape Culture

Romy Nordlinger and Rachel A. Collins in Cecilia Copeland's R Culture. Photo: Jody Christopherson
Romy Nordlinger and Rachel A. Collins in Cecilia Copeland's R Culture. Photo: Jody Christopherson
Romy Nordlinger, Rachel A. Collins in R Culture. Photo by Emily Lerer.

Rape isn’t funny. Think about it: under what circumstances would it be funny? Perhaps if you were a rapist you’d find rape funny, but most people don’t think about — and sure as hell wouldn’t validate — rape humor. That’s why we have trials and jails. We hope.

It therefore follows that “rape culture” is also not funny. Think about that, too: our society has adopted a term for the conditions under which society normalizes and aims to justify the sexual violation of one by another. That we have such terms and conditions tells us a lot about ourselves — and none of it funny.

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So it further follows that playwright Cecilia Copeland is serving up, with her satire R Culture, a giggling (and maybe even guffawing) punch in the funny bone. Directed by Emily Lerer and featuring Rachel A. Collins, Jennifer Harder and Romy Nordlinger, R Culture takes the form of a traveling circus — a female sideshow send-up, an extravaganza in extremis. There’s an androgynous ringmaster and clowns, “bridezillas” and football players, plus red carpet moments, and birds selling tree houses. Ha ha. Tweet tweet.

R Culture is presented as an IRT Resident Artist Project in collaboration with Copeland’s company, New York Madness, through Nov. 23 at IRT Theatre. For tickets, click here. For the playwright’s bio, click here.

And now, 5 questions Cecilia Copeland has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Usually those really perceptive questions tend to come from my collaborators when we’re in the room working or talking about the text. They’ll ask me something that seems really simple, but it’s deeply illuminating about the play. “This moment seems really strange…is that on purpose?” When an actor or a director asks me that, I know they are reading with their gut and getting the work on an emotional level. When they invest in those moments fully, the audience ends up having a visceral response to the work that goes beyond the intellectual, but will hopefully create an epiphany.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“How much of it is you?”

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
There was a character in one of my plays who was sick and died. I didn’t specify the illness early on in the piece. After the reading ended, someone asked, “Did that character have AIDS?” That wasn’t the case at all, but it taught me a lesson about how people will invent details if I don’t provide them, and sometimes what they invent is really far from what I intend.

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Jennifer Harder
Jennifer Harder. Photo: Emily Lerer.

How do you write a dark comedy about rape culture? Or a play that looks at it with a “satiric lens”? Aren’t you running the risk of alienating women? What is your own awareness of rape culture?
How does anybody write a play about anything I guess? We start thinking about it, then we obsess about it, then we avoid it, and then, finally when faced with a deadline we get over ourselves and just write it. But I see your point about the subject matter. In the same way that “Springtime for Hitler” is a joke in The Producers, it’s pretty strange to consider writing a comedy about rape culture. Yet, the fact is that we need laughter in order to heal. Laughter releases shame and anger. Mel Brooks gets that about Hitler and I get that about Rape Culture. I grew up watching things like Hogan’s Heroes and Blazing Saddles, which held up these horrible things like concentration camps and racism to be scrutinized comically with a satiric lens. It’s in that tradition I’ve written R Culture to provide some levity for people who are tired of having to explain why rape jokes aren’t funny.

Too often, women and particularly feminists are stereotyped as not having a sense of humor, which is absolutely untrue. I don’t know any feminist who doesn’t love a good laugh, but what a radical feminist finds hilarious is probably not gonna be what a conservative misogynist finds to be funny. I realize that conservative misogynists might find R Culture pretty offensive and I might be alienating them, but perhaps they will find it funny and they have more of a sense of humor than I think they do. The response so far from women has been overwhelmingly positive, and they are excited to come and see it! I’m really grateful for that.

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What is your own awareness of rape culture?
My personal relationship to rape culture is unique to my own life. I’m a petite female and I have to navigate threats on a daily basis in public and in private spaces. I tend to be very physically guarded with most people, most of the time, because not only was I raised with the awareness that any man with the physical strength to overpower me might just do so, but the stigma of victim-blaming was engrained in me so much that if it were to happen, I was terrified of being held responsible for having a faulty radar to detect potential danger. I was told that under a whole host of circumstances I would be shown no sympathy if I were foolish enough to trust the wrong person. That’s rape culture, and I was raised with it, which is why when I was sexually harassed at work, I found it nearly impossible to come forward. I blamed myself for not being able to detect and evade it rather than blaming the perpetrators for taking advantage of the situation where they had more power than I did. This is the same culture that makes women second-guess everything they wear as if concealing clothing were in any way a deterrent to a rapist. Women are raped wearing burkas and baggy sweatshirts, so to claim that revealing clothing is some kind of rape trigger is demeaning to men and it’s false.

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Cecilia Copeland
Cecilia Copeland. Photo by: Jody Christopherson.

You offer something of a real human menagerie in your play — from an “androgynous ringmaster” to football players and bridezillas. Can you walk us through your process of devising the play? What kinds of characters and/or moments in the play did make it in the final cut?
This play is called R Culture because it’s a combination of “Our Culture” and “Rape Culture.” The play is looking at elements of our culture here in the U.S., and making fun of them. Not all of the scenes are necessarily about sexual violence or are exactly rape culture, per se, but they all add to the dynamic in our society that keeps certain dangerous attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes alive and well. In the early drafts, I wrote scenes about everything I could think of that could loosely be affecting gender hierarchies, damaging healthy sexuality or misrepresenting the truth in favor of a lie that upheld the status quo. A lot of scenes got cut or ended up as one or two lines in another piece because either there wasn’t enough time to explore the issue fully or it didn’t lend itself to the overall form of the piece.

The idea of a circus was appealing because it could hold all of these bizarre, different acts inside of it, as well as being a metaphor for our rape culture. When I was looking into it, I went for things that felt extremely ridiculous to me already and then I tried to turn up the volume on them by performance, language or context — “to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.”

You were a participant in Write Out Front at the Drama Bookshop. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most impressive, name three things you saw going on outside that really struck you, as a playwright, as most impressive. Will a play come out of any of those?
That’s going to be challenging for me because I was purposely trying not to notice things outside while I was writing in the window. I was trying to tune out, let my mind relax and un-focus so I could look inward to write. The things I remember are [R Culture director] Emily Lerer showing up with her family, and [actor] Carlo Alban stopping by. Those things were 10s because I remember them. The rest I was actively trying to block out.

That being said, a play did come out of that because I was working on one of the scenes that ended up staying in R Culture. The “Pope on a Rope” scene came out of that writing session, and it wasn’t anything that I saw on the street so much as having just had a conversation with my director that, so far in the play, we didn’t have any male survivors, and that one of the damaging stereotypes about rape is that it can’t happen to men. The scene deals with the Catholic Church and this amazingly modern new Pope, but I don’t want to say any more about the scene because then I’ll be giving away what happens.