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Saying No to Be Able to Say Yes

Stages of Resistance
A close up of Cecilia Copeland looking straight faced into the camera, dressed in black and wearing bright red lipstick.

This piece by Cecilia Copeland (pictured left: photo credit to Jody Christopherson) is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 
This salon welcomes reflections and articles on issues and themes related to making work for live performance in political and 
aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor and/or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this blog series hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and early April 2017.

It’s hard not to feel like a fraud as I write this piece. Currently, what is at the forefront of my mind is not creating my next play, but trying to sell a pilot to a network or finish my novel in the hopes of earning some cash in case shit goes sideways. That reality, one of danger, is new to me. I wish I could say it makes theater even more important, but I find myself less willing to go and see theater, because I’m reserving my funds, time, and energy to make sure if I need to use an exit strategy that I have the means to do so and to help others.

How can I justify doing theater when I fear I am a burden on those I love?

It is a hard question to answer truthfully and still write this piece. Right now, with the rise of antisemitism, a dear friend of mine said to me that I should hide my Star of David when I’m walking around, taking cabs, riding the subway. He worried it made me a target. Before now, I would have fought him on it, dismissed his worries, waved away his anxiety as overblown, but this time I did not. I said… “You’re right. I should.” There is no denying the rise in racist and antisemitic violence.

As a writer, there is only so much I can write in a day on one topic before my brain goes to mush. After that point I have to switch gears or the work I put out will be nonsensical. Given that, it follows that there is only so much I can do using my talent, connections, and craft in a day and there are hours left over in the day beyond that. In those hours, when I can no longer type the keys that lead me towards self-preservation and preservation of others, I can lend my mind and skills to support the creation of art as resistance. If I do so, then I will sleep better at night. I will pave the way for others to connect to a sense of purpose, which will help them to be strong and fight. Also, by engaging in community I keep myself connected to those who will be fighting with me.

Before now, I felt confident in my safety. I felt secure. Now, I do not and I see writing plays as a luxury that I don’t have the financial means to indulge. Others may not be in that position. However, I see supporting immediate, low maintenance theatre work, that creates a platform for marginalized voices as an act of defiance in the face of oppression. I believe curating a 50/50 lineup is being the change I want to see in the industry and the world. I see the immediacy of theater as a means to create something about what’s happening now, and get it up on its feet in front of an audience of people who are hungry for work that reflects this moment. Unlike films and TV, which can take years, it’s possible to write a quick piece of theater and have it up in front of an audience in a few days. Because of that, the work can be timely, relevant and political. It can also be an outlet for those who are suffering with the weight of oppression. It allows those who are disenfranchised to have a voice in the present tense when they need to feel like they are not shouting hopelessly into a void or crying muffled in the darkness unseen and unheard by the world.

The work my company New York Madness does is specifically suited to that. Our low budget approach allows us to give a platform to many artists, and because we don’t have to justify tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars spent it means we can allow unknown artists on our platform. Our nearly free ticket prices mean nearly anyone can come to the work. This year as an Artistic Director I have only written one play in the season and do not think I will write anything else for the theater in part because what I have to say is too big and complex for the medium and in part because my writing energy must go to work that will yield a paycheck as a priority and not as a secondary consideration, but I will continue to support, produce, attend, and invest in putting up politically relevant works by disenfranchised, unknown, emerging, and 50/50 lineup for the rest of the season.

I encourage other artists who feel they may not be able to produce their own theater works right now due to whatever reason, financial or emotional or otherwise, to spend their non-artistic energy supporting others who need their help. It is making a change in the world in a positive way. Theater of the voiceless, the marginalized, and the underrepresented is activism. By that same measure, theater that speaks against the system of oppression regardless of it is created by a person who fits the description of within that system is also activism.

Lastly, for those of us who cannot spend all our energy creating theater, because we must put energy into other areas because our world has become more dangerous, I ask that you allow us to do so with empathy for our situation. Let us say “no” if we can’t come to your show or do your reading. Understand, that when we say “yes” you can count on us and it means a lot for us to be participating. Respect our time and sacrifices, because we all have a much bigger fight on our hands. I’m not saying retreat from the work, but we need to preserve our strength so when we say yes we are able to be fully present. By saying no sometimes it will allow us to say yes to doing the work that has the most meaning and preserving something left of ourselves to fight tomorrow.