There’s not a whole lot of downtime for Cindy Cooper, award-winning playwright, journalist and author. So far she’s written 14 full-length plays and a number of non-fiction books. As a journalist, Cindy writes frequently about social justice and human rights, her articles appearing in dozens of newspapers, magazines, websites and anthologies. Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about!
Sandi: Welcome to another edition of The 51%, Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. A personal thought from award winning playwright, journalist, author Cindy Cooper: “I don’t know if it’s possible to change the world with words, but I believe that it’s worth giving it a try.” Well, my guest today has done more than try –an overview – So far in her career Cindy has written fourteen full length plays including: How She Played the Game, about six women from sports history; Silence Not, a love story about a Jewish woman and catholic man who raised their voices against the rise of Nazism and lived to tell about it; and most recently, Stones of Tiananmen, which looks at how China’s jailed Nobel Peace laureate deals with the limits of freedom of speech and his own conscious in the years following the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Her `[00:01:12 ] also includes more than twenty one-act plays. Cindy is the author of several non-fiction books including Cheating Justice, how Bush and Cheney attacked the rule of law and Mockery of Justice, the true story of the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case. As a journalist she writes frequently about social justice and human rights and her articles have appeared just about everywhere and then some; among them, The Nation, Ms. Marie Clare, and The National Law Journal. Cindy is a member of the Dramatist Guild’s Women’s Initiative, The Author’s Guild, serves on several non-profit boards, volunteers for social justice causes and teaches strategic communications at Columbia University. A cum laude graduate of Cleveland State University, Cindy has a law degree from Emery University and that’s it, Cindy. Welcome, and thanks for joining me today.
Cindy: Thank you. Sounds like someone else.
Sandi: [Laughing] Well, it’s you. When did you realize you had a lot to say?
Cindy: I think I felt compelled to write at a very young age. Mostly because my siblings went off to school and I was left home alone, so the only way I could communicate was I’d sit in a corner and write.
Sandi: And what did you write about back then?
Cindy: I don’t remember that early, but I remember around, when I was around eleven or twelve, my older brother brought home a mimeograph machine that was discarded by his fraternity, he was quite a bit older, he was in college then. So, I quickly turned this into a neighborhood newspaper. What I started going around interviewing people and talking to them and printing it, writing my stories, printing it, and then distributing it door to door. So, I just wanted to communicate at that very young age and became dedicated to it. Sometimes I look back and I was in a playwriting workshop one time that I was leading, and I was doing a pairing with someone and she was asking me about her character and the question she asked was what did you want to do when you were young? I said, I wanted to be a writer, and here I was, so it was pretty amazing.
Sandi: It’s fascinating. Writing was obviously something that you could do, and I guess you knew you could do it.
Cindy: I think early on from teachers, I remember my sixth grade teacher telling me to dedicate my first novel to her. I haven’t really written a novel so I dedicated a non-fiction book.
Sandi: I was going to say, did you get off the hook.
Sandi: But what’s interesting is that you had this infinity for writing, but then of course I read that you went to Cleveland State University where you majored in Urban Studies. What does that have to do with writing?
Cindy: I was at Cleveland State University, they didn’t actually have, it was a brand new University, and I was going to night school. I was working at a newspaper in the day.
Cindy: And they actually didn’t have a journalism program.
Sandi: But did you need a journalism program if you were already getting paid for doing that?
Cindy: I did my first year at the University of Missouri, I thought, but I found out you couldn’t get into the journalism program till the third year. I don’t knock journalism programs, but I think finding out everything you can about the world and cultivating curiosity is equally as important and so, Urban Studies was a wonderful program because we studied economics, we studied social issues, we studied the environment.
Sandi: You covered a lot of territory.
Cindy: Each as equal components, you had to complete all those components. I was working at an urban newspaper so it really helped my journalism as well.
Sandi: What did you do for the newspaper?
Cindy: I was a reporter. We were assigned communities. Although I’m white, this was an African American newspaper and I was the only white reporter, but I covered Hough, which was a ghetto area in Collinwood. We were assigned areas so I just covered everything in that area from the opening of a community center to I did a story that won a little award about the old houses in Hough that had been maintained and built up by the community and things that community board was doing, a wonderful community center and anti-drug program, and there was just a lot going on.
Sandi: You kind of did this on your own, didn’t you?
Cindy: Well, everybody built on a community of other people. I can’t say that I did anything, really, on my own,
Sandi: Well, could I go to a newspaper and say hire me?
Cindy: It does take a lot of determination and drive and in fact, when I first went there, they didn’t hire me because they didn’t think I was dressed appropriately for the community. I was wearing jeans.
Cindy: So I came back in a dress and I wore a skirt or a dress every day because they felt that was more appropriate for the community. I was determined to work there, I really wanted to do it. I loved the idea that; I wrote seven hundred stories there I think.
Cindy: I loved the idea that we were expected to have this really high output. We took our own pictures as well.
Sandi: Did you do your own stories or were you assigned stories back then?
Sandi; Mm Hmm
Cindy: And we were asked to come up with enterprise stories as well and I did another one that won a little award about black on black crime. Something we didn’t really talk about, but looking at that, parts of the community came in and went through all the crime statistics and another I did, that I just happened to find, was at the women’s workhouse, the inferior conditions really at the women’s workhouse; where they didn’t have working bathrooms, it was really pathetic, and that was maybe my first little inkling that you could make a change through writing. After, they were upset and they started to do some modifications.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Now, how did you go from there to Emery Law School and why?
Cindy: That’s the other thing, I always had this strain of activism and there wasn’t really a model for a journalist activist that I knew of. So I felt like I either had to be a journalist or an activist and I had been covering some things in the courts, the federal courts, civil rights laws, and I had a wonderful Constitutional Law professor, and who had actually argued cases in the US Supreme Court on criminal law and I just was really fascinated by that whole area so I decided I was going to go to law school and I thought at the time I would be a lawyer, I would be a constitutional lawyer like my professor.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: Just kept moving in that direction for a little while.
Sandi: But you never really practiced, did you?
Cindy: I practiced for a couple of years, right after law school, I talked to some journalism organizations and actually, I talked to probably the only existing network journalists at the time and he said you need to practice because it’s so different from law school.
Cindy: That wasn’t really why. I got a scholarship, I got a community fellowship called the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship. They sent you somewhere, they sent me to Minnesota, to work for a legal services organization which is, in Minnesota meant civil law. In some places it means criminal, but civil law, so I did practice there. I started a couple of programs, it was, because they didn’t have to pay my salary I had a little more latitude than some of the staff lawyers; so I started a program for women at a women’s center called Legal Assistance for Women, or LAW, and I started another program at legal services, and both of these still exist, called Community Legal Education. That’s where I started bringing the journalism back because as I started talking to our clients I realized they knew so little and they didn’t even come with the right papers.
Cindy: There was no, there was no information for them. There was just, you know, there was a phone answering system but there just was, until they got to the office, there was nothing for them.
Sandi: Mm Hmm.
Cindy: It was before there were websites, there weren’t even regular publishers really publishing information for
Sandi: So, you saw this real need here.
Cindy: Right. So, I proposed that we start this community program where we start publishing materials about the laws. We published several books called, they were called People’s Rights, it was People’s Rights and Housing Laws, so how to deal with your landlord; things that people might be able to do on their own. Some of them were things like, if you’re coming in for an appointment about family law, this is what you need to bring. Just to facilitate their process.
Cindy: And then we also had a series of community organizers and we went out to the community and talked about, gave lectures about landlord/tenant laws
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: Or welfare, making an appeal on a welfare case, or section 8, and just trying to get the community to help each other and help themselves as much as they could without abreacting our own duties as lawyers.
Sandi: And that sort of morphed into more journalism for you.
Cindy: Right. Exactly.
Sandi: So, then came articles and books,
Sandi: Give us the genesis of the Bush/Cheney [Laughing] book.
Cindy: The Bush/Cheney bool. Well, that is actually follows another book called the Impeachment of George W. Bush, which I co-wrote with Elizabeth Holtzman and the same thing with Cheating Justice. So, a President cannot be prosecuted while, I can say he because there hasn’t been a woman president,
Cindy: while he is in office, but after he is in office, a president can be prosecuted. There’s never actually been a case, but Nixon was an unindicted co-conspirator.
Sandi: Right. Um Hmm
Cindy: So that’s the precedent. So, we wanted to look at what could he actually be prosecuted for? Just so that no one could say there wasn’t as possibility of it, then we had to live up to our responsibilities as citizens.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: Or as a government. Why were we not taking action? One curious thing is after we started writing the book we found out that Bush and Cheney had done a number of things to protect themselves from prosecution. So, they were quite
Cindy: Aware that they were transgressing the law in a number of areas and took active steps inserting little teeny additions to laws that you had to read through, that was added to Law A, but it applied to Law B and Law B applied to Law C
Sandi: So, the average Joe would be clueless about all of this stuff.
Cindy: Exactly. I think, more than the average Joe, I mean Congress was clueless.
Sandi: Well. [Laughing] Let’s not even go there.
Cindy: [Laughing] So, it was just an effort to look at what could be done and the thing is, I was able I guess, to draw upon my legal background because a lot of that I consider to be translating for
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: a lay public, although this is also quite thick I guess, but translating what the law says, what the history is, what the precedent is, and then applying it to this area of Bush and Cheney and whether they had broken the law.
Cindy: They did break the law in a number of areas. They also passed laws to protect themselves from being prosecuted.
Sandi: So, your book is out here, but they’re completely home free.
Cindy: Well, there was just this weekend, a decision from the European Court of Human Rights that the Bush/Cheney regime had engaged in torture as defined legally. So, we looked at several areas; we looked at electronic surveillance and now we see that so much of what had been done under Bush, which was carried on by Obama is coming to light. We looked at torture, and that, it seemed obvious that the United States was engaged in torture and yet there was this unwillingness to look at what the United States had done and it’s not just waterboarding, it’s a series of actions that were approved by our own government including putting somebody in a small box where they had to crouch, a television box, putting them in a box for days with a bug that would freak them out.
Cindy: So there where this whole lie about that. Another area we looked at was lying to congress about the need for war.
Sandi: In Iraq. Mm Hmm
Cindy: Exactly. So that has come more to light, so I think, maybe, there’s a hope that as a country we will learn some lessons. We will improve our democratic system or at least have our eyes a little bit more open the next time around.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: So, I won‘t say nothing has happened, but at least, we have some markers to look at.
Sandi: Got you. If you are just joining us, my guest today is Cindy Cooper, who is a journalist, author and playwright. You know, Cindy, it’s one thing to write articles, it’s another thing to research and write books, but plays; isn’t that just a whole other ballgame? And just as an aside, a bunch of years ago, I had a show on public radio and one of my guests was Wendy Wasserstein with Christopher Durang and Paul Rudd. The conversation was getting a little too inside baseball at one point, and finally I just looked at Wendy and I asked her, how do you write a play?
Cindy: Good question. The first thing is you have to sit down.
Sandi: [Laughing] Nobody likes a smart ass.
Cindy: [Laughing] No. I think, I had worked in television a bit, and so that gave me an idea about how to visualize stories.
Sandi: Television journalism?
Cindy: I was taking, I decided to take a year off and I started exploring play writing and it was very exciting to me because to get people in a room to be live with them, to see I think, theater offers, unlike any other form of communication, a possibility for people to transform. It reaches them at an emotional level and an intellectual level, so you’re reaching the heart and the mind, you’re
Sandi: So, it’s visceral.
Cindy: Yes. People bring their own experiences to the theater. So, they’re thinking while they’re watching. They’re engaged, they’re crying, they’re laughing.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: So it has a possibility to create a tsunami.
Cindy: Because it changes people internally, and that’s been one of my big questions, is how do you get someone to change? Through so many of these, through so many of the things I’ve researched it’s so hard. People when you show them, ABCD are all wrong, they’re flawed, they’re illegal; they will stick by them.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: But through the theater, when people experience the human side of the story and that’s what I’ve tried to focus on, the human side of the story.
Sandi: So, it’s transformative for somebody in the audience.
Cindy: A lot of people want to be engaged, they want to expand their thinking and the theater is a way to do that.
Sandi: So, what was your first play?
Cindy: My first play was called Dirty Laundry.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: It was about several people at a laundromat and there was a, someone who was committing a sexual impropriety, a slasher, the lights would go out. It was my first play so it had lots of flaws, all plays have lots of flaws but it had more; but it was an effort to talk about the criminalization of sexual behavior when it’s appropriate and when inappropriate and like a lot of things I write, they also talk about reconciliation and forgiveness which is something we don’t get a lot through our journalism.
Sandi: Did it come easily to you to sit down and write a play? Did it flow?
Cindy: It was very exciting to me and I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but the first play I wrote won an award and I got a fellowship.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: Which was renewed for a second year. It, fortunately or unfortunately, encouraged me to continue this process which is extraordinarily difficult, but I wouldn’t say it came easy because nothing comes easy, but it came with a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy.
Sandi: And commitment.
Cindy: And commitment, because it’s so, it’s so rich. I mean, you’re working along and then you’re working in collaboration. One of the things about journalism, is you’re working alone almost all the time.
Sandi: Right. Now, you said, this is a quote; “In the theater the audience is everything to me. I strive to touch the audience, to enrich them with the opportunity to see things differently, with stylized realism my plays, comic and traumatic, are about society. Women overcoming obstacles and finding transformation.” Expound on that.
Cindy: Let me start with the audience because the audience is one thing that probably unites all of my writing and also the teaching that I do at Columbia is to understand where people are and what they need to know and then how to communicate that to them. So, that’s why I consider writing, in a way, to be a little bit of translation.
Cindy: It’s like taking in tons and tons of information and then finding a way to communicate it to people in a way that the target group can understand it.
Sandi: So, digesting it.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: Making it interesting.
Cindy; I think of theater as the same way. So, it’s kind of trying to understand what people know and they don’t know and how to make that into a story that filters through characters. I tend to focus, not always, but I do tend to focus on topics that haven’t been addressed whether it’s writing for women performers who don’t normally get roles.
Cindy: Sometimes they are pieces that are leftovers from something else I’ve worked on. I have a little short play that’s performed a lot that’s about the death penalty and it’s a woman lawyer who’s talking to the mother of a victim and it is, I hope, it gives people some emotional content. It also might give them some information about the death penalty and also a little possibility for rethinking things. That transformation.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: I just recently interviewed two women, one of whom is a director, the other is an actress involved in this play Life without Parole, its testimonies and transcripts from inmates at the California Institution for Women at Chino who were convicted of killing their abusive partners. Now, somebody may say, why do I need to go see this, to me this would be just riveting theater, and to hear from an underserved population and from people who don’t usually have a voice; so my guess is that you’re giving voices to certain groups.
Cindy: To certain groups and to certain ideas as well. One of the things that theater can do is it can have a ripple effect, hopefully. So those women that are in prison under those circumstances are definitely, they’re people for example that I’ve written about in journalism. Their voices are definitely not heard. They’re probably some of the most oppressed people in the country because they’re a minority within a minority within a minority, in the prison system, they’re such a miniscule part of it that they’re really ignored within the prison system. So, one story that I wrote, which was like a year long investigation, was women in prison with breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer, just a question of how do they get treatment. Women’s health needs in prison are very different from men’s health needs, but men are the standard in prison.
Cindy: As in the military.
Sandi: Women are almost an afterthought.
Cindy: Yeah. Absolutely.
Sandi: I want to pick up on something that you said; but you’re a minority aren’t you? Because there are not very many women playwrights.
Cindy: Well, I think the name of this show is 51%, so
Cindy: There are many women playwrights, the problem is that we have been under represented in the theater. 40% or more of the dramatic skills are women, but 20% of the new productions are by women by the most serious calculations; probably, maybe, less and very few at the upper echelons. So, we’re a minority in terms of the public presentation and public face of theater.
Cindy: We’re not a minority of the people who are working in theater and women are a majority of the audience, so there’s a real disparity and disconnect within the theater world.
Sandi: Doesn’t that make you crazy? Its 2014, why is this part of the discussion? Change this.
Cindy: Right. I’ve been involved in the struggle too. I incorporate more women in theater since I’ve started. One of my very first things that I did was put together a women’s play earning conference, this was in Minnesota. I think there
Sandi: That’s the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, right?
Cindy: The Guthrie Theater actually, I hate to say this, has a terrible record right now on women; They produce an entire season with no women, so hopefully there’s some, there will be some change happening there in the future, but the major theaters at that level have been not very accommodating to women, so where women are represented it’s at the smaller theaters and the independent venues. I think there are two things, two or three things that happen. One is, where you have seen change happen for women and other, people of color and other minorities, it’s been because a law has pushed them. There have been equal opportunity laws and affirmative action laws that have forced institutions to make change. There isn’t one that applies to the theater because it’s left to independent decision making, artistic decision. So there hasn’t been that kind of pressure that there has been in other areas. The second thing is, I think there was a trajectory of change happening, slow, but things were moving forward but I think things got stuck around 2001 and we became a very masculine oriented society, we also had George Bush who was actively defunding programs that helped women – whether it was in domestic violence, whether it was contracts for women – but there was an antipathy towards women and women’s issues that filtered down from the top at the same time that we were engaged in these massive war actions around the world that heightened the male role.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: The traditional male warrior role. That filtered down through society, so things stopped around that time. That growth stopped, and it’s not just playwrights, it’s in every area of the arts; women visual artists, it’s composers, it’s all kinds of people that are affected by these cultural attitudes, so it’s frustrating. I think often, in a lot of links and hues, what happens to a dream deferred; there are generations of women who, in the theater, in music, who haven’t had the opportunity to reach their full potential. Now there’s groups coming behind them who have been equalized in school and suddenly are pushed into the real world where they don’t have those laws to protect them and are suddenly finding that they’re drowning. The change, I think, is going to be slow and it’s going to take a lot of awareness building. Most people aren’t really aware of playwrights or what they do.
Cindy: Or even that they exist.
Sandi: Or that there’s a problem. Maybe people don’t even think twice about the fact that this play was not written by a woman or not directed by a woman and then there’s the whole other issue of roles for women as well.
Cindy: It makes me want to change it, so I think change comes from dissatisfaction. I don’t really understand it. When I came to the theater I’d already been a journalist and a lawyer, and immediately I was like, I don’t understand why there aren’t more women.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: That are acting, being produced, my little group of Gerome fellows, there were two of us. I remember talking to the Gerome Foundation about why they weren’t doing more and they were like, it’ll happen over time. But it hasn’t happened. There needs to be more thoughtful considerate efforts to give women opportunities. I know there’s a lot of talk about equal pay and I like to go to some of these equal pay forums and say but what about equal opportunities?
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: Where it’s not even an issue of pay.
Sandi: You have to get to that point.
Cindy: Yeah. I mean, in the theater, nobody’s being paid a lot. Nobody, there are very few people who are getting wealthy, it’s not just about the pay, it’s about the opportunities to get our voices out, to be a part of the cultural discussion. I mean, what the theater has done in some areas, for example, with AIDS. HIV/AIDS,
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: The theater was a major player in changing the cultural attitudes.
Sandi: Because it got hit very hard by this disease.
Cindy: It got hit very hard and there were a number of people who were given funding, who were given venues to present theater, whether it’s Angels in America, or The Normal Heart.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: You could list, you could give a long list. There has been nothing like that that applies to the human rights of women in the US or around the world. So that level of consciousness has been missing from the theater, you know, we tend to think of theater people as liberal, but they haven’t really paid attention to how women are effected and how the theater can then pay back. Can affect the culture.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Cindy: That’s where my frustration comes. I’m not just about equalizing opportunities, but I’m about enhancing the voices of women so that we can achieve full human rights for women in the US and around the world. That’s been the one thing that probably unites all my work.
Sandi: We’re so grateful for you to have a voice.
Cindy: Thank you for giving me a voice.
Sandi: It was really great to get to know you, and cover all this territory. Cindy, I love that quote and I think it works.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to change the world with words”, but you sure as hell have tried and we’re grateful to you for that.
Cindy: Thank you.
Sandi: Join us again for another edition of the 51% Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. For show comments and suggestions please follow us on Twitter at #sandikleinshow. You can also find us on Facebook at The 51% Conversations. The show is produced and recorded by Chad Dougatz at the Hangar Studios in New York City. Sandi Klein is our executive producer.