All-Girl Theater Company Cofounder Katie Cappiello on Giving Teen Girls a Voice and a Stage in Slut at FringeNYC

Cappiello and her young students speak out against “slut culture” at the New York International Fringe Festival with their newest play.

“We feel like theater is a powerful platform for kids to be heard,” said Katie Cappiello, cofounder of the All-Girl Theater Company, along with Meg McInerney, a fellow NYU Tisch graduate. With that intention, Cappiello and McInerney founded the All-Girl Theater Company in 2007 after deciding to pursue their common passion for teaching. The company offers girls aged 9 to 18 in the New York tristate area with intensive training in method-based acting technique as well as with opportunities to collaborate on original material.

This year, in their third trip to FringeNYC, the All-Girl Theater Company will introduce its newest and most provocative play to date, Slut, which addresses emotionally charged issues of sexual assault, teen-girl sexuality, and “slut culture” among today’s youth. Cappiello talked to TheaterMania about building this play from the ground up, seeing her teenage students transform throughout the creative process, and wiping the word “slut” from their vocabulary.

Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, cofounders of the All-Girl Theater Company.
Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, cofounders of the All-Girl Theater Company.

How did you and Meg McInerney start working together?
A mutual friend introduced us. He said, “You have all the same passions, you have all the same goals — you’ll love working together.” So we met, had a three-hour conversation, [and decided] to quit our jobs right there at that moment [to] start this company.

What inspired your interest in working with young girls?
We wanted to create something that we wished we had had when we were young girls, which is a space where we could comfortably be with our peers and talk openly and honestly about all the things we were thinking about but never really had the courage to say out loud [or] the tools to express.

Do you find that a lot of the girls who come to you are dealing with similar issues?
Oh yes. It’s interesting, we taught girls in Indonesia [last] summer, and we also spent some time in the Midwest working with girls there, and a lot of the core issues are the same: girls feeling like they’re not being heard, girls feeling like they have all this stuff they want to say but there’s really no platform for them to share it, and really no sense of community where they can share it safely and honestly and not be criticized for it or censored. It doesn’t seem to matter where we go or who comes to us. That seems to be the glue that ties all these girls together.

Can you see the girls change as they go through your class?
When they’re in class with us, it’s a safer space to say what [they] want to say and try it out and realize that it’s OK to speak [their] mind about certain things. It gives [them] the permission and the courage to do it on a larger platform. It gives them ownership over their opinions and their ideas. And like the girls say, “If I’m speaking up about an issue that I know is not popular in my school or among my group of friends, I know come every Sunday, I’ve got a group of girls that have my back, no matter what.”

Artwork courtesy of the production
Artwork courtesy of the production

Were the girls the ones who decided on the subject for this play?
Oh yeah, it’s all them… Now that they’re fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, the conversations revolve a lot around sex…and this word [slut] was coming up all the time. The way they would use it to not only degrade themselves but to degrade other girls…or [how it] was being used against them in order to make them feel bad about the fact that they were interested in their sexuality. They were really having a hard time navigating how to walk that line… We just thought it was such an interesting subject to explore, and it was the type of thing that had the girls in hysterics one minute and then in tears the next minute.

How does the writing process work? Do you write the script with the girls?
We start off without any writing at all… [It’s] ideas and a round circle, discussion about anything. Sometimes we sit and we talk for four hours. They’re allowed to say anything they want to say. They’re allowed to curse, they’re allowed to share the most intimate details of their life, whatever they want to share… It’s a place where they can bounce ideas off [one another]. We spend a couple months doing that, and then we start improvving around certain ideas. Then we let the girls free-write, and then we decide what our play’s going to be about. Meg and I start by typing as the girls are improvving, and then I start scripting scenes together. The whole goal is to create something in their voice around the subject matter that really matters to them.

“Slut” is a very provocative choice for a title. Whose decision was it to name the play that?
The group’s. We make those decisions together. I think we knew that this is what the title needed to be. [It] could’ve been…something softer or more generic. But that’s just not what the play is… The girls [have been] getting some flak about the title, and one of [them] said so brilliantly, “It’s amazing that someone can question the title but not question their use of the word.”

Are they nervous about performing such a personal play for their families?
No, actually. They’re pumped about that. From the get-go, we bring the parents in and start showing them what we’re working on and open it up to a conversation with [them]. They’re incredibly supportive, I think because they see their daughters’ growth through the process.

How do you hope people respond to the play?
We always tell the girls our goal is to entertain of course, but that’s not the main focus of what we do. It’s their job to risk and invent and put themselves out there so they’re creating something that speaks some kind of truth. I think a lot of times people put their own opinions on the teen-girl experience — especially the teen-girl sexual experience — because they don’t really understand what it is to live that. I think when people come see the play they’ll be very touched by the quality of work that the girls are bringing to the stage.

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Closed: August 25, 2013