Before their play premiere Off-Broadway, Liliana Padilla was taking a self-defense workshop, on what to do if they were ever threatened. It was being taught at the Center for Anti-Violence Education, and Padilla recalls their instructor telling them that in the event of an attack, anything they had on them could be used as a weapon. Padilla recalls walking down the street after the workshop with a heightened sense of vigilance. “I noticed myself holding, like, my water bottle in a different way when walking around,” they recall to Playbill. “Not like I wanted to attack anyone, but I wanted to be ready in case anyone came at me. And that's interesting. I had not experienced that before.”
That same advice—“Anything can be a weapon”—is in their play How to Defend Yourself, currently running through April 2 at New York Theatre Workshop. They first wrote the play in 2016, right before the #MeToo movement that heightened public awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in America. For Padilla, who is also a survivor of sexual assault, How to Defend Yourself was a way for them to process their own complicated feelings about their own body and their own sexuality following the attack.
“I wrote it from a place of having held stories of assault in my own body for so long and not feeling like any piece of media was holding them with complexity,” says Padilla. To them, most stories about assault were an “overly simplistic” narrative where the villains and the victims were clear-cut. By contrast, How to Defend Yourself, is about a group of college students taking a self-defense class, while processing their friend’s brutal rape.
The class also brings up their own conflicting feelings around the topic—what is it to live in a world where sexual assault is so prevalent, but to still have sexual desire. And what consent is, whether it is always clear, and if asking for that clarity is even actually possible (or does it ruin the mood?). So, on a macro scale, How to Defend Yourself isn’t about trauma. Instead, it’s about how an act of violence reverberates across an entire community. It’s a knotty 100 minutes, but Padilla intended it to be.
“I wanted something that my 17-year-old self could witness and feel really witnessed by, in terms of all of the different emotional responses that I was carrying post assault, and those things feeling so potentially in contradiction,” explains Padilla. “Fear, but also intense desire. Anger. Shame. So, I think the play is really trying to be a vessel for that young person, i.e. myself, and for all the different experiences that were flowing through me.”
With How to Defend Yourself, Padilla is making their Off-Broadway debut, and 51 blocks uptown, so is Emily Feldman. Feldman is also young and also exploring sexual harassment through her play The Best We Could, currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club through March 26.
And like How to Defend Yourself, The Best We Could is not the story of a victim who is harassed, nor is it about trauma. Instead, it’s also interested in how that act of violation affects an entire community—in this case, the family of the perpetrator. In The Best We Could, Ella goes on a road trip with her father, Lou. They are both unemployed and listless, and along the way, it’s discovered that the reason that Lou can’t get a new job is because he sexually harassed his staff member. For Feldman, it was her way of exploring how sexual harassment is linked to something that affects everyone: the patriarchy.
“I think the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in our culture doesn't just stop at the act that is perpetuated on a ‘victim,’” she explains, “That issue isn’t separate from other forms of misogyny, or the way that a generalized patriarchal culture impacts anyone who's marginalized in any way.”
But in the play, Feldman takes her time letting the audience get to know Lou, played by the NYC theatre scene’s favorite sensitive dad, Frank Wood. She ensures that they adore him. Then Feldman pulls the rug out from under everyone in the latter half of the play with the dark revelation. It’s Willy Loman-esque—and Feldman admits she was inspired by Death of a Salesman (with a bit of Our Town thrown in for good measure). By having the play structured in that way, it’s not to make the audience sympathize with the perpetrator. Instead, it’s to ask the question: what do we as a culture do with problematic people? What happens after cancellation?
Feldman has no answers, and that’s why there’s a play: “I write to figure things out. I certainly don't have any answers to offer anybody…But I do know that we're all wrestling with something. And so I think just the experience of wrestling is worthwhile.”
Similarly for Padilla, the students in How to Defend Yourself are taught ways that they can defend themselves if they were ever in a dangerous situation. But the point of the play isn’t to tell people that self-defense is the solution to assault. In fact, the play questions whether such actions are even effective or if they’re a way to put the onus (and blame) on victims rather than doing the tougher work of changing the culture so people don’t need to defend themselves.
“It's part of that illusion of control, like, if I was stronger, if I had done something different. Ultimately, if we can blame ourselves, then the universe isn't as dangerous, right?” Padilla posits. “But that's not true. Things are out of our control. How can we change it?” They sigh, before exclaiming, “I don't fully know.” At the same time, they do know what they want audiences to feel after seeing How to Defend Yourself: “I think the play hopes for a more collective engagement, in creating a world where people don't have to defend themselves.”
Another thing these two plays have in common: balloons. In a charming coincidence, at a crucial moment in both plays, balloons fall from the ceiling. You might think that #MeToo and balloons are too discordant to be placed next to each other, and Feldman chuckled in delight when this similarity was pointed out to her. For Feldman, who was also inspired by Our Town, which places comedy and human foibles next to each other, it keeps The Best We Could from feeling too bleak. “There are laughs all the way through, which I kind of think is wonderful,” says Feldman, “Because that's my experience of life—sometimes in moments of great grief, we have a really wonderful laugh.”
This year, one of the Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards was Sarah Polley's film Women Talking, which centered not around an act of rape, but the aftermath of how that violence affected an entire community and how the community moves forward. After the initial discovery of #MeToo, and the forefronting of personal stories about assault, the cultural conversation now seems to be shifting on what do we, the collective we, do now. And an apt place to have those collective conversations is in a theatre—it’s reflected in the ambition and complexity of plays like How to Defend Yourself and The Best We Could.
“That moment in 2017, when the omnipresence of sexual assault became a major topic of conversation, it was a pivot point for some really necessary adaptations. And we're still in the messy middle of an evolution cycle,” says Feldman. “Or maybe it always feels that way to every generation. But it makes a lot of sense to me that artists are wanting to put a time stamp on their experience of this moment, are trying to digest it in whatever way.”
For Padilla’s part, they see a ray of light at the end of this long, uncertain tunnel, saying, “I really hope that ultimately leads to greater freedom for all. If we learn really how to feel our own bodies, and how to respect the bodies of others, my hope is on the other side of that, there's so much more liberation and expression.”