Caitlin Smith Rapoport '06 tells stories to shed light on TheDownThere
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Monday, August 31, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Monday, August 31, 2020
On tour with a production in Norway in 2018, lighting designer Caitlin Smith Rapoport ‘06 had a health scare that ultimately led to a diagnosis of endometriosis, a painful disorder in which the tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus grows on the outside. Processing the news, Smith Rapoport thought about how much silence and shame there is regarding conditions involving ‘people’s downthere,’ to use her non-gendered catch-all term, and the way many are conditioned to disregard their health. Thus, when theater ground to a halt in March due to the pandemic, Smith Rapoport drew on the community she had once joined in the rehearsal room to create a new collaboration, a podcast called TheDownThere which she hopes will prompt conversation and reconsideration of how we think about bodies and health. The third episode of the podcast, which looks at the difference between top surgery and mastectomy, has just been posted, and you can listen to it on the website (scroll down to see the full slate of episodes so far) or wherever you listen to podcasts.
“I think a lot of non-men in general are socialized to ignore the signs that our bodies send us and we push through pain a lot,” she said. “There’s this commodification of being busy, and in fact too busy, and now is a great time to examine our relationship to self-care and our schedules and how we care for one another in these spaces.”
A storyteller at heart
While the podcast is a new medium for Smith Rapoport, it is not as huge a switch as might first seem.
“I had always been interested in lighting design, and I sort of fell in love with it at UMass. (Professor of Lighting Design) Penny Remsen really changed the way I thought about light and helped me see in a very fundamental way,” Smith Rapoport said.
In particular, Smith Rapoport learned to appreciate how design served storytelling.
“UMass is the first place I learned dramaturgy and what it means to be a storyteller. That’s always the question: what is the story?” she said, “because lighting design, if it exists in a vacuum, isn’t serving the story. It’s not about cool gear or your favorite colors, it’s about what serves the play. You figure out what you need to tell the story.”
Early 2020 found Smith Rapoport with an MFA in hand and a lighting design career in full swing, with four projects in the works, in both regional and New York theaters.
“My career in the before times: I was doing Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and regional and working pretty steadily. I had done my master’s at Yale School of Drama and I had just been building ever since,” she said. “I was really enjoying working on a lot of projects that I cared about, and being able to pick and choose a little bit more. Being in a place where the people you want to work with call you back is a nice place to be.”
When COVID hit, Smith Rapoport said, “One of the things I started to realize quickly … is how much I missed all of those people and how much I missed doing things with them, and it solidified my values around creativity and joy, and community.”
A personal story prompts a community
Meanwhile, Smith Rapoport had been sitting on the idea for the podcast for a year, but had not had the resources to execute it.
Smith Rapoport’s 2018 health scare began dramatically. She woke up one morning “in a pool of my own blood” and feeling like she’d been kicked by a horse. Miserable as she felt, she said to herself, “'Well, I have to get on a plane because we have a load-in,’ … so I got up and I went to work.”
She finally saw a doctor that summer on a different matter, but an examination revealed “pretty scary-looking ovarian cyst on my right side which was apparently wreaking some havoc.” During surgery to remove it, her physician found it was an endometrial cyst and diagnosed her with endometriosis.
“Before this moment I felt like I was someone who knew their body really well. I felt like I was taking care of myself, that I was exercising as much as I could, sleeping and eating as well as I could but really, I was ignoring so many alarm bells,” Smith Rapoport said. “And I felt guilt. I felt shame, that I could ignore myself for so long, this body that does so much for me. I felt like I gave myself endometriosis.”
She recognizes now that this isn’t necessarily true, but it got her thinking about a whole host of interconnected issues: about the loneliness, silence, and shame around reproductive health; about how we value work at the expense of our mental and physical well-being; about the importance of self-care and community within the theater industry.
“It needs to be OK to sleep, to take care of your children, to have a family. Let’s re-examine our values around this,” she said, noting also the need to give people space to recharge creatively instead of running the financial hamster wheel all the time.
Smith Rapoport’s training as a storyteller and her belief in the power of community kicked in. She started writing down questions and ideas, and she started talking to her community. There, she found people with stories to tell and collaborators to help her tell those stories. TheDownThere was born.
“As theater artists, we gather the threads of our society together and make art out of it. We have a lot of skill sets that go into what all of us do,” she said, noting that she found a sound designer, Kate Marvin, to help put the episodes together, and scenic designer Jean Kim to help with graphic design. Molly Hennighausen, a theater manager is the podcast producer.
What Smith Rapoport called her “storyteller roots” served her as she has learned to shape each episode and learned to write her script to weave all the stories together into bigger themes for each episode.
“The more I shared my experience, the more I found other people wanting to talk about what was going on with them — they just needed someone to go first,” Smith Rapoport said. “TheDownThere is about shedding shame. I feel like if we tell our stories, the shame can’t survive.” Smith Rapoport said that this central idea of the podcast was something she learned about from author and researcher Brené Brown.
As she spoke with people — people who have had mastectomies, are trans, have cervival cancer, have postpartum depression, who work in the insurance industry — she was often surprised how, even when those experiences differed from hers, there was something that resonated. She also realized there was much more she wanted to learn, about issues like reproductive justice and health at every size.
Smith Rapoport said she had doubts about being the podcast host. “I don’t necessarily think that people need to hear from another cis white lady about much right now,” she acknowledged. “But it’s not about me. I’m there as a catalyst for others to tell their stories.”
She also laughed about the humorous side of the work: “There’s a lot of sitting and talking to myself in a closet,” which serves as her recording booth.
Smith Rapoport’s hope is to keep interviewing and keep releasing episodes, possibly to create an online community, and she hopes her listeners are moved to action.
“My hope ultimately is that this spurs questions in listeners and that they will share their stories with their family, chosen family, and community and feel less alone,” she said.