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How Locked Up Bitches unleashed playwright Catya McMullen's creativity
"We wanted to throw the best party in town," says Catya McMullen about Locked Up Bitches, the hip-hop musical parody of Orange Is the New Black she wrote with composer Scott Allen Klopfenstein. Currently running at The Flea, the irreverent comedy features 25 members of the theatre's resident ensemble The Bats as warring cats and dogs at the Bitchfield Animal Shelter. Prancing around the stage in their canine noses and kitty ears, gleefully spouting McMullen's puns and singing her profanity-laced lyrics, the young performers are the epitome of party animals.
McMullen admits the show is a departure from her earlier, more serious plays, such as Rubber Ducks and Sunsets about friends coping with the suicide of a peer. "Locked Up Bitches was a way for me to blow off some steam," she says, but notes that "it incorporates so many parts of myself, many of which are underutilized in the rest of my work." For example, McMullen has loved rap since she was a little kid. In fact, when she's not writing plays, she performs as her humorous hip-hop alter ego Chihuahua Fancy. Yet beneath the silliness, McMullen insists that Locked Up Bitches offers "heart and substance, and a message."
The show began three years ago as part of the long-running Serials @ The Flea, a late-night short-play competition. The audience votes for their favorites, and the winning teams pen sequels for the next contest the following week.
Locked Up Bitches just kept on winning.
"Every week, I had 48 hours to write a new 15-minute hip-hop musical," McMullen recalls. "Sometimes we had three fully choreographed numbers in a single week! It was exhilarating." It was also exhausting. "After three months, I was ready to do other things."
But after a popular production of all the installments ran for a year at The PIT, McMullen and Klopfenstein were inspired to continue working and now they've brought the show back to The Flea where it began.
Locked Up Bitches hews fairly closely to the first season of Netflix's women's prison dramedy. The Piper Chapman character is renamed Pipsy who, with Dog Jason Biggs, sings, "we are cocker spaniels of the finest pedigree, we look down on the world from our West Village balcony, and our privilege neuters our curiosity." But when Pipsy takes off her collar, she's captured by Animal Control and ends up falling for a cat in Bitchfield.
"I'm not fanatical about Orange Is the New Black, but I do love it," says McMullen, "It's put queer and diverse stories in front of television." That was her goal for the musical as well. In it, Sofury "was born a dog but expressed her true self as a cat -- and is portrayed by a trans actor." Bald sphynxes Feelane and Pawsatucky are "cat supremacists," though we learn what prompted them to turn into dog haters.
McMullen also sees Locked Up Bitches as a showcase for women: 19 cast members identify as female. And though she concedes the copious cursing means "we're not for everybody," she views even the vulgarity as "subversive feminism. We're reappropriating the language to tell a story about strong women."
There's also an empowering message about inclusion and self-discovery, such as when Sofury tells Pipsy: "Pretty girl, sometimes the thing about you that you think is the most ugly is actually the most beautiful part of you." Granted, she's imparting this wisdom while wearing floppy ears, but the laughs can't drown out the sentiment. As McMullen says, "By writing about dogs and cats, I'm able to talk about people way more easily than if I was talking about them directly."
To read about a student's experience at Locked Up Bitches, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Emma Orme and Charly Dannis in Locked Up Bitches. Photos by Hunter Canning.
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