(New York Jewish Week) — The graffiti scrawled on public bathroom walls may not seem like the highest form of art. But for Jewish comedian and musician Caitlin Cook, a particular phrase she saw on a bathroom stall became the catalyst for a decade of creative inventiveness.
“Since writing on bathroom walls is neither for critical acclaim nor financial reward,” it read, “it is the purest form of art. Discuss.”
“I just knew that this was something I did want to discuss,” Cook told the New York Jewish Week. “I love art history, I love found art, and I loved the way that [graffiti] broke down the idea of what art is and can be. So, I started photographing bathroom graffiti all over the place.”
A few years later, Cook realized she could turn her extensive collection of found phrases into lyrics for songs. And then, after a few more years, she figured out a way to project the original bathroom images behind her as she sang her songs. The project then developed into a one-person musical, “The Writing on the Stall,” which is playing at the Soho Playhouse through Sept. 23. As implied by the title, the musical takes place entirely in a public bathroom; the song’ lyrics are almost entirely quotes from actual graffiti Cook found in restrooms across the globe.
“I think everyone has seen something funny or sad written in the bathroom stall when they’ve sat down,” said Cook, adding that the show “really hits this universal human experience.”
Cook, 33, who moved to New York in 2016, grew up in Los Angeles, where she was raised by her parents and grandparents in a culturally Jewish but atheist home. “Both my grandparents were from very large families who escaped Poland and Belarus and grew up very poor in the Jewish tenements and in the Bronx, then moved to L.A. and made something of themselves,” she said. “My grandma would always say, ‘We’re Jewish, it’s very important that you know that, but we don’t believe in God because [the Holocaust] happened.’”
“I think that was a very common attitude for Jews in L.A.,” she continued. “As a result, I never went to Hebrew school and sometimes I feel like I’m not Jewish enough to be Jewish. Then, other times, I feel I am very Jewish.”
Cook addresses her complicated Jewish identity head-on in “The Writing on the Stall.” Early in the musical — after the show opens with Cook sitting on a toilet, asking the audience for some toilet paper — she talks about being a “Jewish atheist,” and the seemingly inherent contradiction therein.
“I come from a wonderful, creative family that really prioritized education, intellectualism and thinking beyond the surface level of things,” she told the New York Jewish Week, “That search for deep meaning feels very inherent to the way I experience Jewish identity.”
To Cook, this Jewish instinct to sense a deeper message in something seemingly mundane is, essentially, how she came to find graffiti to be so profound in the first place. As an example, she cites a message — “Do what scares you, even if it’s everything” — she found in a stall. It became “part of my life philosophy,” Cook told the New York Jewish Week. “Putting myself outside of my comfort zone, exploring why I am the way that I am, dealing with fears and anxiety … of growing up as a Jewish person who’s always thinking beyond the surface level.”
The short musical (approximately 60 to 75 minutes, depending on audience participation) features songs like “The Difference,” which explores the types of graffiti found in men’s, women’s and non-gendered restrooms. “Girl, keep ya head up,” and “ Love like you’ve never been ghosted,” the women write, while men’s stalls feature lines like, “roses are tits, violets are tits,” and many, many drawings of genitalia.
Another song, called “Conversations With Strangers,” depicts the unique interactions created when strangers answer one another’s contributions to bathroom graffiti. “Follow ur dreams,” one person scratched into a stall. Below it, in Sharpie, someone answers, “I literally only have nightmares.”
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“There’s a song about confessional bathroom graffiti [in which] I confess some things about myself and get the audience to confess some secrets, while talking about how intimate bathrooms can be,” Cook said. “[The show also goes into] graffiti that bullies and the beautiful, poetic, sad, wonderful things that people have written.”
Cook, whose previous credits include New York Comedy Festival and SF Sketchfest, alongside iconic venues like The Comedy Cellar, crafted this version of “The Writing on the Stall” with the aid of two chief collaborators: Director A.J. Holmes, best known for his performance as Elder Cunningham in “The Book of Mormon,” and Ali Gordon, actor and alumna of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade.
Cook and Holmes met at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the two were performing at nearby theaters. (Cook was performing an earlier version of “The Writing on the Stall.”) “My immediate impression was that the songs crush,” Holmes told the New York Jewish Week.
The duo brought Gordon on board, and they developed “The Writing on the Stall” so it touches on a larger message about finding beauty and meaning in the everyday.
“It feels like everyone wants to hide in the friggin’ bathroom right now,” Gordon said. “Whether it’s on a political level or a personal level, everything has become too much of a mess, the desire to bury our heads in the sand is stronger than ever.”
“In the show, that’s what we find our hero doing — hiding from the party outside,” she continued. “But the audience gets to see how she finds her way out … instead of staying in a shame spiral and beating herself up, she finds beauty in the darkest corners. She uses that to shine a light for the rest of us.”
Cook agrees. “It’s a show about shared humanity and finding meaning in unexpected places,” she said. “It’s about sharing vulnerable stories and connecting with strangers unexpectedly, whether it’s writing something in conversation on the wall of a bathroom, or meeting in a bathroom line, or just sharing a little bit about who you are with someone at a bar.”
“The Writing on the Stall” can be silly or salacious at times, but amid the projected images of crude drawings of genitals and cheery, if oversimplified, “you go, girl!” scrawls, Cook is trying to find answers to life’s big questions. She’s inviting audiences to connect with themselves and with one another by reaching out past the edge of the stage. She’s interested in who she is, certainly, but also in who we are to each other as members of a society that so often seems torn beyond repair.
“The Writing on the Stall” is playing at Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam St.) Wednesdays through Saturdays through Sept. 23. Click here for tickets and info.