“A PLAY IS ALWAYS a reflection of the author’s guts,” according to Liliana Padilla, whose breakout drama, How to Defend Yourself, takes place in a self-defense class and deals with the aftermath of a college campus rape. Defend won the 2019 Yale Drama Series Prize and received joint world premieres directed by Marti Lyons: at the 2019 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.), and the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in early 2020.

Padilla deftly manages the political and emotional nerves surrounding the play’s premise, delivering nuance, nimble pacing, and a tone that emphasizes transformation over blame.

“I think we must consider and look at the pain and the violence,” explained Padilla. “And I mean that beyond ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator.’ I am so sick of those scripts. This is something that is collectively held and therefore can be collectively transformed.”

Playwright Liliana Padilla takes notes during rehearsal of How to Defend Yourself at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Playwright Liliana Padilla takes notes during rehearsal of How to Defend Yourself at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo courtesy of Liliana Padilla.

While Defend explores underlying social forces that help normalize and eroticize male violence against women, the term “rape culture” never shows up explicitly in the script. Padilla defines that term as “the systemic belief that you need to dominate another being in order to have power. That core belief spirals into different behaviors that create the conditions for violence. I hope that’s what Defend expresses: that violence has a reverb everywhere … to the person who commits the act of violence, to the person who receives, to the entire community.”


Defend was supported by a collective of people from my life: my friendships, my partner and first reader, and all the people I’ve built the play with,” said Padilla, whose preference for the pronouns they/them/theirs underscores their collaborative approach to dramatic creation as well as their nonbinary experience of gender.

Padilla insists that Defend, though situationally fictional, is nevertheless a true story, one shared by Padilla, their mentors and friends, the cast, and the audience. “I didn’t take a self-defense class in college. I was never in a sorority, but did I want to belong? Absolutely. I never witnessed a friend hospitalized after a rape. But did I know a ‘girl in the hospital’? Was I a ‘girl in the hospital’ — in a metaphoric state of quiet emergency? Yes.” Notably, Defend’s rape survivor literally loses her voice due to a broken jaw. Before and while writing this play, Padilla said, “I spent a lot of time dissociated, feeling I couldn’t speak or even think, all while appearing perfectly functional.”

Padilla began writing Defend in 2016 — about a year before sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein surged the Me Too movement into the mainstream — while attending graduate school for playwriting at University of California San Diego. Faculty member Deborah Stein gave Padilla the prompt of writing a political play. “At one point,” said Padilla, “I told her, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this play [about rape] or this other, slightly surreal play about capitalism, because I think the other one actually makes me angrier.’”

Padilla continued, “Deborah Stein just looked at me across her desk and said, ‘The other one makes you angrier?’ And I said, ‘No. I’m …’ And I started crying. I said, ‘I’m just so scared. I don’t know that I can handle it.’ And she said, ‘I respect that. Only you can truly know that. … But I don’t think the other one makes you angrier.’ I thought, ‘OK, fair.’”


When Padilla discusses their background with people who know the play, Defend characters prove a useful taxonomy. For example, Padilla, who describes themself as Latinx and Asian, behaved in high school much like the Defend character Mojdeh, a young Iranian American woman whose self-concept is marred by her desire to belong to and feel beautiful in a white-dominated social scene.

“I spent hours straightening my hair and developing eating disorders, because I wanted to look like the cute, skinny, white girls who were powerful at my school,” Padilla said. “I deeply internalized the narrative that something was wrong with me, as opposed to, no, something’s wrong with the culture that elevates a certain kind of beauty and manipulates that image to have capital power.”

Though they quietly glorified the cheerleading squad, Padilla instead took a chance on high school theatre. When Padilla transferred to the Coronado School of the Arts, home of Thespian Troupe 1765, the school was doing the musical The Boy Friend.

“I didn’t get in The Boy Friend. So our director said, ‘Your backup option is Rep Group, which is you write for each other and put on plays.’ And I thought, ‘God, I really want to be in The Boy Friend.’ I just wanted to be in a musical, oh, my god. Also having stuff around gender and queerness come up for me … like ‘I’m not good at being a girl. I’m not in The Boy Friend.’”

Rep Group provided Padilla their first opportunity to write and direct at age 16. “I was writing plays for my friends, which for me is the core. That started in high school, when I wrote with Rep Group. That was transformative and beautiful and scary.”

Padilla went on to study their senior year of high school at North Carolina School of the Arts, a boarding school experience Padilla described as beautiful and intense but at times also stifling and separating. “They were like, ‘Here’s who you need to be. Here’s how you market yourself. You’re Latina, sing this [Diana Morales] song from A Chorus Line.’ No regard to your actual vocal range. ‘Do this monologue that has nothing to do with your soul or anything you’re connected to. But it’s the only thing I know for someone who looks like you.’”

Padilla continued, “I think that line in Defend, ‘There’s a part of you no one can touch,’ that came to me from boarding school. You hear something inside of you, ‘Lily, there’s a part of you no one can touch. There is a core.’ And that gave me strength.”

The cast of How to Defend Yourself at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
The cast of How to Defend Yourself at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Crystal Ludwick.


Although they endured numerous nonconsensual sexual experiences, Padilla’s capital “R” Rape, as they put it, occurred when they were 17, the summer after high school graduation. “I was between boarding school for acting and NYU for acting. I wanted to be in musicals, that was my dream. I loved singing, and I loved performing, and I was this vital human being. Then that happened, and it took my voice away. Suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not a good singer. I’m not a good actor. I definitely can’t direct, because, oh, my god, I don’t want to tell people what to do. I have no authority.’”

In some ways, their response resembled that of Defend character Nikki, who begins the play largely in denial about her assault. “I have lived with this play in my body, with my survivorhood, for a decade before writing it,” Padilla said, “going through the complexity of, ‘No, no, I’m just being dramatic. That wasn’t rape. I choose for that to not be rape.’ Then obviously also wanting to be a sexual being, wanting to connect, to be in my body.”

At times, Padilla tried to believe that they could have controlled the situation, as Defend’s self-defense teacher character Brandi, the sorority sister of the play’s rape survivor, somewhat fanatically insists. They also experienced feelings confounding disgust and desire, as echoed in the character Kara’s fantasies. “Speaking for myself, I hold so many conflicting desires because of the violent world I live in,” Padilla explained. “I can think, ‘I need to take that off the table. Get that out of my head,’ but then I’ll only stare at it more. So, Kara says, ‘You know what? We don’t need to pathologize this.’ And Brandi says, ‘But that’s the patriarchy.’ And Kara says, ‘No, I like it.’ And I think they’re both right.”

Padilla also relates to their character Andy, who witnessed the rape without intervening or even fully acknowledging what he saw. “There are many systems working on us to make inaction seem like the only viable choice. I hold a belief that it is not, that action is a viable choice, but we are socialized to think it’s not. So I hope I’m both holding Andy in compassion and as a mirror, asking myself to choose action.”

Padilla struggled to choose action throughout their undergraduate studies at NYU Tisch. “It was an experience muted by being raped right at that portal of entering. I was designing and choreographing and acting a little bit. But not really in it.”


Padilla carried “feelings of imposter syndrome” with them into graduate school. “I was deeply, deeply anxious and depressed, and [teacher] Naomi Iizuka was hard on me. She would say, ‘I know you can do better, stop shrinking. Come on! Show up. Be the person you are.’” Padilla considered dropping out of UCSD to go to medical school, but a combination of starting therapy and finding a community of like-minded artists and activists helped them to persist.

Another faculty member and a former associate artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre, Kim Rubinstein, encouraged Padilla to take a chance on Defend. “We were at lunch, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I should do the surreal capitalism play … or I have this play about a self-defense class after a campus rape.’ Not having read a page, Kim says, ‘That one! Do that one.’” Rubenstein came to see a table read of the play and agreed to direct the UCSD production of Defend, Padilla’s graduate thesis project.

Rubenstein, who at the time was publicly calling out sexual misconduct of her former colleague at Long Wharf, shepherded Defend’s development with great sensitivity and care, Padilla said. “Kim held space for panic attacks and emotional breakthroughs and stories and discoveries. She is a witch and a chaplain and a channel. She taught me and the cast what it means to be with big and powerful emotions: to ‘learn you can stand it, so the audience can know they can stand it too.’”

As Padilla worked on the play, they also began singing again with the help of UCSD faculty member Linda Vickerman. “I remember one particularly big day, I thought, ‘I’m being myself, and it’s scary, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but oh, my god, it feels so good to be myself.’ I went in, I sang, and I started crying. I said, ‘Linda, how do you sing when you’re crying? If you’re performing, how do you do that?’ And she said, ‘You stay with it. Stay present. Move through the song. Sometimes you just cry until it’s done.’”

So Padilla kept going. “It wasn’t as long as I thought it would be — just several seconds of intense crying. I continued singing this song, and I’d never, ever sung like that. There was no note I couldn’t belt. There was no part that was not fully available.”

According to Padilla, such mentorship and “creative co-liberation,” as they put it, helped them not only sing again but also write, direct, and speak up. “Defend is a reflection of my journey with voice, of losing it and then experiencing what it is to fight like hell, and be supported. I have this vision of every single person who’s held this play, their image as a tile to a mosaic behind the printed version. It is a village that got this play into the world.”

Clockwise from top: movement director Steph Paul, Liliana Padilla, dramaturg Jessica Reese, and director Marti Lyons.
Clockwise from top: How to Defend Yourself movement director Steph Paul, Liliana Padilla, dramaturg Jessica Reese, and director Marti Lyons. Photo courtesy of Liliana Padilla.


When working with directors and cast members, Padilla has learned to reconceptualize their notion of power, “which is not power over but power with. I was so afraid of power over. But I can jam for power with. I don’t go in for role-based creative hierarchy. The world has told me not to use my voice, so I can’t have that happening in the rehearsal room.”

As a playwright, Padilla actively engages with directors and cast members whenever possible, an approach shared by director Marti Lyons, whom Padilla describes as “incredibly kinetic and instinctive. Marti created a collaborative room and advocated tirelessly for so many elements, including the return to the play’s original ending in production — even though it was more theatrically challenging and expensive.”

During Humana’s final week, Padilla returned to Louisville, and something felt off. “I saw the show on Wednesday, and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re not on voice. The thesis of the play is you deserve to be heard, you deserve to be seen. Even if people are judging you, it’s important that you stand in your power.”

The following day, Padilla hosted a meal with the cast. “We ate together, and I told them, ‘How do we all get in our voices to tell this story? … You deserve to be here. You deserve to be heard.’ And we’re all weeping, supporting each other. I needed that, too. In many ways, saying it to them has given it back to me.”

The group spent several hours together and had the next night off to process. When Padilla saw them perform that Friday and Saturday, “They were just absolutely, totally connected and present. I was so proud of them.”


In recent years, Padilla has taught playwriting to undergraduates at UCSD and to U.S. veterans through the La Jolla Playhouse/TCG Veterans and Theatre Institute. As Padilla healed from their own trauma, they felt called to work with other survivors. “It was interesting to think, ‘Oh, the opportunity that’s coming to me is veterans.’ They’re also survivors, in a different way than I expected. Though of course there are intersecting identities, as many of them are also survivors of sexual violence.”

In the classroom, Padilla helps people connect with their voices and dig into past wounds, whether from combat or assault or even down to internalized writing criticism from a disapproving second-grade teacher — and just show up. “At first, showing up with a lot of energy, showing up with resistance, then showing up honestly,” Padilla said. “I don’t need my students to be trained. I just need them to fully want to be there.”

For Padilla, delving into pain has led to breakthroughs in art and life. “As I told the Defend cast, the darkest point in my life got darker and darker and scarier and scarier. And I thought I couldn’t survive it. Then it burst open into the largest moment of expansion and awakening and understanding, bigger than I could have imagined, in terms of my power. I said, ‘I offer that to you in those moments when it feels you’re stuck in the dark. It’s possible that you’re just moving through a long tunnel.’”

Liliana Padilla at Hedgebrook, a women writers retreat on Whidbey Island, Wash.
Liliana Padilla at Hedgebrook, a women writers retreat on Whidbey Island, Wash. Photo courtesy of Liliana Padilla.


The tunnel imagery evokes the final scene of Defend, which portrays a series of flashbacks from college to elementary school through rites of passage joyful and violent, until the audience finally meets the play’s rape survivor, Susannah, portrayed as a small child about to make her birthday wish.

“For me, the dream of the ending is that it feels like a dart that travels through space-time to the origin story. That is my hope. To go back to the source. To witness moments of becoming that felt casual at the time but created … a shape, almost a callous or scar. It continues down, down, down. Witnessing that child — that child now, in this moment, in this breath — making a wish. What is the world you’re creating for that child?”

It’s a significant ending for Padilla, whose rape took place at the exact location as their 10th birthday party seven years before. Padilla found it “poetically miraculous” that the child actor who played young Susannah at the Humana Festival is named Phoenix, after the legendary bird that erupts in flame then emerges from the ashes, stronger and renewed.

Padilla recently returned to the location of her rape, for the first time since it happened. Before going, Padilla explained the plan to a family member, who responded, “I’m so sorry.” Padilla, however, is done being sorry. Their focus is to go beyond regret, through resistance, all the way back to the source. Without that ordeal, they say, “I wouldn’t have had the experience of transforming horrifying pain into something that speaks. I wouldn’t know I could do that.”

Padilla took that trip a few weeks later with Molly Adea, who played Nikki in the UCSD and Humana productions. Despite feeling quite nervous on the way there, once Padilla arrived they found themself fully and fearlessly occupying their space and body. “I found the exact spot,” said Padilla. “I aligned myself in every direction to make sure. I thought it would be so much harder, but I was able to be present in the moment and realize it was 2019, and 12 years had passed. I was there with Molly, I was safe and whole. We just stood on that ground, in that spot. ‘This is it. Right here.’” Then Padilla looked at their friend and said, “So, do you want to go for a hike?”


Padilla thinks of Defend “as a love letter to my 17-year-old self, in the sense of connecting to and nourishing and surrounding that kid with so much love.” When asked what Padilla would say right now to their teenage Thespian self, they took a deep breath, stood up, and paused a moment before saying, “Trust the universe is conspiring to create with you. Trust every single being who has gotten you here. Trust you are enough. You don’t need to ‘market yourself.’ You just need to be in conversation with yourself and allow that person to be seen and heard. I don’t want a ‘neutral actor.’ I want you. Fully expressed, fully weird, fully alive — in contradiction, in life. Practice giving and receiving deeply. Practice listening. That is radiance. That is where art comes from.”

Padilla continued, “The world needs you to be in your voice and in your dignity. Find and love and support your team — and constantly keep finding your team. Connect outward. Go to therapy. When you need something, ask. And remember, you’re not alone. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”

Survivors of sexual violence looking for help or support can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline operated by RAINN at 800-656-HOPE. Find more resources at www.rainn.org or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Subscribers of New Play Exchange can read Padilla’s work there.

This story appeared in the August 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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