New York-based actress Poppy Liu has spent a lot of time discussing her abortion on college campuses recently. Actually, she lets her voiceover do most of the talking as she stands to the side of dark auditoriums, the film she produced projected on-screen for crowds of students to watch.
Liu has been using “Names of Woman,” a thirteen-minute short film based on her own abortion story, as a way to start conversations about reproductive rights and justice as she tours it through college campuses across the Northeast. The first major film project produced by Collective Sex—a production company Liu founded in 2015—has even been screened at a few Planned Parenthood fundraisers.
But at the same time, “Names of Women” is not politically charged; in fact, if you were not familiar with Liu and her work, you’d be hard-pressed to assign her a side to the on-going abortion debate. Instead, the film assigns a face to the overly-politicized procedure, thus showing the humanity of the situation. After she found out she was pregnant in September of 2015, Liu was overcome with loneliness—abortion is such a highly stigmatized topic that she felt, at first, that she didn’t have anyone to share it with.
“Everyone has an opinion about it, but I didn’t know what it was like as a human being—and not just a political idea—to be going through this,” she says. “When we talk so much about concepts or ideologies, sometimes what’s left out of the conversation is that we’re still human bodies going through all of this.”
“Names of Women,” released in January 2017, began as a story Liu shared at one of Collective Sex’s live storytelling events. She had no plans to turn it into a film at the time, but after receiving very positive feedback, she began to see how advantageous it’d be to create something with an important message she could easily share with larger audiences.
“After I shared it, a lot of people came out of nowhere and shared their stories with me privately,” Liu remembers. “When you share a story so personal, what happens is that you create permission or space for other people to share theirs.”
After crowdfunding $20,000 for the film in August 2015, she and an all-female production team shot, edited and released “Names of Women.” Liu toured the film on eight college campuses over the past three months; she plans to continue the next leg of the tour in the fall. Most recently, “Names of Women,” directed by Liu and Amanda Madden, was added as an official selection at the Brooklyn Women’s Film Festival.
“What’s really cool about film is that it’s really accessible and you’re able to have conversations with many more people and reach other communities that you normally wouldn’t be able to,” Liu tells ivoh.
Liu has gotten positive feedback while touring “Names of Women” through the Northeast. “It’s incredible what happens afterwards,” she says. “I’ve had students personally share their stories with me after this.”
She explains that, while a majority of the schools were left-leaning, a few were conservative; rather than balking at their ideological differences, she was more than happy to talk with students who didn’t hold the same beliefs.
“It’s really important to talk to groups of people that aren’t just reaffirming what we were already thinking, otherwise you’re talking in a vacuum,” she explains. “It’s eye opening when you do engage with people who have very different views from you. You realize that they’re not bad people, and they see that you’re not bad people.”
Liu, a self-described “old soul,” has always been wise beyond her years. At 24, she founded Collective Sex to destigmatize stories related to sex, body, intimacy and identity by infusing those stories with vulnerability, personal narrative and authenticity. Intrinsically, she knew storytelling could have healing qualities—and as “Names of Women” gains traction, she was proven right. But before she was at the helm of a burgeoning production company, she was once a college student with an ambitious senior thesis.
The seeds for Collective Sex were scattered in 2012 when Liu, then a senior at Colgate University, wrote and directed “This Is Not A Play About Sex,” a play based on her interviews with 26 students about their relationship with millennial hookup culture. By including students whose backgrounds spanned across gender, sexuality and identity, Liu sparked interest on campus by inviting all voices to the conversation.
She says that “This Is Not A Play About Sex” resonated wildly on Colgate’s campus. “It was meant to start a dialogue with people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a room together,” Liu says.
The play, which she produced as her senior thesis, was such a success that Liu held an encore production two months after its premiere, leading the university to license the rights from Liu. A production of “This Is Not A Play About Sex” is put on every year during freshman orientation, and Liu regularly attends.
It was through this project that Liu began to understand the power of using storytelling as a way to start conversations. Once Liu graduated and moved to New York City, she used the inspiration from “This Is Not A Play About Sex” to found Creative Sex.
“It was a hella experimental phase where I was like ‘Okay, there’s something about vulnerability and storytelling and talking specifically about body, identity and sex, and somehow, this triangle of stuff can connect,’” she says. “I started hosting people out my living room– we’d meet once a week for four hours and we’d do acting training, meditation, movement work, writing, reenactments…”
These experimental workshops quickly lead to live, monthly storytelling events. Soon, Liu was filling spaces in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with 40 to 50 people for these performances. “A grassroots community started building from there, and more people started telling stories,” she says with a smile on her face. “It was this really organic growth process.”
“Our two-word mission is decolonizing storytelling. What that means for us is focusing on what stories we tell, how they are told and who is telling them,” Liu says. “We believe very firmly in allowing folks to share their own stories and to have a space where people can tell their own stories, in their own words, the way that they want to be heard.”
Collective Sex became an opportunity for people to share their stories in a non-judgmental environment. Liu feels that the creative process should be healing, joyful and collaborative; because of this, there is no stage at a Creative Sex storytelling event. Instead, storytellers sit among audience members—“and the stories would just emerge,” Liu says. “I thought about it as ‘living room theater.’”
Now, Collective Sex’s live events are held seasonally and their structure has changed slightly. The events now revolve loosely around a theme—for instance, January was reproductive rights—and personal storytelling is followed by panel discussions. Storytellers share their experiences with the topic, while panelists share ways to get involved with the cause. This new structure combines the healing aspect of storytelling with the social activism that Liu had in mind when founding the company.
Other than preparing for the fall tour of “Names of Women,” Liu and her creative team at Collective Sex are in the beginning stages of an upcoming web series project titled “Mercy Mistress.” The autobiographical series will follow the personal experiences of a New York City-based Chinese-American professional dominatrix.
“This story is about destigmatizing the sex work industry, examining the intersections within the kink community and reclaiming the sexual agency of the bodies of women of color,” Collective Sex said in a statement on its Facebook page. An upcoming Collective Sex storytelling event will be held on Saturday, July 22 at Euripides Gallery to raise money for forthcoming web series. Tickets are $35 at the door; all proceeds go towards the fundraiser.