Profile: playgroundzero artist Cecilia Copeland
On her play Courting, writing, and the Declaration of Independence
Madeline, the main character in Cecilia Copeland’s play Courting, has a devil on her shoulder. Or, in the playwright’s words, an “inner blond cheerleader nemesis.” She shouts exhortations from the pages of women’s magazines – “Gooood Girl / Work Out! / Eat Right! / Look good! / Iiiit matters!” – and provides a running commentary on Madeline’s dates. Her constant presence makes it difficult for Madeline, a young, recent divorcee, to come up for air from her job booking models (“selling women’s bodies,” as the character calls it) and figure out what she wants to do with her life.
“I don’t know, maybe men have an alter-ego too,” Copeland speculates when I sit down with her at a coffee shop the day before the reading of Courting at playgroundzero a few weeks ago. “But these are the inner battles that I struggle with…it’s a big-time female centered play.” The play came out of a time in Copeland’s life when she was coping with her own divorce and starting to date again. “First time for love, second time for money,” was an adage she heard repeatedly. “It was an exciting time, but I also felt I was being assaulted in this weird way.” In a powerful, disturbing scene in Courting, Madeline goes up on an auction block, with the Cheerleader acting as auctioneer and taking bids from different men.
Courting strikes a balance between naturalistic dialogue and a rhythmic, almost rap-like poetry, especially in Madeline’s asides. An inventory of the items in her fridge looks like verse on the page: “Pataks Organ frozen curry again / Cheese n bread again / fast food again.” Copeland resists the tendency to fit writers into categories, but if you had to label her aesthetic she would prefer her own term, “poetic realism,” over “magic realism.” People like to compare her work to José Rivera and Maria Irene Fornes, she says, perhaps because of her part-Latin American background. “That’s nice, but you’d have to squeeze me pretty hard to get me to fit in.”
Copeland always knew that she had an ear for dialogue, but realized it was “insufficient” to express our “pent-up, inner lives” on the stage. “There’s a whole other world that exists that we just don’t say to each other,” she says. It’s not magic, per se, but reality conveyed poetically. Copeland surprises me by citing the Declaration of Independence to illustrate her point. I can’t say that I’ve ever thought about the writing style of the document, but for Copeland, therein lies its brilliance. “It’s a really complex, deep treaty about reality, and when we’re dealing of things with such gravity, we need language behind it that fits the purpose, and our daily language is not sufficient.” Copeland understands her work as an artist as “saying something imperative” by “mitigating” the discrepancy between our experience and the language we have to express it.
Copeland prefers long stretches of writing time, what she calls “writing sabbaticals,” rather than short bursts stolen before or after her day job as a receptionist at an international financial firm. She visualizes the act of writing as weaving a web or a tapestry, each thread a possible direction for the work. To be interrupted is to have all the threads cut at once, to have the characters she carries as she “scales the cliffs” of the play tumble off her back.
In Courting, Madeline is considering a PhD in parapsychology, a hobby of Copeland’s that she’s sure also bears on her playwriting. There’s an “eerie, super coincidental” tendency for things she’s writing about to show up in the news or in other plays. When she was working on her play Light of Night, inspired by the Josef Fritzl case in Austria, she learned of three other plays in development in New York around the same subject.
“The universe has tendencies,” she believes. If her drama taps into those tendencies, Courting could be seen to partake in a more general, timeless conversation about the female struggle for autonomy. Copeland is a self-described “staunch feminist” and frustrated by the lack of representation of female voices on U.S. stages, not to mention in the U.S. Congress. She recalls the feedback she got from one literary manager about Courting, who called it an “interesting take on one woman’s journey to identity.” She found the comment belittling. “If it’s a male journey, it’s Hamlet, it’s universal, it’s a classic, and the rest of the sentence would be something like, ‘how we are all like that.’”
Copeland is an “independent theatre artist” in several senses, including in the theme of personal autonomy and independence that seems to run through her work. In addition, she makes opportunities for herself and other artists through her company New York Madness, which hosts evenings of short plays commissioned around a single theme. She originally met Saviana, playgroundzero curator, through one of these evenings. And while the topics she covers in her work may be in the cultural air, she gives voice to them through boldly original creations, such as a sassy cheerleader alter-ego.