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Cecilia Copeland talks art-making for 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport scheme

Cecilia Copeland on Duende for 3030


[Cecilia Copeland’s play Tiene Duende (It has Soul) is part of the 30/30 US Latin@/NoPassport reading scheme. The same interview questions have been sent to each playwright taking part in the scheme by Caridad Svich.]


CARIDAD SVICH: a false (i think) divide has been erected in some art-making circles between what is called "devised" work and "text-based or text-driven" work. this divide or, shall we call it a "gap?," has served to alienate makers of text-driven work for live performance in the field and in academia. in effect, certain battle grounds have formed that encourage oppositional thinking about this, so that we have now, in many ways, the devisers on one side of the field and the text-makers on the other.


CECILIA COPELAND: I don’t think it’s a false divide, but the divide sets up a false hierarchy.  One thing that is relatively new, which is why it’s seen as on trend, is the flexibility of the text in film and how much more input actresses and actors can have on a film or TV shoot.  Having now directed my first series of short films with my theater company NYMadness I’ve learned the value of being loose with the script, trusting the camera and the actor or actress on the spot, but that doesn’t really translate to theatre.  In a live performance you’re not able to do five takes and then pick from those in the editing room.  In theatre the editing has to happen on the page before performance and in that it is a seemingly less creative acting contribution for actresses and actors than it is for film, but that’s not actually the case.  So much more of the medium of storytelling in film happens with the camera that the words are a much smaller part of the whole, (dare I say it) picture.  Also, there are a lot of new forms of interactive, multimedia, and transmedia theatre that require more improvisation so crafting those there is going to be more devising going on because the stories are being created based on the engagement with the media forms and audience interactions.  Those things are new, but that doesn’t make them the right medium for every play.  Some stories aren’t suited to complex media or group authorship.  I tend to work best by getting feedback from a director and by being present in rehearsal, and then being left alone to do the writing.  When working on something I know is going to be a screenplay, multimedia, or transmedia piece I know that it’s going to have to be more flexible because of the nature of the medium.


CARIDAD SVICH: how do you deal with the positioning of your work, if at all?


CECILIA COPELAND: My work is often positioned in a “Latin” context because I don’t always write straight realism and my language use is unapologetically poetic.  I challenge what realism is by showing a deeper layer of reality in that I feel is part of life, but not always verbally acknowledged.  In my play, The Wicked Son we see a Jewish family going through crises in Florida and simultaneously the poetic reality of a Palestinian woman unfolding in the Middle East.  By putting them together in the same time and space I’m purposely illustrating they are not just connected theoretically but that they are deeply intertwined in the present tense regardless of either of them acknowledging it.  Brecht theorized about deeper realities and how to convey them.  From my perspective there are many ways of going about this and typically because of my heightened language and subject matter I’m classified in the realm of Latin Theater.  Of course I am a Latina and some of my subject matter does deal with Latina/o issues and identity, but I’m also Jewish.  All of my plays address what I consider to be modern American mixed identity.  Some “Latin” stylistic classification is helpful and honest, but some of it is just a way for other people to get out of having to deal with the structure and functionality of the play on its own.  To rely on saying its “Latin” is a shorthand instead of deconstructing it from scratch.  The problem is the label’s limitations, shoving a one size fits all band, around anything written by a Latina/o or addressing with Latino/a issues when that label misses the point of the specific conventions of the play.  Not all Latin Plays function within the confines of, “Magic Realism” and it’s not fair to the playwright, José Rivera to take his term for his work and slap it on everyone else’s work.  I write Poetic Realism and it obeys its own rules that make sense to me.  Others do their own thing too.  That said, I find it very flattering to be compared to José and Migdalia Cruz or other Latina/o writers of that level of excellence, but it always comes off a little bit like a surface level compliment.  It’s like saying, “You have pretty hair and a pretty smile.” rather than saying, “You’re a kind and thoughtful person.”  They’re both meant as a compliment, but one statement is a little shallower than the other. 


CARIDAD SVICH: how do you negotiate the very real diving lines that get drawn, quite arbitrarily, and quite often, in our field in regard to art-making and its role in culture?

CECILIA COPELAND: It’s always challenging to be told something that is meant as a compliment and then feel like I want to argue with it, so I waffle sometimes back and forth depending on the circumstance.  I try to listen to my inner self and determine if this moment or place is the right place to express my deeper thoughts or if perhaps I should just nod at the compliment and say thank you.  I’m not a brain surgeon or a heart surgeon, but if I’m lucky I can ignite some kind of brain and heart activity that can be healing.  If society is accepting of that and wants to honor me in that capacity in any way, then great!  Mostly though I think our current values are highly influenced by the media, which is deeply in bed with a capitalist for profit value system so there’s a lot of sex noise and money noise out there that isn’t saying much other than reinforcing the status quo and it’s hard to compete with that as an artist.  A good friend once told me he felt like a canary in a cage and no one would listen to him.  He was singing his heart out, but nobody heard.  Whether an artist or not, sometimes we just have to be that canary because it’s what is in our soul.  That’s probably more of a philosophical answer, but when staring at my tax returns considering the value of what I contribute as a writer, questioning if society recognizes that in monetary terms, I have to find some kind of balance in terms of my work and the inherent obstacles in getting it to an audience, which include how I’m going to earn a living to sustain myself in the in between years while I’m not able to be a full time artist.  I wrote an entire play about this question, Between Here and There and it’s getting produced in January at Open Hydrant Theatre Co in the Bronx. 


CARIDAD SVICH: as a playwright, how do you devise your own process? dramatic project (life goals as artist)?


CECILIA COPELAND: I tend to ask a lot of questions.  I often feel like there’s something amiss.  I stare at things really hard and they seem peculiar to me or somehow incorrect.  Those things that feel unanswered or disturbing lead me to projects so I can grapple with understanding them or at least create a context to reach some kind of way to accept them as part of the world.  I go down a rabbit hole with ideas and my theatre company NYMadness keeps me constantly grounded writing new work so I’m testing out theatrical conventions and subject matter in the short form as I go deeper in the long form.  Also, at this point I am drawn to certain collaborators who know my work and ask me to do a project, which is exciting because it feels like a kind of adventure that we’re on together.  My life goals as an artist evolve as I evolve as a person.  I know I want to keep writing for the rest of my life, that I want to write for different mediums, that I’m interested in directing, and that I want to be able to earn my living as an artist. 



CARIDAD SVICH: how do you wish to live as artist in and with engagement in local and global dialogue with citizens and artists?


CECILIA COPELAND: It’s harder for me to be as engaged as I want to be creating work overseas, because I don’t have as many connections as I would like in other countries and I’m not fluent in Spanish or Hebrew even though I understand quite a lot of both.  There are challenges to be contended with in terms of bringing the work outside of the US that I just don’t have the time to overleap and frankly it’s hard enough just getting work up here as an emerging artist.  However, I lived overseas for extended periods, have family in the Middle East and Central America, and I traveled a lot so a global perspective is deeply imbedded in my daily awareness and certainly all the things I write about have tendrils that reach outward addressing how the US is placed within a broader context.


CARIDAD SVICH: are there lessons you've learned you wish to impart to fellows in the field and elsewhere?


CECILIA COPELAND: Please, don’t shut one another out, question your seasons, include women in the conversation and on stage in your plays.  I feel like the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the less women’s voices are represented, the fewer female characters are on stage and in films, the easier it is to dismiss us as whole and devalue us in society.  It’s a malignancy in our culture that women are so invisible.  That is true to for all disadvantaged groups and our lack in the social space is having painful consequences for young women and young men.  So to my fellow Latinos I’m talking to you as a Latina.  Please don’t tramp on us when you rise.  Take us with you and listen to us as much as you listen to one another. 


CARIDADSVICH: lessons you are still learning that impact the kind of work you make or think about making?


CECILIA COPELAND: In other times there were other issues to contend with in regards to censorship so a lot of work had to be covert, and in some ways it created really brilliant stuff.  In this time in the US we don’t face that kind of censorship, but we do have other limitations.  I am learning a lot of the nature of how to navigate the constraints of the modern economy and how to write plays that can actually get produced within constrained budgets, no sets, and short rehearsal times.  Every age has its limitation and just because I’m working to change those in the long run doesn’t mean I can write with my head in the sand and then complain about not getting productions… So I’m learning to write with the hand that holds the money tied behind my back.  There are other constraints to about gender and female vs male protagonist and decisions I have to think about that get weighed play to play… We all have to face the limitations of our current society so those are what I’m grappling with right now as I seek to earn a living with my work. 


CARIDAD SVICH: when you see/hear/read the phrase "US Latin@," what does it make you think of?


CECILIA COPELAND: It makes me feel conflicted.  When I hear “Panamanian” or “Ludino” I feel like that’s calling my name, but hearing “US Latina” makes me think of stereotypes that I would rather not repeat and that feel like something I have to fight or correct.


CARIDAD SVICH: as a maker of text for live performance, in what ways are you challenging or calling into question the nature of embodied speech and action when you write a given play or collaborate with fellow artists?


CECILIA COPELAND: I think you’re asking how I’m reinventing playwriting, and if that’s what you’re asking then I would have to say that I’m not necessarily interested in bypassing language or speech.  I’m invested in those tools, I like them, but I am interested in engaging with a morality over what I see as the use of bodies and commodification of sexualized violence especially as it pertains to female bodies.  That’s not specifically text based so much as action based.  In that questioning of the morality over the dramatization of sexual violence it’s my tendency to feel that less is more, because otherwise we’re engaging in pornographic observation to enjoy the physical rush of erotic response seated conveniently in violence for supposed exploration of depth and whitewashed by the intellectual elitist trappings of ‘Art’.  If the same exact realistic depictions were played out in front of a camera and sold on the Internet they wouldn’t be so whitewashed and for me, being a highly sensitive audience member and someone who lives with PTSD, I think it’s well past time to be more careful with trafficking in and exploiting sexual violence on stage.  There seems to be very little discussion or concern about if this is causing trauma, because it’s more interesting to discuss if it’s pushing buttons.  Considering that One in Three Women has been sexually assaulted, that women in Theatre are a statistically marginalized group, it seems pretty callus and thoughtless to depict graphic sexual violence onstage without any real investigation of the impact of showing such images without any means for the audience to engage with them.  Forcing an audience to watch realistic graphic depictions of sexual violence within the confines of what is appropriate audience behavior, being passivity, coaches the audience into moral impotence in the face of violence trains us into a state of disengagement rather than encourages us into being more engaged and act on what we’re seeing in the moment. Link:


CARIDAD SVICH: what do you do when someone says to you "we don't have culturally specific actors in my town, so we can't even look at your play, even if we were to deeply admire or want to put this story on stage?'


CECILIA COPELAND: To this I say, okay, I’m open to casting others who look like or can pass or are suggestive of these characters.  I come from Des Moines Iowa so I know that there are real places with real theaters who will have a big challenge finding 8 Latino/as to play roles in my flamenco play, and on top of that I need some who can dance, sing, and play guitar.  I would hard pressed to cast that play in New York because of the various specialized skills needed.  Acting is a specialized skill and just because someone can sing or dance and is the right ethnicity it doesn’t mean they can act.  I will also go for the better actor who sort of looks right rather than one who looks exactly right and can’t act the part very well. 


CARIDAD SVICH: what do you say to potential collaborators and casting directors about the nature of how to cast your show and how casting can carry its own political power?


CECILIA COPELAND:  I write plays that expand the view of Latina/os. If they have white people playing those parts it’s a statement that says a lot of things, but I would rather they have it cast with good people and give the story a chance and it will shift, we’ll make it shift.  I’m pretty sure that Othello wasn’t played by a truly dark skinned actor for a long time after it was written.  That doesn’t mean that the part and the play didn’t open the road for that to happen.  Yes I want ethnically appropriate casting, but New York is different to other cities. There are places where minorities are scarce.  That’s a reality that is just reflective of being a minority.  They play shouldn’t not get done because there aren’t enough minorities in that community to fill those shoes.  The play shouldn’t wait for the world to change to be able to do it perfectly the play helps the world change so I can be done better in the next generation.  That’s my hope as we live through centuries of imperfect casting.


CARIDAD SVICH: it goes without saying that we live in a multi-lingual world. do you think our US stages (to keep the dialogue national for the moment) need reflect this? if so, how?


CECILIA COPELAND: I think if there is an extensive amount of another language other than English in a play that the audience should have the benefit of sub or supertitles. 


CARIDAD SVICH: in your work, how do you address multi-linguality and hybrid aesthetics, if at all?


CECILIA COPELAND: Being a member of the Latin community and not being fluent in Spanish I always feel a sense of being closed out when people speak too much in Spanish so I don’t do it to my audience.


CARIDAD SVICH: as a writer/maker for/of live performance, what is thrilling to you still about the form - this old weird creaky thing we call theatre - and why?


CECILIA COPELAND: Your question supposes a lot of prejudice against things that are old and I don’t really carry that.  I do carry a distaste for ideas that don’t allow for people to rise or expand themselves.  Theatre allows for change in a lot of ways and that’s exciting.  I also think that because we’re dealing with smaller budgets and smaller audiences we can take bigger risks that can grow into a bigger audience.


CARIDAD SVICH: what ideas have you when you make work or are in the process of putting it out there about how to and ways you can create connection with your audience(S) beyond the work itself, for example?


CECILIA COPELAND: I believe in social media to engage younger audiences. I believe in having more funding for arts programs in schools and the research shows that having arts programming in school improves the overall achievements of the students.  It also improves their lives and deepens their humanity.  I believe in making theater free for young audiences and for including things like free wine and or beer for young twenties.  We live in a seriously economically disadvantaged time for artists and audiences.  The less tickets cost the more people will see a show. This makes it harder to earn a living as an artist because then the funding for production has to come from private or government sources.  Using free methods on social media to find the right audience is totally possible, because there are all kinds of communities that exist online and tapping into them in a modern age is very possible.  However, we need artists with the ability to do this or to speak more truthfully artists who can afford the time to invest in doing it and we need marketing people who are great at it, but again that comes down to funding.  More funding is needed all around.  We need to prioritize Art as a means to itself instead of just as a profit-making venture, but we live in a capitalist system.  Right now the Arts are caught in a political war, like anything that needs funding, but I don’t think theater is going away.     




CARIDAD SVICH: what's inspiring you these days? and/or what's troubling you these days?


CECILIA COPELAND: A lot of things trouble me.  I could write entire plays about all the things that trouble me… and I do… so I just can’t even start to answer that without coming off as glib. 


What’s inspiring is seeing how many other people feel frustrated with some of the same things and who are speaking out as well.  What moves me is seeing that people will stand up for the issues they are concerned about and the stories they need to tell no matter how big or small, that they raise a flag with honesty and bravery to say, “This is wrong/right/beautiful/scary…” or my personal favorite, “You are not alone.”