Playwright Interview: Elizabeth Coplan and The Grief Dialogues

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This month we are featuring a series of interviews with local playwrights to gather their insights on the creative process and getting scripts to the stage.

The Salon’s Artistic Director, Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Seattle playwright Elizabeth Coplan about her production The Grief Dialogues, which took off from Seattle, and is currently being staged throughout the country. The next show, Grief Dialogues: The Play is being produced in Las Vegas on September 26.

MOD: You founded, wrote for, and toured The Grief Dialogues, and captured the imaginations of audiences throughout the country. What are The Grief Dialogues?

EC: The Grief Dialogues is an artistic movement. We use theatre, visual art, music, poetry, and narrative to start a new conversation about dying, death, and grief. Our motto is out of Grief Comes Art.

MOD: Why did you begin this project?

EC: Three years ago, I experienced several deaths, people close to me or close to people I love. Neither of us was allowed to express our grief in public. So called friends barraged us with meaningless phrases like: He’s in a better place. At least he died doing what he loved. She lived a long life. I know exactly how you feel. Time heals all wounds. You will be okay. It’s better this way. Your wife would not like to see you suffering like this. Or the always popular, never fails to sting: You have to move on! To which I always reply: Why?

MOD: Where were you a playwright before coming up with this idea?

EC: Since I was 13, the theatre influenced my life. I acted, directed, produced, attended, reviewed, and donated money to theatre all over the world. When I was diagnosed with a chronic illness forcing me into early retirement, I turned to the one thing I knew I could do anywhere, in bed, on the sofa, at my desk, regardless of day or time. If I grew weary, I could set it aside. I started writing 10 minute plays thinking they would be “easy” only to find they were quite difficult to write. They include all the components of a full-length play but in 10 pages! Even so, I found them quite rewarding and my hard work paid off in awards and productions.

MOD: Did this project take shape completely right out of the box? Or did it change over time? Did you envision a touring company?

EC: It definitely changed over time, but only in some improvements. It is still, and always be, entertaining. I hope it continues to be educational. I recently wrote a chapter for Dr. Robert Neimeyer's book Grief Therapy Volume 3" titled, "Using Theatre to Start the Conversation." And yes, I always envisioned a touring company. I love to travel so why not. We are now in the process of sustainability and are changing our mission to include medical ethics but serving the greater medical community (doctors, nurses, social workers etc.).

MOD: Who was your first collaborator? How did that change the dynamic of being the founding visionary?

EC: My first collaborators were the playwrights featured in the original script: Jeffrey Fischer-Smith, Daniel Guyton, Donna Hoke, Barbara Blumenthal, all, coincidentally, fellow Dramatist Guild members.

MOD: You’ve found a dynamic director and four exceptional actors for the touring company. How do they continue to be motivated and inspired?

EC: You will have to ask them that question. However, I will say that when we finally had our cast party last Sunday night in Seattle, they were all still talking about the show and asking when we can do it again! I think the show itself is what continues to motivate and inspire them. With six different plays, it’s not uncommon to have a different play resonate with a different actor every performance. They tell me they absolutely love the diversity of all the plays and their characters.

MOD: What satisfactions and what challenges have come with working with others who are as passionate about The Grief Dialogues as you are?

EC: Satisfactions: my Inbox flooded after a performance with such wonderful feedback and the sender’s own personal grief story; the opportunity to work with so many talented people on the subjects of theatre and therapy, drama and death; traveling to other cities in the U.S.; and meeting even more people in these circles. On a recent trip to NYC, I met the incomparable Amy Cunningham. Amy is well-known on the East Coast. My husband and I had just been in Pittsburgh for the Association of Death Education and Counseling national conference, where I produced The Grief Dialogues for the second year in a row, and we decided to take a week “off” to go to our favorite U.S. city – New York. While I was there, I did manage a few Grief Dialogues related meetings (what’s a little vacation without a little work on a project I am passionate about). For some reason, I decided to Google what was happening in NYC around the topic of death. And lo and behold, I found “The Inspired Funeral,” a half-day workshop at the New York Open Center, taught by Amy, on the upcoming Saturday. So I signed up! And that workshop brought me new information about death and an opportunity to introduce myself to Amy and others in attendance, which led me to ReimagineNYC, a week long event in NYC on End of Life issues. Grief Dialogues is now one of the featured events!

MOD: Now that you have this project to grow and nurture, how has it affected your own time to write? Influenced how and what you write?

EC: Excellent question. I suppose if you are asking me if I have time to write new work, then I’d say “no.” Existing work, “yes.” I have a play “Hospice: The Unmusical” that I workshopped last year in Seattle with great success and now I am working on the re-writes. I have a proposal for a new book (on the topic of death – of course) that has great potential but I have yet to write the Sample Chapter requested by the potential publisher. But just yesterday I took an assignment to write the end-of-life story of a friend’s husband (most likely a play). Now that will be all new work. How does the project influence my writing? I guess the answer would be that the project is so consuming (an obsession really) that it completely influences my writing and vice versa.

MOD: What’s next for The Grief Dialogues? How do you want it to grow, to change?

EC: Right now, I am restructuring the financial model to become more sustainable. While we will continue to look for theatres and organizations to sponsor the show, we are also be looking at developing an educational program for a fee.

MOD: How are The Grief Dialogues funded?

EC: Originally it was self-funded with a little bit of income from ticket sales and my speaking engagements. Last year, I did some additional fundraising with friends and an Angel Donor appeared at the end of the year. She then agreed to do a matching fund drive with me through the Seattle Foundation’s Give Big program in May. With that money, I was able to produce five shows in June in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island, as well as take my director and actors to NYC for a performance. Now, I’m back into fundraising mode. With this new sustainability model, I’m hoping that we will obtain grants and other significant funds from foundations and private donors.

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MOD: Have you changed your ideas about the project? If so, how? Is it what you originally wanted?

EC: My original vision and the one I come back to time and time again is to create a compassionate world.

MOD: Do you have other projects in mind?

EC: My current problem is that I continually think of new projects within this project. I’m trying to launch a Podcast program. I’ve already started production on a new book of stories about love and loss (publishing date Fall 2018). We have a theme song “Go On,” and we include visual art in our stories. Forty years of a career in marketing and public relations leads me into what I call “Marketing Shiny Object Syndrome” (MSOS) which, in turn, leads me into more “to-dos” than is humanly possible. I should mention right now that ticket sales and recent donations allow me to hire three part-time people: a theatrical manager, a book editor, a marketing specialist, and a social media intern in Las Vegas where we are holding the next performance of The Grief Dialogues. Rather humorously I just told someone that I feel not like I am drinking from a fire hose, but rather five fire hoses are pointed right at me with full force!

MOD: What was the most important lift-off for The Grief Dialogues? What shifted it from a project you dreamed of to the reality of a touring company in demand, with good scripts coming in continually?

EC: I feel I am the luckiest person alive when it comes to a project that fulfills me! I have always believed that life is nothing if you are not obsessed. I spent my entire working career helping others bring their dreams and goals to fruition and now it’s my turn. As far as the “lift off” I will say that it was the first performance (a staged reading) of Grief Dialogues: The Play at the Seattle Death Salon that I helped organize with the UW School of Social Work, People’s Memorial (I’m the board prez) and the Order of the Good Death (out of LA) that gave me the biggest lift off.