Loading. Please wait...

How To Play The Game

An interview with Fernanda Coppel

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director

Amy Levinson: Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the play, and its evolution?

Fernanda Coppel: The play is very personal, but it’s not necessarily autobiographical. King Liz is very much about one’s journey towards a commercial sense of success. My journey towards writing was very tough. As a Mexican immigrant, I didn’t grow up around theater and being a writer wasn’t a viable career option. I had to blaze a trail for myself which took a lot of bravery and hard work. I discovered theater by accident as an undergrad and upon graduation promptly moved to New York to become a playwright. At 21, I was broke and living in a bedroom that was 5’ by 7’ but I was thrilled to be pursuing my dream. It was a really rewarding and exciting time.

Eventually, I signed with these snazzy agents, who helped me get Off-Broadway productions. And the next step in my career, they claimed, was, “You need to go to Los Angeles now to write for TV.” So, I did, and suddenly found myself in writers’ rooms which were so foreign to me. I felt like I didn’t belong and that I didn’t have the tools to succeed. There was no guidance, rather I was met with a lot of “figure it out yourself because you’re very replaceable.” It was a hard adjustment.

After my second staffing job, I started to have terrible anxiety attacks and one day I walked out of the writers’ room, went to the parking lot, and called my agent Scott Chaloff, who was also my friend, and I said, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’ve lost track of my love for writing and myself.” And he said, “Sounds like a good time to write a new play.” So, that’s what I did: I put that dilemma into this play. I started thinking about art and commerce, and how to maintain your identity—who you are and what you stand for—within a commercial setting. How can I make a living while not letting go of that excited 21-year-old who loves to write? So that crossroads is what inspired the play. That was back in 2014.

AL: 2014. And now here you are—and all of these things have happened. I know you have made recent changes to the play. What drove you to make these changes and can you speak about some of them?

FC: It’s been fascinating. Reading it now as a new mom and as a writer who’s constantly struggling to find work that’s meaningful while balancing the work that pays the mortgage, I have a totally new perspective on King Liz. Although it’s taken a lot of trial and error, I have found a way to exist within this world of commerce while staying authentic to who I am (although it’s a constant struggle). But also, in revisiting the play, it’s clear that there were some breadcrumbs that my 29-year-old self left behind for me to think about now. I actually now identify with different characters than I did when I originally wrote it. The Mr. Candys, the Coach Joneses, and the Barbara Flowerses of the world seem even more complicated to me rather than black and white.

But, I still stand by the message of the play and still root for Liz Rico finding her way after the play ends. The main reason I chose to update King Liz for this production is because the NBA, not unlike the entertainment industry, is so rapidly changing that absolutely none of the references from the 2014/2015 draft are applicable today. Absolutely none. So, to begin with, I just jumped in to do that.

And then I realized I'd grown and learned a few new things as a writer. I’m able to judge moments differently and continue to explore each beat in a new way. As an example, I used to be really scared of silences or pauses in a play. I needed to fill the silences with dialogue, but I don’t feel as compelled to do that anymore. Sometimes movement can fill that space. And sometimes silence is the most powerful and brave line of “dialogue” you can write.

AL: Is there someone specific upon whom the roll of Liz is based?

FC: No, not really. I did speak to one sports agent at WME, Jill Smoller. She had exactly seven minutes to talk to me on the phone because of her intense schedule. But she was direct, straight to the point and very generous. She talked just as fast as Liz Rico, but those were the most useful seven minutes of research. She provided a lot of insight into the toll this fast-paced career takes on your life. But otherwise, Liz is not based on anyone in particular. I think a part of her is who I aspired to be in my 20s.

AL: Can you talk about the appeal of the world of agents?

FC: While in L.A., I found myself connecting with my agents quite a bit more than in NYC, and it's such an interesting relationship you form with them. They essentially get to know your work and try to convince people with the money to hire you. They’re persistent, pushy, and sometimes brash. When you're talking to your agents on a regular basis, and they're proactively sending you on many meetings, you also start to get to know them on a certain level—their families, their interests, etc. But the relationship is always very much about you, the client, and them keeping you happy. They exist in an in-between space where they get a lot of credit or no credit at all for your success or failures. A really good agent supports you, and your work, in a profound way. They fight for you. They protect your vision. But they also sell you. They take parts of your life and mold it into something attractive to buyers, which has always felt so unnatural to me.

That salesmanship mentality also interested me—both my parents are salesmen; my mom sells timeshares and my dad sells insurance, both in Mexico—so I grew up witnessing these really charming people who know how to convince people to buy. That sort of charisma is their bread and butter. So, when researching this play, I reversed the roles and asked my agents a lot of questions about their job. And they loved it because their job is largely unseen and unacknowledged. If you're a good agent, no one knows anything about what you do for your clients daily, because you are the person behind the person.

AL: Because you write in different mediums, when you have an idea about something, how do you know what form the idea ought to take?

FC: I’ve been doing a lot of TV development and film. In film, the plot is king. We need to know what happens and we need to get there. TV is more character driven, but an extremely concise type of writing. When writing for TV you end up making a lot of cuts, and sometimes those cuts are heartbreaking. In fact, my new play, Friendship Park, was borne out of a scene from a pilot that I was trying to develop. Everyone was really excited about this one scene that I wanted to be about 5 pages long— which for TV is like a novel. As I continued to develop the pilot, I kept obsessing about THAT scene. I just knew as I worked on it, that it was meant to be a play because I wanted to spend all of my time in that scene.

TV is dictated by pace and the structure—so much of what you write is about how much time you have between commercial breaks and peoples’ attention spans. So, if you find yourself writing 5-7 page scenes in a pilot or a screenplay, that usually means you’re starting a new play. Playwrighting is more meditative and messier. It’s about recreating the human experience that’s full of pauses, people saying the wrong thing, fights over the dinner table, etc. As a playwright, you’re a fly on the wall of a room while your characters take up space. So, if I find a room in my work that I want to spend a lot of time in, then okay, that’s a play. And I need to make time to write it.

AL: On the first day of rehearsal, I heard you mention that this is your first time back in a rehearsal room post-pandemic. A) How do you feel about that and B) having been away from it, is there any sort of marked difference as a theatergoer or as a theatermaker that you have observed?

FC: I’m thrilled to return to the theater. I felt a wonderful sense of belonging and nostalgia on the first day of rehearsal. Despite the hiatus, my theater practice feels familiar but with some interesting new differences. I forgot that when I’m in a rehearsal room, I’m usually a very quiet collaborator. I like to watch the actors/director and listen. If you listen closely enough, you can immediately tell what works in the script and what needs some re-writing. But also, while we’re at the table, I tend to get a lot of ideas for other plays. I don’t know why; I just start scribbling and thinking about new plays. It may be because there are so many creative people around a table and that inspires my creative brain, but that’s a feeling I had forgotten. Writing is a solitary art form—your process is just you and your thoughts. So, it’s just nice to be around artists again, post-pandemic when a lot of people experienced the solitary lifestyle of a writer.

The difference in my theater practice is that now more than ever, I’ve realized that my job as the playwright is to bring a quality script to the table, and then my collaborators take it where it needs to go from there. And watching that process inspires me, but I also don’t have the patience for all the details that the director’s job entails, and I don’t have the bravery to do what these actors do every night. And I’m totally okay with that. My gratitude for the strengths of my collaborators is even more immense. My focus is always on the script and seeking out collaborators who can bring that idea to life.

Since COVID, I have seen one play back in the theater, and I hadn’t smiled that much during the whole pandemic. I saw Freestyle Love Supreme at Portland Center Stage—I was completely elated by the production. I had missed the connection between the live audience and the performers: the call and response. Nothing can replicate it. During the pandemic, I had Zoom readings with the audience participating in the chat, but in the theater, there's an alchemy in the room. You can feel when people are on the edge of their seats. You can feel when they're bored and they're restless. For me, theater is the process of creating a moment in time with the audience. A moment so well-crafted that it makes both the performers and the audience forget that it’s make-believe. That’s something I’m thankful to be a part of.

King Liz

JUL 12 – AUG 14, 2022
Written by Fernanda Coppel
Directed by Jesca Prudencio
Featuring Ray Abruzzo, Oscar Best, Nancy Linari, Michelle Ortiz, Evan Morris Reiser & Sabrina Sloan

It’s good to be king. Liz Rico is a powerful sports agent who represents NBA superstars, having fought her way to the top of a male-dominated profession with her skill for cutthroat negotiations. Given the chance to sign Freddie Luna, a once-in-a-generation high school talent with a troubled past, Liz sees an opportunity to take her career to the next level. But when accusations start swirling around the young phenom, Liz must attempt to rebound Freddie’s career or protect her own crown.


Loading. Please wait...