BI playwright makes off-Broadway at age 69

For playwright Elizabeth Coplan of Bainbridge Island it’s better late than never.

Coplan, 69, a founding member of the BI Museum of Art, has written a play called ‘Til Death that is appearing Off-Broadway in New York through Dec. 23.

The play is a dark comedy about death and choices and stars two-time Tony Award winner Judy Kaye (Nice Work If You Can Get It); Tony Award nominee Robert Cuccioli (Jekyll & Hyde); and Amy Hargreaves, who was a regular on the popular TV show Homeland.

For 40 years Coplan worked in marketing and public relations, and she thinks that’s one of the reasons she’s found success after writing plays for just 10 years. “It took perseverance,” she said. “You have to put yourself out there. And be willing to have a lot of doors shut in your face.”

She said COVID helped in a way because people did things by Zoom. “I didn’t have to be in New York” to pitch my play, she said.

In 2013, Coplan suffered three losses, including a cousin to cancer, that got her to focus different projects she’s done on dying and grief. She’s worked with various expert grief counselors — such as Sharon Stanley of BI.

“It’s very important to me to get the dying part right,” she said.

Mixing in comedy is also tough with such a sensitive subject. But Coplan said even her cousin who was dying of ovarian cancer was able to laugh when she had trouble doing simple things like trying to sit up when she was in so much pain. “It’s gallows humor. There’s a lot of humor in it,” she said of dying.

Certainly not in all cases, but when someone’s lived a good long life they know when it’s time to go and end their suffering. “It’s not all serious,” she said, adding a hospice nurse at the time shared some funny stories. “There is something lovely…”

Great director

Coplan credits director Chad Austin with getting so many big-name stars for her play. He didn’t have open auditions. It was by invitation only. Kaye is a Broadway legend, performing in such hits as Phantom of the Opera, Ragtime and Mamma Mia!

”Judy Kaye always does musicals, but she wanted to challenge herself to do something serious,” Coplan said.

She also credits Austin and others with many improvements that came through collaboration. “It’s been eye-opening, a real learning experience for me,” she said. “It’s taken on a whole new art form.”

For example, she wrote the play to be performed anywhere, on any stage, in a simple living room. But Austin has done things with the furniture selections and colorful light projections that make “it look like a piece of artwork I never would have come up with myself.”

As for Cuccioli, Coplan had to completely change his character, who had been an old curmudgeon who was a bad guy. But because he is so handsome, that just did not work. So she reworked the script so he still gets swindled but he’s a good guy.

She’s also made changes in monologue if it just wasn’t working with the actor. And she doesn’t mind making changes. “It’s always about the story. The play really resonates with people.”

Coplan even plans to make some changes after a dress rehearsal in front of a live audience. “I’ll listen to the audience reaction and give notes to the director,” she said.

In ‘Til Death, one mother’s choice unveils a family’s long-buried secrets. As Mary’s life-altering decision sends shockwaves through her loving but turbulent family, they all must confront their past, reconcile the present and pick up the missing pieces in the process.

The play has a death with dignity element to it, but Coplan didn’t want it to be political, “So it’s not.” She shows both sides of the issue. The family comes in to say goodbye but she dies before taking the medication. “That happens to a lot of people” in real life, she said. “Maybe it’s because of the peace of mind that they don’t have to suffer anymore.”

Because there are so many sought-after actors in the play, Coplan said it likely won’t be extended. They all have other projects coming up. But she hopes another theater picks it up. If not there, she said it could come back to Seattle or even Bainbridge.

Coplan said she is expecting a number of people from this area to come to the play Dec. 8 when it will be dedicated to Lisa Lund, who died of cancer about eight years ago. They were friends, but when Coplan told her she was going to write plays she said Lund didn’t take her seriously. But the night before Lund died Coplan told her she was dedicating the play to her. “You have no idea how much that means to me,” Coplan said Lund told her.

Love of theater

Coplan was an actress in high school and moved to New York and tried to make a career out of it. She quickly found out if she wanted to pay rent she couldn’t do both.

She moved to Bainbridge in 1987 and raised her boys. She has been involved with BIMA, Bainbridge Performing Arts, Montessori Country School and enjoys walking along Gazzam Lake. She’s done a lot of writing, including a novel that was never published. “I’d much rather write a play. It’s the dramatization that excites me.”

Her first effort, “Hospice: A Love Story,” was a one-act play that was performed as part of the Island Theatre 10-Minute Play Festival then later performed for a number of weeks in Los Angeles. Her play Honoring Choices became a festival favorite short film. The Choice is co-written with her husband, Scott.

Coplan is the Out of Grief Comes Art podcast creator and a collaborator on The A Chronicles, a theatrical series about reproductive rights.

Coplan started the Grief Dialogues in 2016 as a theatrical expression opening new conversations between grievers, those with terminal and chronic illness, and the health care providers who serve them. “We know that everyone dies, and yet hardly anyone wants to talk about it. And that is why we use theatre, poetry, music, stories and visual art to stimulate vital conversations about dying, death and grief,” Coplan says in a news release.

Elizabeth Coplan and Chad Austin.

Elizabeth Coplan and Chad Austin.