August 8, 2004

 

an interview with
Julie York Coppens

 

Julie York Coppens

 

 

More about South Bend Civic Theatre's production of Concessions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Before coming to Charlotte this spring, Julie York Coppens worked in South Bend, Indiana, covering arts for the daily paper. Among other writing projects, she wrote a young adult novel, which she then adapted into a play. Concessions is the story of two high school age cousins, Mattie and Jana, whose summer job at the Home Plate, a concession stand at St. James Athletic Fields, turns out to be about a lot more than making hot dogs. Over the summer, the girls find themselves embroiled in a money making scheme that exposes the hypocrisy of grown-ups and the wisdom of youth. South Bend Civic Theatre is producing Concessions in late August, and we met Julie uptown a few days ago to talk about the play, the book it arose from, and her new job as theatre critic for The Charlotte Observer.

Letís talk about the play first, even though itís based on your earlier novel. Is it a play about young people or for young people?

I hope itís a play that parents can enjoy with their older kids. It's about a young girl coming of age. It is her story, but there are some adult characters that go through a bit of journey, too, so I wouldnít want to categorize it as for only young people. I think itís a story that anyone over the age of 8 could appreciate.

Did you have the same point of view for the book?

I had a young female reader in mind for the book, and the young adult market in mind. Itís what I would have wanted to read when I was 12. The book is in first person. Itís in Mattieís voice. The challenge of translating it for the stage was that when it was just Mattie and her journey, all the other characters existed just to make things more difficult for Mattie, and they were all as she saw them. But you canít act a role that way. If Iím going to play one of these adult characters, I need a reason for doing what Iím doing and being who I am, beyond Mattieís view of me. That really opened up my conception of the secondary characters.

What made you decide to write a book that was geared to a specific age group?

Probably like a lot of writers, I thought about it for a long time. This is a story that Iíve wanted to tell. I had this experience when I was a girl, working with my older cousin at a concession stand at our old parish ballpark. My mom was in charge of it, and we worked the counter. The relationship I had with my cousin, who is the most beautiful and sweet person, is not at all like Mattieís with Jana. Jana, the older cousin in the play, is pretty obnoxious. My cousin Jamie is a great girl, and I hope she doesnít take offense at the play. But I thought it would be a fun and unusual setting, and I liked the dynamic between the two girls. I wanted to tell a Catholic story; thatís part of my background, and I wanted to exercise a part of my brain that doesnít always get exercised in journalism.

Have you previously published any stories or books?

The first thing I ever published was a short story called "The Gavel" that was published by Cricket Magazine back in 1999. It was well received, and was about an episode from my high school years. So I decided to try a book-length project.

Our summer reading has included The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Its author, Mark Haddon, has written childrenís books. It seems that his experience in writing for children better enabled him to get into the head of a 15 year old, albeit one with as unique a view as Christopher.

Thatís a tricky thing. Iím putting myself in the category of people who write juvenile fiction, and Iím not quite there yet so itís a little presumptuous, but I think we all feel a little bit like weíre cheating. I think Mattie, as a 14 year old, is pretty exceptional. She has an extensive vocabulary, sheís obviously a reader, and sheís very observant and aware of whatís going on around her. As I was writing, I wondered how different she was from a typical 14 year old. I think we sell kids short a lot. Sometimes people will criticize a childrenís book because the childís voice doesnít seem believable; it sounds precocious. You read To Kill a Mockingbird and think, Scout would not really say that. But Iím not so sure.

Tell us about the process of turning Concessions into a play.

I had a first act, which I submitted to South Bend Civic Theatre. I was living in South Bend at the time, and I knew that this theatre occasionally produces local playwrightsí work in their studio season.

It seems like South Bend Civic Theatre has a very robust studio season.

They do. They produce a lot of plays, and do a lot of new work, so I thought, as a young, unknown, untried writer, that they might take a chance on this. I had the book, so I sent them the first act and the rest of manuscript so that they could see where the story went. The ending did change a little bit - thereís a coda at the end of the play that doesnít exist in the book. But basically what I did was - and Iím not sure I would do it this way again - save my manuscript as another file, and write into the existing document, taking out the descriptions, replacing them with other action or dialogue. Some of that happened organically, and some of it was a struggle. Some things just took a change in location, or a consolidation of things. I found things in the novel that didnít need to be there, didnít really move the story forward. The concession stand is obviously the center of Mattieís world that summer, and the other settings could be suggested easily, so that wasnít too much of a problem. I liked the theatrical nature of transforming the concession stand into the other scenes. Iím very interested to see how they accomplish that in South Bend, and I wonít know until opening night.

Did you work with them in developing it?

I got an email form a woman on the reading committee who is a childrenís librarian, and she gave me very nice feedback and pointed out a couple of things in the script that she thought were flaws of logic, or she didnít quite buy, and actually one of those suggestions lead to a really funny joke that I wouldnít have thought of if it hadnít been for her. Then, just before I left town, we had a sit-down reading with some actors - in fact, the girl who read for Mattie that night wound up getting the part - and that was one of the most fun nights ever. Everyone was laughing. They really got into it, especially the students, and that was great. As they were reading, Iíd hear lines that were too long, or realized I needed a joke here or there, or needed to tighten up a scene. So, after that I made some revisions and sent them my final script.

Do you know the director?

I do. Her name is Rachel Lopez-Richardson. We met a couple of times before I left town, and I have tremendous confidence in her. She has enthusiasm for the piece, a great feel for it, and she has done a lot of work with young actors. I knew I needed that. There are kissing scenes, and confrontational scenes between the two girls that are very emotional, and I needed a director who a 15-year-old actor would trust.

Do you anticipate more changes after youíve seen the production?

Thatís up in the air. Iím very lucky to get a full production. Most of the time you just get a reading or a workshop. Thereís that sort of rock video scene in the play when theyíre throwing hot dogs. Iíll have a chance to actually see that, and see if it works as well onstage as it did in my imagination. I think itís dangerous to second-guess my decisions as a writer based on one production, and I hope my experience as a critic will help me tell if things are a script issue, or an acting issue, or a production issue. Iíll just see. Thereís one scene that the director has pointed out to me. Itís a scene where the parents refer to the sex abuse scandal in the priesthood. Itís very subtle, and over almost before you know it, and the director felt like it was more serious than the rest of the play. But I do want to say something about how, because of the scandal, parents are looking at their youth ministers askance, and also to illustrate how parents struggle with trying to protect their children. Even though itís a mostly lighthearted story, I wanted to get at that, to say something about the Catholic community now. The scandal is really hard to get over, and I didnít want to write a story about Catholic kids and not address it.

Do you think the play would work as a secular piece?

It was important to me that it not be a generic kind of high school story. Mattieís faith journey is a big part of the story.

Mattieís confessions are a part of the play.

Right. The question is whether they are actually taking place or if she is just rehearsing them in her own mind. Iíve wanted to keep that ambiguous, and Iíll be watching in this production to see if the audience gets it. All those little bits where Mattie steps out of her world and talks to the audience or to the priest are very much up to interpretation and staging. I needed a device to deliver all that exposition.

It seems that this is a coming of age play, but itís also the story about second chances. Do you think Mattie gives the Catholic Church a second chance?

When the other characters disappoint Mattie, she finds ways to rise above it. I donít think her experience with parish politics that summer is a deal breaker. Itís a challenge. For myself, I am no longer a practicing Catholic. Whether Mattie will go down a different road, I couldnít tell you.

Letís talk about your job here as theatre critic for The Charlotte Observer.

Everyone I talked to at The Observer when I came to interview for the job - even if they didnít share my obsessive passion for theatre - seemed interested. They attend theatre; they asked good questions and seemed to know why I was needed. Theatre in Charlotte has reached a critical mass, and deserves a full-time critic. That really came across. At other newspapers, sometimes youíre the only person who gives a damn. The Observer recognizes that it needs to appeal to a younger, more diverse readership, provide more local cultural coverage, and to be the final word on local arts. I love newspaper work. I love the quick turnaround.

Do you ever get stuck?

You canít let yourself. At a daily newspaper, writerís block is not an option, and thatís really healthy for a writer. Writing does not depend on some metaphysical whim. Iím a writer. I write.

There was an interesting article in the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker about writerís block.

I read that. It did make me think. Maybe thereís some sort of syndrome. Newspaper work is nice in that itís not all up to you. With fiction, youíre pulling it out of yourself. With a feature piece, the subject really does the work. Itís descriptive. Artists make my job really easy. Theyíre interesting and theyíre doing exciting things. I never lack for inspiration.

Do you plan to involve yourself in local theatre in any other way?

No. I really canít. Itíd be like the political reporter running for office. Some people think itís a compromise to have this play produced, but I think as long as itís in a completely different market itís ok. I do hope to gain some insight from putting myself out there on the other side of the artist/critic equation, but will it change my reviews? Probably not. I expect that a lot of what I'll learn, what I'm already learning, will be inside-baseball kind of stuff. I try to avoid too much shop talk in my reviews, since I'm writing not just for theater geeks like myself but for anyone who might pick up the paper that day.

Whatís your approach? When you go into a performance, do you direct your comments to the production or the material?

Really, and this sounds really simple, I go to have a good time. I go in with the same mindset as everyone else. I try to absorb the energy around me, and I really try to meet every play, even if I donít like the piece, half way. I try to write about the experience. Part of that is the piece, and if I think itís not true or not worth being told, thatís part of the story. But Iím not writing book reports or literary analysis. Iím reviewing a theatre experience that involves many different elements. Thereís not space to comment on all of them, but I try to address the ones that most severely or positively affect the experience. The best comment I hear from people is "you put me there."

How are you finding Charlotte?

Iím really glad I came. I love the paper and feel very much at home already. Iím really excited by the people that Iíve met: people like the producer Anne Lambert, Alan Poindexter and Childrenís Theatre, the people at Actorís Theatre, playwright Stan Peal at Epic Arts - I feel very privileged to be in this community. I also feel like only 1 percent of the Charlotte population is aware of all this talent, so I really have my work cut out for me. Itís not entirely up to me, but I want to help create more inclusive and expanded audiences. I hope that, over time, the result of my being here will be better theatre, bigger audiences.

Best of luck with that. Thanks for talking with us.

~ Lydia Arnold
August 8, 2004

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