The love affair our society is currently having with women in sports is sparking all kinds of hope about the future of gender equality finally finding its rightful place within the testosterone laden industry. From the US Women’s National Team winning the World Cup, to Becky Hammon making history as the first woman to not only coach a Las Vegas Summer League team, but to also lead her team to a championship, the accomplishments of sportswomen have received A1 story status.
“King Liz,” an Off Broadway play featuring female protagonist Liz Rico, a high-powered NBA sports agent brilliantly portrayed by actress Karen Pittman, is a timely production, both written (Fernanda Coppel) and directed (Lisa Peterson) by women.
Here’s a synopsis of the production:
Sports agent Liz Rico has money and an elite client roster but a woman in a man’s industry has to fight to stay on top. She’s worked twice as hard to get where she is and wants to take over the agency that she’s helped build. Enter Freddie Luna, a high school basketball superstar with a troubled past. If Liz can keep this talented yet volatile young star in line, she just might end up making not only his career, but her own as well. But at what price?
Talk about #UnManningTheGame! After learning about the subject matter and the women powerhouses behind the production, I not only had to check it out, but I was also eager to score an interview with Coppel, herself. Thankfully, she accepted my invitation.
Upon previewing the production last week, I had the great opportunity to chat with the Mexican playwright over Colombian food in a festive Park Slope, BK eatery. It was there Coppel, a Julliard and New York University film school graduate, shared the inspiration behind exploring the pressing topic of a woman succeeding in a man’s world, explaining how her sexuality and Mexican roots have helped shape her career, and the biggest lesson learned along her journey of creating King Liz. Hint: Legendary college basketball coach Jim Valvano would agree.
Shana Renee (SR): What inspired you to tell the story of King Liz?
Fernanda Coppel (FC): I also write for television and I was spending a lot of time in LA; and I was having kind of a difficult time. I was a gay woman of color. In any writer’s room, like in the sports industry, it’s a very guy centric fraternity type of feeling. And so, I really wanted to write about that — being a woman of color in the workforce and the sort of challenges that you have; and how you have to shape your personality and tone things down, so to speak. That really interested me and I’ve been a huge basketball fan for my whole life.
Shana Renee: So what team(s) do you root for?
Fernanda Coppel: When I was little, I was obsessed with the Bulls because of course, Michael Jordan. And then obviously I love the Lakers. I’ve been following Kobe Bryant’s career since he was a teen. But the Lakers have really turned me off because of the administrative decisions they’ve made – kind of what’s in the play – like not investing in young talent, trying to sell tickets, and it just makes for really terrible basketball. So, I’ve been rooting for the Clippers for about four years – before they were really good. I just loved their style of play and their energy. They seemed like a hardworking team.
SR: Being an NBA fan really paid off because the language and dialogue throughout the production was very realistic…and well researched. How intense was that process?
FC: A lot of that stuff I already knew because I’m such a huge fan, and I’m also watching those 30 for 30s anyway; and I’m so fascinated. I love the Jalen Rose podcast with Bill Simmons. I got a lot of information from them. I just love Jalen Rose because he’s so candid about what it’s like to be a young player, and I feel that some players aren’t as honest. So, yeah, I think I was already kind of prepared for that. I more so had to research what it was like to be an agent. And for that, I spoke to a sports agent, Jill Smoller…she represents Serena Williams and Kevin Durant. She only does merchandising, so she’s purely doing endorsements. But she was really helpful. We had a great phone conversation. Her vocabulary and the way she talked… the way she said, “I love the hunt.” And I thought, if someone was not in this profession, no one would ever say that!
SR: There’s a perception that in order for women to be successful in this business, she has to be an alpha female and I saw a lot of that in Liz. But there were also times when she played up her femininity and used it to her advantage. Do you think that’s necessary? Or, why was it important for you to create a character who showed that multi-dimension?
FC: Well there’s a dichotomy, I think that when you’re a woman with power, you have to have a certain personality especially if men work for you because they’re easier to disrespect you if you’re not stern. I feel like it’s more difficult for a female boss to joke around and be more casual. I feel like men will turn that against her in some way. I feel like you’re judged a bit harder if you’re a female with any sense of power. So, I really wanted to dive into that and the difference between when you’re powerful in a public space and a private space and when you’re more allowed to be yourself. I think that duality of personality is really interesting.
SR: I feel like the timing of the play is very aligned with what we’re experiencing in sports with the Women’s World Cup, Becky Hammon, and even last year with Mo’Ne Davis…and Serena Williams continuing to kill it!
FC: Yeah, that wasn’t planned, by the way. I’m like universe, thank you! But yeah, the journey of this play was unique in that sense because I wrote it last summer so it’s a very new play. And, usually in theater it takes a really long time to get your play produced. My last play that was produced in New York, I workshopped for four years. But with this play, I feel that 2econd Stage, the theater that did it, felt like it was a really timely play. So, they were like, we’re all in. Whatever you need to develop, or anything, you’ll just do it within the process; which is great There’s a lot of sexism and difficulties within theater for women and I feel like theaters are more known to take that risk with a male playwright than with a female playwright. Guys can just write whatever they want and six months later, it’ll be produced; whereas women get stuck developing and perfecting the play. But with this play, I was treated in the latter sense. They said, we think you can get it in shape in time by next summer.
SR: As a woman playwright in a male dominated industry, what challenges have you experienced?
FC: It’s easier for them to have faith that a young man can deliver.
SR: Especially for the subject matter to be sports, which is not usually associated with women…
FC: That too. So in theater they’re more likely to take a risk on a guy. There’s more confidence there that they can deliver a play that’s fully realized. I feel like there are so many more opportunities for men…across the board, any Broadway play that you see is written by a guy, even if the protagonist is a woman – musical, same…Off Broadway, same. The numbers are staggering…the differences. And for women of color the numbers are even worse. It’s tough, but like Liz says, “You just have to put bourbon in your coffee cup, and keep going.” And she was such a fun character to write, because she’s like that fantasy of what you wish you could say to everybody but you can’t, obviously because you still want to work.
SR: Are these characters based on any real-life personalities or experiences?
FC: No, they’re 100% fiction.
SR: Really? Because even with Freddie Luna’s character, there were a couple of times when I thought, “Oh, he’s giving me Chris Brown right now!”
FC: *laughs but credits actor Jeremie Harris for delivering a strong and believable portrayal of Freddie Luna*
SR: So, throughout your process, did you have any interesting discoveries or revelations that surprised you?
FC: I think it was more of a personal journey. Even though the play is about sports and agents, it’s still pretty personal to me. I think that writers, like the seat of it, has to come from a real place, or the audience can tell that it’s superficial. So, any sort of revelations I had were just internal about my own path as being a woman in an industry that’s really difficult. And I think that one thing I realized, since I wrote the play — I was in a very dark place and since then things have gotten better for me — and I feel like I learned that for however many people that say no to you, if you just keep going, there’s somebody behind the no who will say yes. And, it’s a test of strength and longevity. You just have to be the last man standing. You have to keep going even when there are a lot of nos. That’s one thing I realized since I’ve written this play.
SR: So, how long have you been in this business and when did you notice this is what you wanted to do?
FC: I’ve been in New York since 2007. I did my MFA at NYU. I didn’t really think that this could be a career. I was the first person in my family to go to grad school, like there was no real guidance there and they were like why don’t you go to law school. Being the daughter of immigrants, they want you to be a doctor – you know, you can do something great and make a lot of money. So, theater didn’t really seem like a viable option. And still, it’s a pretty hard life to just do theater, especially in New York. There’s no economic reward or stability, you kind of do it because you love it. It took me a while to figure that out and so I started writing for television, probably 3 years ago and so that helps a lot with the economic side of it, but it also has its challenges because my jobs are usually in LA. So, I have to go out there and have a presence in LA. So, I think it’s taken me a while to figure out my path and what I want to do. But now I feel like I’m on it where I can have my TV jobs and do whatever I need to do.
…It does have its challenges, though. Because you know in the theater, there’s this weird stigma around writing for TV. Like this is the pure sense of the art form and television is commercial. So, people sometimes take digs at you. Sometimes critics take digs at you. But the truth of the matter is that every playwright I know, of my generation, writes for TV. So, it’s keeping theater alive because there’s no way to make a living otherwise.
SR: What’s one message you’d like people to walk away with after watching King Liz?
FC: I think I’d like people, or any audience member, to think about the character Liz Rico, the protagonist. Maybe at work, if there’s a “Liz” around, or a woman of color that they’ve judged harshly, or within their work setting, for them to look at a “Liz” with more compassion within their own communities…less judgment, basically.
SR: What consistent message are you hoping to convey with each production?
FC: Thematically, I write characters for people who don’t feel that they belong and are trying to find their place in the world. People who have their own way of doing things and are trying to figure out how to navigate and operate in the world. I would say, my comfort zone is comedy…dark comedy, definitely. And I just like to be innovative, try new things and take people different places.
SR: What one piece of advice would you offer aspiring female playwrights?
FC: Keep going, and you know what I said about what I’ve learned after I wrote this, for every no, there’s a yes two people away and sometimes you don’t know it because you’re so focused on the nos and it can be really heartbreaking, but keep going because you never know. You just need that one person, and don’t give up.
photo via NY Times/Sara Krulwich