BWW Interviews: Playwright Will Cooper Has a Beautiful Mind
Will Cooper is based in Chicago, but his roots reach back to San Diego, where his parents lived decades ago. His play Jade Heart chronicles the journey of an infant girl, abandoned in China and brought to America by her adoptive single Caucasian mother, and her struggles with identity as she comes of age. The play, which debuted at Chicago Dramatists in 2010, will be performed from July 11 to August 10, 2014, at San Diego's Moxie Theatre (http://www.moxietheatre.com).
EM: Your background is unusual for a playwright: a B.S. in math?
WC: My mother took me to a psychologist for intellectual and aptitude testing when I was about thirteen. I asked what my IQ was, thinking at the time it was vital to have one that didn't fall too far short of Einstein's. I tried to pry out of her solid information that would justify the hours I spent away from the television, solving puzzles and darkening little circles on a piece of paper. The only thing she would report to me about the results was, "You can do anything you want." I surmised the testing had either been a waste of money, or else the results were so deflating to her maternal pride that she thought it better to hide them from me. As I've gone along in life, I have found that my interests and abilities range widely. While science has always fascinated me, my true love is language. I love words. My little knack for words first got noticed back in the 4th grade. My teacher (thought) I had talent for calling words to mind and putting them together in an attention-getting way. In the fifth grade I began writing stories about a cave-dwelling creature named Goomba Doughey ™. Our teacher published the creature's epic adventures on the classroom wall, where our classmates clustered around to follow them. A teacher in the eleventh grade whom I loved took me aside after I received back another essay besmeared with red ink and told me that though I wasn't near the top of my class, I some day would be the best writer of them all. His compliment flowed into me like water. I've thought of it often. As for my math degree... In the late 90's I got involved in the environmental and anti-nuke movement. I soon realized I didn't know enough science and technology to justify my opposition. I started taking classes at the University of Chicago in science and math. My interest in math heated up. What a beautiful subject! Every semester I took a class or two and eventually received a letter from the university informing me that if I took this, that, and the other, they would hand me a B.S. in mathematics. In 2002, I obtained my second undergraduate degree in a subject for which I scarcely have an ounce of talent.
EM: Do you feel that your math degree informs your writing?
WC: It certainly helped teach me how to approach problem solving, how to let my unconscious mind work for me. The closest that my interest in science and math has directly influenced my playwriting shows itself in the subject of my newest work, a drama called "Margin of Error" (the play will receive a staged reading on July 28th at Moxie Theatre, directed by Ruff Yeager), the story of a senior scientist who committed a breach in science ethics early in his career that is discovered years later by one of his graduate students.
EM: When did you first become passionate about theatre?
WC: I was more a poet and short story writer than a theatregoer. I was not a theatre natural. As a literature major, I read and saw a bunch of plays. My mom and dad flew to New York once a year and took in a couple Broadway musicals, and on one trip they hauled my sisters and me along. We saw Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music". I did have a passing interest in acting. Living in Mexico City, I read an ad in the newspaper looking for an actor to dub a Spanish-language film into English. I met with the producer and she hired me. For two weeks I worked in a sound booth with a cast of experienced American actors at the Churubusco Studios. I had the lead part, a teenage boy in love. I never pursued a career as an actor afterward, though I wish now I had. The story of how I got into playwriting might strike one as inauspicious. My wife is a public speaker and thought she'd like to put together a one-woman show. She signed up for an introductory play-writing class at Chicago's Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theatre, went to the first class and realized it wasn't what she was looking for. She asked me if I'd be interested in taking over her spot. I said "yes." Now I'm a great snob about it (theatre). I'll tell anybody that live theatre's better than the movies, better than novels or poetry. I love it so much that I want to sit in the front row, close enough to see and feel every bead of sweat on the actors' brows. Theatre is irreplaceable... we humans will love stories told to us in the dark by fellow beings who live and breath and speak for us, as much as to us, from under bright lights shining down on a diorama of dreams.
EM: What year did Book of Leaves reach the finals of the Ashland New Plays Festival? Were you surprised your very first play achieved this honor?
WC: In 2006. I was too ignorant of the business then to be surprised. I suppose, in looking back, I'm flabbergasted.
EM: Did you choose to bring Jade Heart to San Diego because of your roots here? How did you decide to mount the play at Moxie Theatre?
WC: My very dear friend Phil Johnson, a well-respected, award-winning actor in San Diego, saw the Chicago production and loved it. He put together a reading at his home the next time I was in town. Moxie's Artistic Director Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg attended. She believed straight away that it was a Moxie play and presented it to her company. They agreed. Since then I have seen a number of shows at this acclaimed theatre and have become a huge fan. The quality of their productions is outstanding, and I am thrilled at the prospect of having "Jade Heart" staged there. I was especially honored and pleased that Delicia agreed to direct. She is an über-talented lady. My roots in San Diego, they go back to 1981 when my parents moved there from Guadalajara, Mexico. Over the last three decades I visited them a few times a year.
EM: What inspired you to write a play about a Chinese woman adopted by an American-Caucasian mother?
WC: The inspiration came from my youngest sister's adoption of an orphaned Chinese baby girl in the 1990s. My niece was brought up in a loving two-parent home and grew up to be nothing like my character Jade, who rebelled against her mother and felt haunted by the mystery of her provenance. I have never been to China, but I did study Mandarin with a friend from Singapore while I researched the play.
EM: Please describe the role of your wife Lynn - your "weditor" as you've named her - and her influence in your work.
WC: Lynn's a terrific editor. She once wrote for a furniture design magazine and has served in PR and advertising. For many years she's done public speaking and is a wordsmith in her own right. Beginning with my first play, she's given me consistently excellent feedback. She has a good ear and will tell me if something doesn't sound as it should. I almost always take her advice. In the big picture she's the love of my life. I probably wouldn't have done anything dramaturgically if it weren't for her. Since I met her, everything good that has flowed to me I owe to her.
EM: How long have you lived in Chicago? Do you have a close relationship with the Chicago Dramatists?
WC: I moved to Chicago in 1977 to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. Dramatists? I love that institution and have benefitted greatly by my association with it. I've been a Network Playwright there since 2006 and have been awarded three Saturday Series staged readings and a full production in 2010, the world premiere of "Jade Heart". Chicago Dramatists' Artistic Director Russ Tutterow is a good friend, as are many of the Resident Playwrights and a host of my fellow Network playwrights. Chicago Dramatists has soldiered on during the economic downturn and continues to help develop new plays and foster the careers of emerging playwrights as well as well-produced veterans. I am proud and grateful to have been a part of it.
EM: Your next play is about a scientist and the ethics of that profession. How and why did you choose that subject?
WC: Truth is, I never spend much time debating what story to tell. I sit down and brainstorm ideas and then pick one. My conviction is that whatever story I choose, if I tell it sincerely and truthfully, it will reflect my imagination, ideas, unconscious predilections, and feelings. We live in a country where many political leaders ignore science or spout dogmatic ideology in the face of scientifically established facts. That bothers me a lot. I wanted to talk about science and show what makes it an indispensable path to reliable and verifiable knowledge. I came up with the idea of a senior scientist who as a young man violates his professional code of conduct. His breach of ethics gets discovered years later after he's become world famous and respected as much for his moral character, as his discoveries in physics. My challenge with "Margin of Error" was how to make a story about science dramatic. Plays concern human beings and their actions and relationships, how they feel and think about each other and themselves. I don't like plays in which the playwright forces characters to become mouthpieces through which to declaim his or her prosaic opinions on a pet subject. With "Margin of Error" I was able to construct a story that is rich in dramatic conflict and still allows me to slip in the ideas I wanted to convey. This is important.
EM: Will, thanks so much for sharing your insights. I wish you a hugely successful run at Moxie Theatre
WC: Thank you, Erica.
Photo credit: Douglas Friedman