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BWW Interview: Brian Copeland of THE WAITING PERIOD at The Marsh Wants You to Know You Are Not Alone

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The celebrated actor-writer-comedian uses his own story to help others who may be struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts during the pandemic

BWW Interview: Brian Copeland of THE WAITING PERIOD at The Marsh Wants You to Know You Are Not Alone
Actor-writer-comedian-producer Brian Copeland
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

As the San Francisco Bay Area reaches six months of sheltering-in-place, the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for mental health have become more prevalent than ever. In response, The Marsh is bringing back virtual LIVE performances (with post-event discussions) of Brian Copeland's captivating drama "The Waiting Period." This deeply moving and surprisingly funny work that outlines his own struggles with depression and suicidal thought has been shown to literally save lives. The first performance will be Saturday, September 5th at 7:30pm PDT, with 5 subsequent performances on alternate Sundays at 5:00pm from September 13th through November 8th. All performances are offered free of charge. Please visit The Marsh website for additional information.

As people around the world continue to navigate the potential health and financial impacts of the ongoing pandemic, Copeland knew that offering performances of "The Waiting Period" would provide a safe space and support system for those in need during these trying times. I had the pleasure of speaking with Copeland twice in recent months about the show and his long, fascinating career. In two decades as a successful standup comedian, he opened for musical icons such as Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin. He has also hosted popular, long-running talk shows on KGO radio and TV. He is perhaps best known as creator and star of numerous of solo shows, including "Not a Genuine Black Man" which he developed at The Marsh and remains the longest-running solo show in Bay Area history.

Speaking with Copeland, it is instantly clear that he's a people person and born storyteller who possesses encyclopedic knowledge of the history of comedy. He is warmly engaging, readily expresses concern for others (including this interviewer) - and, inveterate performer that he is, loves to share a good showbiz tale. Any conversation with Copeland is bound to cover a wide variety of topics and issues. Ours ranged from mental health to the surprising role that Carl Reiner played in his career to a call for political action. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I would imagine the need for "The Waiting Period" is more pressing than ever, given everything going on in the world right now.

It sure is. One of the things about "Waiting Period" is that the show literally saves lives. There's a story I tell about this woman in the City who was going to go to the Golden Gate Bridge and jump. She's sitting in a café in the City on a Sunday, and her plan is she's gonna have her croissant & espresso, and then she's gonna go and jump. The Sunday Chronicle pink section happens to be on the table she's sitting at, and it's open to a page that's got a picture of me and saying the show is that day and it's free. So she flips a coin - heads she'll go and see the show, tails she goes straight to the bridge. So it comes up heads, and she came and saw the show. And the message of the show is to tell someone if you're having problems that are not in your best interests. She left the show in tears and went right to her sister's house, told her what's going on, and that saved her life. Her sister was able to get her some professional help and she's alive today for two reasons - because the coin landed the way that it landed, heads up, and because she took the message to heart. The follow-up email I got from her was that, you know, things aren't all hunky-dory, but she doesn't want to jump any more.

That's the reason I do the show, and make it generally free to the public, because of stories like that.

That's really, really powerful.

The other thing I wanted is to make sure the message is clear to people who don't suffer from it. There are people who say "Oh, I don't need to see that. That's not my world." I try to reach those people so that they can understand there is somebody in their world who is going through that. Or others who'll say, "I don't have to see that. I lived that." There's still some things you can learn and find comfort in by seeing it, such as again the realization that you're not alone. There are some 30% or 40% of people that on a regular basis are dealing with some mental health issue.

When I first started doing the show, it was just the trippiest thing that so many people, who you look at and think they've got a perfect charmed life, came up to me and whispered in my ear [things like], "You know I take Zoloft." And these are the people you would never guess have any kind of mental illness or depression issue. A lot of people do, and if you're not going through it, you're living with someone who's going through it.

Did you have any hesitancy in being so open about your own struggles with an illness that is still so misunderstood and often stigmatized?

Yeah, I did. I had some misgivings about exactly how honest I was gonna be, then I made the decision that if I'm gonna do this, I need to be as honest about it as I can because if I do this right, it'll save people's lives. Which it has. For me, the final straw that made me decide "OK, I'm gonna do this." was a 15-year-old kid who I never met, whose aunt is a dear friend, who laid down on the railroad track and committed suicide. I thought "That's it. We're losing too many people."

And that happened around the same time that Robin Williams died. I didn't now Robin very well, but I knew Robin. And I thought "OK, we have to have a conversation in this country about suicide and mental illness. We have to erase the stigma. People are dying because they're afraid to ask for help." So I decided I would tell the truth and be as honest as I possibly could. My reasoning is that if I can spill my guts to strangers for 75 minutes, then you can tell somebody you're having thoughts that are not in your best interests.

So the show is more than a show; it's an intervention. That's how I look at it. There are a lot of people in pain, who are suffering, who think they're alone and I'm there to tell ya "No, trust me, you're not alone." And it's not your fault that you suffer from this disease any more than it would be your fault if you suffered from Lou Gehrig's Disease or cancer or any other life-threatening malady.

Have you made any changes to the piece to reflect what we're currently going through?

No. Once I do a play, unless there's a joke or reference that's dated, I don't mess with it. But what I HAVE done, in order to reflect what's going on is I started a daily podcast that's called "Beating the Demon" and in 2 to 3 minutes every day, Monday to Friday, I give some tips on things that I do to make myself feel better when I'm getting into a depressive bout. I think we've recorded 80 or 81 [of them]. People are saying that they're finding it to be useful and I'm able to address the sentiments going on now. As opposed to "The Waiting Period" which is more specifically designed to tell people who are suffering or in a suicidal bout that it's OK, you're not alone, there are a lot of us, - and to educate family members about why they can't just, you know, pop up and smile because the sun is shining.

You have a talent for finding humor in even the most serious topics. Does "The Waiting Period" include funny moments as well?

Oh, yeah! There's plenty. Our big goal was to write a show about depression that wasn't a depressing show. Like all of my shows, it's got parts that are really funny, then, you get kicked in the gut. It's kind of a roller coaster ride.

You have a long history with The Marsh. How did that relationship get started?

Complete and total accident. I knew I wanted to do a one-man show after doing 20 years of standup and I had no idea how to go about it. I knew what I wanted to write about, I had gotten the idea from Carl Reiner. I had Carl on as a guest on one of my radio shows and I asked Carl for advice, like I wanna write but I'm not sure exactly what it is that I need to write about. Carl said every writer-performer has come to this crossroad. He said, "For me it was 1959. I'd been with Sid Caesar for nine years, suddenly Caesar's hour ends and I'm thinking what am I gonna do? I want to write, but I don't know what to write about."

Somebody gave him a copy of Fred Allen's book, the great radio comedian who's one of my idols. Fred Allen's the one who said that television's called a medium cause nothing's ever really well done. [laughs] That's my favorite Fred Allen line. And Fred writes that what you have to do is find the piece of ground that you alone stand on and write from there. Fred's piece of ground was that he had been on network radio on NBC for 18 years, dealing with network suits who just didn't get comedy. That was his piece of ground, and that idea became [the book] "Treadmill to Oblivion."

So Carl thought "What's my piece of ground? Well, I'm a married comedy writer, I live in New Rochelle with my wife and kids, and I write for a comedy show in New York." That idea became a pilot called "Head of the Family" that didn't sell. Sheldon Leonard took it, said let me recast it and I can sell it, and that idea became "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Carl said to me, "You've got to find your piece of ground."

So I get an anonymous letter saying "As an African American, I'm disgusted whenever I hear your voice cause you're not a genuine Black man." And I thought, "Bingo! That's it!" I get this nonsense from people who tell me I'm not really Black because I don't fit some stereotype. So I thought I want to write a story about what it's like to grow up as the only Black face in the room, what it's like to be different, and go from there.

So, I thought, OK how do I start? I had no idea. Then I saw a review in the San Francisco Chronicle of a one-man show by Bob Dubac called "The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron" and it got this rave review. I sent an email to the critic who wrote that review and asked for advice about how to write a one-man show. He said the two best guys in town are David Dower at Z Space and David Ford at The Marsh. He gave me their addresses and I emailed them both. I remember the subject line was "HELP!" all caps, exclamation point and I go "I got this idea. I want to write a show and I don't know how to start." David Ford got back to me, and David Dower didn't. David [Ford] is an artist in residence at The Marsh and immediately got what it was that I was trying to do. Our collaboration was just, you know, milk and honey. It just flowed. And that became "Not a Genuine Black Man" which went on to become the longest-running one-man show in Bay Area theater history, it ran Off-Broadway, and we're trying to develop it for TV now.

When Carl Reiner died recently, I immediately thought of you because of the role he played in your own career.

That was a hard day. I slept in that day and ended up getting texts from all three of my kids with a link to an obit and saying they were sorry cause they knew what Carl meant to me. He was just a genuinely good man. Here I was, you know, a little nobody, and he helped me, he changed my career and changed my life with the advice that he gave me. I would pick up the phone from time to time and ask him questions, and he was always gracious and happy to do it. He's just... he's gonna be missed. Do you know the story about how Carl died?

No, I don't really.

Mel Brooks and Carl were best friends, and especially after their wives passed away, every single night they got together at Carl's. So they watched "Jeopardy" and Carl says "I have to go to the bathroom." and gets up. (I think he was using either a cane or a walker). He took three steps and died. It was that quick. So I'm glad it wasn't a long thing where he was sick and bedridden. I mean he was still writing, he was tweeting out anti-Trump tweets the day that he died. [laughs]

"Not a Genuine Black Man" is still probably the show you're best known for. What do you think it is about that piece that particularly resonates with audiences?

Well, that show has a lot of different constituencies because it deals with so many different issues. There is the part of it about being an outsider. At some point in your life, I don't care who you are - man, woman, Jew, Christian - you're going to be in a situation where there's nobody else like you, so how do you navigate those waters when you're the one who's different?

Then there is the fair housing part of it because the second act deals with my mother fighting the housing discrimination in San Leandro at the time when it was 99% white and considered one of America's most racist suburbs. Fair housing organizations often come to the show and do fund raisers, you know, to come to the show.

Then there's the domestic violence element because my father was violent. I portray some of that domestic violence in the show and how it's dealt with and the effect it had on me, both as his child and as an adult. As a result of that, there were schools assigning the play for their students to come out and see and to write papers based on, especially students in childhood development, as well as therapists who were coming out in droves to see the show because of that particular aspect of it.

So there were a lot of different constituencies that are the reason "Genuine" has run so long. I ran it originally for twelve years and then went on to other plays, and I have revived it and brought it back because unfortunately in the times in which we find ourselves, America has lost her empathy. I mean even if you were ignorant and bigoted and racist before, at least you had enough sense not to spew your venom in public because of what society's ramifications would have been. And now, because of the occupant of the White House, they feel that they have been granted permission. And if they censor themselves in any way - like yelling the n-word at somebody out of a car window, which has happened to me more in the last four years than since I was a child growing up in that 99% white enclave - that you're just simply being politically correct. I find that "Genuine" lands today in a whole different way than it landed originally. I mean, it landed originally because of all the various constituencies I just told you about, but there was also something about "Wow, this is in the rearview mirror. That's how it was then." Whereas now it's like "This is going on right now." There's more of an immediacy that the audience takes from the piece now than during its initial run.

Your most recent stage work was "The Great American Shit Show," your collaboration with Charlie Veron about life in the age of Trump. From your vantage point as an African American artist, do you have any insights into how we can survive this current political situation?

Yeah - vote! Part of "The Great American Shit Show" is that it's a call to action. I mean, we tell these stories and talk about the effect of the climate in which we're now living, but we end it with "You need to vote. You need to be willing to go and knock on doors and canvas. We live in a safe blue bubble. You need to be willing to phone bank and call red states and try to get the voters in the red states to vote for candidates who are going to flip that state or that district blue. It's not just enough to vote now, I mean of course you need to vote, but you've got to make sure that your kids vote and your neighbors vote and that the people across the street from you are voting because that's the only way that we end this. Otherwise we will end up with another four years of this individual as well as another four years of those in his party who are enabling him. If there were any backbone or spine in the Republican party at all, this wouldn't be as much of a problem as it is, because they would have reined him in. There's no way on God's green earth they would have let Barack Obama do one one-hundredth of the things this guy has done.

The only way we end this nightmare is that we need a change in leadership. In order to do that we finally have to come together as Americans and say "No, we're better than this." This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, and it's not a left or a right issue. It's an American issue. I mean, I never thought in my life I'd be on the same side as William Kristol or George Conway. Really?! [laughs] There are some things that transcend political ideology and for me one of those things is right and wrong. The thing that's the most disgusting to me is Mitch McConnell and all those who are enabling him. They know this is wrong and they're doing it out of political self-preservation and self-interest. There are times when every politician is going to support something that they know is wrong, but to consistently do so and look the other way, to consistently enable wrongdoing for four years, is just beyond the pale.

Most everyone is finding this a really challenging time. What are you struggling with the most right now?

The uncertainty, because my entire livelihood depends upon either shows I'm producing or things I'm performing, and if I can't have an audience then I can't do any of it. So what I've been doing with my time is writing and working on various pieces. I've written a crime novel. Jonathan Kellerman, the NY Times best-selling author, is a friend of mine, and he's mentoring me through this book, so I'm working on rewrites on that. I got a commission from San Francisco Playhouse to write an original play for them for next year, and I'm working on that.

That's kind of where my head is and what's keeping me sane. But the biggest thing is just the anxiety. And I can't work on these projects 24 hours a day so there's a lot of "Well, now what do I do?" I get up at 5AM and do my writing and stuff, and a couple things in my garage, and then it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon and it's like "OK, well, now what?"

Where are you currently finding comfort and hope? What's getting you through the day?

My son Casey is a rap artist, and he just put out an album called "For Now," meaning that everything is temporary. Be it good or bad, it's only this way for now. I use that as kind of a mantra, especially if I start to feel down. This is not going to be forever, it's just for now. And I'm sheltering with Casey, my youngest of three. He's 25, and we've been able to spend more quality father-son time together than I think we ever have, so I find comfort and blessing in that.

For more information on upcoming performances of "The Waiting Period," please visit: https://themarsh.org/shows_and_events/marshstream/solo-performer-spotlight-the-waiting-period/.



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