An interview I conducted and edited for the playbill and web promotion for and, and, and, Isabella Bootlegs, a new play by Samantha Cooper, directed by Norah Elges.
Samantha Cooper’s new play and, and, and Isabella Bootlegs premiered this month. Production dramaturg Sara Keats led Cooper and director Norah Elges in conversation about the women-driven heart of the play, bi-coastal collaboration, and the future of new plays with Seattle roots.
Sara Keats: Sam, I’d love to start with you just telling us a little about the play. Where did the idea for this play initially come from?
Samantha Cooper: In one of my first playwriting classes at Columbia, we were assigned an exercise about working unreliable narrators. I immediately thought of this family story, about my great-grandmother, who was bootlegger in Montana, and the death of her husband. We’re missing a crucial moment in that story– no one alive knows whether my great-grandfather’s death was an accident, suicide or murder, and there’s decent reason to believe any of three. That exercise, with that family story floating around in my brain, led to the first draft of and, and, and Isabella Bootlegs.
SK: And you kept with it beyond that exercise, beyond that first draft even.
SC: Yeah, I think I was interested in this, and remained interested in this, because of my love for family lore, specifically my own family lore. I wanted to explore the way in which our stories get passed from one generation to the next. Secrecy, especially within the context of knowledge about our own families, is something that really interests me.
SK: Secrecy, and also just lack of knowledge. There is a lot about our personal histories that I think many people just never get to unearth.
SC: There is so much that we don’t know about our families and that we will never be privy to. Whether good or bad, some tales die with the generations – and some of tales are meant to. What we learn about ourselves and our family is really in the hands of who is relaying the story. In many ways, trying to understand the impetus for why we are the way we are or why our family operates the way it does is next to impossible. A lot of the major ideas of the play rest in an exploration of how we are shaped by the fact that our personal histories are never completely knowable. You can never find truth through secrets. With this play, I got to play with that idea by bringing multiple generations of family together in one space.
SK: Specially the women in a family. This play deals almost exclusively in mothers and daughters.
SC: Yes, and part of that is that I love to write women characters. Bad-ass women. Strong, intelligent, driven, complex women. Women characters that, hopefully, women love to play.
Norah Elges: They do, they do. And it was such a treat to work on a play with these– not necessarily gritty, but imperfect female characters. So many plays have female characters that aren’t fully fleshed out.
SK: We pass the Bechdel Test! With flying colors!
NE: These women are survivors. They have different tactics to survive, but they’re all tough in their own way.
SC: And this play, of course, is somewhat of an homage to those types women who are so common in my family.
SK: So do you think of Isabella Bootlegs as autobiographical?
SC: Not necessarily. Although, I think for any play you write it’s hard to separate out which parts are you and which are pure fiction, which is certainly one of the joys of anything creative. Of course, most writing starts from a true personal place, and in this case, it started from a particular family story. But then there is a divergence from the personal. The play exists in world wherein it is possible to tell this particular story, a world that is not quite the same as the world we live in.
SK: But I think it’s clear that you drew a lot of inspiration from real places, or more specifically real distances between places. So much of the texture of this play has to do the with particular wide spaces of Montana and Eastern Washington.
SC: Those come from my own life and my own family history, for sure. I often think of my writing as psychogeographical. Across a lot of my work, I’ve been attracted to talking about the ways our lives and memories are shaped by our relationship to the places we live, and vice versa: how our understanding of a place is shaped by the stories in our personal history are set there.
SK: Norah, I don’t think you’ve ever been to Montana. What drew you to this play initially?
NE: Courtney [Meaker, interim artistic director of Macha Monkey when Isabella Bootlegs was first selected for production] sent me the script, and just from her description of the play I was intrigued: complicated mother-daughter relationships made all the more complicated by some extreme behavior? I couldn’t wait to read it.
SK: And when you read it…?
NE: I loved it. I love family plays because the dynamics of familial relationships are always so rich. You can be meaner to your family than anyone else in your life. I think for most people, the deeper level of love that’s there in a family gives you the safety to really dig deeper.
SK: But this play was never a regular ol’ kitchen sink family drama.
NE: Oh no, and that’s part of what I like about it. The way Sam was playing with structure presents such an interesting directorial challenge, and the language has a great rhythm and poetry to it. When Sam and I first met about the play, we talked a lot about the idea of unreliable narrators, un-likeable characters, and female characters not needing to be liked. I love that these women, all four of the female characters of the play, aren’t trying to be pretty or perform for anyone. I don’t think we see enough of that.
SK: I know I was also really drawn to the way this play samples these very particular moments in American history. Like obviously there’s no period of time without it’s danger and it’s crisis and what have you, but I love how we get to these women not only surviving the conflicts created by their families, but also the effects of the outside world.
NE: That’s true. Some of the most interesting moments of the play operate in a timeless, storytelling space, but we were able to ground ourselves in some of the very period-specific conflicts that come up in the play. Though in some ways Sam is using these specific moments in history to examine these universal truths, there’s something very valuable about the moments in which we are most clearly in one space and one time
SK: Sam’s been in New York for the entire production process, with only one visit to Seattle during casting. But the play has been changing throughout the rehearsal process. What’s a long distance new play rehearsal process like?
NE: Bi-coastal play development is a first for all of us. This play has been brought to you by an endless chain of group texts, Google video chats, emails, Dropbox uploads, and video & audio recordings. We were super lucky to have Sam out here in January for the second half of the audition process, which I think is really the number one thing that set us up for success. Sam’s voice is very specific and it was important to me to make sure we were on the same page with who these women were, and of course, who our one man would be. We did a reading of the first draft, which gave all of us a lot to think about. We also just talked, ate a lot and also told a lot of stories.
SC: As Norah said, the bi-coastal development thing was definitely something new. It definitely had it’s challenges, but I think we navigated it. I spent the whole processes wishing I could be in the rehearsal room, but through recordings and conversations, I was able to feel as connected to the process as possible.
SK: How has the play changed since that very first draft? What has stayed the same throughout?
SC: From the first draft through the January workshop, the bones and DNA of the play haven’t really changed. Knowing the DNA of your work is important, it’s where the integrity of the piece is born, so I wanted to make sure that stayed intact. Then it began about the nuances and clarifying moment-to-moment work and the way the show moves. But I think the heart of the play– how family stories and family secrets affect the people we become– has been a constant.
SK: Norah, in addition to directing, you’re also an arts administrator and producer with a passion for new work. How do you advocate for new plays in those roles?
NE: In addition to going to readings and seeing new work, I’m gearing up to launch a new play advocacy group called Umbrella Project. UP was born from a desire to make Seattle a destination for new work. It’s wonderful to bring new work that’s connected to Seattle or has an audience in Seattle, like Macha did with Isabella Bootlegs, but there’s not the right structure in place to advocate for a play from germination all the way to a second production outside of Seattle. Organizations like Hedgebrook that launch new writers are fantastic and necessary, but with Umbrella Project, my partners and I hope to carry plays we love through multiple productions around the country. I’m interested in how we can bring the artists and the companies of this community, who consider themselves champions of new work, to better support our playwrights. Also that while the internet makes a lot of things possible, you do hit a point where you don’t ever want to send another email. We have a lot of exciting things ahead of us so please do check back in at umbrellaprojectnw.org