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The Grief Dialogues

Using Theatre to Start the Conversation

If you’ve read my blog or seen posts on Official Playwrights of Facebook, you know that I’m a huge advocate of the ten-minute play, primarily because they create other opportunities. This is the best example I’ve seen to date: Elizabeth Coplan wrote a ten-minute play called “Hospice: A Love Story,” which has led to a project larger, more far-reaching, and more significant than she ever could have imagined: The Grief Dialogues.

But let’s back up. Before the ten-minute play, Coplan was writing a full-length play called Hospice: A Musical that was inspired by the death of a cousin and the apparent fleecing of her estate by a financial advisor. “The play was my therapy to reconcile all that,” says Coplan. “Ultimately, I was trying to finish it, trying to figure out what would happen with two sisters the day after their mother’s death, and I wrote a little play to help me see the characters more and flesh out the end. It was never meant to see the light of day, but that epilogue became a powerful stand-alone play.” So Coplan shored it up, and sent it off to the Island Theatre Ten-Minute Play Festival on Bainbridge Island, WA, a local competition—and it won a performance spot.

People won’t start a conversation about dying, death, and grief, but they want to talk about it. The more I shared my story, the more other people shared their stories.

Around the same time, two other things happened: Coplan’s best friend lost her husband in a tragic accident, and her nonagenarian in-laws moved into an upscale retirement village, where they seem to be waiting to die. “They’re scared to death of dying, they don’t want to talk about it, but that’s all they’re doing—waiting,” she says. “Those are the three things that made me think that this is a global issue, something more than an evil financial planner and his puppet wife. [At the Island Theatre show], what I found was that people won’t start a conversation about dying, death, and grief, but they want to talk about it. The more I shared my story, the more other people shared their stories. That’s what got me thinking: if we put a bunch of these together, we could open up that dialogue.”

At first, Coplan thought she’d just hand-select some playwrights and put together one or two nights of grief-related short plays. “What happened was I got some really good plays, and I realized that I was missing various voices, that I needed more of a mix,” she says. “So I put out a call and, in doing that, I started meeting people from all over the country who were interested in being part of the Grief Dialogues project.”

From there, things exploded. To explain how every connection was made and every milestone achieved would take ten of these columns and still not convey the rightness of it all—but here’s one story. In applying for a grant, Coplan was asked to identify her competition. “To my mind, I didn’t have any, because people talking about death and grief in a positive way is a good thing,” she says, but the question made her think about Death Positive: The Order of the Good Death. “The founder is a mortician, Caitlin Doughty, who has a YouTube show and is quite a personality; she’s written a brilliant New York Times bestseller about her first years working in a crematorium called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I call her the rock star of death.”

Elizabeth Coplan. Photo by Debbie MacLeond.

Feeling that their goals were complementary, not competitive, Coplan invited Order member and medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom to meet. Long story short, not only is Coplan now organizing a Death Positive salon at the University of Washington in September 2017, but the event will also host the world premiere of the Grief Dialogues, a roughly ninety-minute show of short pieces, followed by discussion moderated by grief counselors.

Some other examples: Coplan created an Advisory Council for the project, and Death Positive founder Doughty is now on it (“so now I have the rock star of death as my front person!”); Coplan connected with a web designer who, she learned afterward, had lost two children and designed a beautiful and intuitive website that is set to launch videos and podcasts; she wanted to enter something in a film contest for Death Positive’s Houston salon, and found the perfect producers through her son’s girlfriend—most of the cost for filming Mark Harvey Levine script, “8 am,” is being donated ; an application to Shunpike, a fiscal sponsor for arts organizations, led to quick nonprofit status, which has enabled her to ask for donations, form fundraising partnerships with groups like Death With Dignity and Charter for Compassion, and hire an intern. As Coplan marvels, “Every time I turn around, something serendipitous happens.”

two actresses on stage
Hospice at the Island Theatre Festival. Photograph by Steve Stolee.

Seven or eight of the submitted short plays will comprise the core first production; Coplan’s intent is to workshop these with director Wesley Fruge (Forward Flux) in advance of the 2017 premiere. Once that premiere is past, the plays can act as modules to be inserted or alternated as desired by host entities who want to customize an evening for its attendees. For example, 3Girls Theatre Company in San Francisco will combine a few of Coplan’s plays with some written by company members, to create a more collaborative effort. Several other theatres in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, New York, and Miami are planning to produce, as well.

“It just grows,” Coplan says. “I’ve not had a single person tell me no when I’ve asked to talk. I have met so many people cool people through this project. Wesley said, ‘We’re going national so quickly,’ and I said, ‘You’re thirty-two; I’m sixty-two. If I’m going to go national, it’s now or never!’ Seattle has been so receptive, but my mission is to spread the word, to erase the stigma around dying and death so we can actually talk about it. I do it through theatre because it’s a very interesting way to start the conversation. ‘Is your advance directive up to date?’ That’s not really the way. But the conversations we’re starting, and the healing laughter that comes from sharing these stories, that’s what gets me up in the morning. And that’s saying a lot, because I have a painful disability, so this is not only a labor of love, but also an incredibly healing process for myself. I like to say, ‘out of adversity comes art.’”

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Donna, thank you so much for sharing this! I LOVE THIS! Death is so important - there should be more discussion around it all the time! We must keep the conversation flowing!

I am excited by this idea and as an actor working and living in Florida and as a hospice volunteer it interests me very much.
You mention that a theatre in Miami is going to do this. Can you share with me where that is? I am currently doing a festival of short plays with City Theatre called "Summer Shorts " in Miami. Bravo on this very important and much needed work.

Such important work! Thank you. The first public readings of my stage play "Death Valley: A Love Story" generated an outpouring of personal grief stories during the talkbacks, leading someone in the audience to decide a film should be made of the story, which is based on actual journals, to be used in grief counseling. A generous, anonymous donor funded the film, now in its final editing stages at Natural Light Films, and it will soon be available along with a guidebook written by therapists from Samaritan Counseling Center. Please see my website at http://sandyasher.com for details.

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