Friday, February 13, 2009

The Amazing Career of an Amazing Talent

Tyler Coppin as he really looks

I don't normally obsess about anything in theater, but with LyreBird and the unique talent behind it I can't help myself. Two days ago I posted a summary review of the play, with links to my review in Village Life. What I didn't mention is that I intended the post for a question-and-answer interview with Tyler Coppin, the play's playwright and star, that I'd conducted via e-mail.

What had happened was that my service provider had waylaid Tyler's response, shuffling it into a Guantanamo for suspected Spam. Today it was released...and blew me away! To especially appreciate what he says, you might check the February 11 post and its links.

The interview should be fascinating and instructive to anyone interested in theater--or the creative arts in general. If there's a moral, I think it's this: the only way to become disciplined is to be free.
So here's Tyler's answers to my questions, exactly as he wrote them:

Q.There’s some discrepancy about where you lived and grew up in California. In the review I put down Rancho Cordova. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

My mom and dad grew up, met, and married in Roseville. My maternal grandfather was Roseville City Clerk (Raleigh Terry), and my paternal grandfather was Roseville’s milkman (Sam Coppin). He owned Coppin Home Dairy and was affectionately known as “Sour Milk Sam.” My ancestors came over on covered wagons in the 1800’s and settled near Pleasant Grove. I was born in Roseville but when I was a baby we moved to Rancho Cordova. At 12 I moved to Carmichael and went to Rio Americano. At 18 I moved to Australia

Q.Available information holds that you accompanied your parents on their business trip to Australia when you were 18 or 19. Which age is correct? Also, what made you change your home to Australia? And what is your citizenship now: dual, Australian, resident American?

I was 18 when I went to Australia in June 1976. I turned 19 the same year in November, and the same day I found out I won a place at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. At a birthday dinner for me I told my mom and dad that I planned to stay on by myself and go to this wonderful school.

I didn’t intentionally choose to stay in Australia for so long, it’s just that it’s such a wonderful place filled with theatre, film and television, and I have great friends there, so one thing led to the next and now I’ve spent a great deal of my life there. I am a dual citizen of Australia and the USA. I have two passports and I feel absolutely 50/50 American and Australian. When I come home to visit the USA every two years I feel wonderfully at home. When I return to Australia, I feel wonderfully at home there too. In the USA people think I sound Australian. In Australia they think I sound American.

Q.“LyreBird” premiered in Australia in 1998, where it became popular, and was later produced in England, winning several awards. Did it appear in other countries? Where?

As well as Australia, I’ve performed LyreBird in London, around the United Kingdom, twice to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and also in New Zealand.

Q.Because your native land is the U.S., why did it take more than a decade before your play premiered here? Did you try to get it produced earlier and/or elsewhere in the U.S. or Canada?

No, I’ve never tried to get it produced here before. The show has a life in Australia, and one in the UK – due to its subject matter. But then my brother asked me to bring it to Sacramento and I said Why Not – I love an adventure, and during my performances in Scotland and at the Sydney Opera House there were audience members from America who said American audiences would love it. So…. we’ve taken the plunge and flown it over here.

Q.As director what contribution does Adam Cook make? Usually one-man shows don’t have directors. (Of course, yours is much more complex than the usual.) And since you’re both playwright and actor, why do you need a director?

Adam Cook, one of Australia’s most gifted directors, gives me the freedom to run wild on stage, but will pull me in when I’ve gone too far. He’ll encourage me to go farther when I’m holding back, and his sense of humor matches mine and he becomes somewhat of a muse during rehearsals. Adam, like the other members of my creative team, is integral to LyreBird. He’s been a part of my vision from the start.

Q.Besides the obvious, what inspired the title? Is there a sly allusion to Stravinsky’s “Firebird”? Incidentally, as a gay man was Helpmann spreading his plumage as a mating call?

Read into it what you will – that’s the fun. My play’s an expression, a lampoon and a tribute. Many things inspired the title. Helpmann’s first true Australian ballet was based on the mating ritual of the Australian lyrebird – a work he dedicated to his great friend Katharine Hepburn, who wanted to see one when she accompanied Helpmann to Australia. And a lyrebird is showy – like Helpmann. It pretends to sound like objects around it. It mimics. As Helpmann said, and as I do: “One can always create an illusion with people who don’t know you.”

Q.And the big question: Aside from his fame, quirkiness and professional stature, what was Helpmann’s special appeal to you? Are you thinking of doing similar one-man shows based on other celebrities? And did anyone else contribute to the script? What do you like and dislike about Helpmann?

Helpmann is an intriguing individual in so many ways. Firstly, his mask is incredible. I enjoy painting his face onto my own with gay abandon and a pile of make up, and using his very theatrical persona to tell not only his story, but my own: his and my feelings about theatre and fantasy and storytelling. He’s comic too, his physicality. At this stage I haven’t any plans to create another one man show. I wouldn’t call the experience lonely, but I would say it’s certainly a solitary experience up there. I enjoy being on stage with other actors most. As they say, “There’s nothing more boring than a cast party for a one man show.”. Well, I do love very much doing LyreBird – but I also can’t wait to write something that will have a few more actors in it besides myself.

Q.You have an extensive resume as a writer and director, with some activities here in the United States. What do you like to do best (e.g., act, write, direct) and in which media?

I’m a character actor, a type of comic and clown – rolled into one. I love writing, but when I do I always know in the back of my mind I’m writing for the stage. Having said this, I also love the naturalism of film acting.

Q.What are your future plans and ambitions?

I look forward to spending more time with my son and wife in Australia. Maybe I’ll finish some plays and a movie that I’ve been writing. I look forward to the possibility of performing LyreBird in front of more American audiences, and if that should not happen, well then my brother Mitch and my Sacramento LyreBird experience will have been an amazing journey regardless.

Q.Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes. My heart goes out to all the people who have been affected by the terrible bushfires currently raging in Australia.

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