Fernanda Coppel was already an established playwright when, like many in her profession, she decided to double down and try her hand at writing for television. Breaking into this male-dominated environment would prove to be difficult but it also inspired one interesting play.
‘King Liz’ When: To July 16 Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Tickets: $15-$55 Info: windycityplayhouse.com
“I’d had a couple of pretty hard jobs and a lot of people telling me I wasn’t really going to make it,” Coppel recalls. “I was getting a lot of negative feedback and it was wearing on me. So I sat down to write this successful woman of color who would say and do all the things I wished I could say and do.”
The result was “King Liz,” a no-holds-barred portrait of a powerful woman at the top of her game who must face the biggest challenge of her career. Liz Rico has worked for more than two decades for the Candy Agency where her ruthless professionalism has helped her reach the pinnacle of the sports agent hierarchy. She has an elite client roster and her boss and mentor hints that she is in line to take over as head of the agency, which she has helped build. But will signing a talented but volatile high school basketball superstar with a troubled past help or hinder that goal?
“I think Liz is the inspiring woman we all want to be,” Coppel says. “But to live with that level of success you have to live with a lot of sacrifices whether it’s personal or professional. I wanted to explore what it means to be a successful woman of color in this corporate environment.”
“King Liz” takes the stage at Windy City Playhouse under the direction of Chuck Smith, who also directed the Goodman Theatre’s current critically acclaimed production of “Objects in the Mirror.” Lanise Shelley stars as Liz with Eric Gerard as NBA hopeful Freddie Luna, Jackie Alamillo as Liz’s assistant Gabby, Caron Buinis as reporter Barbara Flowers, Frank Nall as Mr. Candy and Phillip Edward Van Lear as Coach Jones.
Smith says he was drawn to Coppel’s “unique look” at a woman in a man’s world who has carved her way to the top.
“What Fernanda does so well here is make this character so very human,” Smith says. “Liz is accessible, interesting and compelling. You can’t take your eyes off of her.”
Coppel says Liz isn’t based on any one agent. However she did interrogate her own theater agent, Scott Chaloff, as well as Jill Smoller, a powerful sports agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, in order to get a feel for the right mindset.
“I pestered them with questions,” she says with a laugh. “And Jill was gracious enough to answer personal questions and open up the world of what she does so well.”
Since Coppel’s a diehard basketball fan, setting the play in the world of basketball was a no-brainer.
“The sport has fascinated me since I was a kid,” she says. “I love the game of it and the level of competition. But as I got older I also learned to listen to the personal stories of the players. For most of them, this is their shot to make it. It’s the epitome of the American dream.”
Actress Lanise Shelley who plays Liz readily admits she doesn’t share Coppel’s basketball connection; she relied on her sister and friends for intel on the sport. And as a way of getting into Liz’s mindset, she watched everyone’s favorite movie about a sports agent.
“Yes, I watched ‘Jerry McGuire’ for research,” Shelley says laughing. “There are so many similar scenes in the movie and the play. Both Liz and Jerry have something they are reaching for and everyone else just better get out of their way.”
And what about that aforementioned other side of her career? The Los Angeles-based Coppel stuck with it and is currently on the writing staff for the new NBC show “Rise,” set in the world of high school musicals. (In 2015, Showtime optioned “King Liz” and hired Coppel to write the pilot but the cable network recently passed on the pilot. She hopes to find another home for it.)
Coppel says it makes sense that so many playwrights do well as television writers.
“Many television shows are now character driven and I think playwrights really excel in those types of show,” Coppel says. “We specialize in creating characters and sustaining their arcs and knowing all their little details and intricacies. It can be really rewarding and a fun process if you are inspired by the material.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.