By Kelly Pearce
Flashback to the Underground Theater circa 2009, student Samantha Cooper is performing in a collaborative play, cheat., written by Western students and faculty.
Nine years later, Cooper, Western students and faculty are working together once again on another play.
This time, it’s her’s.
Cooper’s most recent play, Invincible Ones, revolves around the lives of five young women bound together through the loss of a friend. It displays the struggle each goes through while trying to process their pain, grief and confusion.
Since Cooper lives in New York right now, she’s had to communicate her thoughts on the play and her writing style to the cast and crew through videos, emails and one an in-person visit.
“My plays are really about women telling their own stories and being the champions of their own lives, and dealing with things the best that they know how,” Cooper said.
Under a veil of crude language, intense roller derby and ignoring their feelings, the women in Invincible Ones take their own individual twist to dealing with the death of their friend Madison.
“They do not reach out to each other to process their feelings as you would hope most friends would,” Lizanne Schader, Invincible Ones director, said.
Zoe is one of the five female characters in the six person cast.
Junior Megan Huynh, who plays Zoe, said her character is different in that it takes her the entire play to acknowledge the source of her grief.
“Though she understands and appreciates her friends trying to be there for her, she doesn’t know how to even begin to talk about Madison’s death, so she pushes them all away,” Huynh said.
Her friends, Whit, Natasha and Paige, and brother Preston, contribute their own spins on the many ways in which humans deal with death — whether it’s with avoidance, guilt, distance or humor.
“The crazy ways we try to avoid the fact that we will all die someday can be quite dramatic and don’t usually serve us well,” Schader said.
Schader said one of her favorite lines in the play is when Zoe refuses to run away from a difficult situation and instead confronts it because she knows it’s the right thing for her to do.
This is a huge turning point for her character’s attitude in facing trauma head on instead of avoiding her friends and problems like she does for a majority of the play.
“It’s not loud or monumental, it’s quite peaceful and comes easily to her,” Schader said.
For Cooper, words are what has always come easily.
While at Western, Cooper’s theater major concentrations were playwriting and acting, along with a second major in English literature. In 2010, she graduated from Western’s College of Fine and Performing Arts with two bachelor degrees.
Cooper has always enjoyed writing plays and poetry, which she continues to write today.
“I wrote my first full length play when I was in high school and it was very bad,” Cooper said. “And I wrote it in the font Comic Sans, because what do you know as a 15 year old.”
She attributes her time at Western as what reignited her passion in playwriting because of the various theater-related courses she had to take as part of the degree.
Cooper now lives in New York, where she graduated from Columbia University with a masters in fine arts in playwriting in 2016.
Some of Samantha Cooper’s other plays are also categorized as “dark comedies” like Invincible Ones.
Invincible Ones in particular emphasizes female anger and the ways in which the characters are fighting to unlock it within themselves.
“What would be great for an audience to get out of this is to realize that going outside as a female or female-identified person every day is pretty much an act of resistance,” Cooper said.
The first full draft was written as a thesis play while getting her masters, and though it has been at least three years since the first pages of it were written, the relevance of the topics in it have only gotten stronger, Cooper said.
“You sort of hope when you deal with issues of sexual assault, sexual violence and general violence, it gets less relevant in some way, but it seems to be going in the opposite direction,” Cooper said.
Though the play deals with some intense themes, humor is integrated throughout each character’s story.
“I think in this current political climate and even before that, we deal with so much tragedy and so much grief and loss and these huge existential things all the time that as a human in general, I would not survive without laughter and comedy,” Cooper said. “But tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.”
Through videos, emails with crew members and some in-person discussions while visiting Bellingham, Cooper has been able to work with the production on the intricacies of the play and how she operates as a playwright.
When Schader first read the play last October, one of the first discussions she had with Cooper was about the use of crude language from all of the women.
“To paraphrase, she said something like, ‘You wouldn’t question if young men were talking like this, so why are we preoccupied with why women do it?’” Schader said.
Huynh voiced that acting her role as Zoe was important because it showed how modern theater has the potential for showing more diversity in their characters.
“It’s 2018, if we can write complex male characters, we can sure as hell do the same for females, people of color, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community,” Huynh said.
The women of the play, while brash and loud around each other, are also still vulnerable to inflicting guilt and shame upon themselves for how they behave after Madison’s death.
Junior Kevin Harris, whose role as a dramaturg involves research and communicating with the director and playwright on cast questions, sees this as an especially powerful part of the show.
“The strength in these characters, and in people in general, to keep going despite such tragedy may not always be beautiful, but remembering the strength in hope, love and persistence is vital to the show,” Harris said.
For Invincible Ones, roller derby is where some of these characters experience the strength and power of having a community and support system.
Since Cooper hasn’t done roller derby herself, she used the knowledge of friends that skate to write about the sport.
“[Roller derby] is a place where female anger and female violence come out and are not looked at in the same negative way they would be every day,” Cooper said. “They’re women who can go on the track and compete and fight with each other and go off the track and they’re a huge community of people.”
One of the requirements of two actors was that they were able to skate well, as they actually skate around the stage during scenes.
“Thanks to some of our stellar faculty, we’ve been able to have actual derby gals come in and tell us about the world of roller derby that is so integral to our production,” Harris said.
Schader wants the audience to leave behind what they’ve heard about the play once they go in to the theater.
“I hope that any expectations would be left at the door so that the audience can go on the same journey with the characters,” Schader said. “They may have heard it’s gritty, or tough or dark but it’s a story about an event we can all relate to.”
Invincible Ones opens at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Feb. 8, in Western’s DUG theater underneath the Performing Arts Center.