When Meredith Dayna Cope-Levy saw her first play at about age 3, she was hooked. The experience ignited what would become an accomplished career in the theater industry. Growing up, she acted in school and community theater groups, and as a teen started writing her own plays. She has not stopped writing them since.
The Roanoke-based playwright and Hollins University alumna is now a two-time finalist in the annual O’Neill National Playwright Conference through the Connecticut-based Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
With “The Bread Baking Play,” Cope-Levy made her second submission to the prestigious NPC. As with her first submission — a play called “The Hills,” which she describes as a “queer political epic” — she made it as a finalist.
Roughly 5% of the 1,200 to 1,500 total new plays submitted to the annual conference reach the finalist phase, according to the NPC website. This typically comes to between 75 and 100 writers. Each submission is read in its entirety by a volunteer group of more than 200 professional theater-makers, said Cope-Levy, who has herself served as a volunteer reader in years when she did not submit a script. The volunteers include directors, actors, designers, dramaturgs, administrators and critics.
Cope-Levy graduated with a bachelor of arts in theater and a minor in dance and creative writing from Hollins in 2012. She went on to complete her master of fine arts in Hollins’ Playwright’s Lab program in 2018. (She now works at Hollins as manager of donor relations and research.) Over the years, she has had multiple plays produced and acquired a number of awards and accolades.
Modeled off two sisters from the Bible’s New Testament gospels — Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus who died, then was resurrected — “The Bread Baking Play” follows sisters Polly and Martha as they bake communion bread for their brother’s funeral. With their brother, the bridge that joined familial gaps seemingly died as well. Throughout the preparation and baking process, “old hurts and new secrets rise to the surface” like bread rises, and with those hurts and secrets comes a fundamental question: Can the sisters ever reconcile with each other and their differences, and find healing?
The concept was influenced by work done in a dramaturgy course where Cope-Levy researched the role and treatment of women in the early days of what would come to be called Christianity, through the lens of her Episcopalian faith practice.
Cope-Levy conceived of this story in 2017. Like many others in the United States, she found herself facing extreme political polarization in the aftermath of a contentious presidential election that divided families and friends. How, she wondered, do we reconcile with those who are so different from us in fundamental ways, and exist together even on opposite sides of what she called an “arbitrary political divide”?
“I think what was really compelling for me about the play is that it exists in this context of Christianity and women, but really what the play is about is reconciliation,” she said. “How do we forgive each other? How do we reconcile with each other? How do we exist together when our mediator is gone?”
Cope-Levy said despite the vast differences between herself and some in her circles, she feels fortunate to have friends and family on all points of the spectrum. Writing “The Bread Baking Play” was cathartic for her, in a way, exploring what it means to live in a space she describes as both/and.
From a writer craft standpoint, Cope-Levy said “The Bread Baking Play” made her think more deeply about how dialogue is action, and how to skillfully reveal exposition. This play only has three characters, with just two on stage for the most part, she said — and whereas most of her other plays involve characters who meet each other for the first time on stage and cultivate a new relationship, the sisters have known each other intimately for a long time. There was a different character dynamic from any she had written before.
“Both Martha and Polly are valid in their faith practice, in their approach to community building, and they’re so polar opposite in how they’re approaching life, but both of their lives are valuable and important,” she said. “That was enjoyable to write.”
Writing in a naturalistic style was also new for Cope-Levy, but she found it to be a positive exercise.
The biggest challenge, and a unique aspect of the play, is that real bread is baked live on stage.
The playwright herself was not really a bread-baker, but her spouse and some church colleagues are, Cope-Levy said. It was one of her church’s Altar Guild members who shared the recipe used in “The Bread Baking Play.”
Cope-Levy has won numerous awards and accolades for past plays, but the NPC is particularly special. It is both one of the longest-standing blind development opportunities, and now one of the last of its caliber, Cope-Levy said.
The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 by George C. White and named in honor of four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Prize laureate Eugene O’Neill. The NPC was revolutionary for its time, created in the “ground-breaking spirit of its namesake,” according to the organization’s website. Anyone can submit a play, opening opportunity to both unknown and established playwrights from all walks of life. The model lends itself to greater diversity among writers, Cope-Levy said. In her estimation, reaching the finalist stage is a sign of validation from the renowned New York theater scene.
“The best and the brightest all across the country vie for that every year, so it’s prestigious,” said Todd Ristau, cofounder of Hollins University’s playwright’s lab and a mentor and former professor to Cope-Levy.
To make it more than once as a finalist, he added, is probably not common.
When submitting a play to the NPC, Cope-Levy has several criteria. She opts for scripts that have been through multiple drafts, each one refining the work; plays that have gone through some readings, which allow her to see how the script translates to performance; scripts with a compelling hook for readers; and ultimately plays that are meaningful and relevant. They need to have something important to say.
Ristau attested to Cope-Levy’s character as a person, and a playwright.
“She possesses so much empathetic curiosity. She is really interested in figuring out not only what something is and how it works, but all of the potential ethical and moral implications that underlie those questions,” Ristau said of his former student. “She just has tremendous heart. She frequently writes about issues, but they’re never a kind of didactic excuse to give a lecture. They’re always authentic explorations of human beings dealing with an issue.”
Every opportunity to be involved in the conference is an opportunity for professional growth and networking, Cope-Levy said. In years when she did not submit a play for consideration, she served as a first-round reader, helping to select finalists.
In the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins, Ristau said a foundational philosophy is that students are in competition only with themselves. To an extent, he said, the NPC follows a similar philosophy in that “it tries to have less of a feeling of it being a contest, and more an opportunity to recognize merit through the presentation of an award.”
Although she is focused on playwriting, Cope-Levy did not limit herself to one theater niche.
The playwright ultimately chose Hollins University for schooling because it offered the opportunity to experience all facets of theater-making, unlike a conservatory.
Cope-Levy hopes audiences walk away from “The Bread Baking Play” feeling like they have experienced listening in a new way.
“I hope the play models for them what reconciliation could look like, what forgiveness could look like. I think we’re so quick — and I’m painting with broad strokes — I think we’re so quick to cancel people, or to brush them aside if we disagree with one thing they’ve said, right?” she said. “Personally speaking, what I find compelling about the Christian tradition is this idea of grace and forgiveness. I want it to engage people in a conversation about that, in a way that was honest to my experience without being preachy. I’m not trying to convert anybody with this play, but I do want to speak about what I find valuable about the tradition I’m in, and what from it could be extracted and used in secular, non-Christian spaces.”
Cope-Levy has received multiple awards for her various plays over the years, and has had multiple plays produced. Productions include her master’s thesis play: a historical drama featuring an all-female cast called “Decision Height” about when American women were trained as pilots to carry out homefront flights so more male pilots could go off to war, a play which was published by Samuel French; a comedy called “Underground”; and a lyrical monodrama, “She Made Space.”
“Decision Height” was first produced in January/February 2014 as part of the Hollins-MMT Winter Festival of New Works. It has since had more than 100 productions around the country, mostly by community and school drama groups.
Cope-Levy received the David L. Shelton Full Length Play Award twice from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region IV, in 2016 and 2017.
She is working toward producing “The Bread Baking Play.”
Cope-Levy said she could not thank Hollins University and the playwright program enough. The program often partners with Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre, and many playwrights and other theater-makers have taken its stage over the years.
The playwright lab offers several different tracks, including a low-residency, high-intensity 60 credit program lasting six weeks every summer until completion within three to five years.
Cope-Levy is a distinguished graduate of this program, Ristau said.
“I do think that we’re probably one of the most unique playwriting programs in the country, and one of the things that I think we, and the partnership with Mill Mountain Theatre, help to provide is not only outstanding training for playwrights, directors, performers, and dramaturgs, but also an opportunity to help build a really enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience for new work here in the Roanoke Valley,” Ristau said.