CAPE ELIZABETH – A 16-year-old senior at Cape Elizabeth High School (having skipped a year when moving from her native Canada) EB Coughlin had trouble pronouncing her name, Elizabeth, as a baby. Her best effort, “Eebee,” stuck as the nickname she uses to this day. Coughlin has no problems with words now, however. In May, her 10-minute play, “The Way It Is,” was selected to be part of Portland Stage Company’s 2012 Young Writer’s Project. This month, it will be included in “Can U Rel8?,” an anthology of short works being produced Sept. 14-30 by the Freeport Players.

Set during the opening credits of a movie in a nearly empty theater, “The Way It Is” is described by Freeport Players Artistic Director Elizabeth Guffey as “a delightful portrait of a mother-daughter relationship.

“I look for plays that are character-driven, make me laugh, and reveal something powerful about relationships on a human level,” she said. “EB’s play meets all those criteria.”

The daughter of social worker Zuzka Sladek of Cape Elizabeth and Michael Coughlin, former CEO of Goodwill Industries of Northern New England and now head of the Arizona’s Children Association, Coughlin took time last week to talk about her playwriting experience.

Q: Why did you write your play?

A: I wrote it last spring for a theater class here at school. Our teacher, Richard Mullen, sent them in to a young writer’s competition at Portland Stage. I don’t think any of us expected anything to come out of it, but then my play was selected to be produced.

Q: How did you feel when you got that news?

A: I was really surprised because mine was the only one picked from my school. We read through them all in class and there were some that I thought were really great and I thought mine was just OK. And then everything seemed to happen at once. A couple of days after I found out about Portland Stage I found out I’d been accepted to the Bread Loaf Young Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vt. So, it was like, these two really big things that I was so honored to be a part of. I was so overwhelmed. And then, with school also, it did really seem like everything was happening all at once and I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on.

Q: Were you told what made your play rise to the top?

A: They said the dialogue was really realistic. I can see that because I used some quotes and phrases that I’ve heard my mom and my grandmother use. I really like what some people say. For example, I heard my mom say, ‘He’s living in Technicolor if he thinks . . . ’ and I thought, that’s such a cool phrase.

Q: So, you sort of collect quotes?

A: Sort of. I have quotes from my mom and some from my teachers, and just things that I hear that sound really good, or are just funny. Actually, this play was the first I’ve ever written, but I really do like creative writing. I especially like creative nonfiction. I don’t know how good I am at it though, but with a family like mine, you have a lot of material that can be used as fodder, in a good way.

Q: How much of you play is based on real life?

A: A lot. Originally, I wanted to do a story about my mom and her family, like this story she’s told me about when she brought a date home and everyone had cucumber ends on their heads, because that’s a Czech tradition for when you have headache. I wanted it to be about the weirdness of family. I really like telling stories about my family as characters, because I think they are interesting people, with a fascinating cultural dynamic. I like exploring that.

Q: Your family is from the Czech Republic?

A: My grandparents are. They came to Canada and my mom was born there, and I was too. Then we moved here when I was young. Listening to my babi’s stories – babi means grandmother in Czeck – it’s like a spy novel. Just listening to her stories, they’re so interesting. To flee from communism and the Russians, and she was pregnant at the time, they had to falsify papers. Those are stories I might like to tell one day.

Q: The cucumber tale is not in the final version of your play. What was the evolution process like?

A: Well, I was trying to modernize it, maybe, and bring the story to the current day and see how that would work. I was getting kind of stuck and then I thought about the week before when I had gone with my mom to see a movie. I was kind of embarrassed at her because of what she was doing – she took her socks off and blew her nose into them because she didn’t have any tissue.

Q: Oh, my. Were you mortified?

A: Well, yeah [laughs]. But at the same time, I though it was really funny. I was having a good time with my mom and I just started writing about that same sort of theme, of what we were doing, but made it a different kind of story. I made the mother and daughter a little different by combining aspects of my relationship with my mother, and my relationship with my grandmother, and my mom’s relationship with my grandmother.

Q: When the play for produced professionally, how did your mother react?

A: My mom has told me she really likes my scene. I’ve said to her many times that the mother character is not entirely based on her. I like to say that the character’s good aspects are entirely based on her, and the character’s negative aspects are entirely fictional. When we saw it performed, my mom said she really liked the mother in the play because, as she put it, “She’s the hero of the story.” And I think that’s true, that the mother character has the most goodness in her. So, I think my mom is more flattered than embarrassed.

Q: What was it like seeing your play receive a professional treatment?

A: It was really cool. I had a director and a script helper, who helped me develop the play and make some edits, and then professional actors. We had two readings and it was preformed for one night. All my friends came, and my family. It was really fun.

Q: Were changes made to your script, and, if so, how did you handle that?

A: They did change a couple of things – some gestures were added and some emphasis on certain lines. But everything they did I thought was just so wonderful and added to what I was trying to do. Just seeing my lines come out of their months, and seeing them take my characters and add life to them, it was so cool. I felt like their instincts were really good and everything they changed made what I had done even better.

Q: So, it was a good experience for you then?

A: It was so cool. I can’t even express how grateful I am to everyone at Portland Stage Company. I also got to meet John Cariani. My theater teacher has had us read his work in class and I am such a fan. I really loved another play he wrote called “Almost, Maine.” Meeting him was the coolest thing in the word.

Q: Did he have any advice for you?

A: After my show went on, there was a talkback before his new show, “Love/Sick.” All I can remember is he was so nice. I can’t even talk about it. I freak out because it was so cool. But he kind of warned me about criticism. He said if people are critical it’s all right, it’s part of the process. But I actually haven’t met with much criticism. It feels like I’ve just been supported the whole entire time by everyone I’ve met. Even when we had talkbacks after the two readings we did on my little scene in rehearsals, it seemed all very positive. It’s been so fun. Everyone has been so nice and so supporting. It’s really opened my eyes to a whole new path that I might want to go down.

Q: Do you now hope to make a career in the theater?

A: I’m not sure yet. My guidance councilor said for me to try and figure out what I like to do. I think I’m still in the stage of figuring that out. So, I can definitely say I like playwriting. I like writing in general. And I’ve always been interested in theater. But I also like history, and languages. There are all these things that I like and, eventually, I might follow a path down one of them.

Q: Have you begun looking at colleges?

A: Over the summer I looked at some in the Southwest and in California. It made me realize I want to stay more in the Northeast. Those schools were wonderful, but they made me realize I’d miss snow and my friends in Maine. Unfortunately, when I was looking at schools I missed the opportunity meet the cast for the Freeport Players production of my scene. So, I am looking forward to meeting everyone and seeing what they’ve done.

Q: is there anything you’d like to say to them in advance?

A: I’m just so amazed and thankful for their interest. I’m so grateful to everyone, from my mom and my babi and my teachers, from everyone at Portland Stage and the Freeport Players. Everyone has been so wonderful to me.

Cape Elizabeth High School senior EB Coughlin, whose 10-minute play, “The Way It Is,” was selected for a reading by the Portland Stage Company in May. It will be performed next as part of the Freeport Players production, “Can U Rel8?,” from Sept. 14-30.    

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