An American Theatre Critics award, a Los Angeles Times Top 10 pick, a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award … heady stuff for a fourth-generation Oregonian reared in Monitor.
“Growing up in Oregon had a huge influence on my writing,” said Ellen Lewis, 38, who moved south about 12 years ago to attend a master’s writing program at the University of Southern California.
Her life testifies to all things Oregonian: growing up in her grandparents’ house, working on the family farm, fishing in the nearby creeks, driving tractor, riding horses, climbing trees, picking berries every summer, raising chickens, playing with the family cats and dogs, hanging out with her friends.
At her Santa Monica home, Lewis said she has taken over the flower beds – growing tomatoes and a variety of plants, trying to recapture a little of her Oregon roots.
“Oregon is a beautiful place … I miss the greenness of it,” said Lewis, who grew up in Monitor with her parents, Clark and Marlene Hanson, and brother, Jason.
She fell into playwriting by accident, after taking a post-degree class on the subject.
“I was working at USC about seven years, when I took a very wonderful class in playwriting,” she said. “Everything just clicked into place for me. I got excited about writing plays and haven’t looked back since.”
Although she works as a computer writer/trainer for USC, her passion is writing plays that have caught industry attention and won her the admiration of peers and audiences.
“Infinite Black Suitcase was my first play,” said Lewis. “Set in Oregon, it’s about 15 people dealing with death and grief over the course of a single day. It’s a little bit Our Town-ish, if I dare say,” referring to the Thornton Wilder play.
Infinite Black Suitcase premiered at Lillian Theater in April/May 2007. After seeing that production, Variety’s Julio Martinez said “Lewis gives evidence of being a significant talent to watch.”
Her second play, Heads, is a four-character hostage drama set in Iraq. The play was named a Critics’ Pick and one of the top 10 productions of 2007 by the Los Angeles Times. It earned her Coe College’s New Works for the Stage Competition, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s IN10 Competition. Heads will be produced in Chicago and Denver, and there will be a New York reading.
A year after Heads hit the stage, Lewis was named the winner of the 2008 Francesca Primus Prize, honoring an emerging woman theater artist.
“Most people’s families are very nervous when you tell them you’re going to be a playwright,” she told members of the American Theatre Critics Association at the awards ceremony. “They understand instinctively that life would go much easier if you decided to be an accountant instead. But playwriting is one of those professions that chooses you. Like it or not, plays seethe in my brain and come out the ends of my fingers. It’s glorious, actually!”
Song of Extinction premiered in November/December and was recently names one of six finalists for the coveted Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, which recognizes the best new scripts produce professionally outside of New York City for 2008.
The play took top honors for the world premiere of an outstanding new play on March 16 at the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards in North Hollywood. And Lewis is a writer-in-residence for Moving Arts Theatre Company, whose staging of the play was nominated for production of the year and leading male performance.
“The play has been doing exceptionally well,” Lewis said. “It’s all about Max, a musically gifted high school student who is falling off the edge of the world – and his biology teacher is the only one who’s noticed.”
The play explores “the science of life and loss, the relationships between fathers and sons, Cambodian fields, Bolivian rainforests and grief.”
Last year’s winner at the Ashland New Plays Festival, Song of Extinction will be performed at the University of Oregon’s Ecodrama Festival, May 21-31, which will bring Lewis back to her home state – if only for a brief visit.
“The Ecodrama Playwright’s Festival calls for innovative dramatic work that explores our ecological condition,” Lewis wrote in her blog.
The concurrent symposium, Earth Matters on Stage, “asks us to think more deeply about how theater and performance might participate in a sustainable society,” she said.
Coming back to Oregon reminds Lewis of the days at Silverton High School when speech, debate and drama classes groomed her for playwriting.
“I felt very lucky to go to a high school that had those kinds of activities,” she said. “They helped me develop my self-worth and well-being.”
Lewis also credits her peers, friends and family for her blossoming success – “peers who have made me feel less alone in this crazy vocation, friends who come to see all my productions, no matter which straggly black box theater they’re in, and a family that has been there for me through thick and thin.”
“I’m really very pleased with where I am,” she said. “I do have to have a day job, but I get to write every day. I’m able to see my works produced and performed. And to be a part of those productions is a wonderful gift.”