A playwright’s odyssey

January 2018 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, Community

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 3.36.05 PMBy James Day

Sometimes the long and winding road leads back home. And a poem posted by a fourth-grader on a bulletin board in a Monitor School classroom can lead to a world premiere play in Portland.

That’s the journey E.M. Lewis has been on – and continues to take.

Lewis moved back to Monitor three years ago after spending most of the previous decade in Los Angeles… and New York and New Jersey and Kansas and Illinois and Ashland. That can be the life of a playwright as well as other theater artists. A fellowship here. A residency there. Training in New York City. And always writing, always writing.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it’s not a thing that comes naturally, believing you can be a writer,” Lewis told Our Town during an interview at her family’s farm, just a short mosey from that fourth-grade classroom where Mrs. Barrum posted her poem.

“I never met a library I didn’t like. I loved story-telling. But I also noticed that all of my stories had dialogue and action. Maybe I was already trying to be a playwright. I was always telling stories using these tools: dialogue, action and movement.”

The new play

And she employed all of those tools – and more – to fashion Magellanica, an ambitious tour de force about Antarctica, the Cold War, climate change, the ozone layer and “questions of the human heart. How do we get along with each other? Do we pull together or not pull together.”

Magellanica opened Jan. 20 at Artists Repertory Theatre

“This is a big play for me,” Lewis said, who has been a steady presence at rehearsals – when not flying to Maryland for work on a world premiere opera that opens Feb. 9.

“I hope people will like my story.
A day trip to Antarctica. This is special. You’re not just seeing a show… it’s an adventure. You’ll have time to get to know these characters, delve a little deeper with them.”

The adventure lasts five-and-a-half hours, including three intermissions and a dinner break. It’s an extraordinary commitment for a theater company. Artists Repertory is using $110,000 in grant money from the Oregon Community Foundation and the Edgerton Foundation to pay for the extra rehearsals the production requires and to offset the loss of income because fewer performances of Magellanica were practical given that most news plays are in the 90-minute to two-hour range.

“Everything is bigger in terms of materials and length and design,” Lewis said. “And the cast is brilliant. I feel like the luckiest playwright in the world.”

One of the big questions the production had to answer, Lewis said, was “what does Antarctica look like?”

The play is set in 1986, when scientists first began studying a hole in the ozone layer, a seminal moment in the Earth studies that led to climate change science.

“It has a realistic base,” Lewis said. “Corrugated metal, period computers and scientific equipment. But we also take some swoops through space and time and light and projections allow magical elements as well.”

Lewis grew up reading stories about the South Pole and adventurers such as Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. She also was fascinated by the story of Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald, who was marooned at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for months at 1998 while self-treating for breast cancer. She literally could not get off the island because
of the weather.

“When I read about her story…
being stuck with a group of characters… I thought that was a crackerjack place to set a play,” Lewis said. “I hadn’t realized that there was any place you couldn’t get out of.”

The apprenticeship

Lewis participated in theater and speech and debate at Silverton High School. While studying in English at Willamette University in Salem she acted in a play written by the resident artist. She called it an “eye-opener to see a play in progress.”

USC was next, where she earned her master’s in professional writing. The program took an interdisciplinary approach and Lewis found herself working in fiction and screenwriting.

“All of that was fantastic,” she said. “Some of the teachers spent years as working writers,” noting Hubert Selby Jr., who wrote the 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. One of the screenwriting teachers had been blacklisted during America’s “red” scares.

Master’s in hand Lewis stayed at USC in a tech and communications job, with the added benefit of free classes.

“So I took a playwriting class. It was the first day. Bells and whistles went off. I thought this is the kind of work I want to do. Once I figured that out there was a long apprenticeship.”

She started working with Lee Wochner at a “small, scruffy” theater company called Moving Arts. Lewis was an assistant director who also sold tickets and swept the floors. Then she wrote Infinite Black Suitcase. The play, which she refers to as kind of an Oregon version of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town, tells the story of one day in the lives of 15 characters in a rural Oregon town.

More plays followed. Heads about the war in Iraq. And Song of Extinction, about the science of life and loss, which got a boost from an L.A. County Arts Commission grant to Moving Arts.

Lewis was starting to break out.
She won the $10,000 Primus Prize for Heads and another $25,000, from the Steinberg Award, came her way for
Song of Extinction.

“I had my day job at USC. It was a perfect fit. I was making a good salary, and at 5 p.m. I could go to the theater.
I saw tons of theater. Everybody says
that L.A. is all about film and TV, but there is a lot of theater going on across the city, too.”

In 2010, the success of Song of Extinction earned her a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. One year of “pure writing” with no teaching requirement.
So she quit the day job and moved to
New Jersey.

“It meant leaving L.A.,” she said. “It was big and scary and also tremendously exciting. Everything turned toward playwriting. And since I took the fellowship I haven’t had a full-time job. But I was glad I had that full-time job. By night I could write my heart out.”

The road home

Lewis made the Hodder money last for three years while she worked on Magellanica. But writing it took five years.

“I had never written anything this long or intense,” she said. “I knew it was going to be big. But the story I was trying to tell was not just about the moment of history. It also was going to be about ecological concerns we have about the world today.”

She kept working the play, with readings at the Lark in New York City and PlayFest Santa Barbara, a nine-week residency in Independence, Kansas, at the home of noted 20th Century playwright William Inge, and a 10-day workshop at TimeLine Theater in Chicago.  Piecemeal employment at various colleges, including Lewis & Clark in Portland, followed.

“Then I moved back to Oregon,” she said. “I was ready to come home to the Pacific Northwest and have a place to call home between nomadic adventures. I feel more happy and settled than I ever have.”

Meanwhile, Damaso Rodriguez,
a colleague from her L.A. days (he formed Furious Theatre while Lewis was working at Moving Arts) had moved north to be artistic director at Artists Repertory. When Lewis’ agent sent him Magellanica he had just one slot left in his 2017-18 schedule. Shortly thereafter she received a message from him that included the words “we’d like to do your play.”

And the theatrical whirlwind began again. First read. Blocking. Taping out what the set would look like in the rehearsal room. A design retreat at a McMenamins in Portland. Lewis was a constant presence at rehearsals. Script changes.

“The play was done when I gave it to him,” Lewis said, “but a play is never done until it is acted on stage. There are always changes in the rehearsal room. Fine-tuning. Changing lines.”

And her mood through all of this?

“Nervous, excited, grateful, grateful, grateful. It brings me to tears. You try to be professional, but having this many people working so hard to bring a story to life that I thought up in my head… it is magical to be a playwright. I’m so lucky to be able to do what I do and do what I love. I don’t take it for granted.

“I grew up picking berries every summer. I was an Oregon farm girl who loved books and whose parents read to her every night and who checked out the maximum number of books at the library every week. To be able to see my words come to life is a great gift.”

After Magellanica gets up and running Lewis is off to Maryland for the premiere of her opera, Town Hall, a collaboration with composer Theo Popov. In March she relocates to Edwardsville, Ill., for a teaching stint at Southern Illinois and a workshop of her new play The Great Divide, which is set in Oregon.

“It’s about the divided place we find ourselves in in America. I have been gathering up material and beginning to write it. I have been writing about whether we are going to pull together or tear apart.”

Then, “I’m going to write a musical next! I have an idea for a musical for young people. I’m hoping to do it in Portland. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

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