Full disclosure: I’ve slept with E. M. Lewis. But long before we triple-bunked at the 2013 Dramatists Guild Conference (she’s the former New Jersey rep), she’d been a role model to me for her work, work ethic, tenacity, success, and—most of all—generosity of time and spirit. These days, she’s busier than ever, and I was able to catch up with Ellen after a whirlwind three-and-half-week trip that had her in New York for a production of HEADS, then down to Washington, DC as part of the Women’s Voices Festival—where her newest play, NOW COMES THE NIGHT, had its world premiere, and was extended—back to New York to workshop a libretto with American Lyric Theater, and then back to DC with visits to New Jersey in between. On the phone from the farm in Monitor, Oregon, she was happy to have some down time and to talk about her flourishing career as a #PLONY.
(What is a/are #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.)
You’ve come full circle back to Oregon, but what was your geographical history in between?
I was born in Oregon, and raised on a small farm that belonged to my great grandparents. After college, I went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, and ended up staying in Los Angeles for about twelve years. That’s where I became a playwright.
Not a screenwriter? How did that happen?
I went to grad school not knowing what kind of writer I wanted to be, only that I loved writing. The Master of Professional Writing Program at USC was multidisciplinary —so I was able to study screenwriting, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction from wonderful teachers who had made their living as writers. A couple of years afterward, I got hired on staff at USC, and one of the perks was free classes, so I thought I’d take another writing class back in my old program. One of the few that had a seat open was a playwriting class with Paul Zindel and Lee Wochner. All the bells and whistles went off in my head; I knew that this was the way I was supposed to be telling stories. I realized all of my fiction had all action, no narrative voice; I was trying to write plays all along!
Lee Wochner, who co-taught that very first pivotal class, is an LA playwright. He runs a playwriting workshop and also co-founded a small theater company called Moving Arts. I became a member of the theater company, and took his private workshop for most of the time I lived there. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor.
Sara Wagner and Lee Wochner of Moving Arts
Joining a theater company, that had from its foundation been playwrights, actors, and directors working together, was an amazing opportunity for someone who was learning how to be a playwright. I swept floors and wrote grant proposals and took tickets, and then they produced my first play. INFINITE BLACK SUITCASE is a big, sprawling, personal piece about grief and loss—and what a magnificent gift it was to work with people who cared about me as I figured out my first play. We figured the play out together.
My second play, HEADS, which won the Primus prize, was produced at the Blank Theatre soon after SUITCASE. And then SONG OF EXTINCTION was produced by Moving Arts at [Inside] the Ford, and did very well. It won the Steinberg Award from the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Ted Schmitt Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, and Production of the Year from the LA Weekly Awards, and a few other things. Los Angeles was a good launching point for me.
SONG OF EXTINCTION (2008)
Did you ever get any further formal training?
No. And I sometimes wonder, “If I’d only gone to one of those fancy graduate playwriting schools, what would have happened?” But ultimately, I think I made the right decision to go through a program that was a little broader in scope, even if I ended up being slower finding my way to playwriting. And I continue to seek out informal training. I love being part of a playwriting workshop. I took Lee’s workshop in Los Angeles for ages. When I lived in New Jersey, I was part of a fantastic playwriting workshop offered through Passage Theatre. I want to always be writing, and always be reading the work of my peers.
I first met you when you were the New Jersey Dramatists Guild regional rep; how did you end up in NJ?
I had been working for nine years on staff at USC, doing tech support for their student information system. It was a great day job—good pay, good benefits, and good people—and I was grateful for it! But about five years ago, I received the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, which is basically one year of fully funded support to write a new play. A tremendous opportunity! And scary. Because it’s one year, and then what do you do? But I was at a point where I had been working at being a playwright for about seven or eight years, and things were starting to get exciting. So I quit my sensible day job, and moved to New Jersey.
What did you work on while you were there?
Several things—including TRUE STORY and THE GUN SHOW. The play I proposed to work on, and just finally finished this year, is my Antarctic epic, a five-part play called MAGELLANICA. It required a lot of research, and the libraries at Princeton University are magnificent.
TRUE STORY at Passage Theatre
That year was life-changing. It wasn’t just the money; it was taking a whole year to be a playwright. Just a playwright. Full-time. To learn what that was like.
But two years ago, you left New Jersey and moved back to Oregon; what brought that about?
Poverty. Ha! That’s absolutely true. I had stretched a one-year fellowship into three years of full-time writing, and though I was making money from my writing and a little teaching gig once in a while and another fellowship I got from the state of New Jersey, it wasn’t enough. My income didn’t match my outgo, and I was running out of funds. But I didn’t want to get a sensible day job again. I really, really didn’t.
So I moved back home to my family’s farm. It’s a working farm—a vineyard and winery—and there’s always stuff to do. And my mom had heart surgery right around that time, so I could be a help to her and my dad while she was recovering from that.
I feel so lucky to have found something that I love to do with my life. I’m trying to hold on to it with bloody fingernails. Lowering my overhead allows me to continue to write full time. Writing full time allows me freedom. If I get something, I can do it. If you have a steady job, they frown on your leaving for weeks and months at a time to be a playwright.
What is your writing schedule like now?
I write tons, but I’ve never had a particular number of hours or time of day each day that I write. My writing process is messy; I’ll write until three in the morning and then not write for two or three days. But I’m never far away from the writing.
I always have several plays at various stages underway. I think of it as burners on a stove. I have one or two plays that that are in the idea stage, left on low at the back, and then the front burner play is turned up to high. I like having multiple plays going at the same time because it helps me to never get stuck. I can always be working on something. A playwright in motion tends to stay in motion.
This year, I wrote an 88-page opera libretto, and wrote and rewrote and rewrote again my play NOW COMES THE NIGHT, which just premiered at 1st Stage. And I finished part five of MAGELLANICA.
NOW COMES THE NIGHT world premiere at 1st Stage during the 2015 Women’s Voices Festival
And now it’s done?
Yes! At last!
I know playwrights hate this question, but what is it about?
MAGELLANICA is an epic adventure with an international cast of characters that’s about the natural world, science, and the human heart. It follows a group of eight scientists and engineers to the South Pole, where they spend the winter together trying to understand and deal with a global ecological crisis. It’s set in 1985, and the crisis is the hole in the ozone layer, but the play also speaks to the ecological crisis that we’re facing now: climate change.
It was an honorable mention for the Kilroy List this year, which surprised me, because I’d barely begun to send it out. It’s five parts, 250 pages, about the size of ANGELS IN AMERICA parts one and two, by far the longest thing I’ve ever written. It’s ridiculous, but it’s how long the play wanted to be. I knew early that it would be five parts and eight characters and long and big and those parameters haven’t changed. It’s very lucky that I write more than one play at a time; otherwise, I would have been sitting fallow, but I’ve written five or six in that time, including my smallest, a one-man show called THE GUN SHOW.
THE GUN SHOW is a powerful and personal piece. I was fortunate to see an early version at the 2013 Dramatists Guild conference, but it just got its world premiere this year, right?
It premiered at 16th Street Theater in Chicago in summer of 2014, followed by Passage Theatre in Trenton, and Moving Arts in Los Angeles. It just had its fourth production, at Impact Theater in Berkeley. It’s scheduled for its fifth production in Tucson in December/January, and I’m in conversations about a sixth and seventh. [Let me hijack this success story to reiterate that THE MYTH OF WORLD PREMIERE-ITIS is just that; if a theater wants to produce your play, they couldn’t care less if it’s already been produced!]
EM Lewis and Juan Villa, world premiere, THE GUN SHOW, at 16th Street Theater
I predict many more to come…
Thank you. I’ve never had anything like it; it’s only been a year and a half since it premiered. But it’s small, and intimate, and punchy, and unfortunately it does not stop being topical.
Sadly, it doesn’t. So, the quintessential #PLONY question: did you ever feel the pull of New York? Did people suggest you move there?
More people asked me “Are you going to New York?” as opposed to telling me I should. I love visiting, and seeing plays there. I would love to have more of my plays done there. But I don’t like being crowded. I don’t like cement. I don’t think I’m a New York person; I don’t think I’m a New York playwright. I don’t even feel like I write New York-like. I know you can’t say that New York is one particular thing, there are so many voices there, but I feel much more akin to the Midwestern playwrights. I adore Edward Albee, but it’s Lanford Wilson’s plays that land in my soul.
Being a train ride away while I was in New Jersey was great. I loved going to shows, and meeting people there. But I don’t know that me living in New York would lead to me having a big production in New York; it would probably lead to me having small productions in New York. And I think the practicality of life in New York would prevent me from being the playwright that I can be here in Oregon. How does anybody afford to live there?! I would have to have a day job, and that’s time when I could be writing. And while I adore visiting New York, the sheer number of people in close quarters is just… overwhelming.
But I know you value the importance of in-person networking, and travel a lot.
More and more each year, it seems like, in spite of moving back to the boonies! I always value being in the room. If somebody’s going to do a reading, I’m asking how can I get there, because nothing beats looking a person in the eye, shaking their hand, going out for a beer afterward and talking it all over.
Networking is tremendously important. The very first thing I went to was the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, back when I was very much a baby playwright. It was such an amazing week! I suddenly realized I had a tribe. I wasn’t alone. After that, every year, I’d save my money and vacation time and do one big playwriting thing. I did the Great Plains Theatre Conference twice, and attended the Dramatists Guild conference.
It’s always about going there for me. If I can get there, I will. I’ll drive seven hours for a reading because nothing beats being in the room with your fellow theatermakers. Things happen from building relationships with other human beings.
Though it can take years…
Yes, you need to practice long-term thinking when you start fostering relationships with other theatermakers, fellow playwrights, directors, artistic directors, theater companies, actors. I go to as much as I can and I always go knowing that nothing more might come from it. I’m not expecting anything more than what I’m getting.
But sometimes… Let’s say it’s a reading at a theater in the middle of nowhere, and I go. Sometimes, five years later, I’ll get an email out of the blue from one of the actors from the middle of nowhere who has now moved to Omaha and wants to direct a production of that very same play because he kept it and loved it. The seeds planted as you share your work and joyful presence lead to things.
Have you had New York productions?
Two full-length play productions, both HEADS, and both recent. The first was in January at Theater for the New City, and that was through an actor I met while I was living in New Jersey, which shows you how long it takes things to happen. The production last month was at Beckett Theatre in midtown, directed by Laura Savia.
HEADS at the Beckett Theatre (2015)
I met Laura about ten years ago when I submitted HEADS to the Hot Ink International Festival of Plays and Laura was assigned to be my director. We kept in touch, she’s directed several readings for me, but now, ten years later, this is the first full production of mine she’s directed. But I’m patient!
So things have just been going nuts for you! How many productions are you getting a year?
It’s gotten better the past two or three years steadily, so about twelve per year.
How many plays do you have now?
Eleven full length plays.
And you don’t really do comedy?
Ha—not so much. It’s all a little dark. Although I’ve just started working on an opera—SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE FALLEN GIANT—that is funny and light and for families. I’m trying to turn over a happy leaf.
Do you write ten-minute plays?
Yes, I like them. One-acts are what I have trouble with. I wrote a lot more before I had so many full-lengths, but when I was just starting, I wrote scads of them. I probably have thirty ten-minute plays that have had hundreds of productions. I’ve even had a couple theaters do evenings of my ten-minute plays. I like writing them and I can write them fast and they’re so good and stretching me craft-wise. Some people say, “Ugh, what kind of craft is that?” But they’re extraordinary encouragers: what if I want to try something magical? Or single person? I can what if to my heart’s content and try that thing that in a full-length I might not have time to do.
Do you like prompts?
I love prompts, because they take me like a pinball machine in a totally unexpected direction to something I never possibly would have written unless I had this outside inspiration that dragged me in another direction and drags my own life experience to something completely foreign. If somebody tells me banjo, I’m like “oh, banjo! I have no idea what to do with that.”
You might say SONG OF EXTINCTION, in a weird way, was a prompt. I saw something on a submission opportunities list for a science play, and I remember clearly sitting in my tiny apartment in Santa Monica thinking, “If I were to write a science play, what kind would I write?” and kaboom! These characters just descended into my head, and I started writing things down because apparently, I had been waiting for just that prompt. I did have a science play and I didn’t know it.
Tell me how you became a librettist.
I was looking for something even more practical than being a playwright, so I thought “Opera librettist!”
But really… I first worked with a composer back when I was writing my play SONG OF EXTINCTION. I knew early on that I would need a piece of original music to wind through the play. I put out a call for a composer, and ended up working with a wonderful young man named Geoffrey Pope, who wrote a beautiful piece of music called DISEMBARKING that we used in the first production and has been used in several productions since.
About two and a half years ago, Geoffrey told me about a composer/librettist training program that he’d heard about. American Lyric Theater offers it, and I was really lucky to get in. I’d just moved back to Oregon, and it was the first year that they offered the program to non-New Yorkers! Lucky!! The program is amazing, rigorous, intense, and free. For an entire year, they trained eight of us how to work together to write new operas. SHERLOCK is my first commission, and I’m working on it with my composer partner Evan Meier.
What do you feel were some key turning points in your career, the kind that put you over the edge to more national recognition?
I’ve already talked about the Hodder Fellowship, and the Primus and Steinberg prizes. Another turning point was winning the Ted Schmitt Award from the LA Drama Critics Circle for SONG OF EXTINCTION. That award came with an offer of publication from Samuel French, which went on to publish INFINITE BLACK SUITCASE, and both plays have done well in publication.
But amazingly, none of those pivotal events resulted in you getting an agent, but you have one now. How did that finally happen?
I’d had conversations with several agents over the years, very nice, long conversations that always seemed to end with “if you ever get a big production, feel free to call me.” The catch-22 is they really don’t want you unless you have production at a large theater and it’s very difficult to get in the door of a large regional or off-Broadway theater if you’re not agented. But I was getting more and more productions at more and more places. Small theaters, but theaters! I kept writing plays and they kept getting produced. I was working with fantastic people. So I stopped worrying about it.
But when I was in Chicago for six weeks doing THE GUN SHOW last year, my director, Kevin Fox, was surprised I didn’t have an agent, and thought that should be remedied. He had met a literary agent who he kept running into at play readings in Chicago. He liked how she talked about the playwrights she worked with and their work, and he wrote her a letter, recommending me. She wrote to me, and I sent her THE GUN SHOW and MAGELLANICA, and she loved them both. And that’s how I got an agent.
How has having an agent changed how you market yourself?
My process has not changed but has been added to. It’s great to have someone to talk with about my plays and where to submit them. She does a good bit of submitting for me. But I haven’t stopped sending my plays out and talking with people about them.
Increasingly over the years, I have found that it’s relationships with other theater artists that result in productions. So I work hard to build relationships. And I follow up.
And I submit to the bigger contests and competitions. When you send a play cold to a theater, it’s tough to know if they’re going to read your play. Your play ends up on their stack of plays, and they may well have a stack of hundreds and hundreds of plays. Contests, though… contests have deadlines by which they have to have read all the plays submitted.
What’s your theater scene like in Oregon?
I’m about an hour’s drive from Portland, which has an active theater scene that I’m working to get to know. Ashland [where Lewis is currently host playwright at the New Plays Festival] is amazing, but it’s about five hours away from me. Out where I am, there are cows…
2015 Ashland New Plays Festival: Beth Kander, Brian Mulholland, EM Lewis, Skye Robinson Hillis, and Meredith Friedman
Since I moved back to Oregon two years ago, I’ve been working an extraordinary amount in other places, which has been fantastic but is not helping me to develop relationships here. I’m working on that now, figuring out how to be a playwright here at home.
What proactive steps do you feel like PLONY can take in furthering their careers?
I have three suggestions:
1) write lots
2) send out your work constantly
3) find your community, both local and global
We live in such a wonderful time for connectivity. Go see plays. Take a playwriting class or join a workshop. Join a theater company! Find a theater listserv you like on the internet. Save your pennies and go to a theater festival. Join the Dramatists Guild. Find your tribe.
By my definition, you’re insanely successful, and I think we can all do a little better by thinking WWEMLD? But I’m curious how you define success.
Ha! Well, I don’t think of myself as insanely successful. There’s so much more that I want to do. As a playwright and as a person. I doubt myself frequently. This is a strange business we’re in. If you’re too comfortable, you’re probably not taking enough risks. So does that mean we have to live in discomfort? I don’t know. It’s all getting scarier and more fun as I go along.
I am more and more of the mind that I have been extremely lucky to figure out what I want to do with my life and to not only be able to do it, but to do it full-time. Every particle of me is involved with telling stories, and I get to work with extraordinary and talented people across the country. And the way in which its happening seems to be organic in that the people who respond to my work are the people with whom I love to work. We’re defining each other.
And I’m living on my family’s farm, which is sometimes challengingly remote, sometimes challengingly close to family, and sometimes wonderful. I love it here, because I’m from here in deep and fundamental ways, and to be back is enriching me in more ways than it’s taking away from me. I missed the trees and the water. Woods to wander in. Dirt to grow things in.
One of many Facebook photos of life at the farm
I’m trying to figure it out every day. How to be. Sometimes I feel a little isolated, but then I fly off and get to work with people again. And it’s not so bad to be isolated because I need time to be alone with my characters; that time is just as important as production time. So that’s success. I feel like I’m the playwright I want to be. Here. Now.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.