E. M. Lewis is an award-winning playwright and librettist. Her new play Now Comes the Night opens at 1st Stage September 18.
Lewis’s work has been produced around the world and is published by Samuel French. Awards include a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, the Steinberg Award and Primus Prize from the American Theater Critics Association, and the Ted Schmitt Award for Outstanding Writing of a World Premiere Play from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Plays include Song of Extinction, Magellanica, The Gun Show, Infinite Black Suitcase, True Story, Heads, and The Study. She is now working on a new family-friendly opera with composer Evan Meier, commissioned by American Lyric Theater. She lives in Oregon. www.emlewisplaywright.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ellmarlew.
Why are you a playwright?
I have studied fiction writing and poetry and screenwriting. But once I discovered playwriting, there was no turning back.
I love the immediacy of the theater. Something is happening right in front of you, and you as an audience member have to make sense of what you’re seeing and hearing. You are experiencing something yourself, along with the actors — being swept up emotionally in the action. At it’s best, it’s breathtaking.
What type of theatre most excites you?
There’s a quote I keep over my desk, which I believe is from Robert Brustein. It says, “In my theater, everyone is welcome, and no one is safe.” I like theater that is fierce, bold, present tense, and that asks big questions. I like characters on my stage who feel real to me — complex, and striving. I am also fond of high stakes and magic. Some of my favorite plays are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, The Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson, and Angels in America by Tony Kushner.
What starts a play moving in your imagination?
Usually, it’s a snippet of dialogue that comes to me. Voices in my head. (Not the scary kind. The appropriate-for-playwrights kind.) I scribble the words down… and more often than not, I find that my subconscious or imagination or whatever you want to call it is beginning to give body and voice to the big questions about the universe that are haunting me. I have big questions about human beings’ role in the universe and our responsibilities to each other. My characters have a life of their own — but they also help me explore those questions.
Do you have a favorite writing place?
I write anywhere and everywhere. I have to empty my pockets of little slips of paper each night, that have bits of dialogue and story ideas on them. Coffee shops are nice to write in (because coffee!). Libraries are nice to write in, because they are quiet and full of books. But I also like to write at home in my office. (I do have a room of my own to work in, which makes all the difference.) Since I moved back to Oregon, I’ve been using my great grandfather’s roll top desk, which is wonderful. Sometimes I curl up in my big red chair with Joe the Cat and a notebook or my laptop, which is nice too.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
NOW COMES THE NIGHT
September 18 – October 11, 2015
1524 Spring Hill Road
Tysons, VA 22102
Details and Tickets
How did you choose this play to debut at the Festival?
My director, Alex Levy — artistic director of 1st Stage — and I decided together. He reached out to me after my play The Gun Show premiered in Chicago last summer, starring an actor by the name of Juan Villa, who Alex had worked with on another project. Alex read The Gun Show, and my play Song of Extinction as well. When he signed on to be part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, he thought of me, and asked if I had anything new I was working on. I sent him several works in progress, and this one — Now Comes the Night — was the one that immediately grabbed his imagination. Over the last six months, he and I have been working together to get it ready for its world premiere.
The play is one that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. It is set stateside, about three years into the war in Iraq. It’s about journalists and war correspondents and the news in war time. It’s also about how our failures haunt us. The play focuses on human questions more than political ones — questions about safety, heroism, our responsibilities to each other, and redemption.
There’s a book that’s very important to me — a Vietnam War memoir, written by Michael Herr, called “Dispatches.” A line from it stayed with me as I worked on this play. “If you can’t find your courage in a war, you have to keep looking for it anyway.” I think that maybe this play is also about courage.
What female playwrights have influenced your writing?
Marsha Norman (‘Night Mother) – ferocity and mortal stakes
Caryl Churchill (Blue Kettle, A Number) – formal inventiveness and big questions
Lydia Diamond (Stick Fly) – class and complexity
Johnna Adams (The Cockfighters Trilogy, Gidion’s Knot) – violence and magic
Lisa Kron (Fun Home, 2.5 Minute Ride) – humor and self-discovery
What’s missing from theatre today?
More and more, I find myself yearning for a theatrical home. A theater large enough to produce regularly, and bold enough to engage in the messy business of making new plays. A place where theater artists of all kinds come together to work, and get to know each other and trust each other and inspire each other over years of working together. A place where the community knows they can come to hear a good story, well told — sometimes a story that challenges them, sometimes a story that delights them. In today’s world, we are so transitory. We’re distracted, and busy. And the economy of theater-making is challenging. But the rewards for this sort of deep work make it worth striving toward.
What are you working on now?
I have just received a commission from American Lyric Theater to write an opera with my composer partner Evan Meier. We are working on a full-length, family-friendly opera called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant — a mash-up of the mystery and fairy tale worlds. We are having great fun with it! I have a libretto workshop presentation on September 28th at the National Opera Center in New York City.
After five years of research and writing, I finally finished my epic Antarctic play Magellanica a few months ago. Now that I have a draft of the whole play, I’m looking forward to workshopping it with a director and actors. The play will have a reading at PlayFest Santa Barbara in January.
Answer this: “If I weren’t a playwright, I would be … “
A park ranger, maybe. I love being out in the woods, and taking long walks. And I like the idea of being a caretaker and interpreter of the natural world.
Possibly a librarian.
I am tremendously happy when I’m surrounded by either books or trees
Anything you would like to add?
I am honored and delighted to be part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. What a bold, joyful celebration of new work for the stage this is!
I’d like to invite people to come and see Now Comes the Night at 1st Stage. Alex and I, and our wonderful cast and crew, are excited to share this story with you. Join us!