I met EM Lewis’ plays before I met the woman behind the plays. EM’s plays are, among other great qualities, incisive, compassionate and beautiful (even when their subject matters are ugly). When you experience an EM Lewis play, you always know you are in her entirely capable hands. And if you’re willing to accept the conversation she is offering, you will also take part in an experience that leaves you a different and more enriched person than when you started.
And then I met the woman behind EM Lewis’ plays—Ellen Lewis. She too is (among other great qualities) incisive, compassionate and beautiful. For me, knowing her personally truly enriches my love for her special plays. At the top of her impressive credit list is “Song of Extinction,” the 2009 winner of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award (a.k.a. a very big deal). It’s world premiere was at Moving Arts in Los Angeles, but Theatre Latté Da’s production is your next opportunity to catch it—starting February 25th at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.
Ellen moved from Santa Monica to Princeton, New Jersey this past fall, in acceptance of Princeton University’s 2010-2011 Hodder Fellowship in Playwriting. I haven’t been able to venture there yet to visit her, so please join me as I live vicariously. . .
Me: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you clean up your work space for taking these photographs for me?
Ellen: I’d say 4. Mostly just shuffling some of the stuff that wasn’t playwriting off to one side. I am buried in paper much of the time!
Me: Do you typically shuffle your non-playwright papers off to the side if you’re going to sit down and write at your desk?
Ellen: (Laughing) When they get too deep. . . Really, though, I do like to keep the surface of the desk fairly clear, so I can dredge out my notes and previous drafts and reference books and little pieces of paper without losing them. Because I work on multiple projects at the same time, I can’t just leave one laying out. Right now, for example, I am working on a short story tentatively called “The Gentle Way” that took me by surprise and that I’m trying to finish, applications for several residencies, a recommendation letter for a colleague and two full-length plays. And I’m sure the bills I’m supposed to pay this month are around here somewhere. . .
Me: I love seeing these photos of your awesomely adorable cottage. When you first moved in, how did you decide where to place your desk and where would be the best space for you to write, to think, to work?
Ellen: I rented the cottage sight unseen—just from a picture of the front, and the fact that it was a cottage, set in a garden, walking distance to everything I was going to need in my new town—university, downtown, train station.
Me: Wow, that’s such a big risk, as both a “person” and a “writer!”
Ellen: I was so happy when I walked in the door! It has this big, giant triple window in the front room, and the sunlight just pours in. It looks out on a garden, which is snow-covered now, but in the fall was full of squirrels and rabbits and birds and fireflies. This wonderful fellowship year is all about writing, and so am I, really. I knew instantly that I would put my desk smack dab in front of that window, so I could sit there and write.
Me: How much of your writing do you do from your cottage, and specifically at your desk in the cottage?
Ellen: I have an office on campus, but. . . It’s hard to beat my desk at the cottage! I do probably 50-60% of my writing here. But I also write in my rocking chair, upstairs in bed, occasionally in a coffee shop or the library, and regularly on the train. I’ve found that I love writing on the train!
Me: What is it about the train?
Ellen: I think it’s the sense of movement. When I was living in Santa Monica, I’d frequently get ideas while rollerblading on the bicycle path. More problematically, I’d get ideas while driving back and forth to work and shows on the Los Angeles freeways. I was always scribbling notes on little pieces of paper against my steering wheel and praying I wouldn’t rear end someone. Also, in the train, you’re with people, but not with them—like in a café. There’s something nice about that. And for me, the train ride from Princeton to New York City takes about an hour, which is a nice amount of time to push myself to focus before I hit the big city.
Me: Interesting. . . But back to this fairytale cottage of yours! The first thing I noticed on your desk: No computer. . .
Ellen: I cleaned too much off my desk! I do use a computer—a very nice Mac laptop that wanders upstairs and downstairs and all around the house with me. But I write by hand regularly as well. My usual process is to start something in a notebook, or on the back of an envelope, or on a sticky note, that I then input into the computer. I’ll then write on the computer for awhile, formatting and editing and clarifying and continuing. And then I print that out and edit it by hand, and continue it by hand. Then I input those additions and changes! It’s a big circle.
Me: About your notebooks—because you just mentioned it, and I see a small one on your desk, and because there were many occasions in L.A. when I’d run into you somewhere, and you very often were writing in a notebook. . . .
Ellen: I like writing by hand. There is an intimacy to scribbling words onto paper, and an immediacy. I don’t need to be in a special place to write, or have special things. With paper and a pen, I can write anywhere, any time. And I do! I’ll find myself writing lines of dialogue on the back of my shopping list in the grocery store aisle, or in my notebook on the train. Yesterday, I had to borrow a scrap of paper from the front desk guy at the Y, because if I don’t write something down right away, I lose it, and something had come to me. It’s great when I get it into one of my little notebooks—I favor Moleskines!
Me: A good gift-buying hint for everyone out there. . .
Ellen: But as often as not, it’s on a little scrap of paper, which I later have to find when I’m trying to input things into the computer.
Me: Perhaps “backing up” a bit—I’m looking at your image walls. How do you decide what to collect, and determine what to display? And how do collecting and displaying these images support and inform you as you write?
Ellen: I think that “Song of Extinction” was the first play I put up on the wall, as I was writing it. I just had too much in my head, and needed something that would help me organize and clarify all the stuff that I was gathering. So I started taping! And it did help. For that play, and for my current plays, once I’m underway, I print images of what the characters might look like and put them up: Who’s at the center of the story? Who’s next to each other, because they are most in conflict with each other? I can place them where and how I want them, and it can change easily as the play changes. I might throw up a map of the place where the play takes place, for easy reference, or a poem or song or quote that feels relevant to a character. My messy bits of dialogue, scribbled on sticky notes and scraps of paper, have a safe home if I put them up on the wall.
Me: Ah ha!
Ellen: It’s a place for free association and visualization and organization. More than anything, though, I think it helps me live inside the world of the play. I already have the characters talking in my head. But this way, I see them when I’m sitting here with my morning coffee, and I walk by them on my way to take out the garbage. By the magic of theater and imagination, I am both here and there at the same time.
Me: Oh, I love that notion. I think that encapsulates the dual life that writers—especially writers “in process”—often live. And speaking of “in process”: I see both a wall of images and a bookshelf that seem related to “Magellanica.”
Me: I was really honored to be present for an early reading of this play-in-progress. Where do things stand with it now? And how does it apply to Bruce Springsteen, who I think I see on the image wall?!
Ellen: “Magellanica: A New and Accurate Map of the World” is the big play I’m working on for this fellowship year in Princeton. It’s the project I proposed when I applied. And I can’t think of a better place to work on it. You should see the library here! It’s a big play—bigger than I’ve ever undertaken—that follows an international group of scientists who are wintering over at the South Pole. You heard part one, and I’m close to done with part two. But I’m beginning to think it’s going to be a five-part play, instead of the three-part play I thought it was going to be.
Me: Oh wow.
Ellen: It’s set in 1981, but has begun to range across time and space a bit. I’m trying to go where it takes me. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about Antarctica, particularly memoirs of scientists, explorers and support personnel who have worked there. Amazing stuff! Bruce Springsteen and Dmitri Shostakovich are musical influences on the play, which takes place during the Cold War, and has both American and Russian characters in it. Who is more quintessentially American than Springsteen?
Me: Plus, you’re in New Jersey now, so it’s practically a requirement! I also see a draft of a script called “Strong Voice” on your desk—and a corresponding image wall for that project as well. Tell me more!
Ellen: “Strong Voice” is a new full-length play that I’m writing for Halcyon Theater in Chicago. Every year, they produce a festival of work by women playwrights called The Alcyone Festival. They choose a different theme every year. I was part of it a few years ago, when they produced my play “Heads.” The theme that year was “women writing about terrorism.” This year, they decided to ask half a dozen women playwrights who they’d previously worked with to adapt or engage with the work of women playwrights of our choice, 1850 or earlier.
Ellen: I was intrigued! I’ve never done an adaptation before, but it was on my “to-do” list. I liked the idea that a bunch of us would be doing this, separately, but together. And I like Halcyon! They’re a small company with lots of moxie. Artistic Director Tony Adams suggested that I might be interested in Hrosvitha of Gandersheim—a Benedictine cannoness who wrote poems and plays in the Tenth Century.
Me: Had you heard of her before Tony Adams’ suggestion?
Ellen: I have to confess, I hadn’t.
Me: Is it wrong of me to not find that “confession”-worthy? I hadn’t heard of her until you just mentioned her to me!
Ellen: I was an English major in college, not a theater major, and I didn’t figure out I wanted to be a playwright until I was out of graduate school—although I knew by then I wanted to be a writer. There are all kinds of holes in my theater knowledge I’m trying to fill. So many plays, so little time! But I feel like this is why Tony’s idea for this year’s Alcyone Festival is so wonderful—we have the opportunity here to gather up some of these lost or forgotten playwrights, and explore the ways that they speak to us now.
Me: And so you read Hrosvitha of Gandersheim’s work.
Ellen: Yes. And though I ultimately decided that I couldn’t do a straight adaptation that would add anything to the universe at large, something about her work grabbed at me. I began to imagine an original story into which I could fold Hrosvitha and her plays. “Strong Voice” is a mystery set in 2001 that follows two Chicago detectives as they investigate the case of a missing nun. Like most of Hrosvitha’s plays, it deals with issues of faith and martyrdom. It’s going up in June, so I’m writing to a close deadline. But deadlines are good. And “Yay” for theaters that commit to producing new work!
Me: And now for my questions that betray my romantic notion of your writing life: First, is Joe always lounging in a basket when you write?
Ellen: Most of the time! He does love his baskets. Occasionally, he takes time out to attack the printer, steal my chair and eat. Oh, the life of a cat!
Me: And given the winter wonderland outside of your cottage, I feel like this is our “Winter Edition” visit with you. Has writing in a winter climate affected your work or your work process at all?
Ellen: After more than a decade in sunny Los Angeles, snowy Princeton has been a big transition! I can now tell you exactly how good a workout snow shoveling is, and the importance of long underwear, wool socks and earmuffs. Fall was really gorgeous here, and I did a lot of walking around my new town, getting the lay of the land. But as it’s gotten colder—like, single digit colder!—I’ve gravitated inside with my cat and my laptop. It’s brought a nice sense of focus, actually.
Sara, thanks for this series. I’m happy to vicariously visit Ellen at her picturesque little cottage. (Hi Ellen!) I love writing on trains too! Trains and planes. The motion and the anonymity. Perfect.
I’m so impressed at Ellen’s ability to work on so many different projects at the same time… I can definitely learn something from her process. In fact, I think I might start taping things to my walls too! Thanks for another great glimpse into the office/life of a great writer 🙂