BWW Interview: Playwright E. M. Lewis' Having a Good Year In THE LIGHT
Next up at Boston Court Pasadena, the world premiere of E. M. Lewis' HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN, with previews beginning September 19th and opening set for September 28th. Emilie Pascale Beck directs the cast of Amy Sloan, Ryun Yu, Chelsea Kurtz and Dieterich Gray who play four lonely people who find each other when one of them falls apart. I had the chance to delve into the creative mind of the much produced E. M. Lewis.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ellen!
2019 has been a productive year for you so far - this world premiere of HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN and the rolling world premiere of APPLE SEASON. With your now thirteen full-length plays and counting, have you had any other years of multiple premieres?
This is the busiest year I've ever had! I'm pleased, and I'm grateful. Playwriting is as uncertain as any other art form when it comes making a living at it - a real rollercoaster. But the last few years, things have been building in a good way.
Do you like to be hands-on with all your premieres?
A play isn't finished until it's been produced. So I place great value on being present during the process of bringing my plays onstage for their world premieres. At every step, I learn more about the play - from the director, from the designers, from the actors. And if I'm there, I'm able to see what's working - and what isn't - and make changes on the spot.
So, you're hands-on with the Boston Court Pasadena production?
I am having so much fun working with the talented folks at Boston Court Pasadena on my play! I was there for auditions, when we found our outstanding cast - Amy Sloan, Ryun Yu, Dieterich Gray, and Chelsea Kurtz. They brought me in for the first week of rehearsals, and I'll be back for previews and opening weekend. In between times, my director, Emilie Pascale Beck, and our stage manager, Trixie Hong, are keeping me in the loop. Everyone has been great.
HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN was workshopped both at Boston Court Pasadena and Chautauqua Theatre Company. Has your script been tweaked a little or a lot since then for this world premiere?
Workshopping HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN at both Boston Court Pasadena and at Chautauqua Theatre Company was invaluable. This is a very new play - raw and fresh - and it benefitted so much from that deep focus on the script. It was also a gift to be with my director, Emilie Pascale Beck, for both! Emilie and I worked together a few times, back when I lived in Los Angeles, but this is the biggest project we've ever done together. She's brilliant.
Any distinct audience reactions at either workshops influence the resulting course of HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN?
It's always interesting to hear what audiences have to say about a play during the workshopping process, while it's still actively under construction. I think the most useful two things that came from our Chautauqua audiences were finding out which characters they wanted to know more about, and hearing their laughter. The play goes to some serious places, but it has lots of fun and joy, too, I think... It was reassuring to hear them respond to that.
What would your three-line pitch of HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN to a producer be?
In a beautiful Japanese garden, a travel writer who has never been anywhere meets a famous architect who can't figure out how to build a simple tea house. Their stories intertwine with those of a tattoo artist and a homeless girl. HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN is a romantic comedy about finding love at the worst possible moment. It asks whether or not we can change the direction of our own life story mid-way through.
What was the original inspiration or spark for the creation of HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN?
My inspiration for the title of the play came from that wonderful Leonard Cohen song Anthem. Have you heard it? I love Leonard Cohen! "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack (a crack!) in everything. That's how the light gets in." The inspiration for the play itself came from a health crisis that I experienced two years ago. As I navigated a maze of doctors appointments and hospital visits, these characters came to me - this story. Helping them out of their dark places helped me find my way to the other side of mine.
What's the usual gestation period for one of your works?
The gestation period for a play varies widely. Some plays require a long period of research and "cooking" (like my epic five-and-a-half-hour long Antarctica play, MAGELLANICA). Some plays seem like they're leaping out the end of my pen HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN has moved from its first inspiration to its first production in record time.
You've written operas - TOWN HALL and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE FALLEN GIANT. Are your lyrics created before the score? Or do you have to write to match the written tempos?
About five years ago, I was invited to join American Lyric Theater's Composer Librettist Development Program. Since then, I've had the pleasure of exploring the world of opera-making! I've worked with two composers, primarily, on two commissions - TOWN HALL with Theo Popov, and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE FALLEN GIANT with Evan Meier. In each case, we come up with the idea together. I do a lot of the world building - character and plot and story arc - but at every step, we talk everything out, and make sure we're in sync. Once we've agreed on the outline, I write the libretto. And then the composer writes the music. It's a collaboration, though, every step of the way. The HOLMES opera will have an orchestral workshop in New York City in February.
Any specific reasoning behind choosing "E. M." instead of Ellen as your writing moniker?
When I began writing plays, I decided to use my initials instead of my full name. I thought it would be useful to have a professional name that was set apart, just a bit, from my every day self. Like C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling. It helped me feel like a real writer, while I was still in the process of becoming one.
Any upcoming commissions or projects you can share with us?
A few months ago, I received a really special and exciting opportunity - a commission to write a new play for Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions Project. American Revolutions is a multi-decade program that has commissioned and is helping to develop thirty-seven new plays about moments of change in United States history. Past American Revolutions commissions include Robert Schenkkan's Tony-winning ALL THE WAY (about President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Lynn Nottage's SWEAT (about the closing of American factories), which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. I'm honored to be in the company of a really inspiring bunch of playwrights for this project, and can't wait to start writing.
What feelings would you like the Boston Court Pasadena audiences to leave with after HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN's curtain call?
In a moment when our world feels unbearably dark and divided, I hope that my play gives the audience a bit of light, hope, and real human connection to take with them, when they go out the door.
Thank you again, Ellen! I look forward experiencing how your four lonely people become enlightened.
For ticket availability and show schedule through October 27, 2019; log onto BostonCourtPasadena.org