I can’t remember precisely why, but the first time I saw playscript pages from Ellen (“EM”) Lewis in a class I was teaching, of what turned out to be the very first play she’d ever written, I knew she had the stuff. In fact, that’s exactly what I said to her. I looked at her pages and listened to them being read and looked up and said, “Ellen Lewis, you’ve got the stuff.” I don’t remember the other students being especially thrilled by this outburst but there was no way not to say it:Â If you happen to spot a unicorn, you just have to tell people.
What was it about her writing? I think it was the depth of feeling that flowed off the page; there was a world of hurt on that page, carefully suppressed. It was the immediately interesting situation, of someone building a satellite in the front yard. It was the lyric spokenness of the dialogue, as plain people talked in ways that sounded plain and yet expressive. It was the keen sense of milieu, of the characters’ time and place, and how they moved in it. It was all of those things, and more, put together. In other words, it was all of the things she has continued to bring to the marvelous oeuvre of plays she has written since. She wasn’t there yet but it was clear already that there was a there to be reached.
This was in 2002 in the Master Class in Drama graduate writing course I was teaching at USC. Eight years later, everyone can see she’s got the stuff. She won the 2009 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award from the American Theater Critics Association (for Song of Extinction, developed and premiered right here in Los Angeles by Moving Arts). That play also won the Ashland New Plays Festival, the University of Oregon’s EcoDrama Festival, the LA Drama Critics Circle’s Ted Schmitt Award and Production of the Year from the LA Weekly Awards. The year before, she won the 2008 Primus Prize (and a $10,000 purse) for Heads, (which premiered at The Blank, again, a Los Angeles theatre). Also, it was recognized as a Best of 2007 play by the Los Angeles Times. Her plays have been produced all across the U.S. and foreign climes and will continue to be so. If there were stock in EM Lewis, every broker would mark her a “buy.”
And now she’s headed to New Jersey, as the 2010-2011 Alfred Hodder Fellow at Princeton University. Previous Hodder playwrights include Doug Wright, Naomi Iizuka and Will Eno. We here in Los Angeles will miss her (and we’re throwing a farewell party – here are the details if you’d like to join us). But she isn’t really going anywhere – her plays will be everywhere and, gauging from her travels the past four years, so will she.
Ellen’s success is her own, and she deserves it. At the same time, I think there are lessons to be drawn, lessons that can serve other playwrights who should be inspired by Ellen’s achievements, and that attest to the power of the Los Angeles theatre scene.
Lesson #1:Â Playwrights are not novelists.
Novelists write in isolation. Every playwright I know writes in community. It’s good to have access to actors and directors and audiences and a space to work in. Ellen was wise enough to immediately claim those things for herself. She needed them and she knew it. She got involved with Moving Arts because I needed a dramaturge for a play I was directing (for the world premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s American Jack) and Ellen already seemed so impressive in every other way I was sure she would be great. She was. After that, we never let her go. She followed that up by connecting with everyone possible and staying connected. Surrounding yourself with artists inspires you to do more art. That’s how it works in the theatre, anyway.
Lesson #2: You don’t get a hit if you don’t go up to bat.
EM Lewis is a play-submitting machine. Heretofore, if you decided to build a theatre in your back yard, she already knew about it and had sent you a play. An unproduced play isn’t a play – it’s a script. It becomes a play when it gets produced, each time it gets produced. Ellen knew this (knows this) and went about submitting in a maniacally determined fashion, and building a network of actors and directors and producers who admired and championed her work. Every produced or published writer has stories about how many many many times we’ve had to submit to get a hit. Ellen’s success proves the importance of dusting yourself off after every rejection and going back to the plate.
Lesson #3:Â It’s good to be good-natured.
When someone botches your play, it hurts. No one sets out to do you harm (not usually); it just happens. Playwrights get good productions, great productions, bad productions, mediocre productions, and productions that just seem inexplicable.Â It’s in our nature to cast around for the source of the misery when we know very well that the same play just worked wonderfully somewhere else. After Ellen asked me what I thought of one of her productions, I told her I thought it was badly directed. Ellen was kind enough to say, “I think she’s not a good director for me.” See? Not “bad director” – “bad director for me.” That distinction tells you a lot about Ellen’s character:Â She’s gracious. It’s good to be gracious. People notice.
Lesson #4. Los Angeles is a great place for nurturing playwrights.
We have a lot of theatres and a lot of actors. What do playwrights need? Theatres and actors. (And directors and board ops and designers and all the other related essential people.) We have lots of very good teachers of playwriting who run private workshops or teach in university settings. It’s an easy place to get connected and become part of a community. In building her own community, Ellen performed probably every role you can at local theatres in Los Angeles:Â She tried her hand at various levels of directing and producing and casting and acting and volunteering and script reading and working events and probably scraping gum out of carpets, too. Want to learn how the theatre works? That’s how. Want to create lasting relationships with theatre people? Same way.
Lesson #5. Talent is sacred.
Yes, bad plays get produced all the time. (And bad actors get cast.) But talent gives you a massive advantage. Ellen Lewis’ talent is obvious – it’s obvious from the awards she’s won, it’s obvious from the reviews she’s received, it’s obvious from the jaded theatre people I’ve seen leaving her shows so deeply moved they’re crying inconsolably. Talent can’t be taught – but it can be nurtured, and it must be protected and shepherded. If you even suspect you have talent, if even one person has encouraged you, you have a duty to do that, for yourself and for all the people who need to be entertained or to be reconnected to the skein of humanity. With great talent comes great responsibility.
We’re saying farewell, and we’ll miss her, but EM Lewis isn’t leaving Los Angeles, not really. She’s just opening to a wider audience. I’m looking forward to more of her stuff.
Lee Wochner is a playwright and director, and founding artistic director of Moving Arts.