We’re excited to be featuring the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this spring! The applications for 2017 fellowships are due Friday, June 24, 2016 and you can read the guidelines and download an application by clicking here.
2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
E.M. Lewis is an award-winning playwright and librettist. She received the Steinberg Award f or “Song of Extinction” and the Primus Prize for “Heads” from the American Theater Critics Association, and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Plays include The Gun Show, Magellanica, Infinite Black Suitcase, and True Story.
Q&A with Literary Arts
1. What are your sources of inspiration?
I am a person who is passionately interested in this beautiful world of ours, and the splendid diversity of people who occupy it. So it feels like there is inspiration everywhere! My plays are frequently about the natural world (“Song of Extinction” and “Magellanica”) or social issues (“The Gun Show” and “Heads”). But sometimes they are just about human beings, wrestling with mortality and ethics and other big human questions (“Infinite Black Suitcase” and “Apple Season” and “True Story”).
The natural world inspires me. I live on my family’s fourth generation family farm, and love to work in the garden, and sit by the creek and write. I also like to hike. Silver Creek Falls is one of my favorite spots.
Other artists inspire me. I love my community of playwrights and other theater-makers, which is nationwide. Music… Bruce Springsteen and Dmitri Shostakovich. Leonard Cohen. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton soundtrack! Eddie Vedder. Pink Floyd. I’m eclectic! For poetry: Mary Oliver writes so beautifully about the natural world, and with a sense of grace and responsibility that I love. I read a lot of nonfiction as research for my plays. I like memoirs, particularly. Some favorites include Dispatches by Michael Herr, Just Kids by Patti Smith, My Life in France by Julia Child, and An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan. For visual arts: I’m quite taken with the work of Robert Rauschenberg.
2. How would you describe your creative process?
My plays most often begin with a line of dialogue that pops into my head as I’m walking or working out in the yard or taking a shower. I write it down. And then someone responds. And I write that down. And I try to figure out who’s talking, and what they want. What’s their story? That’s the magic bit. And it never stops being exciting.
The craft part is the rest of it—applying everything I know about storytelling and characterization and dramatic structure to the story, while at the same time trying to let it unfold naturally, and take me wherever it’s trying to take me. To the uncharted territory of new ideas. Toward all the beautiful possibilities. Into the great unknown.
Flannery O’Connor referred to this as “mystery” and “manners” which I think is a great description.
3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
There’s nothing safe about being an artist. We live on the edge. Out on a ledge. Artistically, socially, and economically precarious, all of the time. The view is amazing, but it’s scary out here! Receiving this fellowship is tremendously affirming. It says “keep going!” and “you can do it!” And “we value what you do!” And “here is some money to help you keep going!” I’m so very grateful.
4. What are you currently working on?
I always have multiple projects in process. I’ll be working on a new Oregon play called “Apple Season” with Theatre 33 in Salem, on the Willamette University campus, in June. My play “The Gun Show”—a very personal piece about guns and gun control—has three productions upcoming. It will be at Project Y in New York City in July, at the Minnesota Fringe in Minneapolis in August, and at CoHo here in Portland in September (my first Portland production!). I recently completed an epic play set in Antarctica called “Magellanica,” and am looking for a theater to workshop it with me. And I’m working on a family-friendly opera with composer Evan Meier, commissioned by American Lyric Theater in New York City.
I’ve also just started planting the vegetable garden with my Dad.
5. What advice do you have for future applicants?
Keep writing! Be brave. Work hard. Be rigorous. Find your community of writers, and support them as much as they support you. If you have a story to tell, don’t let anyone or anything stop you.
OLF Judge’s Comments
I am pleased and honored to have “discovered” E.M. Lewis’s work through the Oregon Literary Fellowship for Drama competition. I bracket discovered in quotes because Ellen is a writer who has already won a number of important prizes. But if there was any justice in the world—and if theatres produced women at the same frequency as men—we would all know her work. Ellen’s writing in Song of Extinction is lyrical, spare and shimmeringly theatrical. The play dramatizes such weighty subjects as death and the extinction of species through the prism of family and professional relationships. Her deep feeling for the people in her play and their plight is always leavened by a lightness of touch, natural subtlety and unerring taste. My note to theatres: produce this writer!
Excerpt from “Apple Season”
Lissie and Billy haven’t seen each other in twenty years. Since high school. Since Lissie and her brother, Roger, ran away from home, and disappeared off all the maps. Today, she’s back for her mother’s funeral—and Billy makes an offer to buy the family farm from her. But first, they need to untangle some of the history that won’t let go of them.
I need to tell you something.
So tell me.
So tell me.
Roger and me were both on the basketball team in high school. Junior year. Which was funny, because he hadn’t gone out for it freshman and sophomore years, and nobody ever didn’t do sports, then all of a sudden decided to, halfway through. But he did. I think maybe Mr. Lawrence said something to him. Or… I don’t know. He showed up at tryouts and lasted the week, so he was in.
I don’t know what this story is about.
It’s about you.
Just hold on a minute, okay?
(Lissie turns away)
He ran home every night after practice. Just over four miles. Which was… He wasn’t a great player, but I remember driving past him in my new blue pick-up, new to me blue pick-up, and thinking he wasn’t better than the rest of us, but maybe he was tougher.
So we lost a game. An important game. Against Mollala. I think it was February. Halfway through the season. They killed us. They were bigger and rougher and better, and they just ran right over us. Bunch of tall, skinny farm boys in blue silk shorts. I got out the door after everybody else for some reason, helping Mr. Lawrence put away the gear, maybe, and it was sleeting. And dark. Not night yet, but just… dark. And when I drove out McKee Road, I saw Roger running home. And for the first time that whole year it occurred to me that nobody in his family had ever come to see one of his games, he didn’t own a car, and that maybe the reason he ran home every night wasn’t because he thought he was better than the rest of us but because he didn’t have any other way to get there.
So I stopped.
He didn’t talk, is the thing. So anything there was to know about him, you had to piece together. And teenage boys aren’t always… I wasn’t anyway… too bright about… But he rode home with me after that. I had to ask him every time, but he’d say yes.
And then there was another big game, and he didn’t show. He didn’t show for the game, or school, or practice for four days, and then he showed up at practice, and Mr. Cappell took the hide off him. Told him if he couldn’t bother to be there when we needed him he wasn’t welcome on the team, because we were a team, and that wasn’t how teams worked. And Roger walked out. And I followed him out. Even though Mr. Cappell hollered at me.
We ended up at the water tower.
(Lissie kisses Billy. He puts a hand up between them.)
What are you doing?
I don’t know what this is.
I haven’t been on a date in…
This isn’t a date.
(Lissie pauses, then runs her hand his cheek, then moves away.)
You don’t have to be sor—
I don’t believe in second chances. If you thoroughly fuck up your first chance, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to have another one.
You just want the noise in your head to stop.
That’s what it is, right?
(Lissie shakes her head. Picks up a box of apples.)
I’ve never been good at talking to girls.
You talked to me.
You were different.
You had girlfriends. Sometimes. As I recall.
You didn’t have to know how to talk to girls if you played basketball.