Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alcyone 2011 Blog Post, Part II

The Art of Adaptation

In the last year, I've had two opportunities to practice the art of adaptation.  They were my first tries, and I learned a lot as I went along.  The first thing I learned was that any adaptation is a sort of marriage of two minds -- and like any marriage, though it can be extremely rewarding, it ain't easy.


The first adaptation project came to me through a playwriting colleague.  A book publisher was looking to add multi-media content to its offerings.  A first attempt had been successful for them, so they decided to branch out -- asking four dramatic writers to create new fictional stories for the screen, using the books of four of their non-fiction writers as a starting point.  Each thirty-minute film would ideally showcase the ideas of each of their writers, but be compelling stories on their own -- and able to stand together or apart, depending on how the publisher chose to market them.

I was getting ready to leave Los Angeles when this opportunity came my way.  I'd received a playwriting fellowship at Princeton University that was taking me to the other side of the world -- well, to New Jersey, anyway -- to work on my new play for the 2010-2011 academic year.  I'd already decided to quit my sensible day job at the end of May, in order to give myself a real-live summer vacation back on the family farm, in between.  I liked the director when I met him, the project sounded like an interesting challenge, the money they were offering would pay for my moving expenses... and so I signed on.  I now had a project for my summer vacation!  Here's how it went:
  • I read the source material.
  • I thought about the source material.
  • I came up with half a dozen possible story scenarios, and then discussed them with the director and lead writer.
  •  For the three favorites, I came up with rough outlines.
  • With the director, we chose one scenario to be my project.
  • After discussions with the director and head writers, I refined the outline, changing some key features to make sure it fulfilled the needs of the over-all project.
  • Upon turning in the refined outline, I was paid the first of two installments for my work on the project.
  •  I left for Oregon -- and began to write the script.
  • There was angst and wrestling with the source material and some tearing out of hair.  But doesn't all writing feel this way sometimes?  There were also moments when it was fun and fantastic.  I liked the characters I'd created.
  • I turned in my first draft.
  • I took an hour's worth of notes on the first draft over the phone, scribbling as fast as I could.
  • I struggled to figure out the notes, and how to implement them. 
  • I turned in the second draft.
  • I took another hour's worth of notes on the second draft.  But I'd clearly been writing in the right direction, despite that seeming evidence to the contrary.
  • I struggled to figure out the notes and implement them.
  • I turned in my final draft.  (We were contracted for three.)
  • I was paid the final check for my work.

I'm very glad I did the project.  It gave me the chance to work with a bunch of smart, creative, hard-working people on a type of project I'd never worked on before.  I was paid -- well -- for my work.  I was proud of my finished script, even if it was a different kind of pride than I have in a creation all my own.  I used some skills from my graduate program at USC that I hadn't had a chance to before -- outlining the screen story with Frank Tarloff, and screenwriting classes with Ben Masselink and Jason Squire.  And I got a hint of what writing for television must be like -- something that I'm interested in, like a lot of playwrights these days.

Last week, the director sent me a promo for the film.  It's done, it's in the can, they're almost done editing it.

It looks gorgeous.

I hope it's good!

I'm glad I did it.

As a general rule, I’ve found that any time someone offers me the opportunity to work really hard at something I love -- I should say yes.  Which brings me to the second adaptation project I said yes to this year.


Not long after finishing my summer vacation and film adaptation project and moving east, I received an e-mail from Tony Adams, artistic director of Halcyon Theater in Chicago.  He’d produced my play "Heads" in his Alcyone Festival of works by women a couple years before.  And he and his associate artistic director (and wife) Jenn Adams had decided to do something extra crazy and bold for the 2011 Alcyone Festival.  They were asking five women playwrights with whom they had worked before to either adapt, riff upon, or otherwise engage with the work of a woman playwright from 1870 or earlier.

I said yes.

I also said I didn't really know the work of any women playwrights from 1870 or earlier.  (They weren't deterred by this -- it rather proved their point, that there was a canon there, ripe for retrieving.) 

Tony suggested I give Hrosvitha a try.  She was the earliest of the women playwrights whose work survives to this day.  She was a Tenth Century Benedictine canoness who lived in an abbey at Gandersheim in Saxony (now Germany) and wrote odd little comic plays and serious poems about the early Christian women martyrs.

I still don't know why Tony suggested her to me.  But as I read her work, and read about her, something pinged inside me.

It's hard to say what.  Maybe it's that I was raised Catholic.  Maybe it's that I remember reading books about the early Christian martyrs as a child (along with every other book I could get my hands on) that intrigued and disturbed me.  Maybe it's that I have struggled with issues of faith and philosophy and spirituality as an adult.  Or maybe it's that the notion of martyrdom seems so much more overwhelmingly complicated to me now than it did when I was a child.  It's not that I don't think there aren't things worth dying for (terrified as I am of mortality).  It’s that the practical application of so-called martyrdom seldom lives up to my expectations, and seems to frequently take a lot of innocent people with it.

So I ended up writing a play about 9/11.

Hrosvitha is known as (in fact, she called herself) the "strong voice" of Gandersheim.  So I called my play "Strong Voice."  Halcyon promised to produce it in their Chicago theater if I wrote it, so I set the story in Chicago.  Halcyon's mission includes producing plays that reflect the beautiful diversity of their city, so I made my heroes an African-American woman and a Latino man -- two Chicago police detectives who are investigating the disappearance of a nun and the desecration of a mosque in the wake of 9/11.

I've always liked detective stories, since the first Sherlock Holmes stories I devoured when I was in elementary school.  And what I ended up with was definitely a detective story.  But it was also the story of a bunch of people re-evaluating what they believe in the wake of events that challenged everything they knew to be true.

Hrosvitha herself became a character in the play, literalizing my own struggles to come to terms with her and her work.  And in some ways, it became a play about storytelling.  How we tell our own story, how we frame our lives and beliefs in words, and who will have the strongest voice in the most difficult times.

It hasn't been an easy play to write.  And even though it's playing now in Chicago, I'm not sure I'm done wrestling with it.

The process was helped along, though, by input from others.  Much of my work as a writer is done alone in my room, muttering under my breath in all my characters' voices in a strange, solitary, noisy literary schizophrenia.  But I love getting feedback.  I value being part of a writing workshop.  I want my course corrected when I veer and to be called on any and all bullshit, sentiment and overwriting I might allow to creep in.  Encouragement doesn't hurt either.

I received good support and feedback on pieces, parts and drafts of this project from the folks in my playwriting workshop at Passage Theater in Trenton, fellow playwright Jami Brandli (who kindly gave me notes on an ugly early draft), and my smart and capable director Margo Gray.  All mistakes remaining are, of course, my own.

Margo was casting the play before I'd figured out its ending.  The play changed drastically during rehearsals, as I refined the characters and figured out what the play was about.  (Because that's never something I know going in -- always something I figure out as I go along.)  Everything about the play happened very fast, in play terms.

When I sat out in the audience on June 12, watching the first performance, I wondered at it all.  Me, a dead Benedictine woman, and a bunch of blank pieces of paper.  Add research and work and time.  Temper with creative criticism and infuse with the talents of director, committed actors and a theater company that stands behind its promise to produce new work.  And you have a play.

Both of these projects were the broadest sort of adaptations.  I'd like to try my hand at a closer adaptation, perhaps of a young adult novel.  I'd also like to write a spec television script -- mucking about with someone else's characters for a bit.

I'm busy working on some original plays now -- entirely in my own head again, for better and for worse.  But I haven't seen the last of adaptation.  It's a challenge I'd like to take on again. 

Working hard at something you love is always good.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

James Baldwin talks about writing...

I remember seeing this clip years ago.  It was in a documentary film about Baldwin that I checked out of the Salem Public Library, soon after discovering Baldwin's wonderful, complicated novels.  I loved his read-out-loud beautiful prose and difficult characters.  And after watching the documentary, I loved him, too.  Through my most difficult times, it was nice to think of someone whose difficult times made mine pale in comparison, and who replied to them with such strength, humor and spirit.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Pseudonym

Carmela Ciuraru has a small photo-essay in the Huffington post about writers and their pseudonyms -- and the reasons behind the pseudonyms.  Her tone is a little snarky for my taste, but the mini-biographies are interesting.

Perhaps the first character we invent, as writers, is ourselves.

"EM Lewis" isn't really a nom d'plume -- it's just my initials and last name.  And I didn't decide to use it to hide my gender, or because I am a convicted felon (as one of Ciuraru's writers did).  But I do like having my own alternate self.  Somewhere between me and her and all of my characters lies the real me.

And... that's enough psychoanalysis for now.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Chayefsky's Notes on Network

It's always interesting to me to look inside another writer's process of cracking a story.  Seeing how lost they felt, at certain points, is reassuring.  Seeing how doggedly they pursued their stories is encouraging.  So I liked reading this article in the New York Times about Paddy Chayefsky's notes on "Network" that are preserved in the New York Public Library.  This movie is on my "re-watch soon!" list -- now, more than ever.

Are you mad as hell?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

All My Heroes Are Women This Week

I like writing men.  Hard to say why.  Perhaps it's because their desire to take action and not talk about their feelings appeals to me, at least when I'm writing for the stage.  (Maybe not.  It's not like that describes all men, and no women.)  Perhaps it's because I prefer not to look into my own female psyche.  Or maybe it's like handedness, or sexual orientation -- we're all just built veering a certain way.

At any rate, I do veer that direction, and the character lists of my plays reflect that.  "Heads" is for three men and one woman.  "Song of Extinction" is for five men and one woman.  "Magellanica" has two women, and six men.  And I'm working on my first two-hander -- for two men.

Not equal at all.

It's not that I think I have to be egalitarian in this regard.  But there's something in me -- the part that took that writing workshop with Betty Friedan, or that counts "Alien" and "Aliens" as two of the best movies ever -- that wants to be.  Or at least thinks that any blind spots I see in myself ought to be rigorously rooted out.  I am a writer, after all.  Isn't that one of the things we're supposed to do?  Along with "never be boring," "tell a smashing good story" and "use strong verbs?"

So.  It's not that I've stopped working on "Magellanica," or that two-hander.  But I've been keeping Women Characters at the back of my mind, along with all the other things that lurk at the edges of my brain, ready to be thrust into plays when the time is right.
(An anecdote:  I don't know about other writers, but I usually write a play from inside one character, more than the others.  When I was writing "Heads," I remember thinking, with regularity and insistence, "I am Harold Wolfe."  He's the American engineer, who is being held hostage with British embassy worker Caroline Conway.  He had a particular way of thinking about things, and dealing with his situation, and Caroline's way of thinking about things and dealing with their situation bugged the hell out of him.  I was weeping and writing one of their last scenes of the play together, when I suddenly realized, "I am Caroline Conway."  It was frightening, actually.)
All that being a preface to what I'm actually blogging about today:  that I have three plays going up this month, and all of them feature women characters.  Or in the case of one, characters that can be played by women or men in any combination, as the director wishes.  I'm rather pleased about this!

Kelly Owens as Detective Constance Connolly with Jesse David Perez as Detective Mario Garza in "Strong Voice" by EM Lewis, directed by Margo Gray, in the 2011 Alcyone Festival, Chicago, IL.

"Strong Voice" opened on Sunday in Chicago, as part of Halcyon Theater's Alcyone Festival, directed by Margo Gray.  The festival is always a showcase for work by women playwrights; this year, Halcyon commissioned five of us to write new plays that either adapted or riffed upon the work of particular women playwrights from 1870 or earlier.  My play riffs upon the work of Hrosvitha -- the "strong voice" of Gandersheim.  It's about a pair of Chicago police detectives who are investigating the case of a missing nun and a vandalized mosque in the wake of 9/11.  It explores issues of faith and violence.  And the story is spearheaded by Detective Constance Connolly, who is trying to find the lost nun, and Lucy Wallingstone, who is trying to come to terms with all that she and her fiance lost in 9/11.

Porter Kelly and Vyvy Nguyen as mother and daughter in "Drop-Off Day," written by EM Lewis and directed by Michael Shutt, in Moving Arts' "The Car Plays" at the 2011 Radar Festival in Los Angeles, CA.
"Drop-Off Day" opens today in the Radar Festival, in Los Angeles, produced by Moving Arts, as part of a big, fabulous event called "The Car Plays."  And yes, it is exactly what the title suggests: plays performed inside cars!  To an audience of two people at a time!  Each play is approximately ten minutes long, and you buy a "boulevard" of five -- moving in and out of each car, guided by a car hop, as the actors perform the play over and over again.  This is the fourth year that Moving Arts has produced The Car Plays, and I've been part of them since their inception.  Paul Stein was our artistic director at that time, and came up with them as a project that would bring us all together -- writers, directors and actors -- and allow our "homeless" state not to stop us from performing.  They're great fun.  And we're all honored that we were asked to perform the show as part of the Radar Festival, alongside theater-makers from all over, and to a large audience that's gathered to participate in the TCG Festival, the Hollywood Fringe Festival and Radar, which are all happening NOW in Los Angeles.  (Which is, clearly, a theater town, wouldn't you say?)  "Drop-Off Day" is about a woman who has been helping her daughter move into the dorm at USC for her first day of college, but now is finding it hard to drive away.  It's directed by Michael Shutt, and features Porter Kelly as the mom and Vyvy Nguyen as the daughter.

A quote from the Imperial War Museum in London.  In the corridor leading to the World War I and World War II exhibits.

"The War Museum" is brand new.  Since I came to the east coast, for my playwriting fellowship, I've been looking for nice folks to make theater with.  And Flux Theater in New York City is one of the groups I've become acquainted with.  They have a mainstage show up right now called "Ajax in Iraq."  And they do something I think is rather wonderful -- asking their playwrights to write short plays that riff on the themes of their mainstage show, and then do readings of those plays each week during the run.  Even though I'm new, they asked me to play -- writing a short play for their "New World Iliads," ten to fifteen minutes long, that dealt with the war in Afghanistan as if it were seen from 2,000 years in the future, much as "Ajax in Iraq" deals with soldiers today and 2,000 years ago, simultaneously.  We had a piece of art we could work from in our writing as well.  An exciting challenge!  Especially since I was in Chicago when I got the call, getting ready to open "Strong Voice."  But I took an afternoon off, found a cafe that served good coffee, and scribbled fast.  "The War Museum" is for four players, in any gender configuration.  **2,000 years from now.  This is the moment when everything changes.  Vennah's looking for Meller.  Meller's looking for answers.  In the War Museum.**  It was read on Sunday evening, alongside plays by Mac Rogers, Isaiah Tannenbaum and Aja Houston, and directed by Jordana Williams.  Because I couldn't be there, I'm not sure which of the following actors were in it:  Carissa Cordes, Ken Glickfeld, Lynn Kenny, Rob Maitner, Debargo Sanyal, and Kathleen Wise.  But I'm sure some of them were women...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hot off the press: "The War Museum" goes to NYC!

Since I moved to Princeton, I've been trying to get to know the theatermakers in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia.  One group I've connected with is the fantastic Passage Theater in Trenton, NJ.  Another is Flux Theater in New York City.  

A few days ago, the folks at Flux asked if I'd like to write a new short play for their "ForePlay" Reading Series -- plays written by ensemble members and friends to riff upon and support the mainstage show that is now in production.  Even though I'm in Chicago at the moment for the opening of "Strong Voice," I said yes.  Of course I said yes!  I'm so pleased to have the chance to play!  

If you're in New York City on Sunday, June 12 -- I hope you'll pop over and see the readings.  They should be lots of fun.  I rather like my little contribution!

THE WAR MUSEUM, by EM Lewis:  2,000 years from now.  This is the moment when everything changes.  Vennah's looking for Meller.  Meller's looking for answers.  In the War Museum.


Sunday, June 12 · 7:00pm - 9:00pm
Flamboyan Theatre at CSV Cultural & Educational Center
107 Suffolk Street

Join us on June 12 for ForePlay #2, New World Iliads: Afghanistan

Featuring four short plays by Aja Houston, EM Lewis, Mac Rogers, and Isaiah Tanenbaum

Directed by Jordana Williams

Featuring: Carissa Cordes, Ken Glickfeld, Lynn Kenny, Rob Maitner, Debargo Sanyal, and Kathleen Wise



Join us for the second evening of ForePlay, our exploratory play reading series where playwrights riff on the themes of our mainstage production,

New World Iliads will take place on three nights with each night treating a contemporary war from a mythic perspective. In the same way that Ajax in Iraq re-imagines a war from thousands of years ago, New World Iliads will imagine what our contemporary wars may look like from the same distance: the gods, the heroes and villains; what details will be erased by time and what will remain? How will the art inspired by today's conflicts inform the myths of tomorrow?

That art is provided by Carrier Pigeon: Illustrated Fiction and Fine Art.

How it works: Carrier Pigeon has provided us with artwork for twelve collaborating playwrights use as source material.

We are excited that this second ForePlay will be inspired by art from Kristy Caldwell, the illustrator of our Season 4 postcards!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Drop-Off Day" in The Car Plays at the Radar Festival!

California to New Jersey in the click of a mouse!
So, my *other* world premiere play that's going up in June is DROP-OFF DAY, which will be part of Moving Arts' fun and fantastic returning production of The Car Plays.  Our company has been invited to stage a new set of car plays for this year's Radar Festival, an international celebration of contemporary theater.

What is a car play, you ask?  A car play is a ten-minute play, set in a car.  A real car.  Not a theater.  When you purchase your ticket, you request a certain Road or Avenue or Boulevard -- each of which has five cars in it.  During the course of an hour, ten audience members, in sets of two, will move from car to car, escorted by "car hops," until they have seen all five plays in their Street.  You might be seated in the back seat, or you might be in the front.  You might be watching an intimate front seat, post-date seduction or sit in on a car pool gone wrong or witness a carjacking from inches away.  Anything can happen in a car!

In my car, you will see Barbara (played by Porter Kelly) dropping off her daughter Soo-Min (played by Vyvy Nguyen) at USC.  It's drop-off day -- and this is the beginning of Soo-Min's first year of college.  She's moving into the dorm.  She's about to start her freshman year.  Everything is ahead of her.  But it's a little tough for both mom and daughter to say goodbye...

I used Skype to "sit in" on the first rehearsal with my actors and long time friend, colleague and director Michael Shutt last week.  What fun to hear the play out loud for the first time!  (Well, other than me saying it out loud to myself during the writing.)

I graduated from USC's Master of Professional Writing Program, then worked at the university for nine years -- so I witnessed a lot of real drop-off days.  I hope I do this one justice.

This is the fourth year that I've participated in The Car Plays.  I can't stop writing them, and luckily Moving Arts continues to produce them!  It is a truly amazing and intimate way to see a play.  Buy your ticket now.  As you might imagine -- seating is limited!