Spotlight on: E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

As Artists Rep embarks on an epic journey to Antarctica, an Oregon playwright talks about the epic journey that brings her tale to the stage

“Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, one of those early sea-farers, named everything after either his queen or himself. In very, very old maps, the kind with sea monsters at the bottom, of the period immediately following his circumnavigation of the globe, the whole bottom southern hemisphere is called ‘Magellanica’.”

— E.M. Lewis

When you meet E.M. Lewis, you don’t necessarily think “epic.” She’s more like your favorite librarian, excited about every subject you ask for help on, and and nothing makes her happier than when she recommends a book that you enjoy. She’s friendly, bordering on bubbly, and laughs a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily look at E.M. Lewis and think risk-taker, rule-breaker, fire-starter.

But she is.

Once you start talking to her, you feel it. Simmering underneath, barely contained, sometimes so close to the surface she’s almost shaking, is a drive, a passion, an intensity that is pushing her, pushing her, pushing her. “I’m always a person who has lots of pots bubbling on a stove,” she says, and you not only believe her, you’re also struck by how apt a metaphor that is. This relatively quiet woman would, during the course of our conversation, all of a sudden smack the table with authority to punctuate a story or drive home a point. And that’s when you see it. That’s when you feel it. Epic.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

Lewis is the author of Magellanica, an ambitious, five-act, five-and-a-half-hour odyssey to the end of the world. In this world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre (it begins previews on Saturday, Jan. 20, opens on Jan. 27, and runs through Feb. 18) eight intrepid trekkers from different nations, different races, and at different stages in their lives’ journeys to the South Pole, ostensibly for science. But for most, if not all of them, the journey is about much more than that. You can be a scientist anywhere. There is a reason why certain people choose to go to the most extreme climate on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge, and that reason can be very, very personal. As Morgan Halsted, Magellanica’s atmospheric scientist, puts it: “No one goes to Antarctica accidentally. … We all have our reasons for being here.” Or, as Lewis says during the course of our conversation: “The more I read about the people who go to Antarctica, the more I began to understand that there are a lot of psychological reasons why people feel the need to go to a place of such great extremity and hardship.” Or, more succinctly: “Sometimes, you need to go far to bring back a piece of yourself.”

Lewis, who grew up on a family farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, has gone on a similar journey. You don’t write such a “crazy big play” accidentally, any more than you fly to the South Pole. “I didn’t write [Magellanica] on commission,” she said. “I just wrote it because it was in my heart.”

As befits its epic nature, Magellanica is eight years in the making. Inside those eight years the play has traveled in bits and pieces and different forms from one theater company to another all over the country and been worked on by dozens of artists: actors, directors, designers, even other writers. But the engine of it all has been E.M. Lewis.

“I thought that I was going to write something about Alaska. I visited Alaska and there’s something about its inhospitable topography — it’s hard to get there. It’s hard to get back from there. It’s hard to get around there. The very place is against you in that Call of the Wild/Jack London sort of way. Strong people who have lots of complicated reasons for going there, go there.”

But then Lewis came upon the fascinating story of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, a physician who was at the South Pole when she diagnosed herself with breast cancer. Because she was in the midst of a “winter-over” she could not leave to get help and help could not come to her. Though she was airlifted medical supplies from the U.S. Air Force, she essentially treated herself, even teaching her teammates to administer chemotherapy, and survived to return to the known world.

Physician Jeri Nielsen at the ceremonial South Pole marker in 1999. Nielsen died in 2009, at age 57. Her cancer had returned in 2005, and she died from brain metastatic disease 11 years after her original self-diagnosis in Antarctica. Photo: United States National Science Foundation

The other major component of Magellanica’s genesis was Lewis’s concern with the environment. “I’ve often written about ecological things. Song of Extinction is about biodiversity and preservation of the diversity of species on our planet — and also a lot of other things, like genocide and music — but ecological issues. The hole in the ozone layer was something that we came together on quite successfully as a planet. For once in history, we came together and a problem that we found and recognized and figured out, we actually did something about to great success in the Montreal Protocol. Right now, I see a question of even greater enormity in front of us, which is climate change. So the play draws a straight line between 1986 and now, and what was happening then that we successfully figured out a way to deal with, and today when it’s very much in question whether or not we’re going to figure out how to come together and deal with what’s happening.

“When I started writing this play it was less topical than it is right now because we are globally in such a precarious place. And Russia has resurged in the news and nuclear dangers are once again at the forefront of a lot of our minds. The polarity of where we are in the United States but also of other countries too. It feels like we are at such a place of crisis and far from each other. How precarious that makes us when we’re facing a global threat.

“Especially under the current administrative conditions in our country. Things were fairly well decided that we were going to work together during President Obama’s administration. Things have been falling apart since. So, are we going to come together or fall apart? So these were some of the tendrils that launched me on this about eight years ago when I started writing it.”

Once those two major puzzle pieces fell into place, the conception of what Magellanica would look like immediately began to form. Here, in the most inhospitable place on the planet, Lewis had found a setting with the sheer size and scope to explore themes and questions that were at the forefront of her mind. “I want to hear big stories. You need some scale and some scope for that. I want to see those sorts of plays that are asking the Big Questions and I want to write the sorts of plays that ask the Big Questions. I’m an Oregon farm girl but I have big questions about the universe and my part in it and what we’re doing here. I have ecological questions and scientific questions and human questions and political questions and writing the only way I know to figure stuff out. So, I write plays.”

“Descriptio terrae subaustralis,” a map from Petrus Bertius’s “Tabularium Geographicarum Contractarum” published in Amsterdam in 1616, puts the unexplored but fervently imagined southern continent at the center of the map. Copperplate with added color, 9 x 13 cm. Collection of the Princeton University Library.

For these reasons, Magellanica was always going to be big. “Eight characters. Five parts. And I didn’t know why. I could feel that I would need that scope. I knew what part three was before I knew what part two was. Because part three, it’s my American climatologist Morgan Halsted and my Russian climatologist, Vadik Chapayev, facing off up in the observatory, trying to figure out what the problem is and what the responsibilities are in fixing it, both personally and as representatives of sovereign nations. I knew that I was going to be building towards this centerpiece of battle and that things would play out up to and then after that.”

Lewis started, naturally enough, at the beginning, with the opening monologue. “I write fairly linearly most of the time. I started at the beginning with this big monologue by Morgan Halsted. It’s about the precariousness of that place and people having their reasons for going there.” Her first draft of that first section had a reading at her resident theater company, Moving Arts, in Los Angeles. At that point, she still wasn’t sure what she had on her hands. “What is this huge thing? I don’t know what I’m doing but here’s a beginning.”

After writing the first act, Lewis found herself with a bit of a conundrum. Time. Or rather, how time would work in the play. “I got stuck at the end of part one with time, with chronology of the play. I knew it was going to be in five parts. I knew eight and a half months was the duration of a winter at the South Pole in Antarctica, how long they’re locked in. That was my duration. But part one plays over the course of basically two days. My play would be a hundred years long if I kept at that rate. So, time couldn’t keep moving at that rate. Figuring out that each part had its own clock and style of presentation opened things up enormously.”

Bits and pieces: Lewis arranges information on the Authors Room wall at Artists Rep. Photo: Bobby Bermea

In the outside world, however, time fell from the sky like a gift. Lewis was named a recipient of a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University for 2010-11. What that meant, essentially, “was a fully funded year to write.”

Game on. However, though it was a given she would say yes, it wasn’t a small decision. “I didn’t tell anybody for three days. It was so much. And to say yes, because of course I was saying yes, but to say yes meant leaving everything. Leaving Los Angeles, moving to New Jersey, leaving the people who had supported me, the theater company I had belonged to, the playwrighting workshop that I was part of, and saying (hits table), ‘This. I’m going to do this. I’m gonna be a writer.’ It’s still hard to say.”

Nevertheless, the die, as the saying goes, was cast. Being a Hodder Fellow gave Lewis the time, space, resources and confidence to take charge of her life and her play in a new way. “That year with the beautiful libraries of Princeton university, something they should be forever proud of — glorious — and the research and the time to deepen into my craft. Which I was nervous about but was ready for.”

“I haven’t had a steady day job since then, for the last seven years. Bloody fingernails sometimes. To keep it together in my life. (Princeton) saying yes, allowed me to do this.” That’s a funny word, “allowed.” And it speaks to possible ongoing insecurity of the artist. But spend an hour talking to Lewis and you come away with the definite impression that there was no “allowance” to be had. She is a writer, and like many playwrights known to Portland (Andrea Stolowitz and Francesca Piantadosi leap to mind), she hustles. She gets the word out.

Her play The Gun Show, for instance, which ArtsWatch reviewer Marty Hughley called a “compact yet high-caliber theatrical, a short one-hour blast of personal recollection, rhetoric and genuinely conflicted questioning” after it opened at CoHo Theatre in September 2016, is still going strong: performer Vin Shambry and director Shawn Lee recently took it to Edinburgh, Scotland, and it is even now touring the United States.

Vin Shambry keeps telling tales in E.M. Lewis’s “The Gun Show.” Photo: Shawn Lee

One of the beauties of theater is that any play — every play — takes a village. The more successful the playwright is at cultivating that village, the more successful she is likely to become. Magellanicas particular village traverses the country from coast to coast, theater company to theater company, artist to artist. The text’s thematic and dramatic richness reflects that input.

“I’ve had further support along the way from so many theaters and groups. I had a reading at the Lark in New York. I had a ten-day workshop at Timeline Theatre in Chicago. It was glorious, with director Kevin Christopher Fox and eight Equity actors. Chicago’s a fabulous place to nurture new plays. And they just said, ‘Yup. We believe in you as a writer. Let’s give you a workshop.’”

If the workshop at Timeline sounds cool, an opportunity at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., provided an even more exceptional opportunity. Lewis had been an adjudicator of young playwrights there for years. They invited her to bring Magellanica to a design workshop, where she met with twenty young college designers in set, lights and sound and “let them loose” on her unfinished play. For four days the student designers, along with two designer/instructors and Lewis, worked on her play-in-the-making, making drawings and plots, discussing different ideas, and trying out new things. It was exhilarating. “The sound designers would be like, ‘Oh, C-130 cargo planes! This is what they sound like!’ And, ‘How can we mix in some Shostakovich with that?’”

For Lewis this was particularly exciting: how the play is going to become manifest is crucial to her playwriting process. The logistics excite her. “I think that’s why I’m a playwright and not a novelist. I love reading novels but nothing has ever been so exciting to me as writing words that are meant to be brought into three dimensions. There’s something about the puzzle of making it work that I love. I imagine myself in the places of each of these characters. I’m Morgan and I’m Vadik, sitting across the table, what do I have in my hand? What does my cup look like? Oh, it’s a Star Trek mug because I like Star Trek. It’s the tangibility that’s the fun. There are so many fun tools that we have. I don’t find it to be limiting. I find it to be full of possibility.”

But the play took eight years to write. Partially, that’s because Lewis is never working on one thing at a time. By her own estimation she wrote five or six other full-length plays in that period. Also, Magellanica has not been one long road of bliss. There were times when she wasn’t sure she was going to make it out the other side. At one point, she says, working on Magellanica was like “pushing through peanut butter.” That was “terribly upsetting, because I love the characters. I care about them deeply and I wanted to find out what happens to them.”

Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting (l–r) at “Polheim,” the tent erected at the South Pole on 16 December 1911. Amundsen’s team was the first to reach the geographical pole. The top flag is the Flag of Norway; the bottom is marked “Fram.” Photograph by Olav Bjaaland/Wikimedia Commons

And of course, there were other structural questions Lewis had to deal with. “I was stuck again with part four. There’s a place where the characters go out from the base into the storm, into the ice because they have to do the science that they need to do. It’s perilous. I’m like, ‘How do I build this base and this place where they’re stuck and then even more stuck. And then theatrically, how do I make that work on stage?’ We’re three-dimensional artists. It’s all fine and dandy if it works on paper but it has to be able to be manifest and happen on stage.” On the page, this section is the most physical, harrowing part of the play and, as Lewis noted, wildly different from every other section. As each section has its own clock, each also must have its own feel and thematic purpose.

Two or three years ago, music and the supernatural worked themselves into the script. There are no angels ripping open the ceiling or giant books coming out of the floor, but things that do not exist within the known laws of physical nature do happen: “Once [the supernatural] is there we get very large and very magical and very inclusive of spiritual questions as well as human questions.”

Music started to appear in Magellanica as an organic part of Lewis’s process. She was learning to be a librettist. “I was accepted four years ago to the Composer Librettist Development Program in New York to learn to write operas, of all things.  A surprising turn but I found that I really, truly did love working with composers and seeing how music could raise words up in a way that words alone could not. Everything I was learning I was weaving into this big piece.”

Finally, the ending was extremely different to wrap her brain around. “How does it all come together? I was literally holding my hair like, ‘Ahh!’ Never write characters that are smarter than you. It’s hard to figure out the big things they’re trying to tell you.”

“Magellanica”: Eight characters, each casting a long shadow. Illustration: Jeff Hayes

Lewis essentially finished Magellanica a year and a half ago. Well, as much as a new play can be finished. Even when we talked for this piece, in mid-December, changes were being made. The process with Artists Repertory Theatre began a little over a year ago.

“Artists Rep worked very hard to make sure that they had the resources to underpin this big play — which would take more design work and more rehearsal time. How do you do something this large? And so they applied for grants and got some very large grants to help support this very early on when they said yes about a year ago. Dámaso (Rodríguez, artistic director of Artists Rep and director of Magellanica) has invited me into the room for every part of the process.”

Artists Rep had a table reading “just to bring everybody into the world of the play” late spring/early summer of last year. “Then we had a design retreat with all of the designers and me to have us — starting from the page but having us all brainstorm this together. How are we going to do this? How are we going to make it happen? I loved that. Designers don’t design separately from each other. All of their arts bump up against each other. We have an extraordinary team. It’s great to be in the room and to be part of the conversation for that. ‘That’s how they’re going to solve that. That’s how they’re going to build my Antarctica.’”

Arranging the pieces: Lewis plots out the play’s complex structure on the Authors Room wall. Photo: Bobby Bermea

What does Lewis hope her audience comes away with? “I try not to be a message-y playwright generally. But I find it very important that we all pull together. At its heart, Magellanica is about the question of whether or not we’re going to step up and do that. Are we going to hold on to each other or are we going to break apart?”

Lewis couldn’t be happier that Magellanica is receiving its world premiere at Artists Rep: “I am the most grateful playwright that the first home for this play that I’ve worked so long and so hard on is right here where I’m from and where I’m living and where I can be part of the whole process.” Lewis, in fact, has returned to live on her family farm in Monitor, Oregon, where she writes her plays with the assistance of her feline: “When I’m writing a play, I’m always saying the lines out loud to my cat in my room.”

In addition to The Gun Show’s continuing presence and the premiere of Magellanica, Lewis’s play How the Light Gets In will have a reading during this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, and her award-winning piece Song of Extinction is going to be read by Portland Civic Theater Guild in April. In February, she has a new opera with composer Theo Popov, Town Hall, opening at the University of Maryland. She’s also working on a “family-friendly opera, written with composer Evan Meier, commissioned by American Lyric Theater, called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant.”

Whew. That’s a lot. For most of us. For E.M. Lewis, it’s all in a day’s work.

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The world-premiere production of E.M. Lewis’s Magellanica begins previews at Artists Repertory Theatre on Jan. 20, opens Jan. 27, and continues through Feb. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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