The “Magellanica” Playwright Discusses Her Many Passions, From “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to “Star Trek”

My essential seven: E.M. Lewis

If you know the wild work of playwright E.M. Lewis, you might be surprised that she recently worked on the romantic comedy web series Duck Harbor.

“Very much a change of pace for me, because I really am more frequently either ecological or sociopolitical or mining the darkness,” Lewis laughs. “It was really fun to write a romantic comedy and say, ‘What happens if we try and get these two people together?’”

“Ecological,” “sociopolitical” and “dark” are fitting descriptions of some Lewis plays, but they don’t convey the scope of her genius. With the tenacity of an anthropologist and the splendor of a symphony conductor, she burrows into the emotional lives of her characters, daring us to follow them everywhere from Antarctica in Magellanica to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the upcoming The Great Divide.

2021 continues to be a busy time for Lewis, whose many new projects include Apple Hunters!, a play about detectives searching for missing apple varieties. Yet she found time to discuss seven things that she considers essential in her life—a list as varied and vibrant as her work.

1. Historian Heather Cox Richardson

She does these daily written missives, and you can sign up for them via email. She’s a historian who lives in Maine, and she calls her daily letters “Letters From an American.” It’s political commentary with historical context. I have found her perspective to be really helpful in making sense of what’s happening in the world. I want the best for us and I’m scared for us as a country.

2. Mary Oliver’s Poetry

I grew up with the natural world all around me: fishing in small streams with my dad, working in the berry fields every summer like all of us farm kids did, climbing trees, swimming in the creek. Mary Oliver’s poetry takes me back to the natural world and helps me see it more clearly, whether it’s a bird or grasses.

3. Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is my favorite of his plays and the one that I go back to most. I remember watching the film, which is quite good, and not being able to turn it off, even though, three-quarters of the way through, I had to go to the bathroom. I write nothing like him—zero percent like him. But I really love his fierce, fearless appraisal of our absurd world and human frailty.

4. Star Trek

I like Star Trek because there’s this sense of ourselves as explorers, joy, discovery—and also because of some of the philosophy that’s baked into it, like Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, the Vulcan motto. And I still think that there’s something there for us—to be appreciative of the differences of each other and what beautiful music we can make together when we come together with folks who are different from us.

5. The Farm

The farm is right here in the Willamette Valley, about an hour south of Portland. It’s a fourth-generation farm, so it’s where I grew up, but it was my great-grandparents’ farm—they bought it when they came out from Wyoming. It was a little bit of a scary decision coming back to the farm after moving away. I missed so much about Oregon, but at the same time, I worried, “Will I disappear?” But I did move here. And the opposite has been the case.

6. The Theater Community

That’s the whole thing about theater, right? You’re telling stories with other humans in the room, both the makers and the audience. I love it so much, this old-fashioned art form that I believe will speak forever to the human heart, because nothing is quite like being with each other, telling a story.

7. Working

From the time when I was young and trying to make sense of a complicated world, telling stories on the page helped me. It gave me a safe place to figure things out, and it continues to do that. It gives me a place to ask all the questions I have that I don’t know the answers to—and let me tell you, there are a lot. And those are the ones that end up being plays.

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