Dec 13, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 296: Sean Christopher Lewis
Sean Christopher Lewis
Hometown: Pine Bush, NY
Current Town: Iowa City, IA
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just directed ATLAS OF MUD by Jennifer Fawcett for Working Group Theatre, performed KILLADELPHIA at a bunch of venues (Woolly Mammoth, Cape May Stage, La Salle University, etc...), finished a commission for Interact Theatre in Philly about immigration, starting a commission for Adirondack Theatre Festival, in the middle of a commission with Davenport Theatricals, started to adapt my play MILITANT LANGUAGE into a comic book and am prepping a new solo show JUST KIDS to open at Available Light Theatre in January.
It's been busy.
Q: Tell me about Working Group Theater.
A: Working Group was started by myself, Jennifer Fawcett and actor Martin Andrews. We all went to the University of Iowa together but had worked as professional artists in separate cities (Me in NY, Jenn in Toronto, Martin in Cincinnati). Basically, we wanted to do a lot of plays. New Plays. That were challenging and difficult. And we wanted to tour them across the US and more... and we wanted to do it from Iowa.
When I was in Playwrights Workshop for Grad School every Monday night we would have play readings and someone would bring in a play: Jenn, Sam Hunter, Mary Hamilton, Sarah Sander and more and I'd be like- this is better than most of the plays I saw in NY or regionally in the past year. But like everyone knows- most of those plays never saw production- at best they went through the professional workshop mill. And then I went to some conferences and had a bunch of readings and I always left frustrated- it felt somewhat fake. We were all telling ourselves that this was helping the plays around us- but none of the plays ever got to their feet.
So we just said fuck it. We'll do them. And if theaters think these plays are still problem riddled or difficult we'll put it up and we'll prove that they work. And the writers we choose to work with- we'll do what we can to ensure a future life for their projects through touring and advocacy. So far the shows have gone on.
ATLAS OF MUD- our current production is huge. It was developed at the Lark, the Kennedy Center and a bunch of others but people told Jenn that the piece (which takes place in separate time periods, has multiple scenes and in our production has a 23 foot boat on stage) was undoable.
Well, we just did it. And are getting invited to bring it elsewhere.
If the system doesn't work- you make your own system.
Q: Tell me about Killadelphia.
A: Killadelphia is a solo piece about the inmates at Graterford Prison in Philadelphia involved with the city's Mural Arts Program. These are men who are serving life sentences for murder but are also charged with painting some of the 3000 murals that beautify the area.
It's kind of like a cross between Spalding Gray and Anna Deveare Smith using verbatim interviews from the inmates, hip hop artists and politicians coupled with my own first hand account of meeting the men and working with them over a period of time.
It's been an amazing and lucky experience to tour the play- a lot of credit to my collaborator and good friend Matt Slaybaugh at Available Light- it's played over 40 venues from colleges to theaters to prisons and detention centers. It's the only piece I've ever done that has connected with people to this degree. is till get emails and "thank yous'... a few months ago doing it at the Southwest Idaho Juvenile Detention Center near Boise was life changing.
It made me realize that I want to keep doing projects that have a community base in some way.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: To be honest I don't really remember much of my childhood. It wasn't fun. I know that.
If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
I'd take away the entitlement and the arrogance. The feeling you need to be someplace specific- whether that be physically or professionally- I'd make it about the art and the connection it has, first, and let the rest fall where it may.
And I'd take heed to that myself more often.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Sam Shepard was the first time I read a play and said "holy shit that's a play."
Danny Hoch, Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo were the first time I saw something and said "I wanna do that."
Naomi Wallace got me through Grad school.
On the business side of things I've learned everything I know and don't work a day job basically because of the hustle of the Wu Tang Clan, Atmosphere, Blueprint, Def Jux records and more. If you listen to how they talk music industry- it's really similar, I often just do what they did in a theatrical model.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I want something visceral and thought provoking. i don't want to be spoonfed- I have Judd Apatow and CBS Friday Nights for that.
I want it in my stomach and throat you know- I want to feel it well up as I watch it. I want to leave invigorated or angry or still in a hysterical fit.
I don't want it culled from NY or from the Times Reviews. I want it to go out on a limb. I want it to push the theater and the light and sound board and the actors on stage to the limit and past.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Listen to more Wu Tang.
Start a theater even if it's in your basement.
Don't listen to anyone who says you have to go there or here to have a career- if they say that often look at what their career is (is it teacher or actor? data entry or playwright?)
Be motherfucking brave. Be honest. Even if it might make someone mad. Have your heart in the right place. Keep writing. Keep screaming.
They are out there. The ones who will scream and laugh and cry and watch- they're out there.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: People places and things you should know:
Available Light Theatre (the unheralded new work gym of the midwest), Jenn Fawcett (how epic and poetic do you want your female playwrights), Philip Dawkins (go see the HOMOSEXUALS at About Face), Matt Moses (an ill playwright and we suffered through Binghamton University together), Matt Dellapina (hire this actor, seriously, what are you doing he's in the Civilians, just leave a message with them) and there are so many more...