Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 768: Ellen Struve

Ellen Struve

Hometown: Omaha, NE

Current Town: Strangely enough, Omaha, NE. We were transferred there from Chicago for my husband’s job about ten years ago. I had been writing, but only secretly and sporadically in Chicago. There was something really powerful in returning to the place where I grew up and reconnecting with my original impulses.

Q:  Tell me about your play at PlayPenn.

A:  It has a crazy long title with intentional misspelling. PRINCE MAX’S TREWLY AWFUL TRIP TO THE DESOLAT INTERIOR. It’s pretty wild and uses a lot of anachronisms. The lead roles are played by women. Sometimes animals address the audience. It is about a real expedition up the Missouri River in the 1830’s. This German prince and amateur naturalist/anthropologist hired a Swiss watercolorist, Karl Bodmer, to document his trip up the Missouri River during the last few years of autonomy for the tribes of the northern plains. Bodmer’s watercolors become these influential documents of the American West. The prince’s journal… not so much. The trip was a lot more difficult than they imagined. The play winds up being about then, but also about now—about our relationship to each other and our environment and our history. But funny, too.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I’m halfway through a play about immigration in Central Nebraska. While working for the Nebraska Arts Council, I became fascinated by the demographic shift in the kind of small town my dad grew up in. Also, working for a government agency made me question the idea of citizenship in a new 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:  One August when I was little, maybe 5, the neighbor kids threw a backyard circus. Basically, it consisted of gymnastics, imaginary tightrope walking and some admittedly mediocre baton work courtesy my older sister. I was younger than the rest of the kids and had to fight for my spot. I wanted to be a tiger. I wore this wool felt tiger costume from a couple Halloweens past and came up with a lion tamer act. I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion while roaring, jumping through a hula hoop and doing somersaults in the 95 degree heat and Nebraska humidity. I started writing when I was six.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Number one is affordability, but we all know that has to change.

I’d also like to see more live music in theatres, not just musicals. In plays, but also for pre-show. Why not an opening band? If you have money to renovate a lobby, you have money to buy an actual piano—you can keep it in your schmancy lobby. Maybe pay someone to play it every once in a while. It will be live. It will remind people that they are alive. And isn’t that why we come to the theatre in the first place? I think we need all the help we can get in that regard.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  The actors, directors and artists in my community who create theatre because they must. Omaha theatre survives on a mountain of generosity provided by its practitioners. I admire generous writers too. Ruhl, Wallace, Wilder, Odets, Gilman, Alfaro and Guirgis and the ever amazing Sibyl Kempson to name a few.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that costs something. Not money, but a piece of the creators’ souls. I want to be able to feel some of the effort put into a play. I enjoy a buffet of styles and voices, but there has to be something there that feels a little expensive, a little revealing, for it to mean something to me.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Get knocked down. Cry two tears. Get back up. Say, “I’ll show them.”

And don’t be afraid of moving back home. It might turn out great.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Playwrights, submit your amazing plays to Great Plains Theatre Conference so that I can meet you in person and submit your plays to PlayPenn so that you can have three solid weeks to live in your play.

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