MEET RESIDENT PLAYWRIGHT ELLEN K. GRAHAM

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A Q & A with Ellen K. Graham, Theater 29 Resident Playwright and Author of THE NEVER SUMMER

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Why playwriting? What got you started? What keeps you going?

I’ve always loved the theater. My mom and I were Denver Center subscribers from the time I was 11 or so onward, so I saw a lot of plays. But with the exception of some Easter play that I made my sister star in that I barely remember, it took me a while to start writing plays. I wrote poems and short stories with a lot of dialogue in them. I always got super impatient with describing places and getting characters in and out of doorways so I just kind of let the characters chat their way through the piece. In the early 1990s the Denver Center put out a call for applications for a Young Playwrights Unit they were forming. To apply you had to submit part of a play, but I didn’t have that so I submitted an editorial I had written for my high school newspaper. I got into the Unit and had some excellent teachers and at the end of the semester I got to hear actors I’d been watching throughout my childhood/adolescence read my stuff onstage at the old Denver Auditorium. So that was it for me. What keeps me going?  I don’t know. I’m happier when I’m writing something. I have a couple people in my life who nag me. I do that Camp NaNoWriMo once a year, which is a big motivator to churn out first drafts.

Do you have a well-defined method for writing a play, from the initial idea to the first draft? To the final draft?

The title almost always comes to me first, and that sparks everything that comes after. Other than that, I have no consistent method. My only method is not to stop. Even if I HATE a project I never give up. I slog through.  Hating it is part of the process. Revising is where I make it into something an audience might want to see.

Tell us about the journey of THE NEVER SUMMER. How did it go from an idea to a premiere production?

I wrote the first 10 pages off a series of prompts for the Clubbed Thumb (NYC) Biennial Commission application. The prompts directed applicants to consider the work of Maria Irene Fornes and required that plays feature an all-woman cast, have at least seven scenes set in four locations, have a certain first line (“That’s why they left”) and meet other very specific criteria. So the bones of the play came from that. I didn’t get the commission (though I was a finalist), but I kept working on it. My best childhood friend was dealing with some serious health issues at the time so the play became sort of a love letter to her, and the relationship between Lee and Janie ended up forming the emotional core of the piece. I finished the play and shopped it around a little. It has had two staged readings--one with And Toto too (Denver) and the other with MadLab (Columbus)--and at some point Lisa (Wagner Erickson, who owns and operates Theater 29) said, “You should produce this at Theater 29.” So I followed her advice.

Why on earth would a playwright self-produce? Why do you do it? Would you recommend the idea to others?

Playwrights who want to see their work fully realized on their own timeline produce their own work. I think it’s as simple as that. It can take a long time to get a season acceptance from an established theater, and the odds of getting an acceptance are punishingly high. I started self-producing because I got tired of writing scripts that languished in a drawer and have continued to self-produce because I love the level of creative control. Full stop. I would recommend the idea to anyone who is pragmatic, has a credit card, and possesses above-average administrative skills. And you have to have creative people around you whom you trust implicitly.  

What’s it been like to produce THE NEVER SUMMER?

It’s incredibly luxurious to be in this spiffy theater and to have rehearsal space. Last time I produced a full-length play of mine, Hart (DeRose, director of my last self-produced show and director of THE NEVER SUMMER) had to run rehearsals in random conference rooms and hallways at my husband’s office. At one point the actors were rehearsing a particularly foul-mouthed scene and a mom and dad wandered into the space with their two little kids. Not ideal. Overall, I would say with the resources/expertise/moral support Lisa and Theater 29 offer, plus the fact that Hart and I largely know what we’re doing now, it’s been pretty great. And we have the best ensemble. The play is short but it’s difficult and draining and our actors work so hard. They are funny and heartbreaking in equal measure. 

What projects are you dreaming up for the future, playwriting or otherwise?

I’ve written a first draft of a huge, unproduce-able play based on Norse mythology that has a character who is an enormous snake and requires a tsunami to be depicted onstage. My husband and I are working on a pilot for a Star Trek-Love Boat mashup. I want to write a Western someday.

THE NEVER SUMMER

August 22nd through August 31st at Theater 29 (no show on Monday the 26th).  Curtain is at 8PM except for the Sunday performance, which begins at 3PM.

Denver, circa 2040. On an underground train platform flooded with a continuous rush of noise--advertisements, passersby, mechanical sounds--city girl Lee works hard, saving up money to get her own apartment. But her plans are derailed when she meets the velvet-voiced Corva, who wants to lure her away into the unmapped wilderness.  

THE NEVER SUMMER began as a finalist for the Biennial Commission at NYC’s celebrated Clubbed Thumb theater. It has since been given staged readings by And Toto Too (Denver) and MadLab Theatre (Columbus, Ohio).

“This play began as a thought experiment: what would the world feel like if darkness and silence didn’t exist anymore?” says Graham. “But it ended up being about the power of friendship--the complex, rock-solid, sustaining friendship between two girls. I am delighted to have this cast and creative team to bring the play to life.”

THE NEVER SUMMER World Premiere is directed by Hart DeRose and stars Calista Masters, Meredith Young, Artie Thompson, MaryAnn Amari, Bevin Antea, Mariel Goffredi, and Gina Wencel.

The production team includes Morgan Lesh (stage management), Brian Miller (set and lights), John Aden (visuals) and Lindsay Astin (sound).

Get tickets here

Lisa Erickson