Interview with Playwright Ellen Margolis

Ellen MargolisEllen Margolis talks about her recent commission with Proscenium, her writing process, and what inspires her. 

When Proscenium approached you with the idea of adapting a Shakespearean work, what made you think of adapting Pericles?
When I saw Pericles for the first time a few years ago, I both loved the play and felt I had unfinished business with it. The premise of unacknowledged incest is just a jumping-off place in Shakespeare, but today of course our understanding is different. When the opportunity came up to work with Proscenium Journal and the Portland Shakespeare Project, I had an electric realization, “Yes, time to dig intoPericles!” And then as I wrote, it became more about the position of someone who witnesses a violation and has to make a decision, and less about the daughter and her abuse–although we hear from her pretty strongly as well.

How did the artists working with you in the Proscenium Live reading influence the development of this work?
Knowing that a play is going somewhere, that someone besides me is interested in seeing it, is a huge gift, so thank you for that! And Michael Mendelson, who is Artistic Director of Portland Shakespeare Project and who directed the reading, was influential in all sorts of sly ways. A lot of his notes came on the fly during our brief couple of rehearsals. He threw a lot of great insights into my way. And our actors were wonderfully game and also asked some terrific questions.

You plan on expanding Pericles Wet into a full-length play. Can you tell us more about this?
I’m close to wrapping up the first draft now. This has gone much faster than my usual writing process, which I attribute to the pleasure of hearing the first act with the keen, engaged audiences who joined us for the readings and talkbacks in July. They were so interested and encouraging that I went back to work with the feeling of a good wind at my back!

In terms of content, as I said earlier, it’s about Pericles’s role as a witness. It’s also about how life surprises him and beats him up.

What kind of theatre excites you?
I can be thrilled by all kinds of different work. I see as much as I can, both here in Portland and wherever I travel, and almost always, there is something that delights or excites me!

I could also quote my former student Ted Gold, who works as a designer with Shaking-the-Tree Theatre and Many Hats Collaboration, among other companies in town. One day in class, Ted really nailed it: “I like to leave the theatre Not Done.”

What playwrights have inspired you?
I’m inspired by every artist who keeps showing up at the plate. I have friends who write heroic numbers of drafts and who continue to ride out their careers through decades of ups and downs. I admire them so and am grateful for their beautiful work.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a couple of people who love your writing, and who are also thoughtful and willing to talk with you about what does and doesn’t work. My advice is to be on the lookout for those people, value them, and make the most of their presence in your life.

What are you working on now?
After I send Pericles Wet to a few of my favorite readers, I’ll get back to a play called Crooked Numbers, which I put on hold when I heard from you last spring. Crooked Numbers is a play for four actresses, with family relations in the foreground and baseball in the background. It’s set in upstate New York in 1979, the year Willie Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I’m also putting the finishing touches on self-publishing a book of my short plays. Available soon on Kindle!

Ellen Margolis is Chair of Theatre & Dance at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Her plays include “How to Draw Mystical Creatures” (2004 NY Fringe Festival Award for Excellence in Playwriting, 2004 Jane Chambers Finalist, produced by ToyBox Theatre and Theatre Limina of St. Paul); “Trying Not to Stare” (Workshop, Portland Theatre Works through a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council); “Picking Up the Baby” (2006 NY International Fringe Festival); “American Soil” (Produced by Vital Theatre, New York); “A Little Chatter” (Commissioned and produced by Mile Square Theatre, produced by City Theatre, Finalist 2008 National 10-Minute Play Contest, forthcoming Playscripts, Inc.); “When It Stands Still” (produced by ToyBox Theatre); and others that have been produced throughout the United States. Some of her monologues have appeared in the Smith & Kraus Audition Arsenal series, and she is the editor of two recent volumes, Singular Voices: Monologues from the International Centre for Women Playwrights and The Politics of American Actor Training. Ellen is a member of Playwrights West and the Dramatists Guild.