Next week the St. Louis Rep will stage the world premiere of Carter W. Lewis' Evie's Waltz — the fourth new play by the Washington University playwright-in-residence to be staged at the Rep. Before viewers begin to weigh in on this topical piece, we gave Lewis the opportunity to talk about it.
Dennis Brown: Where did Evie's Waltz come from?
Carter Lewis: Out of a little bit of a fury about school-shooting incidents. Trying to sort them out. Whenever there's an emotional crisis like a shooting, there's a knee-jerk reaction to place blame. A school shooting is the government's fault for being in bed with the NRA. It's the parents' fault for being overindulgent. It's the school's fault for not having proper discipline and our teachers not being paid enough. It's the kids' fault because they're a little more wicked and aggressive today. I think that pointing fingers is a small-brained way of looking at a problem. So I tried to figure it out a little bit on paper. Which is usually what I do as a writer. I take an issue that's annoying me or angering me, and I put it down on a page. I try to make the people who I think are on the wrong side of the issue as positive as I can, in the hope of finding out why they behave as they do.
How long was the gestation period?
Zero. Instead of trying to think ahead of time, I just start writing. I usually reject three or four attempts, and then something catches my fancy. At the time of writing Evie's Waltz, there were probably several things in my head, not just the issue of school shootings. But this is the one that caught on.
When would that have been?
June of last year. I wrote the opening barbecue dialogue between the two parents. I knew that their son had done something wrong, but I didn't know what he had done. Then as I went forward and the plot became clear, I was able to go back and layer in the events.
You started this play in June. When was the first time you let someone read it?
This play wrote itself very fast. I wrote it in three weeks. A week after I finished it, I had coffee with Steve Woolf. I told him about it, and he was very interested. So much so that he committed to producing it right there, even before he read it. This is not the normal circumstance. This is the one a playwright wishes he had all the time, where you write very fast and someone picks it up very fast.
With the various rewrites, would you label the finished play as the third draft, fourth draft?
I'd call it the first draft with small changes. Despite three workshops, it really hasn't changed a lot.
Do you expect the play to change during rehearsals?
Some, though not drastically. But I've been writing plays for too long to think that any script is set, because you're constantly on a learning curve. The one thing you quickly learn as a playwright is that although people always assume that you know a lot about your play, you really only know about 50 or 60 percent. Even though you wrote it, a lot of the reason for having written it is subconscious. Then in workshops and rehearsals, other people point things out to you. Actors are great truth monitors. They get to a certain point, and they just stop. Then they look at you and say, "I can't go past this line, because I don't know what's happening. This doesn't make sense." And you have to look at that.
Evie's Waltz is a one-set play with three characters. When you sit down to write, how important is it to confine yourself within those parameters?
It's not the be-all or end-all, but it's important. If what I want to write about fits into that restriction, then that's fine. If it doesn't, then I'll expand out. Ordinary Nation [which the Rep staged in 2006] had multiple locations and six characters, because that's what it needed. This didn't need that. But a playwright is always facing constraints, and not just cast size and singular location. Some regional theaters balk at the idea of harsh language. Some theaters balk at the idea of nudity.
This play has no intermission. What is film's influence on new plays?
I see that influence a great deal in my students at Washington U., because they've all seen more film and TV than they have theater. So they write filmically. They write in short scenes that they hope stack up to what older writers used to do with character development and progress-of-idea. So film is a huge influence today.
Do you go to movies?
I go to a lot of movies, but I also read a lot of novels. You learn patience from reading novels. You learn that a journey is more rewarding if it's earned in some way.
This is a three-character play, but the object of the play, Danny, is constantly hovering just out of sight. The viewer never meets Danny. What are the risks for a writer when an offstage character is integral to the plot?
The biggest risk is that an offstage character might be described by narrative, and narrative in a play can be deadly. Instead of talking because they want something, characters are talking because something needs to be described or the audience needs information. With Danny, it was fun to make him feel very present onstage, because he is actually the heat under the play.
How important is it to you that your characters be specific? For instance, we learn a lot about Evie during the play, but we learn much less about Danny's father, Clay.
That's true. You don't, for instance, know what Clay's job is, because I don't know either. But there are ways to define a character other than passing along details about their lives and backgrounds. Once this play is in motion, Clay is the only one who takes any action. So although he's the character who we have the least detail about, I'm hoping he's the character the viewer will have the most information about from actions taken. Hopefully by the end of the play, the audience will know that this man is willing to do anything for his son.
What happens when the actor playing Clay asks the director, "What does my character do?"
That's actor's homework. There's a lot of information that the playwright leaves offstage, because the audience doesn't need it. And if a writer starts feeling that he has to put all those details in there, that's when the writer falls back into that trap of narrative. That's when you get stuck in telling the story as opposed to having characters say things because they want something or they're strategizing to get something. Everything characters say and do has to be selfish, in a way, in order for them to get to where they're going. But if I'm being selfish, and my characters are only mouthpieces saying what I need or want them to say about guns or corporations or political campaigns, then the play will fail.
What do you want people to take from Evie's Waltz?
A play for the writer is often about something different than what it is for an audience. To me, something as traumatic as a school shooting is usually an unfortunate convergence of circumstances. That's what the play is about for me — trying to create a balance of blame. And not just of blame, but to suggest that people did what they thought was right, and it still went wrong. So I hope the audience goes away from Evie's Waltz with a much more complexified view of the problem, rather than the kind of knee-jerk reactions that some viewers might have had before seeing the play.