Ellen Lewis has been nurturing her play for a decade — growing, pruning and watching it blossom through various workshops and readings, morphing from a 10-minute piece into a full-length production.
And now “Apple Season” is in the midst of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, opening Friday (3/29) at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City and continuing through April 20.
It’s a memory play unfolding in an apple orchard on a family farm. Brother and sister Roger and Lissie fled the area in their teens, but have returned for their father’s funeral. When the neighbor with whom they grew up offers to buy their land, all three are caught up in the brambles of their past.
“It’s the past informing the present, as they try to figure out what to do next,” Lewis said.
Having grown up on a four-generation family farm with apple trees about an hour south of Portland, Ore., the setting is one she knows. And after 13 or 14 years living in Los Angeles and three in New Jersey, Lewis, 47, returned four or five years ago to share the farmhouse with her parents, one cat and two dogs. Her brother returned 10 years ago and lives nearby. He comes by the farm most days, and tends grapes there for making wine.
The 15-acre farm is a place where Lewis can get outside, breathe and hear the voices in her head that become the characters in her award-winning plays, published under the name E.M. Lewis.
In discussing the plot for “Apple Season,” however, Lewis is quick to point out that her parents are lovely people. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert she’s willing to divulge.
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“I always feel like I have to tell people that straight out,” she said over coffee on a recent five-day trip to Iowa City to work with director Adam Knight, the cast and production team. She’s following her play from its January premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, N.J., to Iowa City, then on to Moving Arts in Los Angeles in September.
“It’s such a gift to the playwright,” she said, noting that each a new production is a process of discovery.
“I’ve been working on this play forever, but we never really understand the play until it’s coming in three dimensions across the stage and with an audience — and to have not just one, but three opportunities to work with three different directors, design teams, casts and audiences” is invaluable.
The playwright has to be part of the process with a New Play Network’s rolling world premiere.
“It’s not like people are just doing our play without us,” she said. “It’s that we are part of this process. We get to sit at the table. Yesterday was fantastic. I climbed off the plane and went right into the rehearsal room. It could not have been better. It was so exciting listening to it come to life, and already we’re talking about continuing to explore the play.
“I learned so much in New Jersey two months ago, and now it’s like the discoveries are continuing. By the time I get done with the third production in Los Angeles at the end of the summer, this play is going to be as strong as I can make it — everything that I can possibly make it — because of everybody who’s been part of it along the way.”
Serendipity brought the show to Iowa City.
Riverside Theatre is a core member of the New Play Network, and while attending a national showcase of new plays in Sacramento, Calif., in early December, Knight was looking for a show to put in Riverside’s spring “surprise” slot.
“Ellen’s play was on my short list,” he said, but he was wavering, since Riverside’s 2018 New Play Network offering was Jennifer Fawcett’s one-woman show, “Apples in Winter.” He worried that audiences might be confused by back-to-back premieres with “apple” in the title.
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Then Knight met Darin Anthony, artistic director at Moving Arts in Los Angeles, who knew Saffron Henke, a frequent actress in Riverside shows. That opened the door for a conversation, where Anthony said he was hoping to add “Apple Season” to his theater’s season. With New Jersey Rep already onboard, they needed a third theater to commit to produce the show within a year, in order to qualify for a rolling world premiere and secure grant funding. Knight read the script, and was hooked.
Having three producing companies not only helps in refining the script, but gives it momentum to find its way in the world.
“It’s a way for a play to extend its life automatically,” Knight said. “I’ve produced a lot of world premieres already in my life, and the thing that makes me so heartbroken is after this amazing production happens, the play goes away. The second production is, for me, the key to a production’s life. If it can get number two, it can get number three and it can get four. But without number two, (a new play) just can’t extend its net.
“And this is an opportunity for theaters to have the benefit of a play going through the crucible of a rehearsal process, and the playwright to get a chance to continue to work on it with a different director and a different team. We all benefit from the play getting stronger and the play itself has a longer life. ...
“It’s ultimately all of our missions to enrich the new-play world of America, and this is a great opportunity to do it,” Knight said. “But in a strange way, Iowa City, because of Saffron, has given this play a life across the country.”
WHAT: “Apple Season” by E.M. Lewis, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere
WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (3/29) to April 20; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $10 to $30, Riverside Theatre Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or boxoffice.diamondticketing.com/riversidetheatre/events
TALKBACK: With playwright following April 6 performance
PLAYWRIGHT’S WEBSITE: emlewisplaywright.com
• Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org