Fertile Ground Portland

A Festival of New Works Blog

FLASH READS Playwrights Ellen Margolis & Claire WIllett January 28, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — fertilegroundpdx @ 5:19 pm

Ellen Margolis playwright, “Calmunies”

claire bw nice

Claire Willett, playwright, “Carter Hall”

Flash Reads  is a new partnership between Artists Repertory Theatre and Playwrights West to present stripped-down world premiere readings of new work by the award-winning Portland writers of Playwrights West.  The first two plays will be presented at Fertile Ground Festival 2014.  CALUMNIES by Ellen Margolis and CARTER HALL by Claire Willett, with music by Steeleye Span. We interviewed Ellen and Claire to learn more about their new plays and what makes them tick:


1) An artist or artists in my field I have a giant artist crush on is/are . . .

Ellen: Will Eno, Alan Bennett

Claire: Neil Gaiman

2) A work or works that has/have shaped my artistic voice is/are . . .

Ellen: Anything by Anthony Clarvoe or Caryl Churchill

Claire: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

3) When I’m not creating art you can often find me . . .

Ellen: Watching my kids play basketball, watching the Trail Blazers play basketball

Claire: Binge-watching Doctor Who

4) Songs on my creative inspiration playlist are . . .

Ellen: “Tear-Stained Letter” (Richard Thompson), “Red Dirt Girl” (Emmylou Harris)

Claire: In addition to listening to Steeleye Span (the 1970’s British folk band whose songs are featured in Carter Hall) over and over on repeat, here are a few other current faves from my writing playlist: “From This Valley,” The Civil Wars; “Storm Coming,” The Wailin’ Jennys; “Let My Love Open the Door,” Luminate; “Ne’er Do Wells,” Audra Mae & the Almighty Sound; “If I Had a Boat,” Lyle Lovett. Also, I’m OBSESSED with the Nashville soundtrack and I don’t care who knows it.

5) A Portland artist/creative/arts or other community or social services organization I’d love to work with is . . .

Ellen: PETE, Shaking the Tree, Cerimon House

Claire: Isaac Lamb and Maureen Porter.  Preferably together.

6) I am terrified of . . .

Ellen: Fundamentalism

Claire: Vulnerability

7) I am obsessed with . . .

Ellen: My family

Claire: Christmas

8) Favorite books and/or books currently on my nightstand are . .

Ellen: Currently reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. It’s a terrific study, far more complex than the title might suggest. I haven’t even got to the internet part yet; the book starts by examining how technologies throughout history – including written language – have been thought to affect our brains.

Claire: I got a ton of books for Christmas, so my nightstand stack is HUGE. I just finished Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, the book version of her AMAZING blog by the same name; an anthology of the collected works of Nora Ephron, who is my hero; and Father James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadway, his memoir of spending six months as a kind of theological consultant-slash-chaplain to a New York theatre company creating a new play about Judas Iscariot. I am in the middle of Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, and The Name of the Wind, a fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss – both recommendations from my brother. Next up in the pile is I’m Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen, and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

9) The three words that describe your piece in the Festival are . . .

Ellen: “Calmunies” Sexy, twisty, violent

Claire: “Carter Hall”  Whimsical, eerie, haunting

10) In the bio-flick of my Life, I should be played by . . .

Ellen: Emma Thompson (because I’d get to meet her!)

Claire: Queen Latifah

11) Tell us about your creative process. How do you work? When do you work? What gets you inspired? How do you fight inertia and creative blocks?

Ellen: Getting started on a project, which means churning out a lot of material, I do best with a big chunk of time and a designated space. Later, or when things are flowing, I can write anywhere and especially in response to what’s happening in the rehearsal room.

Claire: I so badly wish I was one of those early-bird morning people who gets up at 5 a.m. and writes for hours with a pot of coffee before work.  I desperately envy those people.  I wrote the first draft of Carter Hall in about two weeks over the summer, and it was absolutely insane.  My college best friend was staying with me, and he had never lived with a playwright on a manic writing bender; we kept crossing paths at  2 or 3 in the morning as he was heading off to his morning shift at the bakery and I was finishing up and staggering to bed. I think he thought I was going insane; he’d leave the house on a Sunday morning while I was writing at the dining room table in my pajamas, and he’d be gone all day and come home like twelve hours later and I’d be sitting in the exact same position, and he’d be like, “ . . . Have you even moved?”  I’ve never written a play that fast before.  I couldn’t go to bed until I had downloaded everything from my brain because I knew if I slept, I’d forget it.  It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. When I needed a pick-me-up, I relied on my classic inertia-fighting standby: blasting Queen really, really loud.   


Artists Repertory Theatre presents Flash Reads at Artists Rep New work by Playwrights West Artists Repertory Theatre, Morrison Stage (1515 SW Alder) January 27th @ 7:30 p.m. Calumnies by Ellen Margolis January 28th @ 7:30 p.m. Carter Hall by Claire Willett (music by Steeleye Span) Gather with us to hear a surprise script…a stripped down to the words, brand-spanking new play from one of Playwrights West’s cadre of seasoned Portland playwrights. You’ll get to hear a new work at start of its development – and we promise it will be an exciting ride. Playwrights West is a professional theatre company focused on presenting top-level productions of its members’ work and supporting development of original work in Portland.


“Calmunies” based on a true crime, by Ellen Margolis

CALUMNIES: Based on a real-life crime of passion, Calumnies is a tale of sex and scandal, race and revenge. The story unfolds in 1820s Kentucky, where old-world society meets wild western free-for-all, and the only thing rougher than the politics are the love affairs. Scraping by on the outskirts of Frankfort, Olivia Burke leads a precariously independent life. Her father is dead, her mother is bedridden, and her affair with Leopold Brass, a family man and aspiring politician, cannot end well. Enter Obediah Dupree, a naïve and feverishly romantic young man who would like to cast himself as the hero in her story. When Olivia becomes pregnant, the pressures increase–and secrets, lies, and slanders become the currency of her world. The cast includes Matthew DiBiasio, Kayla Lian, James Peck, Jameson Tabor, and Ithica Tell.


CARTER HALL: Janet Carter and her young daughter Lucy spend every summer in a vacation rental cottage at Carter Hall, the crumbling old manor that once belonged to Janet’s family and is now a Historical Society-owned tourist trap. Janet has nothing more pressing in mind for the next few months than lazy time with her daughter (a hyper-imaginative child whose hobbies include practicing exorcisms and pretending to be a ninja), reminiscences with Alec, the ancient gardener who has known her all her life – and perhaps a little summer flirtation with Alec’s handsome new assistant Thomas. But when the boy in the cottage next door goes missing on Midsummer Eve, Janet and Lucy are pulled headlong into a supernatural mystery that forces them both to confront the hidden reality that magical forces are at work in their daily lives. To rescue the boy, Thomas risks losing Janet forever by revealing the truth about who he really is – a fugitive from the fairy underworld hiding under Alec’s protection. Janet, Thomas and Lucy set forth on a dark and dangerous quest to the mist-shrouded land of the fairies, braving dangerous creatures, impossible riddles, and the darkest secrets of their own hearts to rescue the missing child and bring him home. Music performed live by Ken and Claire Willett. How did this work come about? What inspired it? The murder at the center of Calumnies took place in my husband’s family. His great-great-great grandfather was the Kentucky Attorney General Solomon Sharp, who was at the center of a huge story, quite notorious in its time. I had heard about it over the years, but when I finally sat down to find out who these people were, I became obsessed by the collisions of public and private within the tragedy. In the end, I took massive liberties with the facts, but the guts of it come from this real case. A long, long time ago I had loosely sketched out a few bits and pieces of a potential new work that was my first stab at writing a play for kids, a story about a little girl whose best friend goes missing and she decides to sleuth around and solve the mystery herself. Then my computer got stolen, and I hadn’t backed anything up because I was one of those idiots who never back anything up, so the script never got finished. But that little girl stuck around in my mind. Then I went on a major Neil Gaiman binge this summer, and read five of his books in about a week while I was at the beach for Fourth of July with my family. I became fascinated by his stories of plucky, oddball kids who discover fantastic supernatural forces at work in their daily lives. And I remembered that weird, over-imaginative little girl from that script I never finished, and I thought, “Okay, it’s time for you to get your story.” As the play evolved and I locked in on the specific Scottish mythology I would be using, I found myself turning more and more for inspiration to the music of Steeleye Span, a British folk band from the 60’s and 70’s that my mother absolutely loved. I grew up on their music, much of which is based on adaptations of the same 13th-century Scottish fairy ballads I was researching for the play. I didn’t set out to write a musical, but eventually I realized that the play needed those songs to flesh out the story. It’s an exciting new challenge as a writer to be playing with this music, but it also makes it so deeply personal – I’m sharing the soundtrack of my childhood with this audience. (Literally, since my dad and I will be performing the music live at the reading!)