For about a decade, Ellen Lewis wrestled with a story she didn't want to tell. Eventually, she realized she had to tell it. It's a story about guns and her husband and why her husband is no longer alive. If you think she became 100 percent anti-gun, you'd be wrong. Lewis grew up in rural Oregon in an area where everybody had guns. She's also spent time living on both coasts and heard from people on both sides of the issue. Her play, The Gun Show, attempts to tell the story from a human perspective — one that's conflicted and sees how normal people could disagree on the issue. Her goal is simply to start a conversation about guns, an honest conversation.
"This is the first play that I've written that I haven't called fiction," said Lewis. "It's a true story and it's been tough to write. It's been a journey but it was time for me to write and it was a time for me to go to that place again. It's been 11 years now since the death of my husband and I have kind of set away his death and his life and our life together for a long time not being fully capable of dealing with it. So, this has been about opening that box and it's been challenging."
The play involves a man telling her story. Lewis sits in the audience and is acknowledged by the character during the play. The Gun Show is actually five stories; events that are all true and all happened to Lewis. It starts out talking about how she grew up in Oregon with guns.
"Guns were not considered anything extraordinary," she explained. "They were farm tools, just like a John Deere tractor or a shovel. So, the story begins with my experience of guns in the beginning in a very normalized way in a rural setting. And I think that's what the play is trying to navigate. The United States is so large and diverse and someone who is 200 miles away from law enforcement in Montana or Oregon or Alaska might have a very different take on guns than someone in the middle of the city. Our country is so polarized it feels like it's impossible to talk about it in any civilized, rational way."
Lewis believes that part of the polarization stems from how America gets its news. A story about someone dying in a gun incident will look very different if seen on NPR than it would on Fox News.
"The feeling of separateness and the ‘I can't hear you, I can't hear you' as we're yelling out what we believe and trying to believe is preventing us from finding the middle ground that we actually have," explains Lewis. "I think there are some fundamental things that we have in common and some sensible things that we can do to make our world safer without taking everybody's guns away, which is the watch word of the farthest right. That's what they think gun control is trying to do and I don't think that's true."
It's clear that Lewis has struggled with this issue for years. She may even have been struggling with it before her husband died, as she watched gun tragedies come across the news. A long time ago, a tragedy might have made the 6 o'clock evening news but today's tragedies become 24/7 stories on cable tv for weeks.
In her play she tries to look at the issue from all sides. Lewis says she doesn't write plays about subjects she knows about; she writes plays about the things she's struggling to figure out. Her character asks the audience, "How many of you have ever lived 50 miles away from law enforcement?" and laughs at a list of Gun Safety Tips found on the Internet. Mostly, the play tries to frame the conversation as seen from various parts of the country from the feeling of protection desired by rural areas and the recreational fun of shooting to their abuse by criminals.
"Right now, the whole conversation seems to be between the granola-eating, Whole-Foods-Shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening, liberal pink lefties… and the gun-toting, Palin-voting, red-white-and-booyah conservative card-carrying NRA members, as if there is nobody in between who has mixed feelings about the whole thing," says her character.
"I would love to help facilitate real conversation between people who have felt like they couldn't talk to each other, whether that be a husband and wife in the same house or two people who are Republican and Democrat who have not felt like they could open up with each other," said Lewis.
During the play's initial run in Chicago, where it premiered last July, the theatre had a moderated conversation with the audience after every performance. The central question they asked each night was, "Do you have a gun story you'd like to share tonight?"
"It was extraordinary the number of stories that we heard, what kind of stories we heard, and, most excitingly, how well people listened to each other," she recalled. "It gave me some hope because the polarization of our country right now bothers me. The fact that we aren't talking civilly with each other and in a problem solving way with each other is troublesome. I think we're capable of it. Hopefully I've done such a job of falling in between both sides that nobody who's very left or very right will think I'm right in my deductions. I don't have many deductions, but I try to explore the issue as thoroughly and as personally as I can with this play."
The Gun Show is being presented at Passage Theatre in Trenton this month. Lewis discovered Passage while living in New Jersey after receiving the 2010-2011 Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. It's an award that affords writers the opportunity to spend a year entirely at their craft while making a living full-time wage.
"When I received the Hodder Fellowship I quit my sensible day job in Los Angeles and came out to New Jersey for a wonderful year of writing," said Lewis. "What I moved away from was my entire theatre community that I had been building over the years in Los Angeles. I was happily adopted by the Playwrighting Lab workshop that they have at Passage Theatre. It was only a few miles down the road and does all new work. I premiered True Story there. I loved working with the director on that show and I'm excited to be working with him again on The Gun Story.
"For the challenge that it was to write it, I'm glad I wrote The Gun Story," continued Lewis. "It was time for me to talk about it and time to finally take part in the conversation and to be brave enough to open the issue, so I'm trying to be."
The Gun Show
Presented at Passage Theatre
205 E. Front Street
January 22 through February 8
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.