Sean Christopher Lewis' Killadelphia... of The City of Numbers opens at John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theater today for a four-day run. Here, the solo performer and playwright discusses that work – about the wave of murders in Philly during the summer of 2008 – fond (and not so fond) memories and memorable moments in New York theater.
The L: What projects are you currently working on?
Sean Christopher Lewis: Well, for the past 6 months I’ve been touring and re-tooling a new solo piece entitled Killadelphia. It’s based on interviews and experiences I had over the past year working with lifers at a prison North of Philadelphia. Basically, these guys are paid 50 cents an hour to paint some of the 3,000 murals in the Philly metro area. Their stories and ages are insane – incarcerated at 15, boxing matches with Muhammad Ali, music scholarships to Carnegie Mellon – and it’s sobering to see how quickly a life can get lost in our urban areas. I went on to interview victims, too – which was heartbreaking. Politicians, local hip hop artists, filmmakers and every day residents are heard throughout the piece as well. It’s pretty much taken over my life all for the better and led me to interact with community activist groups as well as theaters in each city I’ve taken the show.
What long-term ideas and projects do you hope to develop in the months and years ahead?
Next, I’ll be taking a two character piece called The Aperture to the Toronto Summerworks Festival. It details the story of a child soldier from Uganda who escapes to the U.S. only to have a photographer in Baltimore make him pose for mocked up pictures from his past – a bit of an investigation of the fetish we tend to have for global atrocity. It’ll star a brilliant Canadian actress (and playwright) named Jennifer Fawcett.
After that a friend of mine named Austin Bunn – who used to write for the Voice and New York Times Magazine – has invited me and a few dramatists up to Michigan to create a performance piece based on some of the recent auto plant closings… Clearly, I have a really cheerful few months ahead of me: genocide and financial collapse! Oh, it’ll be a summer full of giggles and horseplay…
What’s the best show you’ve seen recently? What did you like about it?
I caught Mike Daisey’s Monopoly in Colorado Springs a month or so back… I have a great affinity for the solo form and it was cool to see the wonderful simplicity in his work. Great storytelling – and he does something that looks easy in his performance but is actually quite hard – marrying historical fact, with political insight all through a personal narrative. I mean, politics and history lessons are two really hard sells. But he makes the journey so definitively his that it really allows us to live the story with him. The guy is incredibly funny which doesn’t hurt either.
What show are you most looking forward to (other than your own)? Why are you excited about it?
I’m hoping to see a tour of Telephone by the Foundry Theatre. I think it closed almost two months ago and I’m still hearing people talk about it. It sounds fascinating – three inter-related vignettes about the history of the telephone and our inability to communicate – sign me up.
And Our Town at Barrow Street. I haven’t caught it yet but I like a play that people either really love or really (and I mean really) hate. Besides, have you seen the interview he gave to American Theatre Magazine this past month? He claimed the future of the American Theatre was in refrigerator magnet theater. I don’t even know what that means… but somehow, just somehow, it makes me want to see him direct one of the most iconic plays in the American theatrical cannon.
What has been your most positive experience working in the arts in New York City?
You’re surrounded with incredibly smart people. Interesting people. The cliché when I was in college was that actors were completely narcissistic and vapid. I haven’t met too many that are vapid… narcissistic? Well, we do get onstage and demand people listen to us for a living!
Also, the wealth of diversity in programming… there will always be arguments for there to be even more choices and greater risk taking from the producing houses. But, it’s always amazing to think in a ten block radius of the Village you can see 6 or 7 shows from all over the world at Under the Radar, classical rep at the Pearl, whatever’s going on in Richard Foreman’s head at St. Mark’s and anything from the Universes to Naomi Wallace at New York Theatre Workshop.
What has been your worst experience working in the arts in New York City?
No one’s making enough money will always be a cry here. Though, if you mean individual experience, I did a show when I was right out of undergrad that was some weird investigation of Glass Menagerie set in Cold War Europe. It was pretty awful. I just remember our director made us do these weird bastardizations of viewpoint exercises where we would spend hours walking around the room knocking on things. Knocking on doors, windows, plants, each other… all as we repeated lines like “I do believe you have a gentleman caller” in monotonous Russian accents. Amazingly, here I am.
What’s your favorite New York City venue to work in? What do you like about it?
I really miss Chashama and it’s very rough aesthetic planted in the middle of Midtown. The Pearl is a wonderful little theater and La Mama E.T.C. The Pearl is amazing just knowing that the former Artistic Director and some of the acting company, quite literally built that theater with their own hands. La Mama is rough as well – but with such a cool sense of history – it’s like a totem pole of theater as well: the three spaces are built right on top of one another so as you walk up the stairs every floor greets you with a new theatrical world.
What’s your favorite New York City venue to see a show in? What do you like about it?
I really like the Barrow Street. There’s nothing really distinct about the space itself but I’ve just really enjoyed the work I’ve seen produced there. I feel like I should be saying things about the architecture or the seats, but there’s nothing at Barrow Street that makes me think “wow, how beautiful.” Well, except for the ending of Gone Missing by the Civilians. The work pretty much ties me to the theater more than overall environment I suppose. (Though, I’ll throw in the basement at the Flea just because it’s always fun to receive a beer with your ticket).
If, for whatever reason, you could no longer work in theater, what would you do?
I’d love to be an investigative journalist. Like Hunter S. Thompson but without the drugs. Just living within your assignment is fascinating to me – like going to a foreign country and being part of the community as you go about creating an accurate conception of this moment in time. That is something I fantasize about even now…
If you had an opportunity to work in any other sector of the arts, what would it be? Why?
A filmmaker. On an independent level. I like the ability it has to reach wider audiences- and there have been some films this past year or so like Trouble the Water that you see and think: “Man, this is really important, and necessary.” The necessity of certain subjects is really interesting – if film can get it to more people, quickly – then it seems like a great forum for those kind of topical stories.