Growing up in a rural farming community south of Portland, guns were a regular part of playwright E. M. Lewis’s life. She had neighbors who hunted, and her family kept a few shotguns and rifles handy—for defending against raccoons in the chicken coop, say, or scaring off bigger predators. Eventually, she herself learned to shoot: an experience she calls “fascinating and wonderful and exciting and dangerous-feeling.”
But Lewis’s connection to guns didn't remain so simple. It’s that multifaceted and fraught relationship that she mines in The Gun Show, getting its first Oregon production at CoHo Theater this month. It’s an unusual show: onstage, a single male actor recounts Lewis’s stories while the playwright sits with the audience. It’s a deeply personal play, but also a deeply political one—and one that’s only grown more political since its 2014 premiere.
Lewis recently moved back to the state—she’s teaching at Lewis & Clark while living on her family’s fourth-generation farm in Monitor, near Woodburn. We caught up with her ahead of opening night to talk about theater as an act of empathy, growing up in rural Oregon, and where her play fits into America's escalating gun debate.
How did The Gun Show come about?
The play is about guns and gun control, but it’s also about my personal experiences with guns, which started in a very simple and nonchalant sort of way. In rural Oregon, everybody has guns, or at least it seems that way, even if it’s a shotgun or two up against the back door, purely for reasons of self-protection or shooting a raccoon when it gets into the chickens. Guns were not something I ever thought about. My interactions became more complicated as I moved from childhood to adulthood, from rural places to urban places.
And it’s five of your personal stories about guns that anchor the play.
Learning to shoot was fascinating and wonderful and exciting and dangerous-feeling. Being held up at a bookstore where I worked, being at the other end of that, felt very frightening. But like a lot of people, I’ve had a variety of experiences with guns and am conflicted about guns. This is not a far right or a far left play. This is a grappling with guns in American society, and trying to figure out if there’s some way to come to terms with their presence, or some way in which we can make them a little bit more safe for us. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
What was it like to grow up around guns?
We were not a family of hunters, but we did have a couple of shotguns and rifles that were handy. They were not something that as children we were ever allowed to touch. It was kind of like the hot stove: that’s there, don’t touch it. There were neighbors who hunted regularly. In a lot of ways, there was nothing special about the guns that were in our lives. They were tools—for hunting, for self-defense, for defending against critters going after the chickens. There wasn’t any stockpiling. And a lot of people from my part of the world, from rural Oregon, go through the military, and that frequently brings guns into a person’s personal experience and home.
[Actor] Vin Shambry and I have had a wonderful time talking about our different experiences with guns. We were both born and raised in Oregon, but he was a city kid, an African American Portland kid with a very specific experience and understanding of guns that was very different from me on the farm 40 miles away. We’re bringing our dual experiences as Oregonians to the table.
The play has an unusual structure, with you in the audience as a male actor—Shambry—recounts your stories.
This is a very personal story, and one that I very much needed to write—it had been inside me for a long time before I got up the courage to write. It is not fiction. It is personal, it is real. Once I began to grapple with the territory of this play, it came out in this odd sort of Spalding Gray-esque form, with a guy at a table telling a story and leaving the audience to figure out what they think. And even though it was very much my own story, I felt from the beginning that it was a masculine voice delivering that story on my behalf. So there’s an odd wrestling between the masculine and the feminine in the play itself. Sometimes the performer is talking to the audience, and sometimes he’s talking to me, and sometimes he’s talking to me as me talking to myself. I don’t think it feels complicated when you’re in the room with it, but there are things that are happening with identity.
What’s it like to be part of the audience?
It’s a more intimate relationship with the audience than the playwright usually gets. I’ve deliberately put myself in the mix, being part of the cathartic experience of the play for every single performance. And cathartic it has been. It has allowed me to process some things in my life and world that I had been incapable of processing without pen and paper and, apparently, performance. To sit there in the audience, with the audience, listening with them, having the experience of the play with them—I think it brings home to them that this is a true story.
The play has been widely performed since its 2014 premiere.
It’s been strangely and wonderfully viral in its explosion. And though the words don’t change production to production, passages feel amazingly different. I just got done with a production with Project Y in New York City, immediately in the wake of the deaths of several unarmed African American people by police and the murder of the Dallas police officers. One of the five stories in the play involves an encounter with a police officer that is complicated. And listening to my own play, sitting there in the audience—the words hadn’t changed, but suddenly there were passages that felt so very different.
I think all theater is an act of empathy, truly stepping into someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world through their eyes. This play, more than anything else I’ve ever written, is trying to step into the shoes of people who are on the farthest right and are holding tight to gun ownership, and into the shoes of people on the farthest left, the people who say, “Melt them all down.” It’s stepping into the shoes of people who have had innocuous relationships with guns, who have happy memories of hunting with their grandfather in the woods in rural America, but also stepping into the shoes of an African American male being stopped by a police officer and not knowing how that’s going to go, or stepping into the shoes of a police officer and not knowing how that interaction is going to go.
There’s been so much gun violence in this country since 2014. What’s it like to see current events constantly intersecting with your play?
It feels like the question of guns in America is escalating, and the hotness and anger and volume of the debate has gotten louder. It feels like everyone’s shouting and putting their fingers in their ears at the same time. It feels like people are getting angrier and more upset and listening less. One of the things that this play really, truly tries to do is say: We are in this together. We are in this country together. We are in this society together. We are in this community together. We have more in common than we have that separates us. Can we listen to each other’s perspective? Can we figure out some way of coming to terms with these objects in our lives? Whatever that may be, can we have a conversation about it? Can we work together and figure it out?