Playwright offers tales from the heart
July 1, 2011
By Tim Pfarr
“I went to a vocational school that was me and like 2,500 guys,” Elena Hartwell remembered with a laugh. It was there the high school dropout from San Diego learned to become an auto mechanic.
She was 17, and although working on cars was not her lifelong dream, it was work. The days were filled with grease, oil and motors, but after work — and wiping the grease from her fingers — Hartwell became an artist.
It was during these years that she completed her first full-length script for the stage: “Fast Ducks.” The story followed several people in a diner, exploring their relationships with one another. The play took place in a town in which residents raced ducks.
“Inspiration strikes in strange ways,” Hartwell said with a laugh, adding that she wrote the script not knowing anything about theater.
Now, 25 years later, Hartwell sits in her Newcastle home, remembering how she took a passion and created a career. Since “Fast Ducks,” Hartwell has written six full-length plays, three one-acts and five shorts. Various stage companies have produced her plays, and she is now one of the few individuals in the state making a living as a playwright.
“Even before I met her I was impressed with how many potentially explosive and controversial issues she managed to address in what was essentially a lyrical, dreamlike memory play: environmental degradation, abortion, adultery,” said Carissa Meisner Smit, alternative stages coordinator for Driftwood Players in Edmonds, which produced Hartwell’s play, “A Strange Disappearance of Bees,” in February.
“She introduces her characters so well and makes you care about them so much that when they face these issues you forget that they are issues and you are just a friend hoping for the best.”
Trading a wrench for a keyboard
In 1991, Hartwell gave up her blue-collar job for community college, later transferring to the University of San Diego. At the university, she took an acting class, and her love for drama blossomed. The world of theater was one filled with oddballs, and just about everything was accepted.
Near the end of her undergraduate years, Hartwell wrote a one-act play titled “Playing Chess With Joey.” She produced the play herself, converting a deserted furniture-refinishing store into a theater, bringing in her own second-hand risers, seats, lights and sound system.
She graduated in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in mass media and theater arts.
In 1996, she relocated to the Washington, driving into Seattle beneath Fourth of July fireworks. She had fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest as a teenager, and she joked that it seemed as though the fireworks welcomed her as she arrived.
She attended graduate school at the University of Washington, graduating in 2000 with a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on teaching theater. She then headed southeast to Athens, Ga., where she attended the University of Georgia, earning her doctorate in dramatic theory and criticism in 2004.
It was during this time that she landed her first production. The Detroit Repertory Theatre chose to produce “Fast Ducks.”
“I just was thrilled,” Hartwell said. “It didn’t matter to me that it was far away. I was happy to have an equity production.”
Hartwell was not involved in the 2002 production, but she flew from Georgia to see the play as a member of the audience. She was one of the only white people in the audience, she remembered.
“It was exciting for me that my work was being appreciated in a different cultural setting,” she said.
A writer’s craft
Hartwell said her work is can typically be classified as tragic comedy or comedic drama.
“At the heart of it is always relationships and characters,” she said. “I think it just means more when you get people to laugh and cry at the same play.”
Hartwell’s creative process can even grow out of historical events or articles in the newspaper.
After completing a script, the first step is getting a theater company to do a reading, Hartwell said. Next comes workshops, and finally are productions. Each step is more difficult than the last, and Hartwell said she revises her plays after readings and workshops.
At any given time, she said she is working on one first draft, one or two rewrites and numerous submissions, seeking readings, workshops and productions.
For a time, she spent a significant amount of time designing sets, directing plays and teaching drama to make ends meet. She taught at the University of Puget Sound, and she continues to be an adjunct professor at Central Washington University, teaching online graduate level classes on theater history.
Still, Hartwell has never taken a playwriting class.
In 2010, she relocated to Newcastle to live with her boyfriend J.D. Hammerly.
Hammerly — a computer scientist by training — said his relationship with Hartwell has introduced him to a world completely different from what he was used to.
“You would think that you’re written skills are not excellent but OK, then you meet someone like her and realize she can take any kind of a document and make it so much clearer,” he said. “It’s really kind of scary how good people like that are.”
However, he said some of her greatest gifts are her understanding of human nature and her ability to use that understanding to create characters with which audiences can identify.
“That’s a true gift. She does that extremely well,” Hammerly said. “When you see good actors put life in the script, it touches your heart.”
Current and future projects
Although Hartwell has spent most of her adult life in Washington, her plays gave found more success out of town than locally, getting picked up in places such as New York, Vermont, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
On occasion, plays will still get produced locally, and Meisner Smit said it was a joy working with Hartwell in Edmonds in February, given Hartwell’s fun and down-to-earth attitude.
“Throughout the process, Elena was always there, pencil in hand, with her big laugh, perfecting and polishing,” she said. “She had a special rapport with the director Ellen Graham and the cast and was very interested in their feedback.”
Hartwell is now finishing her latest play, “Loss: A Play About a Violin.”
In the play, a patriarch composer dies. The notes from his violin pervade the thoughts of many of the play’s characters, including his widow, who suffers from dementia.
Hartwell also recently began trying her hand at fiction writing, working on her third novel-length manuscript. She said her first two manuscripts were learning experiences, and she said her third — a contemporary mystery — is quickly becoming more polished than the others.
Furthermore, Hartwell will be leading a workshop at the Write on the Sound writing conference in Edmonds this fall, teaching fiction writers how to write dialogue like a playwright.
She continues to teach and mentor, managing the blog Arc of a Writer — which gives tips and prompts to aspiring writers — and she said hopes to start offering manuscript critiques for playwrights in the future.
In the meantime, she will be on the road to attend new readings, workshops and productions, almost always in the company of Hammerly.
“He’s my biggest fan,” she said.
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