It’s raining when I head to Greenpoint to meet writer Sean Edward Lewis and actress Claire Campbell, theater artists making experimental work under the name Lilac Co. They’re a unique pair, reminiscent of the muse and the artist: Campbell, fresh-faced and young, is from Brighton, England (“Lots of hippie mums by the sea”), fresh out of drama school overseas. Lewis, older and gruffer, grew up north of Los Angeles in Ventura County, attended CalArts for graduate school, and has been in New York writing and showing his own experimental work as an auteur of sorts for ten years now.
Lilac Co is more or less a vehicle for Lewis’s experimental performance work; all of their productions are created, written, and directed by him and involving a variety of different collaborators through the years. He also typically performs in his own pieces, which involve abstract language, non-linear storytelling, and an awareness that the performers are onstage performing.
The past few projects have been a result of close collaboration between Lewis and Campbell, who met in Paris about a year ago and have been working together since. Their latest, An Othello Thing, is having a workshop performance at DIY space Trans-Pecos this evening. Past Lilac Co. productions have been seen at Dixon Place and The Under the Radar Festival, but also at Bushwick DIY space Secret Project Robot, church basements and a Greenpoint storefront on Normal Avenue Lewis called “dilapidated, abandoned almost.”
I asked Lewis about his apparent proclivity towards performance spaces where works of theater are not typically found. “I actually have a problem [with it] because it’s confusing to the audience I’m trying to get to,” he says. “So, actually, it’s not ideal. They’re great, I dig that idea, but the theater community doesn’t really formally know of those [spaces], the music community doesn’t know of [multimedia theater artist] Jim Findlay, or they don’t know of [theater] The Chocolate Factory, they don’t know of the festivals that are coming up.” With a chuckle, he adds, “The joke is now that I’m trying to get into the theater.”
I offer that venues like these can bring about audience members that typically wouldn’t go to see theater, and ask if that has held true for him. “Definitely,” he says in a deadpan. “At least three or four.” But he’s not dead-set on traditional theater spaces from now on, and mentions rock bar Saint Vitus as a place he’s interesting in showing work at, partially because it’d be “totally confusing.”
When I asked him about his gravitation toward Greenpoint, his reaction was similar. “It wasn’t formal, just necessity,” he says. However, he notes the convenience of settling in one neighborhood; he does now have a relationship with all the 99-cent stores nearby, and there’s a coffee shop he prints his plays at. He currently resides with Campbell in a small studio there that he also uses as a rehearsal space, but unlike his previous locations, the landlady will not permit him to do any shows in the space. After a 2014 incident where she called the police three times during a performance, he’s staying on the safe side.
However, Campbell feels that this DIY mentality vibes well with the work Lilac Co makes. The mission on their website states, “Make it with what you have,” so I cannot help but agree.
However, making it with what they have can result in some interesting choices. When I inquire about their piece An Othello Thing, I get the standard introduction at first. It’s an experimental piece based on Shakespeare’s Othello, a tragedy centering around Othello and his wife Desdemona, played by Lewis and Campbell respectively. No strangers to The Bard, previously Lewis has created pieces based on Macbeth and Hamlet. In past iterations they used actual text from the play, but since then it has grown and changed into something “completely different.”
“We’re grappling with issues of blackface—I never generally do political or socially-themed work, but we’ve decided to step right in that.”
I do a bit of a double take. Blackface was a common sight on stages many decades ago, but nowadays it’s essentially forbidden, for the obvious reason that it’s largely racist. There are some groups who have attempted it in ways that have been deemed acceptable, such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, which was written by a playwright of color and inspired by a racist play from 1859. Performance collective The Wooster Group, who Lewis later cites, also used it in their controversial production of The Emperor Jones, which has polarized audiences for over 15 years. Here, we have two white people contemplating using it. This will be interesting.
I press for more information regarding the choice and why they did not make moves to cast an actor of color in the piece instead. “Well, it’s still a question mark about whether or not we’re going to do it at all, even with the performance coming really close. To talk about it is one thing, but when you start doing it everyone gets freaked out. I want to sort of experiment with the history of white actors doing Shakespeare. Because I was fascinated by Orson Welles’s  ,, and he’s in blackface in the not-too-far past. So I’m just going to wear their robes and sort of feel how it feels. But we’re in such a different time and place that it doesn’t really translate,” he says.
Lewis is admittedly honest with his own personal confusions and hesitations. “Maybe it’s like, my reasons might be not even apparent to me. I mean, as a white middle-aged man brought up in a white suburban environment, very conservative, very Protestant. It’s almost like exposing myself. But I’m also educated, supposedly liberal. I’m sort of willing to—as a writer, you can’t back off from what it is you don’t understand. Because I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what the black community or a black actor would feel who saw me do it.”
“We can only speak for ourselves,” added Campbell.
This is the first time they are exploring the choice in the piece’s history. “In the first piece we didn’t address [race] at all,” explains Campbell, who continually stresses her discomfort with the choice to use blackface. “But the more that we’re developing this piece, the more you realize you can’t disregard it. And like Sean said, it’s still in question what we’re going to do. But it’s understanding what it means for me to be playing Desdemona or Sean to be playing Othello in that moment. It opens up questions like for me, like can Sean now play Othello? In this day? So it’s still in laboratory, we can’t say what it is or isn’t going to be at the moment. because we’re still so confounded by what it is and how to like, deal with that. It’s so difficult.”
Othello’s race remains a topic of debate for Shakespearean scholars. He is described in the play as a “Moor,” an antiquated term for Muslim that came to refer generally to dark-skinned people, but the role has been played historically by many races, in and out of blackface.
Scholastic inquiry, however, becomes slightly irrelevant when considering Lewis and Campbell are not doing a traditional production of Othello, but a piece that is decidedly theirs. The script itself, riddled with fragmented and verselike phrasings like “Killed a black man / Who’s not a black man / Who’s a white man / Who’s dead” references the use of blackface, potentially dabbles in the story of a couple playing sexual “Othello games” and ends in a version of the Iago character as a cop who ultimately shoots the blackface Othello character, raising the ambiguity of whether he has shot a black man or a man for being in blackface.
The two of them seem very aware that this is not a choice to be made lightly. Ultimately, they’ll make a choice and show it to an audience and reap the reactions, whatever they may be.
Lewis even hopes that this tension will be present in the piece, as their work is largely self-aware, the type of thing where they’ll technically be playing characters but simultaneously make it clear they they are also themselves. “It’s like a poetic response to the whole narrative of Othello, all these issues. So it’s us not answering these questions but responding poetically and dealing with all that dissonance as performers in that situation,” he says.
“It’s about the shared time and personality in the room, rather than being like, oh, we’re going to get an actor to play this part,” says Campbell. “It’s us, and it just happens to be us doing Othello, rather than ‘We want to put on a production of Othello.’ And even [the blackface], me being like, ‘No!’ That’s a thing in itself. And maybe that is what it is. ”
This art/life boundary begins to blur even while I’m sitting in the studio with them.
“Part of me is bothered by the whole choice of the topic,” says Lewis, after we’ve traded thoughts for over an hour and tensions have been stirred a bit. “Why did we end up in this?”
“This was never… This isn’t what I wanted,” Campbell continues.
“That’s actually a line from the play… Now I’ve said it.”
Lilac Co.’s work-in-progress presentation of AN OTHELLO THING happens Tuesday, November 3rd at Trans-Pecos, 9-15 Wyckoff Avenue, Ridgewood. 8pm. Tickets are $10. It is written and directed by Sean Edward Lewis, featuring Sean Lewis, Claire Campbell, and Fletcher Liegerot. More info here.