Law Student’s Play Premieres at A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival

As the house lights illuminated the interior of Washington University’s A.E. Hotchner Studio, a young man stepped out onto the stage and found himself awash in a sea of friends, relatives, and other well-wishers. The house was packed, every seat filled, and he could not go more than three paces without a hug, a handshake, or a pat on the back.

One of three playwrights selected by the 2014 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition, second-year law student Cary Simowitz was the man of the hour. It was the premiere of his first play, Ekphasia, or “The Shadow Girl.” 

As the lights dimmed, the actors took their place on stage, and Simowitz’s tale began to unfold. Set in St. Louis, the story of Ekphasia revolves around a 14-year-old boy named Owen, who strives to lead a normal life while suffering from a debilitating mental illness. Every day, he struggles to relate to and feel accepted by the three most important people in his life: his older brother, his best friend, and his poetry teacher.

Then, while his class is visiting his teacher’s home for a poetry reading, Owen accidentally discovers that his teacher has chained his 15-year-old daughter, Julia, to a piano in his basement, and is holding her there indefinitely. Owen desperately tries to break her free, but even after repeated attempts to convince her to leave, she refuses. Giving up on his plans to rescue her, Owen develops a strange and (eventually) romantic relationship with Julia, and the story only intensifies from there.

When asked what inspired him to write Ekphasia, Simowitz says he could trace the characters to several sources, spanning a few years apart in their origin. Owen for example, came to him from a collection of thoughts that crystalized after an afternoon spent in a Southwest Airlines terminal cafe.

Julia’s character, by comparison, was much longer in the making. “The ‘attractive, mysterious, quasi-supernatural girl with all the answers, stationed at a piano’ has been a character trope in many of my earlier pieces,” Simowitz explains. “She was my misplaced muse, longing to find a home.”

That home was created in a Medieval Literature course taught by undergraduate English Professor Jessica Rosenfeld. During a study of Breton lays, they examined Marie de France’s “Lanval,” the tale of an ethereal beauty and the knight who loved her. Simowitz realized that Owen and Julia’s romance was destined to become a modernization of the Arthurian fairy tale.

However, even with its strong beginning, Simowitz is both surprised and pleased with the end result. “Five drafts, a semester-long workshop with WUSTL Playwright-in-Residence Carter Lewis, and two years later, the story came to life as a play more beautiful that anything I could have imagined,” he observes.

For his future, Simowitz knows that creative writing has and always will be a driving force in his life. “My interest in playwriting and creative writing predates my admission to law school,” he says. “I have always been passionate about the craft of story-telling through the written – and spoken/performed – word.”

As a law student, Simowitz appreciates the relationship between creative writing and his approach to legal writing. “Legal and creative writing are at once very different and closely related beasts. I oftentimes consider them to be interdependent art forms, both requiring a fundamental command of language that has always been my strength,” he says. 

“While legal writing calls for precision and brevity, creative writing is born from imagism, originality, and a certain degree of strategic verbosity. They are foils to one another, and I have found that there is a tangible, academic strength to be gained from mastering the ability to switch between the two forms at will,” he continues. “Legal writing cultivates persuasive and mechanical skills that are essential to being taken seriously in a professional setting. I would be lying, however, if I didn't admit that creative writing is ultimately more fun, and a bit more of a release!”

The recipient of a 2014 Carmody MacDonald Legal Practice Excellence Award, Simowitz adds that law school has had a positive influence on his art. “In order to be a great storyteller, a writer must have a working knowledge and deep understanding of the world,” he observes.  “Law school has proven to be a veritable master course in society, governance, and humanity.  My worldview has expanded 10 times over since I began my legal studies a little more than a year ago. This broadened perspective will undoubtedly influence all of my writing from this point going forward.”

When asked where his studies at the law school might take him, he says that Intellectual Property or Entertainment Law are both possibilities. Or perhaps, he’ll be the next famous author of legal thrillers. “My parents often joke with me that I should aspire to become the next John Grisham,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to unite my many passions into a career that I find truly enriching and creatively stimulating."

Simowitz’s play debuted as part of the A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival. Endowed by alumnus, novelist, poet, and playwright A.E. Hotchner, this annual playwriting competition is open to all undergraduate and graduate students at Washington University. In fact, many past “Hotch” plays have gone on to full production in the PAD season and around the country. 

Brent Mueller, Fall 2014