By Sue Botos
For many people, tattoos go more than skin deep; they connect right to the heart, especially when they memorialize a loved one. Although Rocky River native Caitlin Lewins says she does not have body art herself, she was intrigued by the deeply personal meaning behind the tattoos of others, especially those who lost someone to suicide.
Lewins, whose cousin and brother Micah took their own lives, decided to reach out and compile the stories of those who commemorate their loved ones in ink. The result was “Left in Ink,” a presentation that ran May 15 to 31 at the Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT).
A 2006 graduate of Rocky River High School, Lewins is a “story connecter” for CPT. “It’s my job to get people excited about shows before they see them,” she explained during a phone interview. She said this work includes interviewing artists and gathering other “insider information” for posting online.
Before beginning her position full time in September, Lewins was awarded CPT’s Joan Yellen Horvitz Fellowship, which provides young directors with “incredible potential” with $3,000 plus a full underwriting of all learning and artistic activities for a year, culminating in the directing of a full-length spring production. “Left in Ink” is the conclusion of Lewins’ fellowship.
A graduate of Baldwin Wallace University, where she majored in theater and philosophy, Lewins said she has always been involved in theater, but her first love is new productions. “I’ve been creating original theater for about three years, but this is the longest piece I have ever created,” she added, noting that her other works ran about 15 minutes.
The production took extensive research on Lewins’ part as she interviewed five people who had lost someone to suicide, gathered other stories from Facebook and online support groups, and went through other pictures and testimonials sent to her. Eventually, she needed assistance with transcribing the information.
“There was so much material and it was such a large undertaking,” Lewins recalled.
As a result, Lewins decided to stick with the accounts of the five original interviewees. “The information was so overwhelming. There are so many stories out there,” she noted.
Lewins explained that her own emotions took a back seat as her “director, writer brain” went to work. “I wanted to find a way to tell these stories in a completely honest and truthful way,” she said, adding that some of the material was created by the actors as well as herself and co-creator/actor Amy Schwabauer.
“I would put the material together and bring it to rehearsal. Sometimes the actors would rework it and we would see if that worked,” she recalled.
In addition, her mother, Jane, recorded written comments which were woven into the production.
Observing an old theater adage, Lewins said she would read reviews and discuss reactions after the performance had completed its run. But her father, Tom Lewins, stated that the work took him “through the emotional whirlwind of the five stages of grief in 90 minutes,” which he felt was “overwhelming yet cathartic.”
“Each of the characters brought new and different specifics, but all told the story in a way that ultimately is beneficial,” Lewins stated. “The manner in which the characters interplayed with interspersing the tape recording of Jane’s written comments helped take me through the tragedy of those of us who are survivors of the loss of a loved one through suicide. The ever-present question of ‘why’ is throughout the play. That is the one question that none of us can or will ever be able to answer. It is also the question that we must accept when all is said and done,” he added.
While Caitlin Lewins noted that theater is therapeutic and cathartic, she said that “Left in Ink” did not really bring her closure. “Theater is the language that I speak. I wouldn’t say it was closure, but it was helpful to hear others’ stories.”
Tom Lewins added that the production dealt with a topic not usually discussed. “She has found a beautiful way of informing all of us about the big ‘taboo’ subject in a way that touches the audience,” he stated. Caitlin added that this sharing is helpful in the healing process. “Talk to anyone you can, a friend, a counselor,” she advises anyone who has lost someone to suicide.
“Don’t let the shame and stigma overcome you so you can’t grieve like you should. Give yourself a break.”