CATF Interview with Playwright Chelsea Marcantel | CATF.org

Researched, interviewed and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Story Listener and Creative Director www.sharonjanderson.com

CATF: Everything is Wonderful opens with an epigraph from Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel: “Time is the presence of God in the world of space.” What does this perspective mean to this play?

CM: The play jumps back and forth in the history of the family. For example, many of the current interactions of Miri – the play’s central figure –  trigger very strong memories from her past. People often talk about healing as though it were a sentient thing. They say, “Time heals all wounds, just give it time.” What I’m talking about in this play is a force that’s a little more aware than just the passage of time. Without getting too deep into what my own beliefs are, what we understand as time may be more like the hand of God.

Heschel also said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Is this also true for this play?

This perspective segues into my fascination with tribes. There are times in our lives when we have to choose between the tribe and our own individual heart. Many times Miri’s parents do things the way the tribe has designed, and it breaks their hearts because they would treat their daughter differently if they could. As much as they don’t want to, this is the way they have to do it even when it’s at odds with their own conscience.

You have said that you are “extremely interested in humans as small-group primates” to see “what happens when the rules and value systems of our chosen groups cease to serve us.” You call yourself a Cajun. Tell me about that tribe.

I grew up in southwest Louisiana very close to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico in a very large extended family. There’s a stereotype of New England WASP families remaining very quiet and repressing everything despite all the tension in them. That is as foreign from my understanding of what a family is as a family of aliens.  I said to my mom, “Can you imagine a family where someone was mad at somebody and didn’t immediately tell them that they were mad and have a throw-down fight in front of everyone else in the family?”  She couldn’t imagine that. I grew up in a family that was very forthcoming with its feelings and airing them in the interest of the tribe so we could all move on.

Was your inspiration for Everything is Wonderful the Nickel Mine Amish murders of October 2006?

That was a big part of it, but the original inspiration came from a Werner Herzog documentary called, From One Second to the Next made to show the dangers of texting while driving. In it, Herzog interviews a man who hit an Amish buggy while he was texting and driving and killed four children. On camera, the driver reads the most beautiful, plain spoken, heart-felt letter from the father of the kids. It simply says, “I hope you are well. I think of you daily. Spend enough time with your kids. You will never have enough time with them.” While I was watching this, I thought, “Are these not the same people who excommunicate their kids for listening to Taylor Swift?” These people can forgive outsiders anything, but have so little tolerance for deviation from within their own community.

Did you spend time in Lancaster?

Only as a tourist. I wasn’t able to spend any time living with an Amish family. I did a lot of reading and watching documentaries – even watching reality shows about Amish people – and watching the way the Amish have been depicted in fiction in movies and TV miniseries.

I grew up Catholic and know what it is like to be the daughter who left, the daughter who moved away, so I also compared it to my own upbringing.

A motto of the Amish tribe in this play is, “Speak. Forgive. Forget.” Is it possible to forget, to achieve true reconciliation? Is forgiveness, as Esther says, “The spine of life?”

In our modern society, people often conflate forgiveness with weakness and forgiveness with setting yourself up to be hurt again. If we can disconnect the concept of naiveté from forgiveness or the concept of being a sucker from forgiveness then we can see it as a gift you give yourself. It’s a way you allow yourself to move through the world and heal.

In the play, Jacob says, “Forgiveness is a choice. It happens in an instant. Reconciliation is a journey.”

Again, if we can get over the idea that forgiveness means you’re weak or that suddenly you’re fine and will never have a problem again, then we can get closer to the real understanding of what it is.

How would you answer Esther when she asks in the play, “What if the evil is inside of us and not outside?”

Esther has been repressing things for so long, they are starting to get out of her control so she feels like there is evil inside her. We’ve all had a moment of, “What if everything is going wrong in my life because I’m the problem?” In communities with extreme intolerance for deviation, feelings that would be construed in a more tolerant community as just normal feelings – like rage or disappointment or not wanting to follow your husband’s lead all the time – can be construed as evil.

All the characters seem to be carrying huge weights. Can only God lift them?

What is going to lift the weights is to actually name what they are and discuss them. It might seem very mainstream to say, “You’ve got to talk it out,” but saying, “I’m hurt. Something bad happened to me. I’m not okay. I want to talk about it,” is a luxury that we take for granted in our society that these characters don’t have. What will help this community to heal is their relationship with each other more than their relationship with the community. The closer they get to each other, the closer they get to God in a real way.

What is the purpose of having multiple things going on at the same time in this play?

It makes an interesting stage picture. It’s the idea that no matter what is happening to you, there is always something happening to someone else that is affecting you that you can or can’t understand especially in a close-knit community. Because we don’t see it on TV or in movies, we forget that you can do things like that in theater.

Eric says, “It’s not God that I have a problem with. It’s his fucking followers.” How should followers of Christ respond to that?

Eric is dealing in that moment with having been cast out of his tribe. But this makes Miri see him a different way. She leaves the community not because she stops believing in God or even because she stops believing in all of the tenets of the Amish way of life. She leaves because she can’t find tolerance among the people there.

Included on the home page of your website is this quote from Bill English of the San Francisco Playhouse: “Theatre is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves.”

This is the motto, the mantra of my life. In our current political climate, the more stories we can tell that feature voices we don’t often hear from, and the more often we can sit with other people – not in isolation, not in front of our laptops, not in front of our TVs – but surrounded by other people and recognize the humanity in people who are not exactly like us, the stronger we become as a society.

Theater is not vital theoretically, but also tangibly. It is a source for beefing up this country’s muscles of empathy and compassion because we need those muscles even more than we have in the past.

Why even more now than in the past?

The trend right now is toward isolationism. Part of it is technology, part of it is the dark corners of the internet where people who would have been ashamed to say something in public can now anonymously say it behind a screen and spread hatred and vitriol far and wide with very little effort.

We also live in a political climate where people shout at each other and become more and more entrenched in their beliefs instead of trying to find middle ground. We need to look at people on the other side of the aisle or on the other side of the country and say, “I don’t really agree with you, but I can tell you’re a human and I’m going to treat you with the respect that humans owe other humans.” It’s not just related to politics. It’s our society as a whole. We’re getting to a place where we want to be in our little bubbles with people who are just like us and don’t challenge us. Theater shows us people who are not like us. It helps us to understand that we’re all in this together.

Miri says in this play, “I’d rather have anything I want than not want anything.” Would you rather have anything you want or not want anything? And why?

This is a question I grappled with when I was a child; a question I asked my dad all the time. He always said that it was better to not want anything than to have anything you want. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in abundance over monasticism, I still would like to have anything I want than not want anything.

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done that you regret, but don’t tell me what it is. You’ve been commissioned to write a play about it.  What’s the name of the play and what’s the first line?

We would start with a monologue and the character would look at the audience and say, “I want you to hear the whole story before you say anything.” And the title would probably be, I Know We Can Figure This Out.

Read the original interview here.