Melissa James Gibson Artist Interview
Tim Sanford: This play was a Sloan commission from MTC, right? Not every writer feels they can write a science play. Did you have to think about it to accept it?
Melissa James Gibson: Yes, but I was drawn to the challenge of it, to write a science play that didn’t seem like a science play.
I know they require that you write a proposal for it first. Did you have the idea for this play right away?
I had a couple of ideas. One of them was about this fascinating syndrome called the Capgras syndrome wherein a person thinks a loved one has been switched out with an imposter. And that just seemed like a fascinating starting point. But ultimately the idea of the placebo and the placebo effect has been something that’s interested me for a long time, so that’s where I landed.
After you told me about that syndrome, it occurred to me that it bears a passing resemblance to The Bald Soprano.
(Laughs.) Interesting, yeah.
So did your proposal about the placebo effect entail a plot summary?
A pretty vague one. I think it included the character of Louise and the character of Jonathan. I knew Louise was doing research and that Jonathan was a classicist.
Did the original proposal include something about a drug trial?
I think it included something about a drug trial.
And it was going to be a study of the placebo effect?
It wasn’t going to be research into the placebo effect itself. There’s a lot of really, really fascinating stuff going on in that field—there’s even a Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard now. But no, I think pretty early on I knew I wanted Louise to be working on a drug trial, in which some participants would be receiving a placebo.
So what do you think drew you to this idea?
Well, really that a placebo is both something and nothing.
It’s something in that it’s a pill.
It’s a pill, but it’s an empty pill. It’s a pill without medicine. So, what does that mean when it has an effect? What’s the nature of that mind—body conversation?
When we talk about a placebo, we usually talk about it in two ways. Sometimes the context is, “Oh it was just a placebo. This thing we thought that was going to be effective is in fact empty and meaningless and ineffective.” On the other hand, when we talk about the placebo effect, we’re often talking about the opposite: how something that’s nothing is effective somehow, just by force of mind or something.
Right, and I think a lot of the current research says that it’s a very complicated phenomenon involving interpersonal dynamics and the scope of a person’s outlook. The nature of the clinical setting and the how of the treatment is really important, too. For instance, if a doctor puts her hand on your shoulder and is very attentive to you, and listens, and takes your condition seriously, it’s possible for this to act as a bit of a placebo. She hasn’t given you medicine, but you know, a lot of people feel better after such an interaction.
How did you come to the idea of the study being an investigation of female desire?
Well expectation is the other big element in this play and figures prominently in the idea of a placebo as well. Expectation has everything to do with how we relate to one another all day long, with strangers, acquaintances and intimates. Anyway, I was trying to figure out what kind of drug the trial was testing. I think in the first draft it was medication aiming to treat depression, because placebo effects can arise in those studies, as well as with drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease, pain management—a number of things actually. But then I read a really wonderful book written by a friend of mine called What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire [by Daniel Bergner]. It provides an overview of the research going on in all aspects of this field. And part of what Dan describes are the various drugs that have been developed over the years to try and tackle a waning of desire in women. Calibrating a female drug is more complicated than a Viagra-type drug for many reasons, including mechanics, but I also think the funding is generally more geared toward male issues than female. Anyway, this is a burgeoning field at the moment, and I found the studies compelling and thought it would be an interesting subject to explore.
Louise boils the purpose of the drug down to a sentence, that it’s trying to facilitate the conversation between the mind and the body. Is that an accurate description of what these drugs are doing?
Yeah, I think so.
They are aimed at mental processes?
Mental and physical processes—the drugs are trying to harness the connection between the two.
One of the central characters is Mary, who is older than Louise and has been married for a while. She’s lost the connection to her husband but also to herself. She’s in transition. It reminds me of something you said in our interview for your play, This about one of its inspirations being that you had friends who were getting divorced and you were looking at what happens to relationships over time.
And the feasibility of long-term relationships… the mess and the complication of long-term intimacy. Time… “Forever” is a word that comes up in the play a lot, and I think trying to navigate that in a monogamous relationship is something Louise is contemplating and that Mary is dealing with very directly. For the most part Mary’s marriage is a very happy one. She doesn’t want to leave her husband, but there’s this aspect of the relationship that is unsatisfying to her and really painful: she doesn’t feel like having sex with her husband very often. When you read the accounts of the women who volunteer to participate in these trials—Dan talks about it in his book—these women will often use language that has a violence to it, like “I feel like someone has cut off my arm” type of stuff. They don’t recognize themselves, they feel like they’ve lost a core piece of themselves.
You were talking about the pressures of time, the finiteness of time, and I think it’s worth pointing out that death is a strong factor in all of your last three plays.
Jane’s husband in This is dead and in a jar, and in What Rhymes with America there’s this important character Lydia whose father is on his death bed, and here we have Louise’s mother who’s dying. I think in each of these plays the presence of death serves to ratchet up the pressure of time.
I also think that each of these plays finds a link between death and sex. Lydia is still a virgin when we meet her and she wonders if it’s ever going to happen for her. Then when her father dies, something seems to open up for her, but then it closes in a kind of serio-comic way when her would-be partner gets a call from his ex just after he’s gotten to second base.
In This, the sex is more transgressive. Jane has an affair with her best friend’s husband, which seems inexcusable, yet you succeed in making us feel for her.
Well, “right” or “wrong” aside, for whatever reason, that’s what needed to happen for Jane in order for her to go on living, because essentially she’s been dead for a year since the death of her husband. And yeah, how to go on living in the face of death? That’s everbody’s conundrum. I mean, we know death is inevitable. How do we most fully live our lives as our deaths draw nearer by the day? Jane was stymied for a long time.
I guess in Lydia’s case, it works the other way around. Her father’s death shakes her up. She’s finally able to get past the habit, routine, or fear that has stopped her.
Yeah, I think fear figures prominently for a lot of my characters, for sure. (Laughs.)
And for Louise, it’s a different effect isn’t it? She’s not frozen like Lydia and Jane. Here she is, a specialist in female sexual fantasy. One might presume she is drawn to the field for some reason. How would you characterize Louise’s relation to her sexuality at the top of the play?
Louise is drawn to sexology, as a field, and the subject of her dissertation, specifically, because she’s fascinated by the juxtaposition between the rational and irrational—our intellectual selves and our animal selves. As I was writing the play I was struck by the work being done by researchers like Dr. Meredith Chivers, who has found that there can be a significant gulf between what women believe turns them on and what actually does. Louise herself is in a stable relationship that has been satisfying in most ways, including sexually, but the relationship is at the four-year point when the newness is gone. It’s something she is contending with.
So whereas the sex and death duality triggers breakthroughs in This and What Rhymes with America, Louise’s mother’s death leads her to contemplate marriage not sex.
Well she’s contemplating forever. And those around her remind her of it in various ways. When she’s in conversation with her mother, who’s dying, it unleashes something in her, almost in an irrational attempt to keep her mother alive. I think that’s why she fabricates…
Right, exactly. And what is that? I think she surprises herself as much as Jonathan. But it unleashes something. It sets something in motion that has implications for the rest of the play.
And you’ve taken pains to define placebo; it means, “I shall please.”
And her choice to tell her mother that she’s engaged is an attempt to please her mother, really.
Yeah, and it’s also an entirely irrational attempt to keep her alive, because of course she’ll want to stick around long enough to attend her daughter’s wedding.
So she is giving her mother a placebo. And then it sort of becomes like a placebo in the relationship, like it’s an artificial relationship extender.
And I think she wants to please him, too. She wants to please herself. She wants to figure out how all of these things can happen at once. Another thing that comes up again and again in the play is the notion of happiness and whether it’s reasonable to expect it or focus on it even, instead of just embracing every aspect of the emotional spectrum. We sort of fetishize happiness, I think, in our culture. And that can prevent us sometimes from actually living in the now, or the now-ish, anyway. (Laughs.)
Isn’t there also an implication that marriage itself is an institution, is a placebo, like “I don’t know what to do next in the relationship, so let’s get married,” and that’s like a construct.
It’s a construct, yeah.
It’s an artificial construct.
It is, it is. But I was actually just listening to this fantastic interview; do you ever listen to that show “On Being,” that podcast on NPR? The host of the show, Krista Tippett, was interviewing a musician named Joe Henry. And he was talking about how marriage is a verb actually. It’s not just something you do once and then it’s done. You don’t just “get married.” You have to do it all the time, every day. It’s active. And I thought that was such an apt description. So Louise and Jonathan are in this “cuspy” place… They’re not young and they’re not old. They’re in that particular place, in the later stages of their training…
On every level, personally and professionally, they’re figuring out who/what/where/when/why/how they’re gonna be when they grow up, essentially. And so it’s… They’re just at one of those super threshold-y places in life, I think.
So when she does that “weird thing,” “I told her we were getting married,” it seems innocent, but it’s a Pandora’s Box. It brings the future into it.
And it makes sense, to start to think…
“What are we doing?”
It’s been a couple years?
That’s a long time. That’s a time when you’re thinking about the future. So it’s a way for her to start the conversation but it’s probably not ready to happen yet, because they should probably get closer to the ends of their career launch…
Right, but she’s doing that unconsciously. Neither of them is “owning”—to use that horrible word—what’s going on here. She starts off saying, “I told my mother this, isn’t that strange?” And then later he suggests, like, “Well do you want to tell her a fake date?” And they carry this on until it becomes irrelevant, in terms of her mom. And then they really have to face themselves and each other.
And there’s a paradox here, because ostensibly what we witness is her encouraging him. He’s expressing his misery and up all night, and he writes all day, and he says he only has a couple pages he can use…
There’s a lot of frustration there.
And she’s like, “you can do it, you can do it.”
And arguably—not even arguably—this is a terrible time to talk about marriage. This is really poor timing to bring this up. They should really wait ’til they’re in a more stable place with their pursuits and themselves.
In talking before about the science of desire, you talked about the tension between the irrational and the rational. Body and mind. And in some respects that split is incarnated in the characters of your play by having Jonathan represent the humanities and Louise represent the sciences.
I guess. I did not mean it to be that neat. But you’re right, that is how it worked out. (Laughs.)
It was at least present enough as an idea that when I was talking about the set with Daniel and David Zinn, that we linked it to the choice to put Jonathan’s table at the center of the stage. There’s the line that he never leaves the apartment and neither does the table ever leave the stage, so it gathers resonances as the locus of his frustration as well as his search for the deeper meaning of his subject.
And it’s her table, don’t forget. Anyway, I’ve never written a dissertation, I don’t have a Ph.D., but as far as I can tell, having talked to a lot of people with Ph.D.s, it becomes the center of your life. It’s very, very hard to focus on anything else, including relationships. The work becomes pretty much all there is.
But you seem to have an interest in grad students. I think we discussed this in your This interview. And you talk about Achilles and Patroklus in that play, and Current Nobody is an adaptation of The Odyssey, and the characters in Suitcase are grad students. And I think you talked about a professor who was really important to you.
I think I was talking about an amazing professor, Dennis Dalton, whose Political Science survey course I took in college. And one thing I took away from that class was how Socrates encouraged his students to grapple with how they chose to live their lives. It’s a question that figures in my plays and of course I try to keep in mind as a parent/ spouse/human.
Why did you pick Pliny the Elder as Jonathan’s subject?
Honestly, at first, I was just attracted to the sound of his name, the Pliny part and the fact that he was “the elder”—it just tickled me. But then I started reading about his ambitious project and reading the work itself and I felt so moved by this tireless, intellectually curious fellow who was driven to understand and explain, like, everything—the practical and the arcane.
What are the factors that are tearing at Jonathan?
(Sighs.) Everything. A friend who’s currently working on his Ph.D. was telling me that at his school health services actually sends out an e-mail to the students about “Impostor Syndrome,” which can happen to people who are really advanced in their fields, but nonetheless suffer from this fear that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I think Jonathan is really suffering from that. Sort of like the more you know, the more you fear you don’t know ANYTHING.
As someone who went through that process personally I can vouch for the veracity of that syndrome. I sometimes marvel still that I ever managed to finish my dissertation. What do you think appeals to you about grad students and dissertation writers as characters?
I’m interested in people who devote themselves so whole-heartedly to a subject. Because I think their worlds get really small and really big at the same time and that’s interesting to me, and I think it really affects their personal relationships. ’Cause they’re trapped in their heads.
Would you talk about Jonathan’s smoking?
He’s trying to quit and he’s choosing the worst possible moment to do so—when he’s under the greatest degree of pressure. But in his head, I think he thinks if he can pull off that, he’ll also be able to pull off his dissertation. It’s like he’s creating a sidebar test within the uber-test that is his dissertation. And he knows his smoking bothers Louise, so he’s also trying to please her by quitting.
One of the things I like about his smoking is that the pleasures of smoking, speaking as an ex-smoker, are all in the moment. You can’t think about the future. It’s an existential, sensual pleasure. Do you remember that joke from the ’60s: “Do you smoke after sex?” “I don’t know, I never checked.” Sex and smoking used to be closely linked. Movie sex was often followed by—or even substituted with—a cigarette. Jonathan seems to get no pleasure from his cigarettes, but it is at least another way he can fend off Louise’s future-thinking. And when he lights up it does precipitate a climactic shift in the play.
I think he gets tremendous pleasure from his cigarettes, but they also torture him because he knows they’re bad for him. That’s the tension. But yes, I think the smoking is a key turning point.
Actually the only time Louise ever leaves the stage is right after Jonathan lights his cigarette. Then after she comes back, we have that really interesting section where we learn her mom has died. Would you talk about this section? The way the time shifts. And the singing. I know parts of this section evolved through rehearsal.
We’ve come to think of that section as one continuous scene. Louise leaves the stage in anger, after fighting with Jonathan and then dropping the bomb that she took the marriage lie to a ridiculous level (she’s actually told her mom that they’ve written their own vows and are planning to elope “ASAP”). While she’s in the bedroom she calls her mom and during the phone conversation her mother dies. By the time she emerges, even though we’ve been watching Jonathan onstage in real time, which has only been a couple of minutes, Louise is in that suspended time zone that occurs when you learn of the death of a loved one. It can be a very out-of-body time, in my experience. A neither-here-nor-there time, when you’re processing and trying to digest the incomprehensible. Then the singing is some sort of expression of her grief, where she’s sort of channeling an ancient ritual she has no conscious knowledge of. Her grief is real—as opposed to the Placebos of the Middle Ages who were faking it—but in my mind it’s almost like she has to go through the motions of the ritual in order to experience her true feelings. Through the ritual she is accessing authenticity. And then the last segment of the section (post-offstage funeral), when Jonathan asks her to move out for a short period of time—to me it feels like the end of the emotional trajectory. It’s the transition back to real life and the as-we-left-them problems.
The other thing I love about the singing is that she’s actually singing the Vespers for the Dead that Jonathan recited before. So she’s not only accessing a ritual, she’s also accessing Jonathan’s world in a way. And that makes the next section after the funeral so surprising. He starts off by saying how close he feels to her, how real Louise made her mother to him. And then he says he wants her to move out. I think some people have looked at this and thought he is breaking up with her. But I see it as he needs to claw some space for himself. As they say, “without me?” “No, by myself.”
And I keep thinking you could argue that it’s his way—again, not explicitly articulated—it’s his way of trying to save the relationship.
After this scene, there are three scenes without Jonathan, two with Mary and one with Tom. The scenes with Mary are striking in their contrast. How would you describe Mary’s journey?
“The roller coaster of life”—like.
Were you surprised when Mary gave up and walked out? I know you’ve talked about how, when you write, you don’t really write from an outline.
Yeah, I felt… You know, I feel sad for her. But at the same time I think she’s… I still feel there’s an opening up there. Like something has shifted that might make something else possible. I still feel hope for her. I mean, she’s still in tremendous pain, but I think she’s in a different place than she was when she started.
She did have that weird oasis of a week where it…
Yeah, she had a great week. (Laughs.)
I have a hard time believing she’s gonna leave her husband. She really does seem to love him.
Yeah, I think she does. But in the first scene, Mary’s very explicit about her idea of herself. She says “if you said to all my friends describe Mary in one word, ‘happy’ all my friends would have said” and for me—and I’m just thinking about this out loud for the first time—I think by that last scene maybe she’s gonna let go of that single definition, and maybe that’s what’s necessary for her to get to a more peaceful place with herself. None of us is just one person. Labels like that aren’t so helpful sometimes, even when they’re positive.
This scene clearly has a huge impact on Louise. And the way Daniel stages it emphasizes this. There is some reference to forever’s a long time, like maybe we’re not supposed to be together forever and Daniel has Louise come forward, like a deer in headlights, clearly shaken, taking it very personally.
And then there’s the relationship with Tom. And that just sort of unfolds in this very natural way. She likes him. She thinks he’s funny. But he’s also a bit of a mystery. She asks him why he doesn’t talk about himself and he reveals that he had a 15-year-long relationship and was really devastated when it ended.
Yeah. He’s a very comfortable-in-his-own-skin dude. But I like that we make assumptions about him and are wrong. I mean, we do that all the time. (Laughs.) Or I do. All day long.
Would you talk about the vending machine race a little? Did you envision it this way?
Oh, I didn’t picture the running part. I pictured just the game itself. I love the running.
What is the game?
Well, it’s not a real game. I just liked the idea of emptying out the contents of a vending machine. It just seemed fun. I mean, I’ve never done it, but I bet it would feel like a really satisfying accomplishment.
I think it’s inspired because the physicality of it just brings them together. But also as the money spends down, it kind of serves as a countdown to the moment of truth that ends the scene. There has been noticeable low level flirting between them that breaks through here. But it doesn’t seem she thinks that relationship could have legs. Is that true?
I think there’s a spark, a playfulness between them from the beginning, actually. Part of what I was trying to capture with these two is the possibility that’s in our midst at all times. Why do we wind up with this person—for a night or a lifetime—and not that person? At a certain point I think the only correct answer is “Who knows?” In answer to the second part... Louise isn’t in the mood for legs, so to speak. She’s coming from legs. She’s interested in something else here. This metaphor is appalling… Basically, she just wants to have some fun and uncomplicated sex.
It turns out in the last scene that Louise and Jonathan both have slept with other people during their breather. Louise with Tom, Jonathan with an ex. Do you think these affairs impact where their heads are at about their relationship going into the last scene?
Sure. And what’s more threatening, the ex with whom there’s a history or the new guy who’s full of possibility? The past or the future? I think the last scene wouldn’t really be possible without the outside sex, or wouldn’t unfold in the same way, anyway. Because what Jonathan and Louise are really grappling with is the nature of intimacy. And part of what the whole play is examining is what is real and what is fake, and what’s the line between the two? It’s probably more fluid than any of us care to admit, or are capable of seeing, at any rate.
We don’t learn about Jonathan’s affair until much later in the scene but what is immediately clear is that they enter the scene from two very different viewpoints. Louise has snuck into the apartment to take some things out of it, and when Jonathan catches her she does a little soft shoe then suggests they “triple the breather.” Jonathan, on the other hand, seems cheerful and upbeat until Louise’s bombshell. Something seems to snap in him and he says, “Why don’t we end it?” Louise, on the other hand, immediately starts to backtrack. But she seems unmoored and lets slip her real hidden doubts about Jonathan that confirms his worst fears about her.
Which is that she doubted him.
Right, she kind of expected him to fail. It’s very damaging, this expectation. I mean she didn’t mean it to be, but that’s another thing we do all the time. We expect certain behaviors of our partners because we think we know them so well, as well as we know ourselves practically, and we’re sending little messages about our predicted outcomes that I think can’t help but have an effect.
You’ve worked hard on the play since I first read it. The last scene got longer, I think.
Yes, it did.
And I remember feeling each draft was slightly different about whether we’re meant to see it as a break-up scene or a breakthrough scene.
Yeah, I think that’s very much in play. It is to this day.
At first it looks like they’re really breaking up. She starts to gather her stuff and her furniture, but it looks a little bit like she’s acting out and they’re still arguing all the way through it and she’s trying to provoke him and he’s sort of stoic. So she blurts out that she had an affair but also says, “I don’t want this to end.” But at some point it does feel like something shifts.
It’s a long negotiation. I think there’s a conversation beneath the conversation.
Where do you think the turning point of that scene is?
Well, I think there are multiple turning points, honestly. I think they’re both grappling with the potential loss of the other more acutely in different places. But I think right up until the play’s final moments it’s a question. And they’re both fighting for an outcome, but I think the nature of what they’re fighting for actually changes—even for themselves—throughout the scene.
I think it really starts to turn when he starts to open back up to her, because she really wounded him.
True. He pursues the line of questioning that someone who is done would not pursue.
What’s that line of questioning?
Well he asks her how the sex was with the guy at the lab. And earlier he says he’s not going to tell her about the dissertation defense, but then he does.
I think, when he reveals that Erika came over, it’s a big admission.
Yes, and it feels like a betrayal to Louise, even though “all bets [were] off” during the breather. So it’s not so much the sex that stings as the academic intimacy Jonathan shared with Erika. He hasn’t told Louise that he and Erika have stayed in touch, professionally, and it really hurts her. Anyway, I think the question of who’s in control of the scene is in play the whole time.
I love the way the scene ends, playing catch with the keys. I love the way it echoes the vending machine game. But I also love the way it literalizes their ambivalence. And the fact that she ends up with the keys gives me hope. I think this action was always in there but there used to be lines too. Can you talk about how you came to this ending?
Yeah, at the first rehearsal there was about half a page of text mixed in with the key throwing and beyond the current, final, overlapped exchange (“it’s your throwing” “it’s your throwing” “it’s not my throwing”). A few days later it became clear that what the ending called for was not language but kinetic engagement. The key throwing became a hindsight anchor for everything that precedes it. It’s informed by the past and maybe says something about the future, but mostly it’s just a present-tense activity, which is important.
I hope you don’t mind my revealing that the idea for the show art for Placebo came from you. And at one point, “Fingers crossed” was the last line of the play. Now it’s the last line of Mary’s second scene. I also find it my duty to report that in re-reading your interview for This, you described your characters as “devoted, fallible, fingers-crossed characters.” And then, at one of our talkbacks, a woman asked about the image, I forget whether because of Mary’s line or looking at her Playbill, and she asked, “Are you referring to hope, or are you referring to putting your fingers crossed behind your back to lie?”
And you just nodded your head.
And said “Yes.” (Laughs.)
Do you think of both of these meanings when you think of that image?
I do. I do because it’s all so wrapped up in what we tell ourselves and what we tell each other, all in good faith. We want to protect ourselves and avoid hurting each other. But everything is subject to change. The best we can do is try to stay conscious and brave. That’s what that image really says to me.
In one of our talkbacks, Daniel mentioned how your plays often contain fairly detailed and extremely challenging descriptions of your scenic visions of the plays. Perhaps the fact that you took Ming Cho Lee’s set design class at Yale unleashed this proclivity.
That was a privilege. He’s a truly great man and generous teacher and I learned A LOT about plays and design and life on earth auditing that class.
Placebo has a very particular design, which I think addresses two things: one is that Louise is basically onstage the entire play. And the second is that the play is a succession of two-character scenes that all rub up against each other. And everything we need is there. We have the lab, the sofa, Jonathan’s table, and the characters go in and out. Was there any conception in your head about what this play would look like scenically?
Not as much as usual, honestly. But I think David and Daniel and Matt and Ryan were really successful in capturing the fluidity of these spaces. To me there’s no real home space and there’s no real work space, and neither place is particularly comfortable. Everything looks sort of provisional and temporary and not cold exactly, but not settled. They’re not hyper-defined spaces. They brilliantly capture the transience of Louise and Jonathan’s place in life. They live in that generic university housing, and then there’s the generic lab break room area. I don’t think for either Jonathan or Louise there’s a lot of—or enough—separation between their personal and professional lives. And Daniel was the one who had the excellent instinct to keep Louise on stage for virtually all of the play. That became key.
The other night I was listening to the play and suddenly struck by the fact that the words to the vespers for the dead are, “I shall please the Lord in the land of the living.” And there is a paradox here, because we are honoring the dead and pleasing the Lord here, now in the land of the living as we mourn together and comfort each other.
It is also a statement of intention. It is a vow of sorts.
Yes, to promise the Lord in the face of death to be righteous now, here, while we live.
And I love this spiritual motif that runs through the play. There are so many interesting dichotomies running through the play that we have talked about: Mind/Body, Intellect/Animal, Rational/Irrational. And the way we cross the gaps between these divisions is by taking a leap, or crossing your fingers and taking that leap. And ultimately, what we’re really talking about is faith. So I think it is fantastic the way the play focuses in on the interplay of sex and faith. Sex means such different things to different people. For some it’s an affirmation of animality, for others it’s a spiritual connection. For some it’s both. Would you talk a little about your thoughts about sex that have come to you as you’ve worked on and watched the play?
Um, I’m in favor of it.