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Interview

Tim Sanford and Amy Herzog

TS: In the interview you did with Adam for After the Revolution you talked about writing the play as a commission for Williamstown and how they didn’t want you to start writing until you got there.  So you did all this personal research and conducted all these interviews with family members before you wrote the play.  And I was wondering if that informed your process in writing other plays at all.  Do you still do a lot of research? Or was it your personal responsibility towards your family that made you want to be that thorough?

AH: That was the most research heavy play I’ve ever written and it was a combination of wanting to get the history right and a responsibility to my family and the way that fellowship was designed that I was not allowed to write but encouraged to do a lot of work to create the world.  I do think it’s a model for me in the sense that I don’t like to start writing a play until I know a lot about it. But often that process is more private or internal. So for this play, there was a lot of preparation that happened before writing the play, which was a very fast process. 

You also said that After the Revolution is ultimately more about the family than about the politics.  In the same way, in your bulletin article you say The Great God Pan is not an abuse play. Then you listed a number of evocative, vivid memories of your childhood.  So is it fair to say it’s less about abuse and more about childhood itself?

About childhood and about memory, yes.

How did you come to write the play?

Well first of all I set the play in the town I grew up in. And one of the memories on the list that you referred to is a memory I have of my grandmother swinging on this vine that the older kids would swing from at this creek and she fell in. So there’s a grounding in my childhood in that sensory experience and my own mythology of my childhood that I think is a sort of foundation of the play. It’s hard to say where exactly the plot came from; when I was twelve or thirteen I went through a period of being really obsessed with recovered memory. It was really in the news a lot at that time.  There were a lot of sensationalist stories of recovered memories of sexual abuse.  But also, I read a kind of horror-ish novel by a writer I liked at the time, John Saul, called Second Child.  It was a scary little novel. I read a lot of scary novels when I was young. And what you realize by the end is that this young woman character had a second personality. And I talked to my mom about it, she’s a psychologist, and I discovered this is a real thing what was then called Multiple Personality Syndrome that is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.

So you were into horror novels when you were 12or 13?

Yeah. Well, even earlier. I was into ghost stories and scary movies and being scared from a very young age. So I started reading about Dissociative Identity Disorder and that’s how I started learning about recovered memory. And I was reading about it because it frightened me so much. That’s what drew me to it.

Why?

Well I think maybe writing this play was trying to answer that question for myself.

Of why…

I’m obsessed with my own memory. Jamie, the main character in this play, has a really bad memory.  I have a really good memory.  Especially in childhood I just had really specific detailed memories in a way I knew other kids didn’t. And I think my personal mythology was really important to me. Certain memories were really important to me. There were certain memories I would go over and over again with my parents to make sure I had right from when I was 2 or 3. So I think reading about the possibility of really important memories getting buried and lost was somehow psychically troubling to me when I was 12 or 13 and reading this stuff. I think when I returned to that idea to write this play I realized I was much less interested in the news item sort of literalness of the idea of recovered memory and much more interested in the questions it brought up. 

What do you mean by “your personal mythology?”

Ok well I don’t know if this…. When I was four I had a major trauma, which was that a friend of mine died suddenly. And I’d say that was a key part of my personal mythology. I have a lot of memories from around that time of her, of her death, her funeral, what my parents were like afterward, what her parents were like afterward. And I developed terrible separation anxiety for a few years after that. In my family we sort of decided ‘this happened, I was traumatized by it, and I became extremely uhh anxious and upset about being away from my parents.’ And as I got older I started to really question that cause and effect --  whether that’s really knowable and the kinds of mythologies that grow within families. 

So you started to feel like that was their interpretation and it got sort of imposed on you?

Well that was an interpretation… [chuckles] so there’s a little… They took me to a child psychologist… my mom’s going to be so mad at me…anyway, they took me to a child psychologist just at the school or something and over the course of a few sessions I created this little book and the book had text and pictures. And the text was like, ‘Once there was a little girl.’ And there was a picture of a little girl. Next page: ‘And there were flowers and rainbows.’ [mimes drawing of flowers and rainbows] Next page: ‘Then the little girl died.’ And there’s a picture of the little girl like floating into the sky. And the last page was, ‘But there were still flowers and rainbows.’ So in my family the story was this amazing text that Amy created as she got over this death. When I look at that now it’s so obvious to me that it was -- because I was a very good student and a good kid. -- that it was received wisdom. That I had understood that that’s what I was supposed to have processed. So that’s the kind of thing that I’m now, in my adulthood, very interested in.

So between this time and now…

[laughs] yeah… 20 years…

What happened to this obsession with memories?

Well I think I became disinterested in it for a long time uh, the way the whole culture did. That was like an obsession at the time and everyone kind of forgot about it. And now, you know, recovered memory is a very controversial subject, I’m not sure if I really believe in recovered memory, personally. Or of the kind that we talk about when we talk about sexual abuse. People recovering very specific detailed memories that had been completely lost. I don’t know.

You don’t believe that it happened? Or you don’t believe it happens as much as people think?

I don’t believe it happens as much as people think it happens. And something I read recently said trauma is much more likely to be remembered well than not remembered. But, I don’t know. I guess sexual abuse was in the news a lot and that got me thinking about it again. 

What about Frank?  He tells us about his recovered memories and I believe him.

Yes but the first thing he says about it is that “it’s complicated,” and that there are memories he always had but chose not to think about, and that there are some things that he now knows happened but are still lost to his memory. I do think it’s possible to newly remember something at any age. But when people talk about “recovered memory” they are usually referring to complete, detailed memories that had formerly been entirely lost. That’s not the case with Frank.

In any case, it  sends Jamie on a path to consider whether something happened to him.  And you leave a lot of clues about it.

Right, there's a fair amount of was-he-or-wasn't-he, but hopefully it comes across that that stuff really isn't the point. 

What is the point?

I think what’s most important is that he begins to question the relationship between a possible buried trauma in his past and the problems he is having in his present life. And the relationship between those two things is very fraught and very explosive and very unknowable. And because of the decisions he’s having to make in the present the importance of that relationship is great.

What role do his parents play? 

Well, we learn something in the play that really did happen. Um, we don’t know what happened with Dennis Lawrence but we do know that his parents went through a pretty terrible trauma themselves that Jamie witnessed in some way that he doesn’t remember. So whether or not this awful thing that Jamie’s fixated on happened, there are these kind of ties in his past that he’s seeing for the first time that do exert a kind of pull on him now. 

And is he seems to be heading towards the possibility that something could have happened. And we’re heading there too.  I’m curious about the clues you leave.  There are little pointers in almost every scene that seem to lead us closer and closer to the conclusion that something may have happened.  Yet your work always feels so organic; it never feels like you are manipulating your narrative.  How conscious are you of this process of dropping clues.  Not that you’re Agatha Christie or something, but were you making choices like, “too much too soon” or “we need a little something here?”

I had the general idea that something in each scene had to tug Jamie further along on his journey. If, in scene two (his first scene with Paige), she didn’t make the allusion to sexual problems in sexual abuse survivors, he might completely forget about his conversation with Frank. Then his mother’s reaction is troubling and strange, and then of course his dad drops a bomb…so while I was trying to organically write scenes, letting the characters drive the action, I did know there was a technical requirement that each scene provided new clues.

You talked before a little bit about your own family mythology, in the second Paige scene, Jamie describes Paige’s version of his family mythology and her own.  How would you describe Jamie’s family mythology?

Paige sees Jamie’s family as cold, but I don’t see them that way and I know they don’t see themselves that way. A lot of that family’s mythology has to do with Jamie – what a good kid he was, how remarkable he has always been, how self-possessed and self-sufficient. And it’s hard on the family when that narrative starts to waiver… when he is in his early thirties and lagging behind some of his peers in achievement in his career and personal life.

And when we see them together, Jamie’s ostensibly coming over to ask about what Frank said, but they start off talking about his new job.  We sense they both wish it were easier, but it’s just not.  It seems like a really telling moment when we learn Jamie’s dog died and she says he never told her.

I do think it’s telling, but I also don’t think it’s too uncommon or alarming. People fail to tell each other important things all the times, in families, in friendships, in marriages – especially when it’s bad news.

And when he does tell her about Frank, it’s so hard to read her reaction.  At first it seems like she’s putting something together and then she seems almost hostile to Frank.  It’s kind of like she wants to reassure him, but it just backfires.

She’s a little dissociated I’d say. I don’t think I knew at the start of the scene exactly what was going to happen but I knew that she was not at all going to confirm his suspicions but something in her behavior was going to make him feel less comfortable. 

Then when Doug comes over with the really startling revelation that Jamie stayed with the Lawrences, all our alarms go off because we realize there was opportunity. He wants to be upfront, his relationship with Jamie is important to him, but he also seems to be looking for a little reassurance himself.  What’s interesting to me in the scene is how little Jamie says.  He shows some emotion early on, but by the time he asks how old he was and Doug say almost five, we see the wheels turning but he doesn’t really react.  But what really gets me is when Doug says the Lawrences said how “good” Jamie was.  In a way, Jamie is still showing how “good” he is.

 Yup.

 The Polly scene feels like we’re going right to the source; it comes almost in the center of the play, like going back to the source.  But the choice to introduce a character that only appears once is always a brave one.

 Most people in this play have two scenes (Paige has four and Jamie as eight). In a way, I think giving Polly just one makes her more important or authoritative or something.

 One of the things that I find interesting about the scene is that he doesn’t seem to come to dig for more answers.  In fact Polly is the one who brings Frank up.  He brings a list of memories to share, like what he really wants is for the past to come back to life.  And she shares the memory of the poem, “A Musical Instrument.”  Do you have any thoughts about how this poem found its way into the play and into the title?

It’s a poem my grandmother used to quote to me when I was growing up. She must have learned it in school or something. She would say the first few lines and it had this spooky, incantatory quality. I didn’t know who the Great God Pan was, but it occurred to me that whatever he was doing probably wasn’t very nice. After I wrote a first draft of the play, the poem kind of got in my head. The connection to the play is instinctual for me – I would be reluctant to spell it out too much.

The bump from the Polly scene which is quite beautiful, almost pastoral, to the second scene with Paige is jarring and dramatic.  It’s almost like the scene demonstrates the Great God Pan “spreading ruin.”  Something is stirred up in Jamie.  He’s opening up to the possibility that something may have happened to him but he seems to be shutting down to Paige.  And when she tried to empathize with him and consider it herself, she says, ‘Oh that makes sense you were abused;’ and he becomes enraged and says really ugly things to her.  He doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as an abuse victim, and yet he seems to be looking for an explanation himself for the state of his life.

I think the thing is that he… at the beginning of the play he has not… clearly seen those things about himself. The things in the present not the things in the past. So, it’s a lot of steps she’s asking him to make at the same time. Even though yes, he is beginning that process, but I think even someone who lives a very examined life, who’s extremely therapized, would have a hard time with this news.

 Talk a little bit about why Joelle is in the play.  

As I remember I finished scene 3 and I thought… where do I go from here? And then I thought what is it that Paige does with her life? I should probably figure that out. 

But you knew her back-story.

Yes I did. But I wasn’t totally clear yet on what her work was. And when I wrote the first draft of the play I wasn’t sure if the Joelle and Paige scenes would stick, and I ended up feeling that it’s crucial to understand Paige independent of Jamie.

Can you say why?

She makes a big decision at the end of the play that I think we have to be in on in a way that isn’t too literal and spelled out, that we have to be emotionally in on. And I think, I mean this is more from a craft perspective, but we see her and Jamie in crisis so we have to meet Paige when she’s not under the gun like that. And understand her a little better. I mean I there are… I hate the word thematic so much… but I think there are other thematic reasons for her and Joelle to be there together.

What are they and why do you hate them?

I think writing from theme is like… yields bad results. And I don’t think I was writing from theme when I started this scene. But, well here are two things other people have said to me that I really enjoyed hearing: one was that we are seeing Paige in crisis so watching her help someone else is moving and true about human beings. That that’s often where help comes from. And also, she talks about loss in scene 9, her second scene with Joelle, she talks about Joelle having the option to not lose things and in the end the choice Paige makes at the end is what to lose..

Well but we also see that she’s losing Joelle.  And for me one of the strongest things about the scene is seeing how her story kind of parallels Jamie’s story.  Now parallels are a little like themes; they’re things audiences and readers find in stories that magnify meaning.  But when I see how tight-lipped and troubled and reticent Joelle is in the second scene, I think of Jamie and all the things we’ve seen him hold back on.  And when she says at the end of her scene, “I have to take things in my own time,” I immediately think, “Same with Jamie.”  So in a way we see Paige lose Jamie all over again in this scene, but also maybe come to an understanding.

And she chooses not to lose, you could say, this is not the end all be all interpretation, but you could say she chooses not to lose Jamie. I don’t think you could really understand that without meeting Joelle.

It’s funny, you know Paige and Jamie say such horrible things to each other in scene seven.  It just feels like it’s broken wide open and there’s no going back.  So when Jamie says Paige is getting an abortion, it just seems it’s all over but then Jamie says he wanted to keep the child… It’s very complicated…. Then Frank takes a hopeful view of it   And we’re not sure where the relationship stands.  Did you know where their relationship was headed when you wrote scene seven?

I guess it’s a cop–out to say I didn’t know because I think most of my plays end with ambiguity so if I had really thought about it after writing scene seven I would have probably had to admit that I wasn’t going to go firmly in one direction or another.  I would say all of the facts lead you to think they’re not going to make it. It’s only what Frank says that suggests otherwise. And it’s a play, so we take what Frank says really seriously. But it is a guy’s perspective who’s not in the relationship. So I don’t know. But I think that Jamie is better equipped to fight for Paige at the end of the play than he was at the beginning, so that’s hopeful. But as people in the cast pointed out after our first read through the fact that she doesn’t want Jamie to come with her is maybe the least hopeful thing about it. 

Yeah I kind of assumed that they had broken up. And it’s weird how I’m latching on to any signs of hope at all.

Also I think that what Frank says has got to be really true. I don’t know what he saw in those support groups but it was probably really a lot worse than Jamie and Paige’s story. I’m sure people have survived the most horrific betrayals of each other in history.  And Cathy and Doug survived. She was like suicidally depressed for biological reasons and he was threatening to leave her… so, there’s precedent in the play for couples to survive ugly scenarios. I believe Cathy and Doug have probably had a good marriage for the most part.

But for me the last scene isn’t about whether Jamie and Paige are going to make it anyway.  It’s about Jamie’s opening up.  And it seems like there’s a direct correlation in the scene between his remembering the first stanza of “A Musical Instrument,” and his realization that he tells Frank of what he should have said to Paige: that “she was worried about having a kid and that she couldn’t get pregnant and what I should have said was that’s great you can get pregnant’ you know?” It’s really an unexpected, exquisite moment. It’s beautiful, not just because of the empathy it exhibits towards Paige, but also for his vulnerability to share it with Frank. So I’m just wondering, you said earlier maybe you wrote this play to answer the question for yourself of why you were so interested in the subject of memory, recovered or otherwise, how have your feelings evolved and matured over time?  And did you discover anything about them in writing this play? 

When we talk about recovered memory, we're usually talking about one very specific instance (or multiple specific instances) of a memory of a trauma that has been lost and then found. But we all have millions of memories from early childhood and from later, some are traumatic, some are wonderful, most are neither. Some have been lost, some are remembered clearly, some have been dramatically altered by re-remembering or retelling. How our brains decide what is important to remember is a very mysterious process, and probably an identity-forming one. So in the last few years, and in writing and working on this play, the very confusing soup of all that became more interesting to me than the question of whether recovered memories exist, and what the statute of limitations should be for sex offenders, and those more scientific, policy-oriented questions that captured my imagination in the first place. What’s important to me about those final lines you mentioned is that, after all the action of the play, Jamie finds himself cascading backward in his mind to the events of the night before the play began. That circular motion – that process of reconsideration and revision – is a big part of my experience of being a human.