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Essay

Tim Sanford and Marlane Meyer on "The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters"

Tim Sanford: The last interview we did with you was eighteen, nineteen years ago, when we did Moe’s Lucky Seven. We didn’t do interviews for our Studio series until later so we didn’t do one for The Chemistry of Change. Then it didn’t seem like you wrote that many plays for a while. I remember running into you in the lobby of the Sharp, I don’t know what play you were seeing—

Marlane Meyer: Neal Bell’s play.

Right, Spatter Pattern, and you said, “Oh, I’ve retired from the theater.” And you were at that time producing Law & Order, I guess. 

I was a writer-producer.

How did a writer as singular and theatrical as you transition to that other world? Did you think of yourself as both for a while or was it too time-consuming? 

It’s not that it’s time-consuming; it’s soul-consuming. I did manage to write a play I really liked, The Mystery of Attraction, while I was working on Nothing Sacred. Nothing Sacred was a great show; it was Bill Cain’s idea. He’s a priest—

And a playwright.

Right. And it was about a priest working here in New York City and the spiritual problems you have not only as a priest but as a person of faith living in this world and the crises that come up surrounding your faith-walk in this world. So it was easy for me to write a play then because I wasn’t out of my wheelhouse. Plays take every bit of you; they take your unconscious, your ability to structure consciously and unconsciously. There’s so much that goes into writing a play. All your life themes come up to be examined again... usually none of this has much to do with writing for TV. With that said, when I was writing TV I would try and invest the shows with my own point of view and with my own interests because that was how I kept myself engaged and employed.

Did you find the longer you were in it the more you were able to inject yourself into it?

No; actually the more I was in it the more I found that I was just becoming exhausted trying to fight against it and when I got to CSI that was just it for me. At the end of it I wasn’t doing very well there and they weren’t going to renew my contract and this is what they said: they said, “Marlane: the show will never be about God or philosophy.” I said, “What else is there? I mean, why not?” But it was time, time to leave. At that point I had been working almost steadily for twenty years. I had a very comfortable pension because I belong to the great Writers Guild. And it took me about a year and a half of just sitting around moping and writing some bad plays, and a pilot or two and then I started another play, which is this play that we’re doing now. And I felt like I finally got my voice back.

It’s interesting to me that the one play you were able to write while you were working in television, The Mystery of Attraction, was in some ways one of your tightest plays. 

Have you ever read it? 

We did a reading of it!

I like that play. Single set. Five characters. It’s a much neater play. The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters is one of the sloppier plays, and so was Chemistry of Change and so was Moe’s Lucky Seven. Those are the three sloppy plays, right? 

Actually, I would argue that Chemistry of Change is a fairly accessible family play in a lot of ways, but as for Patron Saint and Moe’s, what you call “sloppy,” I might call “unfettered.”

Sprawling.

Sprawling! Moe’s got something like ten characters and it includes union busting and parables and mythic themes.

Creatures... that was a beautiful play.

And so is Patron Saint.  I love that after your hiatus—

Hiatus!? What you’re calling my hiatus, I’d call my career in television! 

But you came back! You came back to playwriting, and it felt a little bit like you were breaking out of jail. I was re-reading the interview we did back when we produced Moe’s Lucky Seven. And you were talking about the breakthrough you had with Etta Jenks. You said, “I had always had a vision of the work I wanted to do. I wanted to throw together deconstructed ideas and impulses and personal experiences into a kind of big stew in order to get in touch with my own personal mythology. But until I figured out what the rules of structure were, I couldn’t break them successfully.”

That’s a very smart thing to say. 

We were—I was smarter then too. My questions were smarter. But what interested me about that comment is that it seems counter-intuitive in a way. Not that your work is unstructured, but it often seems to defy expectations.

Well I think it’s important not to know where you’re going to go but trust you can tell a good story. That has a lot to do with being about to structure a piece once it starts showing you what it is. I learned structure from a great screenwriting course I took from Jim Boyle at USC. And that’s how I learned structure for my playwriting. 

Except you don’t edit your work that way, do you?

Sure I do! I mean, I do when I’m working. I rewrite my plays nine million times. I’ll rewrite any scene, any line, fifty thousand times. I am not even kidding. 

The marital bond is a frequent theme in your work. Moe’s Lucky Seven is a retelling of the Adam and Eve myth. The Chemistry of Change is about a woman who married men for their money; she’d been married eight times or something, she had all these kids, and then another potential spouse shows up and he’s the devil. And that resonates with the play we’re doing right now. Like, who is your mate: your moral opposite or your moral complement? When you look at Aubrey and Calvin, he’s a “baaaaad boy,” his mother tells him, “You’re good at being bad,” and Aubrey is a good person—Calvin keeps saying this. So there’s something in your work… in Moe’s, it’s not just Adam and Eve, there’s the snake and Patsy is drawn to the snake—is it Drake?—and Drake is drawn to her. When we did that season panel thing, Peter Marks said, “The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters is about a woman who gets involved with the wrong guy.” And that’s one way to look at it.

I think we’re attracted to the people who will offer us an opportunity to enhance our knowledge of people and teach us forgiveness. I think it’s possible to divorce or break up with a person and find yourself with the same person again and be forced to learn whatever the takeaway is from that experience. Again. Or, sometimes the lesson is you just can’t be married. [Laughter.] It doesn’t have anything to do with that other person.  

I think what I’m really asking is about the metaphysics of coupling. Did you read the piece I wrote about your play in the subscriber bulletin? I mean, you might have found it a bit highfalutin because I talked about Jung, but I think it’s true that your characters are fueled by this huge sexual energy but many of them are also on a spiritual quest. Sexuality and spirituality seem interrelated to me.

Yea, well they are for me. I think that’s been in all the plays I write. I mean I guess there’s a way to have sex where you’re just bodies having sex, but I always think that there’s a better and bigger dimensionality to it. Because for one thing I’ve never felt comfortable having sex with just everybody, I think I like to have sex with people I love. That’s the gift I give of myself, that secret knowledge. That requires a kind of trust that I don’t think you have with just anybody.

Do you think that’s an idea you’ve evolved because you were raised in morality?

No no. No. Are you kidding? My parents were practicing free love way before the word free was invented. They were serial philanderers. They were very attractive people and they liked the attention. My dad was a seafaring person and my mother was overeducated and liked to party. She was Swedish/German, born in America but a culture vulture of the first water. We had everybody over to the house, and we lived in a very multi-cultural community, San Pedro, CA. But there were a lot of Hawaiian entertainers and musicians, it was sort of fun in retrospect. But a little more chaotic than I preferred as a child.  

But for most the world, our impression of the ’50s was that everyone was uptight about sex: no one had it; if they did they felt guilty about it…

That was not how I was raised. I always thought it was weird at my house. I escaped and moved to Laurel Canyon in Hollywood when I was seventeen. My friend had a tiny house there and she was in a band called the Sunshine Company and I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag and then another friend from high school moved in and he was sleeping in the living room on the couch, painting in the garage. We lived across the street from John Mayall and down the street from The Iron Butterfly and there was so much music. I was working as a fortune teller at an Armenian restaurant until two in the morning. I was the only person with a car, so that was kind of my contribution to the household.  

Were you a good fortune teller?

You take on a lot of responsibility when you’re reading somebody’s fortune. A lot of things were apparent to me about people that I would just tell them. And then, looking at the cards would either reinforce what I suspected or not. So, it’s a combination of being intuitive and also having studied this system of reading.   

A lot of people were exploring alternate forms of spirituality. And I think the fact that your plays explored both is partly what resonated with people. And I guess another factor we could talk about is being a woman—not that you ever wave a flag of feminism—but when you look at Etta Jenks, all these things are kind of mixed up in her journey.

My grandmother was very much a kind of person who acquired power through marriage. She encouraged my mother and I to do that. But I thought, “I don’t want to marry a rich man; I want to be a rich man. I want to have my own money; I want to do my own thing.” I thought the best thing I could do is to try and live the life I imagined I could live. 

You also were writing, though, at a time when there weren’t really that many women writers.

I guess that’s true.

And did you think of yourself as a woman writer?

I remember Julia Miles [founder of The Women’s Project], the first time she saw me, she said I could stay in her apartment so I went to her apartment on Central Park West, a very beautiful apartment. She opens the door and looks at me and said, “What are you?” And I said, “What? What?” And she said, “What are you?” And I said “Uh…I’m…Oh! I’m Hawaiian. I’m Hawaiian and Swedish, German, Danish, French, Thai...” She goes, “You’re Hawaiian? Do you have a Hawaiian name?” And I said, “Yes…Huapala.” And she said, “You need to use your name. You need to use that name.” And so we went in the house and had a discussion about why I don’t want to use that name and why it’s important not to use that name, and why it’s important not to necessarily hook your writing career to your nationality so that you can get produced.

You know, when you Google you, like the sixth or seventh entry is some anthology or article about Asian-American playwrights. And there you were and I went, I’ve never ever thought of you that way, but somebody somewhere did.

Maybe, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Because now I’m a thousand years old; the thing I wanted to accomplish by not using that name has been accomplished. I got my jobs for myself. I think!  

Still, most people agree that you’ve got to have diversity, but you’re not self-identified that way. And yet, you are diversity!

I am diversity incarnate.  

But did you ever feel like it was harder to get produced because you’re a woman?  

I don’t think it’s a good idea to dwell on stuff like that, I can feel the energy leaving my body when I go there.  

The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters is a sprawling, theatrical play, stylistically diverse. Does its form come out of your subconscious or is it linked to the themes you think?

I think that striking the balance between the naturalism and the theatricality is a line you have to walk in this play because there are some tender areas that need to be excavated carefully and presented in a careful way so that you don’t lose the heart of the play. 

What areas are you talking about?

The parts that have to do with falling in love and seeking that realm of happiness, the connection with true love—I think those are naturalistic components; I think those are things that everybody identifies with. 

But you also wrote the interludes with St. Martyrbride, an imaginary saint.  That’s the other side of the coin.

There’s also the idea—Bill Cain actually brought this idea forward to me—the idea of creating your own mythology. That if the mythology of your religious life doesn’t connect for you then you create your own mythology. And it either comes about by some kind of dream, like in this one she dreams the saint into existence, and it’s not a real saint in the real world, but in her world it does exist and she creates this mythology and uses it until her faith sustains her and she lets it go. And just like any believer in God or any rational act even, at some point you step out in faith that the next piece of the puzzle will appear or the solution to the problem, whatever it might be. I mean, that’s essentially to me how prayer works. And then we’re in the area of metaphysics, right? We’re in the area of belief.

Someone brought up in a talkback that you seem to ride a line in your characterizations between satire and empathy.

I don’t “make up” my characters, however they start talking and whatever they start talking about is what the play is about. It’s not unlike automatic writing or drawing in a way. And I have a lot of respect for who they eventually turn out to be regardless of the fact that they are creations of the imagination. I don’t think they’d show up as regularly and as forcefully as they do if I were to mock them or make fun of them. But there’s a way in which I allow them to be full of fun and let their eccentricity abide.

Well, in Shakespeare, the lower class characters, the rustics and commoners, were usually there for comic relief. It wasn’t until Schiller that a bourgeois character, the Miller’s wife, could be the subject of a legitimate drama [Love and Intrigue]. And Gorky took it even further in The Lower Depths. In America, there’s The Iceman Cometh. Actually, Hickey was a wife murderer too.  Your work has a lot of lower class characters too, but your focus is neither comedic nor sociological. I asked you about it in the Moe’s Lucky Seven interview, when we talked about The Geography of Luck: “It seems like you have a fascination with social outcasts and pariahs,” and you answered, “I write about people who make mistakes for the same reason that Jesus saves sinners and not nice people.”

God, I was sort of smart then, that’s a good answer.  

“Nice people don’t need saving, especially when they make the good choices and they don’t get in any trouble. But ninety percent of the world is in the shit stew every day of their life. I write about people who get in trouble. That’s who interests me.” And who’s more in trouble than a murderer?  And I think it’s telling that you answer the question in this moral framework. In the Bible, the endgame of sin and guilt is redemption. And the need for redemption certainly features prominently in your plays as well.

Yes, but people don’t always know it. In this play the man has actually made peace with what he’s done. This horrible monstrous act. It was a mistake. He’s made peace with the fact that he’s done this and he’s just living. He’s living day to day. But he can’t keep a job; he gets in stupid fights; he drinks too much; he medicates when he can; he loses consciousness with sex, and he’s in the process of trying to continuously forget every day until he meets someone who wakes him up, who talks to him. And the thing that is dormant in him, which is his human being, his native, true, Godly or good self, the innocent self that he is, comes forward and brings the rest of him with it. And brings all of this stuff up to consciousness. And as the play progresses he sees more and more that he is a danger, not only to himself, but to other people and to the people he loves.

And what does Calvin wake up in Aubrey?

He wakes up her faith, the faith that has to exist without the ritualization of it. I mean, you can pray but sometimes the answer is No or Not Yet. Or sometimes things happen right away. I don’t know if you’ve ever prayed about something. But sometimes you pray and you don’t notice that things are getting better and you’re not perceiving it because the thing that you’re interested in changing, is not the answer you’re seeking. The result Aubrey desires, the thing she wants to have happen, is working itself out. But she can’t see it because it’s traveling; it’s like a river traveling underground. At some point that river will pop up to the surface and become a pond, or go to the sea or something, but in the meantime she doesn’t think anything is happening, so she surrenders. You could call it giving up, but she’s surrendering. Surrendering to fate or in her case, the will of God.

At several of the talkbacks people have remarked on the political riffs that frequently come up in the play. I loved Lisa Peterson’s answer at one of them: she said that there’s something carnival-ish in the style of the play, a feeling that anything could happen. Was that coming out of something you and she had talked about?

No, she just made that up on the spot.

Well, I do think it’s pretty accurate. We talked about it a little bit before in terms of the St. Martyrbride interludes. But also in terms of the hyper-theatricality of some of the sections. Particularly the Mother scenes. And the scenes with Jack and Big- titted Betty. The play isn’t afraid of extremity. I like to think of it as a kind of contemporary Morality Play. In the historical Morality Plays, they would depict the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, and the bigger the better. You also didn’t inhibit yourself in terms of the number of characters. Each one distinct from each other. You’re probably savvy enough about the theater to realize, “Oh, if I write Bartholomew Fair with nineteen characters—that’s a Jonson play—no one is ever going to do this.” So you broke it down so that six actors could do it. Did you think about how the types fit together when you made the character breakdown for it?

No. When I was working on this play I had enough actor friends to be able to cast everybody. But it’s not practical. We are lucky to have this talented cast. They work hard, they can play comedy and they’re really smart.

I also think the vividness of their choices lends to the theatricality of the play. The other thing I think that leads us away from naturalism is the stage direction, “Animals both real and imagined appear from the edge of the forest and stand watching.”

I don’t write naturalistic plays so those are important directions. The animals especially have to be in this play. In my crude way I’m suggesting that we have to integrate our animal nature with our intellect. That we’re trying to undo something that happened years ago when the church split us into two parts. They disintegrated us to save our soul. One of the themes of this play is that we need to put ourselves back together so we can be holy all the way through. This part isn’t just holy and that part isn’t just evil. I think we’re all just one big God piece walking around and that everyone is already forgiven. Forgiven and free and well loved.