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Behind the Scenes: Katie May Talks Death and Yetis

Playwrights’ Corner

Clarence Coo interviews his fellow Playwrights' Week writer, Katie May, about her play, ABOMINABLE or THE MISAPPROPRIATION OF BEVERLY ONION BY FORCES BEYOND HER CONTROL.

Clarence Coo
Clarence: My favorite part of encountering a play with such a self-assured, singular voice written by someone I don’t know (yet) is the pleasure of getting to know the personality of the person who wrote it. Through your script, I already have a sense of your off-beat wit, your deep compassion for outsiders, and your unflagging love of Star Wars and cryptozoology. But I was most struck by the fascinating and sometimes revolting details of mortuary science. Are the ins and outs of a funeral director’s job something with which you’ve had a long-time familiarity? Or did you have to do special research for this play? And, if you did do research, how did you do it?

May, Katie.jpg
I knew nothing about mortuary science, but I love to research so I tend to write plays about things that I want to know more about. I usually begin a play with a HUGE order of books from Amazon that live on my desk in a pile for months until I finally sit down and start plowing through them.  When I decided that my main character was mortician’s assistant I ordered pile of books on the history and evolution of burial rights in the US, and bunch of memoirs written by people in the mortuary trade.

By far the two that influenced me the most were Stiff, by Mary Roach, and The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, by Thomas Lynch.  Both are excellent reads by extremely talented writers, and I owe them a huge debt as this play wouldn’t exist without their insights. 

In Stiff, Roach explores all the many thing that can be done to human bodies after death, from cremation to the many uses of bodies donated to science.  She had an amazing chapter on modern mortuary practices that I used to construct what Beverly does in Hortaman’s funeral home.  Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking, is a professional poet as well as a practicing mortician, a family trade he learned from his father. He wrote beautifully about the importance of the work, and gave me fantastic glimpses into the lives of morticians. For example, they really do have regional conferences. Lynch lives in Michigan and his region really does hold an annual mid-winter morticians conference (though theirs is located somewhere in the tropics to escape Michigan winters, rather than in the Upper Peninsula where I sent poor Beverly). Other things, like the references to the “Ishikinobo Tribe,” are entirely made up.

I currently have a whole level on my bookshelf dedicated to this play, where books about death, dying, and burials share space with books on Nepalese yeti mythology and cryptozoology.  You know the recommendation list that Amazon generates as a result of your purchasing history? Mine has never been the same.

C: The main title of your play, Abominable, alludes to the popular name  given to the Yeti — “the Abominable Snowman.”  As a young child (who was also into cryptozoology) I never understood why this adjective was used to describe the creature.  He was big and hairy, sure, but abominable? I asked around what abominable meant and I think the answer I received was something like “grosser than gross.” (Again, I was a kid at the time). It’s such a strange word – the only other association I have of it is of Leviticus, in the list of religious prohibitions Moses gives to the Israelites. Why did you choose this word for your title and what do you think is considered “abominable” in our modern society?

K: Ok, so quick history lesson, I also learned in my research that the term “Abominable Snowman” came about after a British expedition to the Himalayas in 1921. They ran across some tracks that their Sherpa guides called “metoh-kangmi.”  "Metoh" translates as "man-bear,” and "Kang-mi" translates as "snowman".  Abominable happened when Henry Newman, residing in Calcutta, interviewed some of expedition’s porters after their return to India. He mistranslated “metoh” as filthy, and then took some artistic license by changing it to abominable. The story was printed and the name stuck.

I chose the name before I learned any of that. It’s a powerful word, and I think it evokes how the The Snowman’s presence in the play sort of hangs over everything as a silent witness to Beverly’s journey. I also originally set out to write a much darker play then I think I ultimately came up with.  I very much wanted to explore the origins of loneliness, and what dark parts of ourselves and our pasts (if any) lead to a state of isolation.  Deep and abiding loneliness can be an abominable thing to experience, and I think human beings are capable of doing abominable things to each other both to combat loneliness and to inflict it on others, sometimes without even meaning too.

I also liked that humanoid monsters, Frankenstein's monster for example, are often referred to as abominations, and I wanted to play with that idea of going against the “natural” order of things.

C: I loved how so much of the play explores the tensions between opposite binaries, binaries I often think about—Fate and Luck; Birth and Death; Work and Vacation. Is the use of opposites something you consciously do when putting a play together? Do you know what they are from the beginning or do they slowly reveal themselves to you?

K: For this play it was an extremely conscious choice.

When I was commissioned by San Francisco PlayGround to write Abominable, I knew the general story line and had already established the characters of Luck and Fate, but I was having a very difficult time finding my way in to the story. I just couldn’t get the characters talking to each other.  (This is actually part of the reason I did so much of the aforementioned research. It was mainly an excuse not to write, as research usually is. For me anyway).

Luckily for me, PlayGround has a series called Monday Night PlayGround, where a pool of 36 writers are given a monthly topic, four days to write a ten minute play, and the six “best” are chosen for monthly staged readings. At the time, PlayGround had a relationship with the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at UC Berkley.  Once a year the playwrights had the opportunity to attend lectures given by mathematicians in residence at MSRI and receive a topic based on the theme of the night. I have an undergraduate degree in biology and I get REALLY excited about incorporating math and science into plays, so I LOVED Math Night.  

Anyway, while struggling to write Abominable, I attended Math Night and got to experience three fantastic talks on different forms of mathematical symmetry.  We learned how different shapes can actually have equal symmetries (which mean they are “dual” to each other) and about the infinite symmetry of spheres.  It was complicated. And fascinating.

I went home that night thinking about Fate and Luck as “dual to each other,” equal and balanced in their power. About how Beverly’s loneliness was essentially an infinitely symmetrical impenetrable sphere. And how could that sphere be disrupted? 

The lightbulb FINALLY went on, and I was able to write the first scene. The rest fell into place from there, and the idea of symmetry and disrupting symmetry continued to influence everything from the structure of the play to how I envision Beverly and The Snowman on stage together. 

Thank goodness for Math Night, or I’d still be researching.