A Closer Look: On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or Owed
For Tim J. Lord, the journey of writing On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or Owed has already had nearly as many twists and turns as the journey of Mellie herself, the play's hero. (And that's saying something considering that Mellie, at one point, winds up somewhere called "The Panther's Den"). Tim's radical adaptation of the Oedipus myth reimagines the central character as a young woman with a serious disability, who despite being an outcast in her home of Thebes, Illinois, is called upon to help save the town from a mysterious curse.
To give you a closer look at his process, Tim got together with dramaturg and Lark staffer Krista Williams to talk about what exactly was going on in his head when he crammed a Greek tragedy into a Shakespearean structure, and came out the other side with this epic new play. Check out their conversation below, then RSVP to attend The Lark's BareBones production of On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or Owed, running at The Lark, May 10-19!
TIM J. LORD: I was definitely thinking early on “I’m gonna do it in five acts,” and I wasn’t thinking I was going to write a play that was this many pages. I thought “I’m gonna do it in five acts, but it’s gonna be five short acts!” I literally thought I was going to write a play, with five actors, that was going to be like, a hundred pages long.
KRISTA WILLIAMS: And did those five actors include Kree? Casta?
TIM: I knew it was gonna be Mellie, Aga, Casta, Kree, and Zebulon. Those were the original five. And I was originally thinking Mellie would be the one constant character, and the other four actors would create the whole world that wasn’t Mellie. But as I kind of just threw myself into the river and let it take me where it would, I started to find I was interested in actually letting each of these characters be their own person. So the first iteration was five, then I thought I’d need those five plus one chorus person, then I thought, oh well that’s not enough, so I kept adding. In the most recent one I discovered there was this Tare/Monster/River track, and that voice really needed to be pulled out as well.
KRISTA: I remember during Winter Writers’ Retreat when you were leading up to the Monster, you kept saying, “I’m not sure if we’ll ever meet her,” and the whole room rose up, and was like, “if you don’t give us this monster, we’re gonna stage a coup.”
TIM: You know, we never actually get to see the Sphinx in the original story, but she is present. Well, actually there is a Seneca version where she is more of a thing. But the more I thought about that idea, realizing that actually at this point Mellie is in the underworld, where she has to come to some reckoning, it is the moment where Mellie is able to look into a mirror and see herself reflected in a way she hasn’t been able to before. Like this, this is someone who is the ultimate outsider, who has taken that and turned it into, “I am powerful because of that. Because of my outsider status.” And so, it became really important for that to happen.
KRISTA: In terms of the Midwestern landscape of it. You write about the Midwest a lot, and you write about communities and their relationship to landscapes. And here we have a blighted, cursed landscape. How did the land influence it and when did the land come into the process?
TIM: It’s usually the beginning of the process for me. There’s a playwright friend of mine who says, as a joke, he says, “You know how to write a Tim J. Lord play, don’t you? Grab a map of the U.S. close your eyes and go like this.” [whirls his finger around in the air] “And whenever your finger lands that’s where your play is.” Its, uh, it’s a good joke. And it’s not all that inaccurate.
KRISTA: But you also say it’s where the south and the north and the east and west meet, it’s on the banks of the river. You are very precise about the location of this. It could have been a locationless play and you locate it very intentionally. What is the intention behind that?
TIM: It was one of those early connections that I drew from The Bacchae, talking about Greece as the center of all these different crossroads. I grew up in Missouri, and especially since I left I find myself trying to represent this weird middle point of the country. People from the North tell me that Missouri’s the south, people from the South think that Missouri’s in the North. East Coast, West Coast, may as well not even exist. So, there’s two big metaphors that other people have generated that drive me on this one. One is Mark Twain, who in Life on the Mississippi talks about the Mississippi River as being this main, like the river, of the United States, with the Ohio and the Missouri being these arms that reach out and embrace most of the country. It’s like that whole area really is, in a way, the heart of the country. I was just back there last week actually, and all the rivers are flooded, post Pete. I hadn’t seen the Mississippi like that in ages. Where it’s just, it becomes this huge thing. It looked more like a Great Lake or something. It’s really hard to describe if you haven’t actually been there. And you feel it. You feel just like you’re surrounded by all this power that you have no control over.
And then I’m also drawn to this idea of a world at war with itself. There was a book I read called Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, and the subtitle basically describes him as America’s first terrorist. And what the author talked about in this book, that has really become part of what I do, why I care about telling these stories in the Midwest, is he talks about Missouri as being a state at war with itself. The northern part of the state was generally anti-slavery, pro-union. The southern part of the state was pro-slavery and pro-confederacy. And then there was this whole third class that was like, well, we like slavery, but we also like being in the union. So there was almost a mini civil war within the state itself. And when I read that a few years ago I was like, this explains all the various contradictions that I’ve never been able to give voice to. It finally explained why I can both love Missouri and absolutely hate it at the same time. And I feel like that tension remains in a lot of very subtle ways throughout that whole part of the country. And that’s why I continue to, you know, there’s just so much to unpack. I keep coming back to it.
KRISTA: So about Mellie. The line that I couldn’t stop thinking about was when Mellie says, “I don’t want to be a hero, as far as I can tell the only thing that heroes are good for is getting themselves killed.” And then you take her on what is, structurally, this amazing hero’s journey. And so she does become this thing that she is resisting. But, you don’t give Mellie much help.
TIM: I know, I know.
KRISTA: She does a lot of this on her own.
TIM: Yes. It’s true.
KRISTA: And you set her up as being uniquely equipped to do that because she’s been shunned by her community, and so she hasn’t learned any dependence.
TIM: She has been pushed to the fringes, and so what kind of perspective does that give her on these stories that are just being told and accepted? Everyone else is sort of being told, these are the stories to listen to and this is the way you should live your life. And she, because she has that outsider’s position, she’s spent her entire life having to question whether or not those are the right stories that she should be listening to and she should be following.
The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot too, because there is this question of Disability at the center of the story, and what does it mean to be Disabled, and what does it mean to not, it’s a thing that, for a lot of my life, I didn’t think about. Because, I was born with this and I’ve had to live my entire life with this particular hand but, I had a family that was very supportive and never made me feel different for it. But, there’s also this idea of, growing up, feeling like there was some sort of difference between me and someone who was more seriously disabled, whatever that might mean, and what is my place in that? I didn’t have a conversation with myself until I met Gregg [Mozgala, Artistic Director of The Apothetae], and was part of the original Apothetae Convening here, and found people saying, “No, you’re part of us, come talk to us. You’re a writer, you can tell these stories. Share this with us.” And so it’s this thing of, these power structures that exist in the world can actually very unconsciously speak to me and say, “Yea, you’re different from these other people.” And, I’m thinking of all the times someone told me I couldn’t do something or told me, “oh it must be so hard for you, trying to work with your left hand being the way it is,” and how that would piss me off. And then to realize that in turn, at times in my life, I’ve done that to other people, because I thought that they were, you know, worse off than I was. And you realize, wow, the way that these systems of power are ingrained in all of us in different ways. Mellie has been my attempt to kind of actually wrestle with that directly.
KRISTA: I think it’s really beautiful that you described her as the only one who is questioning the story, because, I think what’s so powerful about this play, in the absence of Ode, is that he really is absent. It’s not just that we don’t see him. It’s not that he’s doing shit offstage and we’re just not privy to it. He’s not there! He’s not there and the power he has is entirely in the stories that people tell about him. And the stories that he planted to be told about him create his entire power. I am so drawn to how real that feels. That he planted the seeds for that story, and he can check out and be confident that that will still control this entire community. And I think that’s a really terrifying and true assessment of how power holds power.
TIM: Yea, that’s the other part of this play. Writing it in this particular political moment, the way that it’s seeped in, in ways I wasn’t consciously trying to do.
KRISTA: And where are you seeing that more? Because I can feel it. I can feel it running under the surface of the play but it’s such a masterful play that it’s not explicit, but I feel like you are really interrogating what happens to us when we just accept a narrative that comes from a position of power.
TIM: One thing I’ve been working on in the play is making sure Aga is more engaged. They [Mellie and Aga] actually end up going on these kind of parallel journeys, but down completely different rabbit holes. Mellie is going off and meeting these people from outside of her experience who are opening up her idea of how things can be. And Aga ends up, because she’s on this parallel journey with Kree, as Aga starts to question, she’s actually being drawn further in. One journey is opening up into the world and the other is digging down deeper into things that you already believe.
KRISTA: And also just the impulse to defend one’s territory. Whether it’s a narrative territory or a physical territory. You describe Kree as the defender of Thebes, and what she goes through in this play is pretty intense.
TIM: Talk about a fun character to write. We as an audience might judge her as being a bad person, but she absolutely believes that she’s the only one who can fix it. And that kind of single mindedness is what drives her, and she will destroy anyone, even her own family, to get what she thinks Thebes needs.
KRISTA: What I think it extraordinary about her is that it feels like she gains momentum as the play goes on, and as things get worse and worse for her, and as her story gets more and more dangerous, she just keeps growing!
TIM: The chaos and the fear and the anger around her—
KRISTA: She feeds off it.
TIM: It’s her moment to actually get what she’s always wanted, which I think is to be the person in charge.
KRISTA: She’s terrifying, Tim. She terrifies me.
TIM: That’s good! She should. I think if I’m doing it right you should totally be seduced by her, and then by the end of the play you’re like, “God what am I doing? I shouldn’t do that.”
KRISTA: Final chapter in the Tim Lord inversion of all expectations. The Chorus. And the way choruses traditionally operated in Greek plays versus the way you use them. I know that you’ve gone through multiple iterations of what the chorus looks like—
TIM: And there’s another one coming.
KRISTA: Yea! So, what are your feelings about the chorus? And how have they changed and grown?
TIM: So, there’s this fascinating idea about how in the original Greek version of the chorus, the chorus was the voice of the people. And the creation of classical Greek theater actually helped create these original democracies, because it gave power and voice to the people. And I feel like one of the things that is the hardest part, when you try to do a Greek play in a contemporary setting, is, what do you do with that chorus? Because so much of their text is just repeating something that you just saw onstage, or something that you’re about to see—
KRISTA: Or a warning.
TIM: Exactly. So, how do you translate that idea of this voice of the people to a setting that is more appealing and more engaging for a contemporary audience? And, for me, that becomes moments of creating the world of the play in a way that contributes to the story and what’s going on with the characters. So, we just had the conversation about accessibility, and we were talking about accessibility services for the public presentations of this, and one of the things we talked about was, do we read stage directions, do we not? And Gregg sort of challenged me to think, the idea of accessibility, how is that a part of the art as opposed to something we just sort of tack onto it at the end. And what if the chorus shares the stage directions, what if some of these stage directions are just now choral parts. And so if you’ve read even the beginning of it you know there’s a whole prologue thing that is just stage direction, it was at that moment. It’s now almost completely spoken. And the same thing will happen for the epilogue.
KRISTA: What I love about that so much is that, with stage directions, if you have a separate stage directions reader and if you’re reading stage directions, you’re getting some kind of objective view of the world and landscape. And with the chorus speaking them, you’re giving them agency in creating that landscape, and I feel like they are so complicit in everything that goes down in this play, that that’s such a power move.
TIM: And I think that’s why I’m actually going this direction now. It’s almost as if the chorus is sort of telling the story after it’s happened and sort of accepting their culpability for what happened.
KRISTA: That’s amazing.
TIM: So it’s an exciting new idea, that’s brand new, that I have not yet—
KRISTA: It’s a good idea.
TIM: —heard out loud. It’s getting good feedback so far. So yea, if you’re a writer and you haven’t written a chorus, write a chorus.
On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or Owed runs May 10-19 at The Lark. All tickets are FREE! Reservations are required. Reserve your spot today!
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.