A Closer Look: Monument (4 Sisters)
Amy is underwater, Connie is defusing yet another bomb, Mac left her job, and Lina is missing. In Sam Chanse's new play Monument, or 4 Sisters (A Sloth Play), three sisters on respective journeys navigate their unique senses of loss, hoping that maybe it will all be okay if only their fourth sister can be found.
As The Lark prepares for our public readings of the play on June 18th and 19th, we're giving you a closer look at what went into telling this story. Sam talked with fellow playwright Leah Nanako Winkler about writing from a multiracial perspective, eyelashes on female cartoon characters, and of course, sloths. Check out what they had to say below, and join us at the reading next week!
LEAH NANAKO WINKLER: So, tell me about your play- sloths and all.
SAM CHANSE: It's a play about four sisters, and four sloths, and the respective journeys they go on in their respective worlds. The sisters are each going through different kinds of loss – one is a marine biologist who studies coral reefs and mass bleaching events, one is a tv writer navigating a sense of powerlessness as the only woman and poc in the room, one is going through a fall in status and sense of exile after leaving a beloved job under uncertain circumstances --- and they’re all wrestling with the absence of another sister, who seems to have disappeared into a toxic relationship, and wanting to somehow save her. And the (anthropomorphic, cartoon) sloths are going on a quest – a search for the true meaning of something. All of it is a search for understanding and meaning, and what to do in the face of unfathomable loss.
In a way the play is a response to being inside this ongoing, accelerating catastrophe – finding ourselves in the middle of it. I was thinking about this question of what do we value and consider worthy of memorializing – and what are we inadvertently memorializing, or failing to memorialize – and what drives our yearning for this anyway, to remember and be remembered -- how is it complicated, what does it do to us, and what does it tell us about who we are/have been/could be. And somehow that led to this play.
LNW: I remember at Winter Writers' Retreat, being struck by the poetic language in the sister's monologues but also finding it extremely grounded and relatable. I felt like you unraveled each woman's journey honestly and fluidly through their inner monologues which consequently moved the action forward as well, which made me wonder what your writing process was like. On the page it feels so fluid, like I'm reading something deeply intimate and true. Do you write freely then mold - or do you plan things a head of time? Specifically with Monument, what was your process like?
SC: For this play, I wrote freely, and then molded, but I wrote freely under time & fear constraints. Before I’d written anything, I had invited this group of incredible actors and theater makers into New Dramatists to explore the play for a few days, and the first frenzy of writing was in large part motivated by the fear of showing up empty-handed and wasting the time of these amazing artists. Because of the compressed nature of that initial process, there wasn't much time to do molding, but the bulk of the thematic and story and structural elements were there with that first messy draft.
And I so much loved our winter writers retreat – it felt really lucky to be in that room with you (and with HOT ASIAN DOCTOR HUSBAND. which I fucking love.), and with everyone’s plays and pages. It was like being in a writerly wonderland.
LNW: What inspired you to incorporate a children's television show about sloths into your play?
SC: I’m not sure exactly how I got there, honestly. The storytelling possibilities of animated shows feel exciting to me, since you’re not dealing with the same kinds of limitations, reality-wise, so maybe that was part of the inspiration – just being able to write with a different set of rules. And last year my then one-year-old daughter was in the hospital for a few days, and we had to return for follow-up visits throughout the summer and fall, and there was this show Paw Patrol and other animated kids shows that they’d have up on the TVs, and I was exposed to more hours of Paw Patrol storytelling than I would have chosen to be exposed to otherwise. And I did notice and feel annoyed by the eye lashes on the (very few) female dogs, which just felt like: why.
And for sloths, hrm. A play I wrote a few years ago features (in a way; not as a character) an extinct ground sloth. Maybe I never got it out of my system. It just keeps coming back to sloths. I’m in Iowa right now for a workshop, and everyone was telling me about the giant sloth at the Natural History Museum here. Sloths are everywhere.
LNW: Selfishly, I love how you write characters who are specifically biracial, hapa (whatever term you like to use) just because I feel seen. Even reading it out loud during retreat was validating, even though personally, I"m nothing like the characters aside from my genetic makeup. It's so rare that you always clock it when it's in a play- even if it's not necessary an identity play. Can you talk a little more about why you write these characters, if it's pointed- or is it just something that comes naturally?
SC: Yeah I feel the same way about how you write characters -- it feels validating, and it feels like a relief, just being seen. I've always written the mixed/hapa/multiracial (I use many terms) characters naturally, since being mixed is an integral part of my perspective moving through the world and trying to figure shit out. But it's been many years I've been writing hapa/mixed/multiracial folks into my plays, and there's also a deliberate element of writing these characters, alongside the naturalness of it -- I know it's something I do, and I know it's important that I do it.
LNW: There are a lot of scientific elements in Monument. I legit learned a lot about sloths and corals - can you talk to me about your interest in science? I feel like that's so rare in a playwright, especially when projects are not Sloan commissions.
SC: Reading sciencey articles (written for the layperson) is how I procrastinate -- it just always seems like a fun read. I mean okay obviously that’s not true, some seem like horrible, awful, upsetting reads. But articles that are about how something works (the superpowers of a female fruitfly!), or about the complicated nature of something (the superpowers of a male versus a female fruitfly? I'm just making shit up. but fruitflies are apparently foundational in scientific research), always seems like a fun read. I've long avoided articles about dying coral reefs, for instance, because I feel like I can't handle that (I obviously forced myself to read them when I was writing this play). But I do procrastinate a lot by reading about fun sciencey stuffs, and then what sometimes happens is that I stumble on some unsettling question or circumstance that intersects so clearly with something on a very everyday human level, and on a profoundly human level...and it's that intersection of science with something we are grappling with as humans that gets me.
I was also around science in more explicit ways growing up -- my mom is a microbiologist, and I remember her bringing me to her office at her lab when I was a little kid, and giving me these colorful plastic models of molecules or something to play with. And she’d also sneak lab equipment out for me to play with at home -- pipettes and test tubes and petri dishes.
LNW: I love how you spell out the unconscious (or maybe conscious) biases of children's tv shows through Constance's view on the show she works on. It's something I never thought about before. What inspired you to explore this?
SC: It's something I always notice, and it's always sorta maddened and enraged and saddened me. My plays aren’t autobiographical, but there are always some elements of me in there, and every so often something is lifted from a particular incident. The moment where Connie goes off about Ratatouille and how all the rats are male is one of those times -- I remember watching Ratatouille when it first came out, and I remember responding pretty much exactly as Constance responds (with an ex who responded pretty much exactly as the ex responds). That example is just about gender, or the weird absence of a gender when there’s this presumed default gender and everything else is different, but of course those subtle biases and assumptions on every level are everywhere, and are so entrenched. And the subtlety and everywhere entrenched nature of it is what makes it feel especially aggressive.
Monument, or 4 Sisters (A Sloth Play) by Sam Chanse, will receive a public reading at The Lark, directed by Giovanna Sardelli on June 18th and 19th. Get Tickets!