November 23, 2017

Of Mice and Cannibals – An Interview with Playwright Schaeffer Nelson

Playwright Schaeffer Nelson - Photo Courtesy of EST/LA

Author Schaeffer Nelson penned MICE, currently being presented at the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA. If you want to get creeped out for another few weeks – especially around Halloween – it’s the place to be. Touted by the Los Angeles Times as a young playwright who is “an intriguing new voice…who should be heard,” Schaeffer Nelson has some interesting – and sometimes unsettling – words to add about his creative muse.

WHAT IS MICE ABOUT, AND WHY IS IT SO SUSPENSEFUL?

NELSON: The story follows Ayushi and Grace, who have just met in the basement where they are being held captive. Both are pastor’s wives from the Midwest, and they have been kidnapped by a serial cannibal. But today, food isn’t the only thing on his mind. If Ayushi and Grace are to survive, they must win a series of mind games with their captor – a man with a peculiar and frightening dogma all his own.

Image for MICE – Courtesy of Schaeffer Nelson

YOU TIED THE SUSPENSE AND HORROR IN MICE TO THEOLOGY THROUGH THESE TWO STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS. WHO WERE YOUR INFLUENCES FOR THESE WOMEN?

NELSON: I was raised by women in the ministry – women who were pastor’s wives or pastors themselves. I think women in ministry are often asked to shoulder the psychological burdens of a large community. There’s this thing that happens where congregants sometimes physically grab pastor’s wives by the arm and pull them aside – insisting that the pastor’s wife function as a kind of confessor. Being regarded like that, like some sort of keeper of everyone’s secrets, often without being asked permission, must wear down a person. I think that the women in ministry who raised me had honed a very muscular emotional intelligence for navigating those kind of uninvited obligations.

Heather Robinson and Sharmila Devar in MICE – Photo by Youthana Yuos

WHEN DID YOUR LOVE FOR THE DARK AND DANGEROUS FIRST EMERGE? CAN YOU REMEMBER WHY YOU WERE INITIALLY DRAWN TO IT?

NELSON: I am one of those people that startles easily., and I have a pretty morbid fear of death. Some days, I won’t even take the freeway – like before driving to the opening night of MICE. I didn’t take any road that had a speed limit over 40. I was too afraid of dying in a car wreck before I got to the theater. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m just hyper aware of how dangerous the world is. And how soft my own skin is – how easily it can be torn – and how little blood I actually have inside me to keep me running. I think that heightened sense of my own bodily vulnerability makes horror, especially body horror, weirdly attractive to me.

Sharmila Devar – Photo by Youthana Yuos

WHAT ARE AUDIENCES TELLING YOU ABOUT WHAT THEY EXPERIENCE WHILE WATCHING THE PLAY?

NELSON: I hear a lot of audience members saying the play surprised them. The plot of MICE is unusual and curvy. People seem to like not being able to anticipate what’s going to hit them – that it was a sort of rare experience. And they laugh with discomfort. That makes me happy.

WHAT’S YOUR INSPIRATION FOR HORROR STORIES?

NELSON: I love horror theater. Some of my favorites are “The Pillowman,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and “The Woman in Black.” Creep LA does excellent theatrical horror. The Bible is the source of a lot of Western demonology. You didn’t get “The Exorcist” or “The Conjuring” or even John Carpenter’s “Halloween” without the Bible. The Bible stories themselves often wander into horror. In the Book of Judges, a woman named Jael invites an enemy soldier into her tent. She mellows him out with hospitality and gets him to fall asleep. Then she picks up a tent peg and a hammer and nails his head into the ground. Sunday school tends to pass over that one. And once Jesus arrives on the scene and starts casting demons out of people, you get a really disturbing peek into this supernatural, unseen ecosystem. These demonic predators stalk humans, and Jesus and his followers are the only ones who can get rid of them. Fast forward two millennia, and we’re all lined up to see “The Exorcist.” The Biblical horror narrative stuck.

MICE runs through November 5, 2017, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays. Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA is located in the Atwater Village Theatre Complex, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets are $20 (seniors $17 and students $15). For information and reservations, call 818-839-1197 or go online.

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