Every Creature’s Shadow is a haunting yet darkly funny play about a man on Death Row getting visited by dancing underworld fairies that give him that blasted feeling that no one on Death Row wants or needs- hope. It’s a gripping read, full of grit and poetry as we watch the character of Royal grapple with a prison chaplain with an unholy secret in his past. Both men struggle with pride, guilt, hope and faith as the priest tries to win Royal’s soul before his imminent execution. But those dang fairies keep getting in the way- upping the stakes for both men. It’s a daring, raw, and ultimately heartbreaking play. Hope truly is what keeps us alive and breaks us down.
Heather Jones interview with Kathleen Dennehy
What inspired you to write this play?
I went back to school when my kids were 6 and 7 or so, at UNCA, and the first classes I took were Seminar in Chaucer (yep) and Masterpieces of the Drama. For our final essay we could write an essay or a play. That seemed like a no brainer to me--I wrote my first play and fell in love with the process and also got great feedback from my instructor (Dr. David Hopes, if you want to give him a shout out--He guided me through my first years as a playwright). So the next semester I landed in a playwriting class. One of our prompts was: Put together two things that don't belong together.
I don’t know why it popped into my head to put fairies on death row, but that's what I did. After the class, the idea really stayed with me--the idea of putting something that represents the earth and spirit in an institutional environment--one that is meant to end in death. So when it came time to do my thesis (creative, for my BA), I decided to develop it into a full piece. I did a lot of research on death row and about fairies. I decided to add a prison chaplain in order to also get the contrast of institutional religion. That version had a newspaper reporter as well. The fairies didn't talk and the characters had different names (and there were a lot of characters!). It was called Where There is Darkness, after the St. Francis Prayer.
I decided to also stage it as a presentation of my thesis--I got lots of support from my community--the BeBe theatre in Asheville, Dr. Hopes, UNCA gave me some funding, a local director directed, and Connie Schraeder in the dance dept. let me also use it for my culminating piece for my minor in dance. So I produced it and choreographed it and made costumes, and sold tickets, and we had a full run and it was really great fun.
In graduate school at Spalding University, I revisited the play for a little while with my mentor, Sheila Callaghan--I was trying some experimental ways of developing dialogue--Mostly, I was translating poetry by Eluard without a dictionary, and taking the best mistakes and making them dialogue for the fairies.
After graduate school, this play, and it's issues about nature and institutions, violence, life, death, etc, still didn't feel fully explored, so I applied for a grant from the Asheville Regional Arts council and NC arts council to develop it further and do a script in hand production. This was 2009.
I got a great Asheville director, Stephanie Hickling Beckman to work with me, and I overhauled the entire thing. The fairy language is a mix of that Eluard mistranslation, biblical text, mostly from Revelation, and other words that relate to the story. All the character names are people who were executed in Ohio in the early 1900s, I believe (it's been awhile). And once the cast was reduced, the major conflict became between Royal and the Chaplain, so both of their back stories got expanded--the snakes came about when I was trying to come up with the chaplain's denomination and what kind of a secret he might keep.
We did the script in hand production, and I was pleased with it (there are pics if you want them--I have some pretty good ones of the painted fairies).
Since then, I send it out when I think it might be appropriate for someone--so far, no takers.
In the meantime, I forgot to tell you that I grabbed the title out of this song:
OK, so you are even more fascinating now… next question. Did you take poetic license with the laws/institution of Death Row or did you actually research what happens when a prisoner is awaiting execution?
I did a lot of research. Some death rows have websites. Or they did when I was researching. I watched movies like Dead Man Walking. I’ve got a book called, Writing for Their Lives: Death Row USA, and another, a kind of coffee table book of black and white photos called Texas Death Row. I also read Death Row Chaplain, by Byron Eshelman, and it taught me a lot. (Frank is not based on him, but I learned about what a Chaplain does—I recommend the book). After I did the research, I took poetic license. Particularly in the compressed space.
Since this play originated as a writing exercise, at what point did it become more than that? Meaning, when did it become an odyssey for you as a writer- and are you done with it? Or is anyone ever done with a piece of writing? (admittedly, a rhetorical question for the ages)
Probably when I revised it from the first iteration. After I changed all the names and cut the cast and really started learning what happens on death row. Though, you’re right; that question is hard to answer—I did other kinds of research the first time around. I read a lot about fairies at that time. And I feel done with it for now. I’ve written quite a few plays since then. But were it to be produced or go into development, I’d be open to doing more work with a dramaturg or director.
Tell me more about the contrast between nature (the fairies) and institutions (prison). Why did you choose the poetry of Eluard, and Revelations as the source language of beings of your own invention? Did you create rules for yourself when creating the fairies? Why do they dance?
This is not one question! It’s hard to explain this contrast straight out—I always feel like if I was articulate about what I think, then I wouldn’t have to write plays or other creative pieces. One image I kept in mind about the fairies is of sidewalks, and how whenever they crack, plants come up out of them. I thought a lot about how no matter how solid or dire our institutions may seem, they’re arbitrary and temporary. I like the fairies because that kind of lore has persisted in spite of changing human understanding of science and religion, and because they are easy to associate with nature—I think I remember reading that they used to come out of the ground. Eluard was a happy accident. I picked it up in an idle moment and covered up the English translation and tried to translate to see if I had any French left, and my translation created crazy images that I really liked, so I kept it up, and wrote them down, and when I decided the fairies would talk, I tried it out on them.
Revelation I chose for many reasons. Because it is all about the end or the new beginning, because it is interpreted so many ways by so many people. Because the language is intense and amazing. After I put the two together, I manipulated the language to say something (I hope) about what’s going on in the play. Rereading it (so that I can answer all these hard questions!), I really couldn’t remember what came from where.
I didn’t think in terms of rules. Then I would have to rebel against them.
Finally, the fairies dance because dance is primal, it’s beautiful, it’s organic. Even when a dance piece is about machinery or institutions, etc., it’s still the human body rendering the message, so that changes it. A human body can interpret a machine or an institution, but it (mostly—we have machines to help our bodies with all kinds of things, but that is a whole long other thing) cannot be one. Also, there is a kind of freedom in dance that contrasts with imprisonment. Even in a small space, if you dance, you will feel more free. Also, again, it reminds me of the plant coming up through the sidewalk.
Royal is a compelling character- he fully admits guilt (although the dude clearly deserved it) and rejects God’s forgiveness, especially in the form of Frank Miller, the Chaplain. Royal refuses to play along with the notion of redemption, and instead spends his last days striving to break the Chaplain’s façade of faith. Do you think this is an elemental human struggle- truth over faith or am I getting it all wrong?
I think it’s too slippery to get all wrong. I don’t think of truth and faith as mutually exclusive. When I look at my work, I see that I talk about truth and about faith over and over again. Which is weird, because I don’t talk about them in “real” life very often. I think it’s elemental for people to struggle for meaning. And when we are establishing meaning, we might call it truth, or we might call it faith. We don’t just want the existential meaning; we want to be able to express it in words that are familiar to us.
The appearance of the fairies upsets the Chaplain’s Christian faith. Are the fairies representational of pagan/earth-based deities, which seem to challenge/irritate the more institutionalized religions?
Yes. Mostly yes. But the fairies and Frank say the same words at the end. Everyone is reaching for grace, I think. For a way for this whole thing, our lives, and the ways we are hurt, and the ways we persevere, and love, and die, and all of it, a way for it all to add up to something beautiful and meaningful, whether we consider ourselves “spiritual” or not. What I like about Royal is that he’s so connected to story, and to storytelling, that magic is not far off. So I guess that’s the narcissistic part: the writer talking about writing and claiming it’s magic.
What is the elemental struggle between the two fairies? And why is the Brown Fairy the trickster? Does she torment Royal by giving him false hope? Can you expound on hope versus faith?
To me, the fairies are not struggling. Royal calls one bad and one good, because one seems to offer him what he wants, and one seems to fool him. But all along, it was his own assumptions that fooled him. The Brown fairy plays more of the trickster role because she’s from below the earth. She is the roots and the dirt, and tricksters are usually a kind of intermediary between the gods and humanity, teaching us, and I associated that with the way that roots and earth are so dark and mysterious and we might even associate them with death when really they’re the source of life. The Green Fairy is what we see. And in this play, she sees the people and she sees the Brown Fairy. She lives up here with us, in the sun, more or less, so there’s a point in the play where I think she, like us, might want things to be clearer, and maybe for nature, even hers, to be more compassionate.
Oh man. Hope versus faith. I guess in a nutshell, I would venture that hope comes out of desire and faith comes out of acceptance. So lots of folks who profess faith, are really experiencing hope.
You went back to writing after children. Brave. At the risk of sounding like a Huffington Post Parenting journalist, do you find being a mother changes/charges your writing? And where the hell do you find the time to write?
Aren’t you a mother/writer? So you must be familiar with the 15 minute increment, the exhausted night writing, and the, “the kids aren’t here” binge sessions. My kids are grown now, so that’s mostly not an issue. Now it’s that I teach college, and I’m an adjunct, so I teach up to 6 classes (composition, creative writing, and lit) a semester, both on the ground and online. And honestly, it’s harder now. Sometimes I write with my students. I’m glad for learning to binge write when I was raising kids—if I have a weekend day with no grading, or in between semesters, I write as much as I can.
What initially brought you to writing?
I wrote my first poem when I was 7. It was about my dad, and my teacher accused me of plagiarism because “7-yr olds don’t understand meter and rhyme.”. I think about quitting writing sometimes, and I have taken long breaks. But it just seems to be a thing I do. I will think, “I’m done! Other people watch TV and hang out with their friends and they don’t feel guilty every day about whether they did or didn’t write.” And then I will read or see something and I’ll think. “Oh, man I need to write about that.”
Who are writers who inspire you? Playwrights as well as other writers?
So many. Playwrights—Sheila Callaghan, Sarah Ruhl, Young Jean Lee, Caridad Svich, Will Eno, Adam Rapp, Judith Thompson (she’s Canadian, and amazing); I love Charles Mee’s History Plays, Maria Irene Fornes, I have a good friend, Aleshea Harris, a beautiful playwright—Yeah, there are so many. In fiction, I love Toni Morrison. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Haruki Murakami, Dostoevsky. In poetry I love Rilke. The Romantic Poets. I really like lyric essays. My current hero is Anne Carson.
What are you working on now?
OK, I’m going to do 2 lame things here. One is, I’m going to pretend I’m actually working on things, when actually I will mostly just be grading and watching Netflix from now to Dec. 3. The second lame thing is I’m going to copy and paste the answer from when I answered this for the Gloria Sirens blog a couple months ago, because it is basically still the same. ( I did edit it a little, based on things that have changed)
All the things! I can’t seem to have only one project going at a time. The Chairman of my department at USF-St Pete calls me genre-promiscuous. I think I’m afraid something won’t get into the world at all if I don’t at least start it. So I’ve got various projects in various conditions:
I’m working on a novel based on one of my plays, that’s based on a screenplay I wrote, that’s based on a one-act I wrote that’s based on a conversation I had about murder ballads with a musician at Lounge Ax in Chicago (I left Chicago in ‘98—Lounge Ax closed in 2000). No one can say I don’t thoroughly explore an idea. I just finished the first draft, and I’ve created a pile of index cards for further research.
I also put out a zine based on a screenplay I wrote called Kissing the Lepers. I work on it about twice a year, just before the Tampa and St. Pete zine fests. So far the issues are: Monkeys in the Kitchen, Dad and the Hunters, and Strangers in the Road.
Not based on anything old: I’m working on a mixed-genre full length work that draws its inspiration from circus. So far I’ve written a short play called, “How the Lobster Boy Disappointed Me,” which you can read here , and a hybrid essay called “This is the One for the Accordion and the Acrobat.” I’m currently developing three other pieces for this project—an essay about snakes and snake charmers, a play about an aged snake charmer, and a screenplay about saints and freaks and Gibsonton, Forida.
And Poetry. My first love.
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