The following is an interview between Drama Editors Emmy Lane Palmersheim and Brocklund Larson on their new project the serpent under’t. The play was written by Palmersheim and start Larson as Perseus and Poseidon. Watch the full interview below! You can also watch the premiere of the serpent under’t tonight at 8 p.m. CST.
EMMY LANE PALMERSHEIM: Okay, we are recording. Hello! I am Emmy Lane Palmersheim, uh, my pronouns are they/them.
BROCKLUND LARSON: And hello, I am Brocklund Larson. My pronouns are he/him/his.
ELP: And we are co drama editors on earthwords, and we are also working on a play together through the theatre department called the serpent under’t, which I wrote.
BL: Mhm. And I perform as the two characters Peuseus and Poseidon within. So.
ELP: Ee did want to say that, just as a content warming, in case any conversation leads there that the play centers around the myth of Medusa, and when Poseidon rapes her in the temple prior to her becoming the monster Medusa. So, the plays deals a lot with rape and the aftermath and effect of trauma. So we did just want to let people know that in case we get there so it doesn’t feel like it’s sprung upon you.
BL: Yes. Thank you for that, Emmy.
ELP: Thank you.
BL: How would we like to begin?
ELP: Do you have any questions for me? I have questions for you.
BL: I also brought some questions. I even titled them as ‘Questions for Emmy’. So, –
BL: How about, I’ll- I’ll ask this one first. I’ve been curious, what is the serpent under’t to you? Like, the title. I was very curious, it’s an intriguing one.
ELP: So, it is a quote from Macbeth.
ELP: In which Lady Macbeth says… I don’t wanna paraphrase, but that’s what’s going to happen. She says ‘Look like the beautiful flower but be the deadly serpent under’t.’
BL: Ahhh, okay.
ELP: Meaning to be unassuming and powerful.
BL: Gotcha, okay. Cause I was always curious, like, under’t is not necessarily a word I use a lot. So. (laughs)
ELP: Yes. (laughing) We’ve joked –
BL: That’s fun.
ELP: Albert and I, Albert Williams who is the director, that it should be titled th’ s’rp’nt under’t, just all- just really lean into it.
BL: Yeah, definitely. (laughs)
BL: I mean, there’s still time.
ELP: (laughing) There is. Uh, I have a question for you, Brocklund. I guess this is a two-part question.
ELP: What has been the most exciting and difficult parts of this process for you?
BL: Yeah. That’s a very fair question especially given like with that we said aboutthe myth of Medusa and the- the rape with Poseidon, that is, I mean, first and foremost, that’s probably the most difficult to work with is how to get into that scene.
BL: I mean, traditionally in theatre, playing villains, there’s the, there’s the mantra of don’t judge your character and everything. And it’s- that’s an extremely challenging thing to do with such a- such a villainous, kinda horrific character in the play.
BL: But, to continue that kind of concept of, like, how not necessarily to excuse the behavior of course-
BL: But how do you get into that mindset. That’s been one of the more difficult, per say, things. I wouldn’t say it’s been too difficult because everything within the cast and direction and everything has been very, like, respectfully and like well-handled that-
ELP: Well, I’m glad to hear that.
BL: It’s, it’s been easier than expected. So, that was- that’s one of the nicer things is we’re not, it’s not too, too blunt that, you know? There’s not too much of that, like, raw violence and-
BL: Horrific-ness with it, that it- it’s much easier to manage. One of the more exciting things is when- when offered this role, there were two characters that came with it. So that was always an intriguing idea of how to, you know, you physically manifest the same appearance but how do you play as two different characters-
BL: And I had never done a role like that before, so that was fun to look into, like, my actor’s toolbox of like how do I bring this character to life in a different way while still resembling the same. And really having that focus on- we’ve done a lot of focus with voice, you know? And stuff like that where there are those more subtler details.
BL: So, that’s been probably the more exciting aspect of it.
ELP: Good! I’m glad. I think that- I think in writing I was excited about having a couple of parts that double. Just cause I think that is a really exciting thing as an actor to get to do.
ELP: And I think it evokes a lot- I think it does a lot theatrically to sort of tie characters together or juxtapose characters. Oh, good! I’m glad that that was exciting and not a terrifying (laughing) thing for me to approach you with.
BL: No, yeah, definitely. That was one of the more appealing aspects of it of like how- yeah, there’s this new angle to it.
BL: So, that was really fun. And yeah, I wanted to ask about that, you know, having been a playwright myself as well, how is it, um, to come to that decision to write these two kind of polarizing characters in the same role? And what is the intention behind that?
ELP: So, there are two roles in the play. Two tracks that are doubled. So two characters- two actors play two parts. Your part, and then Kelli Tosic plays Keto – Medusa’s mother, and the goddess Athena. On a practical level, all four of those roles are relatively small.
EP: Having been an actor for many years, having more meat to sink your teeth into and more things to try is always more exciting than not? For me? I also think that with Keto and Athena specifically, I wanted to show ways that women, particularly of different and older generations have been both complicit in patriarchy and systems of oppression, and also have led the way and done a lot of work to help dismantle them. With Poseidon and Perseus, in sort of this vein that, um- we’ve talked about this in rehearsals, that my project in this play, is this question of how do we tell stories about trauma without traumatizing or triggering anyone involved in that, whether it’s the audience member or the people in the process.
ELP: And so, my thought with Poseidon and Perseus was that…by bringing the same actor on who plays Poseidon as Perseus, who is a much kinder, caring person, um, I think it reaffirms on some level to the audience that no one was even in danger at any point in the play?
ELP: Which is just something that I really wanna- like, hit home with.
ELP: And also the ways in which men both, you know, profit and- and sort of kind of like build and enjoy the patriarchy, certain men. And preying on women or- or, manipulating or sort of taking advantage of women, but also that men have the capacity and can choose to be kind and, and help dismantle those systems. Help make change and be advocates and allies as well as survivors themselves.
BL: Yeah. Yeah, and that definitely, I mean, comes through with my first-hand experience with the Perseus character, that’s, like, absolutely at the core of that character, so that makes a lot of sense. That’s fun. I- I love this. The approach that we’ve had this whole time with the production too to make sure that we’re handling it as best we can, but also to, yeah, like get all of these different aspects and angles. It was very fascinating what you were talking about with the Keto / Athena dual role going on there. And Kelli, who does that role amazingly, just to yeah, see how we have these two different angles where there are the ones that kind of further this issue while being in the same problem. Like being on the receiving end still and whatever that duality brings with it. But then having these people who actively try to fight against it. That’s-
BL: That’s great. So, I did have a- I mean, unless you have something. I had another question-
ELP: Oh, sure.
BL: I was curious about.
BL: I was curious because this is a bit of a revisionist kind of take on the Medusa, like we touch the subject matter exactly how it is-
BL: But we’ve, we’ve come from Medusa’s side, but not only that, we’ve come from a modern kind of angle with it too. I was curious about the appeal to contemporary life and bringing that to a Greek myth.
ELP: This is a fun question to me. When I first started writing the play which was, as you know, a long time ago. The question- I find plays to come more naturally is starting with a question that I want to answer. Through writing the play sort of discovering what- what I think about that question, what I think the answer is, what I think about that answer? I’ve always been a Greek myth nerd kid, Percy Jackson kid-
ELP: I have all of these, Greek myth books even here at college. And I’ve always been fascinated with Medusa particularly because she’s…one of, you know, they have other, female monsters, but she’s one of the only named ones? She’s one of the big ones. And my question that I found myself asking was ‘if Medusa happened now, what would it mean to be like the ugliest thing the world had ever seen?’
ELP: So originally, there were like versions and drafts of this play in my head where Medusa, after the incident was like played by a different actress every scene? That sort of-
BL: Oh, wow.
ELP: Embodied a different ‘ugly characteristic’ that society doesn’t like. I didn’t know if, should she be this? Should she look like this? Um, and a friend of mine suggested that like, what if- what if the thing is that now she is so angry, and so traumatized that like, that’s all she is and people just are really disgusted by that because it’s hard for people to look at trauma and its aftermath. So that’s when I really started doing a lot of research about female rage and how trauma affects the brain.
ELP: And I wanted it to be very clear that this sort of inscrutable, impossible nature of existing and being perceived as a woman is throughout history and outside of the bounds of time. That in ancient Greece and in 2021 there is (chuckle) there is this extreme standard set to be a perfect woman and that no one can achieve it and that they all do it wrong.
ELP: So I wanted it to feel… and I mean in sort of in this mythic, epic way I wanted it to feel like it took place over like a long swath of time.
ELP: And I found the way to do that most effectively was in, was in language so they speak a lot in sort of this heightened prose, what might feel kind of like Bridgerton-esque language.
ELP: But they swear. They say things like y’all.
BL: Mhm. (laughing)
ELP: They sometimes talk a little more colloquially or modern and it took a while to find the right balance of that and when and where to put those things in. But it was a fun challenge because I tend to write just modern diction.
ELP: So it was interesting, it was a good challenge for myself. I have a question for you, Brock.
BL: Ask away.
ELP: You’re a playwright yourself. You’ve done stuff here and had other people direct it. I’m curious if you think, or if you have thought- like, do you think that my revision process is different than your revision process in the room?
BL: Yes. (laughing)
BL: First off, I was impressed at how quickly some of the revisions came, because I’m an incredibly, like, uh… procrastinating’s the true word-
BL: I like to say time-staking, kind of revisionist where it’s a long process where-
BL: You make the first draft and ya let it simmer. And I try to honestly forget about my plays so then I come to them with fresh eyes.
BL: And go from that kind of angle. But I was amazed to see when we were in some of the early rehearsal processes how you were revising as we’re going and bringing whole new scenes and lines along with it. So that was always a fascinating thing. Especially coming from like this kind of, um- I’ve never done anything so historical in this sense too. So I was very, fascinated by how you did that well-rounded blend of the contemporary and that heightened language. It very much kinda grounds it in the myth while still bringing it here, and it’s something that I was very fascinated inspired by in some ways.
ELP: Thank you.
BL: I’m definitely looking to try and find new ways of revision that go, of course, quicker. But yeah, yours and mine are very different. (laughs So- I did have an obvious question.
BL: Especially since we’re two cubes on a screen right now.
BL: I was curious about how the process of bringing this to Zoom has been.
BL: Since you have a very close tie with the director, Albert, as well.
ELP: That’s funny. I was being interviewed by the Daily Iowan today-
ELP: They also- they might contact you. Um-
BL: Okay. (laughs)
ELP: (laughing) Which I forgot to tell you. She asked- she was like ‘did you originally write this for Zoom’? And I (laughing) laughed.
ELP: Cause I was like ‘no, I don’t think any playwright has ever written anything specifically for Zoom’. I’ll be honest, when we were told that we had gotten permission to do it but that they would be over Zoom, I told Albert I would need some time to figure out if I was gonna accept the offer or not.
ELP: Because a lot of the questions that I had about the play specifically revolved around embodiment and live theatre, which I categorize as being physically embodied in the same space and time, um.
ELP: And I had questions about what it means for me to, onstage, in a room, put certain things up there and ask people to watch them and hear them. Cause it’s very different to be on Zoom and be able to close your screen or walk away. And I mean, you can walk away in a theatre, but that’s- I mean, you have to stand up and leave.
ELP: And be seen by other people. So I had a lot of questions about certain monologues and if they were too long or repetitive, and if people would get bored. The scene where the assault takes place, [I had] huge questions about how to handle that in a way where no one was triggered or put in any danger on the audience or performer end? But I do still, in a weird way, feel like we’ve been able to answer some of those questions through this process? Just in conversation with one another and sort of figuring out what the heart of the play is. Doing the play on Zoom also fully changed the format of the play. Prior to knowing it was going to be a Zoom all of the stage directions that are like incorporated into your lines? Um, were not the- it was never the case.
ELP: And the reason we were going to do that was just for Zoom because I was like well, ‘who’s gonna read stage directions, is it gonna be me or Albert?’ And then I was like, what if we just have them say [the stage directions]. I would feel like that’s less awkward? And then I was like, wait! I could have them say them for any production, cause it’s a myth! They can be telling the myth, and then that fully reshaped [the play]. We added a prologue. It fully reshaped the whole format and the end of the play?
ELP: So, that was a really exciting discovery that I wouldn’t have been able to make if we hadn’t have been on Zoom. For all intents and purposes will remain for onstage productions.
ELP: And also it’s made me take special care and attention to the script? Not that I- I wouldn’t in a stage production cause I’m anal-retentive about. (laughing) my work.
BL: (laughing) I mean, most writers are.
ELP: Yes. But it’s different in a thing like this. Obviously, you guys wear costumes and have lights and some props, but the thing- the, the main tool you’re workin’ with here is the words.
ELP: So really trying to finesse, um, and harness and get ‘em right.
BL: Yeah, I mean definitely, from the performer’s side of that, it’s- it’s interesting to be speaking your- your entrance as you’re entering but there’s a fun theatricality to it. And it was something I noticed early when reading the script and like-
BL: First readings and in the first rehearsals was getting that theatricality across over Zoom.
ELP: Yeah, yeah.
BL: And, you know, I’ve never performed (laughing) over Zoom before this. So that was it’s own new kind of difficulty as well to take as like, an actor.
BL: That was fascinate- to bring that same edge. And you write very theatrically too, there are stage directions and just contextual piece in there that are not read but have very theatrical elements to it. We have a heightened sense of even what certain materials in it look like. Like, blood has a completely different angle as, as you mention like glitter and ribbons and such.
BL: So there is that fun sense of the stage being brought here in a different way that I haven’t really seen too much, so that is exciting.
ELP: I think it is. I’m grateful that this was something Albert and I talked about when we first, last year, decided that we were going to submit. And [we] sort of talked about this production where I was like, ‘I don’t want (laughs) realistic blood onstage. I do not want a realistic, at that point certain things of violence.’ Just because, in my opinion as a theatre maker, we can suspend our disbelief. I mean, that’s what we do in a theatre. None of it’s realism. We all are pretending. (laughs)
ELP: That we are watching something happening. And those can be triggering to people as opposed to using red ribbon as blood, and us knowing that it’s blood and it having that same effect while not making anyone feel gross or icky.
ELP: And that’s- I mean — we talked about this the other night at rehearsal, when you and I were running lines — that that’s some of the most fun about theatre to me.
ELP: I’m glad that those things could stay and sort of move over to Zoom and make it feel not that it’s like an onstage play but that it is still evoking a sense that this is a workshop of what will eventually be an onstage play?
ELP: Um, and noting that those are important, integral things to the script.
ELP: I have another couple of questions for you, I don’t know how we’re doing on time.
BL: Yknow, I think we’re- we’re coming to our close here soon-
ELP: Are we really?
BL: But I think we got some time. We can go through a couple.
ELP: Okay. Well then, I’m just gonna ask you, what have you learned about yourself during the process? What have you learned about me? What have you learned about playwriting
BL: (laughing) Yeah.
ELP: (laughing) I don’t know!
BL: Every play brings it’s own kinda learning process and learning curve. And, I’m not- I’m not a seasoned actor by any means or anything, but-
ELP: You wouldn’t know by watching you perform.
BL: Well, that’s- thank you, that’s very kind. But yeah. It’s- yknow, in the day and age we’re in now doing this over Zoom and online, there’s been the learning curve of how do you carry that energy through laptop screen? And so you’re kinda broadening [your skills]. And as I mentioned like the actor’s toolbox, I’ve got a whole new set of stuff that I’ve learned from this of like, how to go on voice, how to go on sound, you know? And just, you know, Zoom mess-ups, as there always are. Somebody, maybe their line is muffled. (laughs)
BL: Because Zoom doesn’t work. And how do- how do you as an actor help lift up your scene partner by not letting that just fall? And-
BL: That’s- that’s been a fun learning curve too, is like, how to broaden my- my work as a supporter as well as just like from my own performance stance.
BP: So, there’s been lots of fun with that. And just like I mentioned with your revision process. Like, learning how to, as a writer in this day and age, move with that, going through the process, and hearing from your side about how to chose to make this a Zoom production rather than a stage like many playwrights, like, dream of having their pieces on. That’s something that you learn to roll with. And it’s that adaptation that I think is so fun, and is what’s still exciting about theatre, is that-
BL: We’re not just on hold right now. And that’s nice.
BL: Because it has that way of adapting and seeing, not just in adapting because we have to because there are creative solutions to it too.
BL: And that it’s not just like, this, ‘hey sorry you’re watching this on your computer’, it’s like, no we have something really cool to show you that like, could only be shown this way now.
BL: So, that’s been, I think, probably the most exciting like, learning process of this whole thing is seeing how theatre thrives. And continues.
BL: So, yeah. What about it?
ELP: Well, good!
ELP: I think I agree in that, because prior- (laughs) prior to this, I was a lil- I was. Um. Cause I love- like, theatre’s the love of my life, and to do it over Zoom often hurt in that it’s close to the thing you want but it’s not that thing?
ELP: But I- I told you guys the other night that watching it the other night with all- yknow, sort of all of these elements or components of like lighting and sound and costume. That I- I found myself really excited and invested the way I would be, um, at a- at a show. So I was excited about that. I think this process has also forced me to learn to breathe and let things go and to not so much have my hands in too many pies? When we did YOU ARE NOT ALONE IN THE VOID last fall Albert stage managed, but I wrote and directed. And it was very much. I mean-
BL: Oh, wow.
ELP: I got the final say in everything.
ELP: And what was really hard for me- Albert and I- I talked about when we started this that, um. Albert had said, yknow, I- I direct. You asked me to direct. I’ve taken directing classes, and like, I have thoughts and obviously, I respect your opinion and your vision, but I want us to collaborate on this. And I was like, yeah. But (laughing) then I actually had to do it.
BL: (laughing) Yeah.
ELP: And I mean, because the five of you are not in the room with me, I sort of have to trust that the five of you are gonna do what you’re gonna do and- and do it well. And it’s been exciting that you’ve all made choices that I would not have made and would’ve been adamantly against that are much better for the production?
BL: That’s. Yeah. That’s not.
ELP: Than- than what I thought? So it’s actually been rejuvenating in allowing me to trust in collaboration and trust the process that other people go through. I think we all know our own processes very intimately.
ELP: And I know for myself, like, when I act especially that like. I’m never gonna be at 100 until it’s open.
ELP: It’s something when people watch, like. (snaps) Puts me in a. But like, if I- if someone else- if an actor were to do that in my play? Before, I’d be like. Mmm. No.
ELP: (laughing) Like, you need to get it together sooner. So, it’s been exciting to know, and be able to sort of like let go this anxiety that like I know everything and have to be in charge or it’s not going to perfect? But that it’s actually not going to be perfect unless I let my collaborators do their work.
BL: That’s awesome.
ELP: Which is like-
ELP: All that theatre’s about. (laughs)
BL: That’s- and that’s been, I mean, present the entire time is that fun collaboration back and forth. Hearing yours and Albert’s thoughts and everything.
BL: And then watching and seeing what the castmates are doing. And I mean, sadly, Emmy, we could probably talk about this- I mean-
ELP: (laughing) I know, I was just thinking, like-
BL: A whole night, and- (laughs) A whole lot longer.
ELP: We’ve both been so busy with rehearsals and school, I was like. I could just sit here and talk with you-
ELP: For hours about writing.
BL: I mean, that’s the thing, is this just flew right by, and I was like, oh God, I barely touched half of what I-
BL: Would want to talk about. So. I’m just excited to show this to people.
ELP: Thank you.
BL: And I think this is a really fun way to talk about it from behind the scene.
ELP: Yeah! Um, thank you for your time to sit down with me, um. And thank you for being in my play And-!
ELP: Giving so much of your time in it!
BL: Thanks for having me in both parts, yeah. Thank you for the time today, this was so fun.
BL: And then thank you for allowing me to, yeah. Get to explore this and be a part and help bring your piece to life, so.
ELP: Aw-right. I’ll talk to you later, I love you.
BL: Alright, love you too.
BL: Talk to you later.