Morag Shepherd: If you can’t laugh at tragedy, then you’re in trouble
by Morag Shepherd
This post also appears in the current issue of Catalyst Magazine.
Morag Shepherd’s latest play, MY BROTHER WAS A VAMPIRE, is a horror comedy that follows a bizarre, broken, and blisteringly brazen journey in reverse.
Siblings Skye and Callum love each other, hate each other, and need each other.
Oh, and they can fly.
For an assignment in one of my English classes in college, we had to go and see a play and write a response. I randomly chose a rinky dink show in the basement of the arts building and enjoyed it so much that I looked up the playwright: Eric Samuelsen. To be honest, at the time, I was shocked! The play was about a couple driving from BYU to Nevada so that the wife could engage in sex work to get them a little cash. Seriously, I was like, “what the fuck,” but in a very mormon, “what the fuck,” way.
When Eric Samuelsen had a show, I was there, and at the time, I think the sole reason I was there was because I couldn’t believe that this mormon professor at BYU was getting away with writing this stuff. Ha! Needless to say, I ultimately enrolled in an Eric Samuelsen playwriting class, and the controversy in the room was only heightened. I was hooked and I entirely blame Eric for coaxing me to be the rebel I was. And I blame him in the best way possible.
Our first assignment was to write a ten-minute play, and I think what I was “allowed” to explore in that room really showed me that plays, and writing plays, was the thing that made me feel alive. At that time, around 2005, playwriting was the only space on the whole campus where we could discuss real conflict, express our difficulties with the system, swear, and be real. Eric told me that I was good. Then he kept telling me I was good. And finally, I started to believe him.
Since this time Eric has passed, but to this day, I credit him for my writing. Giving your students and peers the freedom to trust their own instincts is a magical quality to possess, and he had it in spades.
In 2015 I helped produce a play Chris Clark directed, and was amazed by what he was able to envision. Using the entire soundtrack of the movie Bride of Frankenstein, Chris used choreography and a particular brand of exaggerated movement to create this cool and bizarre world of horror, so when he asked me if I wanted to direct his last show with him, I was a solid YES! Even though Provo is very, very far away!
We talked about the kinds of things we wanted to stage, and ultimately landed on directing LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a play adapted from the original Swedish cult classic horror. The film follows the story of a young boy, and a young female vampire, and their bewitching and heartbreaking friendship. I mean, even though the vampire is exceedingly violent and dangerous, you still root for their friendship to work out. A magnificent contradiction.
Something about the relationship between the two characters, working with Chris, and the allure of vampires has stayed with me so much that it entirely inspired MY BROTHER WAS A VAMPIRE, though this time the main relationship is between a brother and sister. I had so much fun writing the world of this play because obviously I could throw out the rules that guide “normal” life, and let the characters fly.
Since working on LET THE RIGHT ONE IN Chris Clark has passed and my world has been filled with loss, pain, grief, and heartbreak…the perfect recipe for scathing humor! To be fair, I have always tried to write dark, sad, moments with as much surprising and unassuming humor as I can, because honestly, if you can’t laugh at tragedy, then you’re in trouble. But, in MY BROTHER WAS A VAMPIRE, the characters really wanted to go full force with the humor, so much so that I describe the play as a horror comedy. In a way, I think that the deadpan sarcasm almost counterbalances the piece so that the little tragedies pack a fuller gut-wrenching punch.
All that being said, I know that Eric and Chris would have really dug this play, and I think you will too.
Plan-B Theatre has previously premiered Morag Shepherd’s NOT ONE DROP and FLORA MEETS A BEE. Morag’s latest, MY BROTHER WAS A VAMPIRE, premieres November 3–13, 2022.