What’s there to talk about in the 24 hours before “your son, the serial killer” heads to the electric chair? Besides confessions, are there other kinds of “last words” that should happen on our deathbeds? This and more when Gary Rudoren – playwright, director, actor and architect now based in Jerusalem – sits down with memory artist, Nancy Gershman to talk about the premise of his play, “So I Killed a Few People.”
Examine the elephant in the room from multiple angles
“So I Killed a Few People” is a play I created with David Summers at The Annoyance Theater in Chicago. It started with a premise I had: a one man show about a serial killer on Death Row whose last request is a one-man show. The play handles this heavy subject with a light touch as we see what it means to die as a serial killer and what it must be like to know that you’re going to end this life by being executed. Some people in the correctional system gave us a real compliment when they told us: ‘It was as close to how things are on Death Row as you can get.’
The backstory is this: Archie has grown up in Disneyland where his father works as an electrician. There’s this one uncomfortable scene towards the end of the play in which Archie describes a visit from his father a week before he’s electrocuted.
What I tried to imagine was: how does a parent talk to a child that has done unspeakable acts? How can they still love them? How can they find anything to talk about? Turns out, in these situations, you cling to the smallest of small talk or else you’d never say a word to one another.
So the common ground between Archie and his father becomes the electric chair itself. The father really perks up when his son starts talking about the chair’s specifications (“Hey Dad, the chair is the Westinghouse 5000.”) Archie goes on and on about how the chair developed and the father explains to his son exactly how it’s going to kill him.”
Look into cheeriness and you’re likely to see the dark side
“All families have secrets. The father knows that Archie killed his own mother many years ago when he was about 17 – and knows he was never caught for that. But he doesn’t want to ask Archie anything about it because he knows what happened. The fact that Archie killed his own mother and that he’s been caught for committing 8 other murders intimates that there is always a lot more to talk about.
When I was thinking about the process of Archie dying – that is, actually being electrocuted – I began to think about that piece with his dad. What does a father say in this bizarre situation? Or does he say anything at all? How do you get to the point where you’re saying to yourself, I’m never going to have to deal with this person of my flesh and blood ever again. At the time I wrote and imagined that scene I didn’t have children myself, but something in me imagined a guy who just couldn’t see himself abandoning his son, no matter what evil he had done.
As for the father’s next step (which is not in the play) – I always felt he was going to distance himself from his son’s acts but that he would continue to talk about his son’s happier moments, like when he was a kid playing on the grounds of Disneyland. Archie’s backstory is that he grew up seeing happy kids all around him. People celebrating life. He was a kid who used to run around like Eloise at the Plaza.
Quite often Archie and his best friend, Charlie would sneak into a bar called “The Big Head” where Mickey and Goofy and Snow White could pop off their character heads and have a drink. That was his first exposure to the dark side. Archie soon discovered that the actors inside the big heads were really drunks, ex-cons and ex-drug addicts.
Archie chose not to talk to his father about this fracture in fantasyland. At the time, Archie’s father was in his own world at Disney: animating robots and the presidents in the Hall of Presidents. But it definitely created Archie’s new worldview. He came to believe Disney was an evil empire that, in Archie’s words, ‘created more serial killers than the entire state of Wisconsin. I boiled down the entire Disney credo to two things: inanimate objects have the ability to sing, and if you’re ugly, crippled or a freak – good things are going to happen to you.” Wisconsin, of course, is known for its serial killers: Ed Gien, Jeffrey Dahmer, Walter Ellis. To Archie, Disney is ruining the concept of family by promoting a false sense that everything is going to be OK, no matter what. This kind of anger that Disneyland is a big lie just festers in Archie’s psyche. The more he learns, the angrier it makes him inside.”
An All-You-Can-Eat salad bar is a nice metaphor for unfinished business
“The things that go through Archie’s mind before dying are: what’s the last image I’m going to have in my head the last time I masturbate? What’s the last book I’m going to read? The last movie? The last words?” While this is not in the play, I always thought Archie’s last meal should be an all-you-can-eat salad bar because it’s reasonable to assume that Archie would say (technically) that ‘you’re never really finished.’ And with all that roughage -when they pull the switch – you want to leave your jailers with a bigger mess than they ever could imagine … One thing about Archie: he is not afraid to die.
What is in the play are Archie’s last words: his confession that he killed his own mother. He’s unapologetic about it; he knows he’s led an evil life. But the monster comes out in those last words. The play gets a lot of laughs, but in those last 7-8 minutes when it’s performed, there’s dead silence.
Archie realizes he’s done wrong, but he wants to tell his side of the story – and blame anyone but himself. To Archie, the reason everything went south in his life was because his mother was an angry, mean drunk who always felt she and her husband didn’t become who she thought they would be. Instead, they ended up here, in a place that doesn’t project reality! She’s a cross between a character from Dynasty and Otis, the drunk from The Andy Griffith Show. No surprise, then, that Archie would start killing people who personified qualities of his mother.
I always imagined that when Archie decides to confess a murder nobody knows about there would be a big uproar from the audience. Because here was the moral dilemma: Do you let a serial killer have his moment in the sun and serve his ego, or do you err on the side of solving a murder case?
I’ve discovered that anybody who is even a little sympathetic to Archie beforehand – they flat out lose all sympathy for Archie by the end of the play.”
May your bedside confessions be about the truth and not the picayune
“On their deathbed, I believe older people should lose any sense of ‘So-and-So will think less of me because I’m telling them my opinion.’ I hope I lose that part of me that cares so I can finally say what I truly believe. The truth coming out. That doesn’t mean I want to leave Earth on a negative note. I still tend to dwell on the positive, but like everyone else, little annoying things nag at you in life. I would hope at the end that I’m not annoyed. That would just add horror to whatever my deathbed visitors are going through.”
Creativity never dies when last words mention your “next-to-last” creation
“I don’t want to ever feel that I’ve written my best words, taken my best photos, designed my best building – otherwise I’ll have died a little at that moment. Because if you are a creative person – if you’ve already thought you’ve created the best you can do – then a little piece of your creativity dies, for sure. Even when you do successful things, everybody who is creative I believe thinks that if this is the last thing that I put out there, then I’m a hack. There is always this hope that the next creative thing you do will be your biggest success.
One-hit wonders are a different story. But if you think about your last contributions that way, to me it is even sadder. Because if I’m coming up with the most brilliant invention only right before I die and then I die – then what? So we must always dream on, even at end of life.”
Beware: the dying have a hypersensitivity to bullshit
“In my play, I ask: As parents can we be both witness to our child’s horror-making and also a supporter? That depends on your relationship with them, as sappy as it sounds. My answer has always been to err on remembering the positive in your relationship. Which reminds me of one of my first improv teachers, Martin deMaat in Chicago.
Martin was one of the great improv gurus of all times. He came at improv from a place of love. He was also a dear, close friend who’s since passed away.
In the last months of his life he was in New York City, and I flew to see him in the last week before he died. I flew there not only because I loved him, but also because one of the last things he did was give me a commission to design the first training center for The Second City. I came to show him the final plans. I arrived with a blueprint, and spread it out on top of his hospital bed. I helped Martin sit up, and we talked entirely about architectural things, not death things. I showed him the layout and explained the ideas behind the design, and he was pretty lucid about it and gave his blessing to begin the work.
Martin was obviously very weak and at a certain point, I began to massage his feet, talking about everything but what was happening in the room. Then in came a male nurse, trying to liven up the room, talking about Rogers and Hart and so on. Upon hearing this – Martin gestured towards the nurse, took his oxygen mask off and said quite plainly, ‘Can we please not talk about fucking musical theatre now?’
That was such a spark of the old Martin who would never have said that to be mean. He was just being totally honest – a perfect example of truth on your deathbed. Seeing that surprising disjointedness of a fragile Martin still having the strength of his opinion was unforgettable.
The last show of strength is going to be the truth – but only if you can deliver that truth. Martin’s nature was not to be hurtful, to knock someone down a peg. He just felt immediately that the nurse was being patronizing because Martin was gay and a theatre person. It like the guy was being “on” just for him. But Martin was certainly not going to suffer fools gladly on his deathbed.
Maybe on your deathbed you get a hyper sense of bullshit. I hope that happens to me, because it would be a great feeling to have. I think I have a pretty good bullshit meter right now. But then again, around death, I think it’s tough for most people to be true to what they have in their heart. What we need to do more of is think what the dying want to hear from us. Like the father in So I Killed a Few People. He’s genuinely interested in hearing everything his son wants to share about the operation of that electric chair.”
Your To-Do List
How many fathers and sons, mothers and daughters are really capable of nerding out on the elephant in the room, as Archie could with his dad? (In their case, discussing the specs of an electric chair). Speaking for myself, I think my “annoyance meter” or “outrage meter” would be tripped far in advance … probably in the conversation that plays out in my head before we’ve met. I’d be rehearsing how to bring up the un-bringable in the most naturally humorous way possible.
So here’s an alternative strategy. Next time you feel you’re face to face with the elephant in the room and your audience of one is resistant to talking about it, come at the subject from the nerdy point of view. By nerdy, I don’t mean boring. I mean talk shop. Come at the subject from the angle that excites them. If they’re in fashion, make it about who was wearing what that day. If they run a restaurant, make it about what they were eating or how they were serving A-B or C. If you’re a doctor, make it about how so-and-so was sleeping, feeling, moving, etc.
Speak visually or bring visual aids along (think fifth grade science fair) to make your point. Or rather, your entry point.