An interview with Laura Jaqmin, author of Dead Pile, a play about factory farming! »
Jeremy is a wannabe investigator: someone who goes undercover at factory farms to film the often-horrific abuses committed within. But when he’s sent to do an exposé on a dairy farm in southern Indiana, he runs up against some difficult questions about his chosen line of work. A play that forces us to look at what we eat—and what we’re willing to sacrifice.
That’s the synopsis of Dead Pile, a play that opens at Chicago’s Stage 773 this Friday, Feb. 4, and plays through the 27. Tickets are $20 and I strongly suggest everyone in Chicago takes their family and friends to see this show, so that it might sweep the nation! Seriously, you’re classy, you take people to the theater, right? Well, impress your friends and family by taking them to a fancy evening out and then it’s all BAM! Animals being tortured! Our fucked-up food system! Lessons being learned! And then you can take them to eat somewhere awesome like the Chicago Diner and it’s all gooooood.
We talked to the playwright, Laura Jacqmin, to see what she thinks about writing plays, eating animals, and writing plays about eating animals. Let’s do this, LJ!
Vegansaurus: Where did the idea for Dead Pile come from?
Laura Jacqmin: Ideas for plays tend to build and build and just sort of slowly accumulate until I’m forced to start working on them. The idea for Dead Pile has been building for a few years now. Since about 2008, I wanted to write a funny docudrama about the short-lived Chicago foie gras ban. I thought it was one of those ideas that rarely make it into theater, and I was interested in the idea of a genuine debate, both inside a play, and potentially ignited by the play. Then Mark Caro wrote The Foie Gras Wars, which focused on Chicago to explore the impact that serving foie gras had on other restaurants, as well as actual production practices, and his agent made it pretty clear that they were interested in trying to sell film rights, not theatrical adaptation rights. Then in summer 2009, I visited Stone Barns at the Rockefeller Brothers estate, which was pretty eye-opening: it’s one thing to talk about sustainable farming, and another to actually see what it looks like. I was incredibly impressed.
That same fall, I was working on a project about dementia and memory loss, and a common attitude among caregivers and nursing home employees was, why should I do this nice thing with my relative/resident who has Alzheimer’s? It’s not like they’ll remember it, so what’s the point? I think factory farming contains that same attitude: this animal is just going to be slaughtered, so why should I allow it to have a pleasant (or even comfortable) life before I kill it? But of course you should spend the time with that relative, and of course you should allow an animal the dignity of a good life before you slaughter it—it’s inhumane not to.
So once I felt like I had worked out the animal side of things, I had to find a way into the human angle. When I learned more about undercover investigations on factory farms, and the impact that had on an investigator’s life, I was blown away. It’s sort of like entering the witness protection program—three or four times a year. You have to be willing to cut ties with your family and friends—your whole life, really. I wanted to dig into what kind of a person you had to be to make that sacrifice, and how you could actually remain happy in that line of work given that your job is to watch animals be tortured on a regular basis. The more I started researching it, the more sunk into it I became—and then at a certain point, I just had to start the play.
Vegansaurus: Even though you are not veg, what drove you to write about this issue?
Jacqmin: I’m really interested in exploring the disconnect between what we buy in the supermarket and what had to happen to get it there. I can’t watch any undercover video footage for more than 10 seconds before I start bawling—the things that go on are just so unnecessary. That, I think, is the biggest reason I wanted to explore the issue: do people even KNOW that this is happening? Because they should. And if they don’t want to watch a video, then maybe they’ll be able to empathize with a guy who’s trying to make a difference.
Vegansaurus: How long did researching and writing Dead Pile take?
Jacqmin: It was a process of accumulation. Once I started writing, it only took about four months. But it was building for a few years before that.
Vegansaurus: Did researching and writing Dead Pile change how you felt about our food system?
Jacqmin: There wasn’t much discovery for me; I knew what was happening and why it was happening. I do think it challenged me to write really rounded characters, so as not to make the human element of the play didactic.
Vegansaurus: What do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
Jacqmin: That some horrifying things go on in this industry, but that they don’t have to. If you’re not so focused on making money, you don’t have to pay your employees so little. If you pay your employees more, you can attract a better kind of employee. You wouldn’t allow your employee to torture another employee; so why would you want one who tortures your animals? The way these farms are run just doesn’t make sense, and it needs to change. But unless consumers demand that change, there’s no incentive to do things differently.
If you watch the documentary Death on a Factory Farm, you can see that the farm is almost built to ensure as many dead animals as possible. You have piglets born in the most unsanitary and dangerous conditions, and then they’re treated as roughly as possible—hurled into rolling scales, tossed into truck beds—for no reason at all. If your goal is to make money, at the most basic level, why are you treating your inventory like garbage? It just doesn’t make sense.
Back when the most recent egg scares were happening, people did the sensible thing and stopped buying eggs from contaminated farms. If you found out the farm that supplies your chicken or your bacon did the things that many of those farms do, wouldn’t you stop buying from them? I mean, we’re willing to stop flying on a particular airline if a single flight gets delayed. It’s beyond me that we don’t do the same when it comes to our food supply.
Vegansaurus: Are there any vegans or vegetarians involved in the production?
Jacqmin: Yes—our director Megan Shuchman has been a vegetarian for 14 years now, and our dramaturg Caitlin McGlone is a longtime vegan. She’s also a vegan baker for Metropolis Coffee, on Chicago’s north side, and for those who’ve never been into vegan pastry, she will absolutely convert you. We also have a good-sized group of community partners and advocates who are veg/vegan.
Vegansaurus: Where’s your favorite veg food in Chicago?
Jacqmin: Lula Cafe, my go-to neighborhood restaurant, makes the most delicious vegetarian stuff: vegetable maki; cold peanut sate noodles with gomae and tofu; amazing hearty winter vegetable stews; and their much-lauded tagine. And Uncommon Ground is delicious!!!
Vegansaurus: What’s your favorite veg dish to make?
Jacqmin: A variation on that Lula’s tagine, based off of a recipe brought back from a trip to India. It’s basically a chickpea and sweet potato stew (though you can make it with regular potatoes, too), cooked in red onion, garlic, fresh ginger, chili powder, cumin and turmeric. You thicken it with yogurt or soy yogurt, and add a ton of fresh cilantro. I make it at least once a week. I’m a big cook, so I’m always trying to figure out more vegetarian recipes to use as standard weeknight recipes. I’m also starting to experiment with vegan baking—Caitlin [McGlone] gave me a recipe for this amazing vegan orange-chocolate biscotti.
Vegansaurus: Are there productions of Dead Pile happening in other cities soon? Or plans for them?
Jacqmin: That’s the hope. If we get some solid press in Chicago, I’m interested in pushing the play out to other cities, particularly those with strong vegan/vegetarian communities. I think the play would be a hit in the Bay Area, and maybe even Austin, Texas.
Vegansaurus: Do you think you’ll ever write a show about food animal issues again?
Jacqmin: I still want to find some way to write about foie gras, so it’s absolutely possible.
Vegansaurus: When you win a Tony, who will you thank?
Jacqmin: Vegansaurus. :)