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Bad Chicken: An Interview of Jeannine Clarke

By Sara McMahon


Jeannine Clarke contributed "The Para-Dietitian: The Exorcism of a Bad Chicken" to Volume 10. I'm delighted to interview this actor and author from my hometown of Seattle.



Jeannine Clarke
Sara McMahon

Sara: This story, "Bad Chicken," is quite funny, with a lot of word play, did it start like that, or did it unfold as you wrote? Were there any fabulous chicken-related puns that didn’t make the final cut?

 

Jeannine: Oh, it unfolded. Because I think the concept was very cheeky and I think the first real pun I wrote, I almost felt a little shame about it, it was like unleashing some dad joke window. It was interesting because I feel like when I was first writing it, I was asking myself, “Is that what this is? Do I really want to wink at the audience in that way?” And then it just kind of escalated quickly.

 

Sara: You could have written the story without the humor, so what felt important to you about putting the humor and wordplay into it?

 

Jeannine: I think that I am interested in serious situations, these high-stake situations, and the ways that people decrease the stakes and the urgency by giving things nicknames. The reason that stuff stayed is because I think this is the way people actually do deal with serious stuff that’s hard. So yeah, in Janet’s work, they would call it a Poultergeist. This really horrible thing, right? So that’s why it stayed. That’s a very human thing to do, to name something, and it becomes a little less scary when you name it and frame it in that way.

 

 Sara: What is the importance of humor in your own life?

 

Jeannine: Humor is important as a means of connection with people, for de-escalation, for saying hard things. For me, it’s everything in my life from communicating with the people I love, to a defense mechanism, to the way I clear the air, it comes into play in a lot of ways.

 

I’d say about a quarter of what I write is in a humor genre, but I can’t completely take it out of my writing because I think the world is a charming and funny place, and sometimes it’s an awful and funny place. I do still find humor in everything; probably more than other people.

 

I think for me as a writer and an improvisor my first instincts tend to be- “What’s the worst that can happen?” And so that is kind of my sensibility with whatever tone I’m writing in, whatever genre I’m performing in.

 

Sara: Can you remember the seed for this story?

 

Jeannine: Oh yeah. My longtime friend’s mom was a dietician, and she would tell us about her work before she retired---making house calls, doing all of that. Some of the work she did really sounded like it was dovetailing with social work. It was always interesting to hear her thoughts on food.

 

The whole story was prompted by the fact that I misheard somebody on a podcast. I was painting my living room listening to a dietician podcast cause I’m into dietician stuff, and I don’t know what they said, but what I heard was, “I’m a Para-Dietician.”  And I know that that’s not what they said, but it made me laugh and I thought, “Para-Dietician? What do you do, investigate culinary hauntings?”

 

I was like, “Oh, no.” And that was that. Some of the other stuff like laying an egg in the yard came later after I got some feedback that I could take the story further, even more off the rails. That was really all the invitation I needed.

 

Sara: How do you feel like your career as an actor, improvisor, producer, director, costumer, etc. has influenced your writing?

 

Jeannine: I wrote years and years before I was an actor or improvisor--it actually came first. It was probably the first art I practiced. In improv, especially the kind of improv I like to do, long form improv, you’re writing on your feet and so it was fascinating to robustly return to writing after about 15 years or 20 years in performing because I think storytelling is the basis of what I do in so many different areas of my life. I’m a different writer now, having been an improviser.

 

I don’t have a lot of angst over what I’m going to do next. For me when I’m writing, it’s very much like improv where it’s like, “First offer best offer”. Occasionally that’s not quite as true for me with writing, but I think my improv career really taught me to make a choice and commit to it.

 

When I’m writing, there are several different ways a story could go and probably all of them are fine, it just ends up being a different story depending on what path I take. And that’s the same with improv, right?

 

I try to write with that improv idea that there are no mistakes, there are just offers you didn’t anticipate. So yeah, I think it’s very similar. That doesn’t mean I don’t edit stories or change directions, but I have less of an agenda with a story sometimes because of that. I often see a story going one way, but I may be surprised by the ending.

 

Sara: "Bad Chicken" has a delightfully paranormal element, are you a fan of the paranormal? Do you like exploring that genre?

 

Jeannine: Yes, I do. I am into speculative fiction and fantasy and sci-fi and all of the sub-genres. This story was rooted a little bit more for me in these conversations we’re having about animals and food. It grew out of these conversations we’re having about how do families afford food, where do you cut corners, and what are the implications of that? I think maybe that influenced me a little bit more directly than any writing in a paranormal genre.

 

Like what would happen if we all had to buy our chicken off the back of a truck?

Yeah, and when we find these things out about how animals are treated, how do we reconcile that with our behavior? And what shortcuts are we willing to take?

 

And I say this as someone without a food agenda. But I have questions. And I think it’s a really interesting time to be asking questions like, “Do you know where your food comes from?” I can’t say that I do sometimes.

 

You add in the idea that there are so many people, including myself, who feel very strongly that dogs have souls. What’s interesting though is--does that then extend to other animals, and if I’m still eating other animals and how do I reconcile that?

 

So yeah, so those things were pulling into this story. There’s a great book called How the Other Half Eats that looks at food scarcity and food inequity, and why people may make certain decisions about what they’re eating. And of course, all of this is influenced by geography and economics. I read that book – I would say I had already started on this story when I read that book, I was in revisions, and I started thinking, “If animals did have souls, would people stop eating animals? No. No, they just get a priest. Get the factory conveyer belt going and a priest throwing holy water.”

 

I think that’s the other thing I’m interested in are these small-town heroes that do these incredibly important jobs but they’re just kind of under the radar. I like the idea that you’ve got this person who’s a para-dietician who’s really dealing with some important stuff by herself. I think for people who work with the public in those sorts of jobs there’s even a little bit of a therapist, or social worker element. So yeah, that was something else I really had fun with- how would this work? I imagine the stakes would be incredibly high and at the end of the day nobody knows what Janet has done. She saves the whole neighborhood and they just kind of like wave to her at the end. She gets back in her car and leaves, and she probably has to catch up on laundry at the end of the day.


"Chicken" Papercut by Sara McMahon

 

Sara: Do you have any thoughts for another installment, another adventure for Janet?

 

Jeannine: I’m sure she has other cases I’ll explore at another point; I mean there’s all kinds of food borne illness I haven’t delved into. I have other things I’m writing, but I would like to do something with bad fish.

 

Sara: What are those other projects?


Jeannine: When I started coming back to writing a few years ago, I was mainly writing short stories, and I’m still doing that. I am working on a novel right now, which is my first, and I am hoping to wrap that up in 2024. In addition to that, I have a very creative day job, and I just wrote a show for performance. I’m directing an improv show this year too, so that’s keeping me busy.

 

It’s interesting, because sometimes I get pulled in different ways—to or from projects. It’s made writing a novel harder because sometimes I must put it down and switch projects. And of course, I have to make sure that I’m not getting to the bottom of the artistic well, where I feel like I’ve got nothing creative left. Trying to sustain creativity is really interesting … a friend of mine calls it being a “Journeyman” creative, where you’re kind of transcending to the place where you’re not waiting for inspiration. When you show up for work the inspiration shows up too. Or sometimes it doesn’t!

 

I think you and I share that personality trait of being organized and disciplined and so that consistency and habit are there whether or not inspiration is there. Somedays, we’re just sitting in the chair. That is part of the journey too, having a process focus mindset instead of a product focus mindset. That’s part of the exploration.

 

Sara: Anything else you’d like to add?


Jeannine: Comedy is so subjective, it’s delightful when you have something that you wrote for yourself, and you find out that other people connect with it too. So, thanks for reading!

 

Sara: Thanks so much Jeannine. See you at the theatre!


To read an excerpt of Jeannine's story, click here. Or purchase Volume 10 in our bookstore or on amazon.





Jeannine Clarke is a writer, performer, and director living in the Pacific Northwest. Her short story “Skipping Back” appeared in issue 47 of Luna Station QuarterlyHer improv comedy work has been featured at Emerald City Comi-Con, Geek Girl Con, The Seattle Festival of Improv Theatre, Improvaganza in Honolulu, Hawai’i, and The Denver Improv Festival. When not writing or performing she can be found petting dogs or finishing her latest endeavor: a novel!



Sara Carmer McMahon is a graduate of The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, NYC, and a company member and teacher at Unexpected Productions, Seattle. She’s also an applied improv facilitator who specializes in teaching listening skills, playfulness, empathy, connectedness, and overcoming fear of failure. Most recently, she has created and illustrated The Playdate Deck, a 65-card deck of Two-Person improv-based games designed to increase connection, playfulness, and relationship resilience. She is an emerging papercut artist, whom you can visit at IG @saramacpapercuts or www.saradelighted.com


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