Q & A with Mary Jo Pehl, Author of Man Saved By Condiments!: The Relative Joy of Arby's Horsey Sauce, Butter Conduits + Being Haunted by Ketchup
In 2003, a security guard from Kermit, West Virginia, named Robert Ward was driving to work when he lost control of his 1985 Ford, plunged 150 feet into a snowy gulch and broke his hip. For the next six and a half days, he kept himself alive by eating snow as well as by some clever car foraging; for all of you who hold on to your wrinkled packets of fast food sauces to the unending consternation of friends and family, Mr. Ward's discovery of a treasure trove of them under his seat is the kind of "I told you so" story you've been waiting for.
Tim Uren, star of "Man Saved By Condiments!"
But it has also become the inspiration for a one-act, one-man play by the supremely witty writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl (Mystery Science Theater 300, Cinematic Titanic), called appropriately enough, Man Saved By Condiments! To find out how Pehl turned Ward's interesting way of skirting tragedy into a theatrical experience and the Kickstarter campaign that will fund it, turn the page.
MJP: It spoke to me personally about that intersection of my own issues about food, untidiness and being trapped somewhere without food. I just tried to imagine what that scenario was like for him.
SI: What kind of research, if any, did you do before writing Man Saved By Condiments!?
MJP: When I wrote the play it was maybe 2004, 2005 and I couldn't locate Robert Ward via e-mail. So I sent out snail mail letters to every Robert Ward in that general vicinity [and I found him]. We ended up exchanging a few e-mails and he told me a little bit more about the incident. A lot of the play, though, is honestly just an extrapolation about what it would be like to be in that situation.
MJP: He wasn't especially articulate about the incident. He reiterated what the [news reports] had said and that he was scared. He thought he'd be okay for a while but on the sixth day he decided, more or less, that that was it. It just so happened that on this day one of his friends who had been out looking for him actually stumbled upon him.
SI: Sticking empty fast food bags beneath your car seat sounds like part sloth, part shame. What did Ward do for a living?
MJP: He was a security guard at a nearby mine in West Virginia. He was also a volunteer emergency medical technician. He actually had his manual in the car with him and he started burning pages to keep warm. You have to give him credit. I would have just immediately thought, [despairing wail] "It's over!"
SI: Thinking you are going to starve to death then discovering sustenance must render a simple sachet of yellow mustard into something dizzyingly delicious.
MJP: Here's one of the things I thought about: If you haven't eaten for some time and you would taste the condiment in a new way, you would actually taste what it tastes like. In our food environment, you can really get desensitized to what food actually tastes like. You don't take time to discern flavors. You are just trying to sate a hunger.
SI: What condiments are discovered in Man Saved By Condiments!? Ketchup, mayo, mustard...
MJP: ... Arby's horsey sauce. Also one of the things that he discovers -- and Robert Ward confirmed this for me -- is a leftover jar of peanut butter that is mostly empty but he was able to get the rest of it out. This amused me to no end.
SI: Mary Jo? Peanut butter isn't really a condiment. It's a food paste, a sandwich spread. Were any other establishments besides Arby's represented in the play?
MJP: I did research on what fast food restaurants would be in that area and figured out what they would offer. Naturally, there were ketchup packets, mayonnaise, hot sauce, just about every manner of condiment. Everywhere I went during my research [phase] I would see if they had condiment packets on the tables and grabbed a bunch to inform my writing.
SI: Did you taste the condiments? Did you figure out what companies make the tastiest product?
MJP: No. The other thing that cracked me up was that I was watching the video for the Kickstarter campaign and the actor [playing the Robert Ward character], Tim Uren, actually opens up a package of mayo and eats it and that just grossed me out. And I wrote the play.
SI: What if the play is a huge success and ends up having a long run? Is there any condiment Mr. Uren could do without?
MJP: I spoke to him not too long ago and there's a condiment that he absolutely loathes. He knows he will have to surmount that to be in this show. He said he's had a long history with ketchup, that he was in a production called Macbeth's Awesome Scottish Castle Party in which other actors dipped kielbasa into ketchup on his head. He said, "Ketchup is haunting me. Professionally."
SI: You've written books and for TV. Is this your first one-man show?
MJP: That was the challenge for me: To write a solo show for someone else and a male. The play has already been mounted for a few showings in 2005 at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was a little bit abstract: All we saw was the car bench, the steering wheel, and the trash and it was really exaggerated. In one of the articles I read about Robert Ward they described his [truck] as "a bachelor car -- it catches a little bit of everything." I tried to convey that. When it was produced they really heightened that trash experience. That was the setting for it. It's more or less a monologue that is brought to life by sound cues and acting. I am so excited to see Theatre Arlo's interpretation.
SI: Will your Mystery Science Theater 3000 super-villain character Pearl Forrester greet people on the way in?