Clare Barron, author of OLD FOUR LEGS, on talking coelacanths

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2494","attributes":{"alt":"Clare Barron (Photo by Tom Lehman)","class":"media-image","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 240px; margin: 10px; height: 300px; float: right;","title":"Clare Barron","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]On January 13 The EST/Sloan First Light Festival is presenting the first reading of OLD FOUR LEGS, a new play by Clare Barron about the discovery off the coast of South Africa in 1938 of a live coelacanth, a huge, strange-looking fish thought to have gone extinct millions of years ago. The discovery made headlines around the world because the fish’s limb like fins suggested it might be the missing link between fishes and mammals.  

We had a chance this week to ask playwright Clare Barron a few questions about the play.

 Two of the characters in the play, Marjorie Latimer and JLB Smith, are actual historical figures involved in the discovery of the first living coelacanth in 1938.  How much liberty did you take with them? Did you have to change the story of what actually happened in any way to make it more dramatic?

This is my first play based on any kind of historical fact, and I have found writing it to be a very new and challenging experience. Most of my plays come from a pretty personal place. It was strange to feel beholden to other people. And I did worry a lot about getting it wrong. But you have to get it wrong (I think) if you're going to write a good play. I didn't want to write a piece of historical fiction. I wanted to write something that was still weird and personal and true to me. The first draft of the play was a relatively faithful retelling of the story (minus the talking fish and a little bit of romantic intrigue).

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2495","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"193","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 260px; height: 193px; margin: 10px; float: left;","title":"JLB Smith and Marjorie Latimer with the coelacanth","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"260"}}]]I actually just re-wrote the play, setting it in Eastern Washington on the banks of the Columbia river (where I'm from) and changing all the names (so Marjorie became Shirley) just to try to shake things up a bit and give myself permission to stray from the facts. I still have no idea where it'll ultimately land. To me – at its heart it's a story about someone who makes a huge, sexy scientific discovery. And then continues to lead (more or less) the same life she did before the discovery. It's about ambition. It's about collaboration and competition (and how painful that can be
especially when it's with your friends). And it's about choosing a life that's true to you – even if it doesn't make sense to other people. If I can get those things right, then I'm happy.

Are all the characters in the play based on actual people or did you create some of them?

I more or less created the character of Enoch – Marjorie's assistant. Marjorie does mention that she has an assistant named Enoch. But that's just about all she says about him. He helped her cart the coelacanth around from the cold storage to the morgue when she was desperately trying to find a way to preserve it. But I have no idea about his personality, his family, or his life. Having Enoch in the play, and letting him be whoever I wanted him to be, was really helpful. He gave me a little more ownership over the story.

How did you first become interested in the coelacanth?

I'm a little ashamed to say that I first encountered the coelacanth during a Wikipedia binge. Although I've been drawn to dinosaurs and fossils and prehistoric creatures and big swimming beasts since I was a pretty little kid. 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2496","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"468","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 273px; height: 269px; margin: 10px; float: right;","title":"The drawing Marjorie Latimer sent to JLB Smith","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"475"}}]]The Equinox documentary The Fish That Time Forgot identifies the fisherman who dramatically discovered the second coelacanth in 1952 as Ahmed Hussein but in the play the character Enoch says this is incorrect and that his name is actually Ahamadi Abdallah. How did you discover that? Is that based on new research?

As reported in Old Four Legs: The Story of the Coelacanth, the account he published in 1956, JLB Smith and the French recorded the name as "Ahmed Hussein". But then two years later when National Geographic was doing a story on the coelacanth (which they never published), they fact checked it in the Comoros and it turned out the wrong name had been written down. 

What made you decide to make the coelacanth talk? As the only living creature whose form has barely changed since the Late Cretaceous era some 400 million years ago, what do you think he has to say to us?

Oh man. I wish that I knew what the coelacanth would have to say to us! Probably something contrary to everything we think is true. I wanted the coelacanth to speak because the thought of a four-foot prehistoric fish coming to life onstage was too much fun to pass up. But I'm still trying to figure out exactly how she operates in the play. In the latest draft, the coelacanth sort of takes Enoch and Marjorie to task. She's pretty hard on them, I think! A straight talker. Also, she sings.

Do you fish? What’s the strangest fish you’ve caught?

I'm a catch and release kind of girl. But no strange fish here! Just rainbow trout with my Granddad.

You can watch the Equinox documentary about the coelacanth below.