Outstanding New Work nominee How We Are by Polly Phokeev, co-developed with Mikaela Davies, is one of the most complex and moving plays I’ve ever seen. Directed by Davies and staged in a site-specific workshop production for an audience of 15 (or fewer) in a random bedroom on the Danforth, it’s the smallest production nominated for anything this year but it’s also one of the most impactful. Polly and Mikaela came in together for their interview, showing off the twin-think synchronicity and thoughtful honesty that makes their partnership work so well.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?”
Polly: There were goats. I grew up in Russia until I was 5, and my parents took me to the theatre a lot. I don’t know if it was a lot, but it felt like a lot. There was a show – like a puppet show with goats. Goat puppets. And they were jumping. And there was – so in Russia, Santa Claus is like Father Frost, and he has a daughter who is made of snow. She’s like an ice princess girl. And her story is that she falls in love, and then she melts because her heart is warm, and then she dies. So I don’t actually know if it was one show that had goats and her, but I’ve conflated them in my mind so the first experience I think I had in the theatre was jumping goats and the moral that if you fall in love, you will melt and die.
Oh, good. And has that saved your life?
P: Definitely, yes. For sure. The goats especially.
Mikaela: That’s so cool. Mine’s so lame compared to yours.
P: Oh, shit, I’m sorry!
M: My first experience with theatre is I went to go see a production of James and the Giant Peach, in the Fraser Hickson Library in Montreal, and it was especially exciting because they were giving out fuzzy peaches. And that was the main draw. And I remember being really taken with it, and I remember the actors talked to us, and that was really exciting. And I was in the front row, and I got to sit cross-legged on a cushion, and I was allowed to eat my fuzzy peaches during the performance.
P: Oh my God.
M: I know, it was a really big deal.
P: That’s amazing.
M: I must have been like, 3.
Did you go see the YPT production?
M: They’re doing a production of James and the Giant Peach?
Well, they do it every couple years. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it on your way to the Young Centre, there’s a giant peach on the roof of YPT.
M: Oh my God, so cool! My spatial awareness is really for shame. It’s really bad. I don’t know how I can also call myself an actor. I walk like this. I don’t see anything around me at all.
Well, speaking of being an actor, you’re both multi-hyphenate artists. Which comes easier to you: performing, or writing? Directing?
P: I repressed the writer in me for a very long time but probably writing, because I’ve always written. And I decided to go to school for acting because it was another thing that kind of came relatively easily, but was more of a challenge and that I wanted to pursue. I mean, it also was more glamorous, and you get the credit a little bit faster. And it’s a remarkable challenge in the moment, in the way that writing – you get to go back to your room, the café or whatever, and think through problems. And I tend to be… in my life, a rational person. That’s not true. I’m not a rational person in my life. I tend to – if I can take a problem and think through it, that makes me less anxious. But the challenge of acting is that you don’t always have that, and you have to meet your body in the moment. So it’s a very long answer to that, but I think that writing comes more easily to me. I do – but because of that, I love acting for the challenge. For that very reason.
M: I find that a really tricky one. I started off as an actor, and that’s what was available to me, and so directing, I don’t think when I was in theatre school it was something I would do. It didn’t seem like a career path. But I started finding that I ended up coaching a lot of my classmates on scenes, and people were sort of coming to me and I’d work on their scenes, and we’d go back and do the shows, and so I started developing a knack for coaching. And when I was 21, I directed my first play. The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, and I had no idea what I was doing. I remember trying to set the lighting levels, and I called my friend, who was a technician – “can you come help me? I don’t know what’s going on. It keeps saying -10, and I’m like -5, what’s up?” And so I really got into it flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve had a couple of artists, and lots of people that I respect along the way, recommend that I take one more seriously than the other, that I should focus on one, and every part of my being pushes against that. So I hope that I can continue to do both equally, and build a career like that. I don’t personally know a lot of women that have, but there are a lot of men that have managed to do that, and I hope I can follow in those footsteps and be able to create a path where I do both. If the question was “what comes more easily”, I find directing in rehearsals easier. The rehearsal process, I find easier to direct because it’s sort of like some of the best acting where you’re constantly responding, right? So I don’t come in with a pre-made plan, and I just sort of watch live human beings and respond to that, so that’s very fun. Opening nights, that is a hell on earth for me as a director.
M: Like, absolute hell. It’s just awful. My voice raises about ten octaves, I’m like [high voice] “Hi, how’s it going? I’m not nervous, everything’s great! It’s so good!” It’s awful. As an actor, sometimes I struggle in rehearsals and I go “oh, I’m a terrible actor! Acting’s so hard!” and I get to opening night and I’m like “thank youuuuu!” I love being onstage, and the lights, it comes together, it feels like I’m riding a wave. So they’re different.
P: Yeah. Opening nights have given me so much PTSD.
M: We’re the worst.
P: We’re the worst mix. Both of us are just terrible.
M: [nervous laughter]“are you nervous? I’m not nervous!”. Now we’ve started drinking vodka and tequila, like –
P: Tequila shots on opening night!
M: – in the kitchens before shows. Oh, God.
P: We do do that. I’m of no help, because I’ll call you out on being nervous, and you’re not nervous, but then that totally makes you nervous, and then I get more nervous, and it’s just – and then I get the actors nervous.
M: Yeah, it’s like “Polly, stay away from the actors! Stay away from the actors!”
P: “DON’T TALK TO THEM!” Oh. Just, I should be quarantined from all opening nights. Forever. And ever.
How did this partnership start?
M: Shannon Lea Doyle, who I believe was in one of your past Nominee Series, was in the [Soulpepper] Academy at the same time I was, as a designer. And she brought me on board to a collaboration that her and Polly had started.
P: Shannon and I have known each other for a decade. Oh my God. We were in the Soulpepper Youth Programmes together, the youth mentorship and leadership programmes, when we were teenagers. And we kept in touch. I was looking for a designer for scenes, because the aesthetic of the play Of The World was of paramount importance to me, starting off. And so we started playing around with creating the physical world of scenes, and we were looking for a director, and she said Mikaela would be a good match. And we met, and that’s that.
Tell us about your nominated play, How We Are. How did the idea for that play come up?
P: So like three years ago, there was a collaboration among a bunch of artists- I think it was Soup Can, who did Circle Jerk. And one of the plays in Circle Jerk – did you get the chance to see it? No?
P: It’s this beautiful – they should do it again. People from the internet sent in suggestions for beginning and opening lines. And then the first play has to start with this line, and end with this line. And that was the task given to the playwrights. This is your opening line, and this is your closing line. The rest is up to you. And then the closing line of the first play would be the opening line of the second play, and so on, in a circle. And Wes Colford wrote a play called Sex and This. I should get you a copy of that.
M: Yeah, you’ve talked to me about this.
P: And it actually is more pertinent, in a way, to this new play that we’re working on right now. Because it’s about death.
M: Give me a copy!
P: I don’t have one, but I will find one, and give it to you. Actually, it was such a distinct honour to be in [Safe Words play reading festival] this year, Wes and I were both finalists, and he and I had our plays read the same night. It was How We Are, and a new play of his, and there was a beautiful homecoming in that, I guess. I saw Sex and This, which is about two young women that are getting ready for a party, and they find out that their friend has overdosed and died. And it’s just the chronicle of that night, and how they have to sift through – do they post on Facebook, who do they tell, how do they handle this? Holy shit, their friend is dead. That whole thing. And How it is not at all about that, but it is two women. I was very inspired by that play, and when I went home that night, I wrote the first 15 pages of How We Are. I had been interested for a while in the topic of that fine line between romance and friendship among women, and just the aesthetic of Sex and This really hit me in a dialogue-driven, real-time – he does skip time in his play, but for the most part, is very driven by the moment. And those two elements collided, and I started to write. So that was the beginning of it, and I kind of wrote it on-off for a year or so, and then I brought it to Mikaela eventually, and we decided to put it up. In December.
M: Yeah, you actually brought it to me as an actor.
P: Oh yes, that’s right!
M: I was in a reading of it playing the part that Virgilia [Griffith] played.
P: That’s right!
M: Much better than I did. And Polly and I were looking to do something we had – “oh, we’ve got 6 weeks before – ” I don’t know.
P: You were going to Stratford.
M: Maybe it was Stratford. Yeah, 6 weeks before something, or maybe it was even a month. It was a little bit crazy.
P: It was insane. Because we had December to talk about, and then at that meeting, we called Sochi [Fried] and Virgilia –
M: – and we’re like “okay, we got a play”, right? And then we sort of jumped into rehearsals and started to re-work what the throughline of the story would be. And we had cue cards everywhere, Post-Its – and we started to do improvs, so Polly and I would discuss situational stuff and what we were interested in exploring, and then bring in curated improvs for Sochi and Virgilia to sometimes generate dialogue that Polly would go back, write some stuff, bring it to me, and we’d constantly be exchanging – I have a few vivid memories of you and I, and a bottle of Jameson at bars, kind of being like “Okay, imagine if I said this to you. What would you say?” And you being like “No, I don’t know.” Kind of improvising ourselves, and bringing that in.
P: And Mikaela’s been so instrumental in the creation of it, as well. The flow of the dialogue, constantly challenging me on – what’s our new favourite note? “Where is this coming from?”
M: Yeah, “where’s this coming from”.
P: “Why’s she saying this? Why would anyone ever say this?” We’re currently working on the second part of this How We Are series, and so it’s interesting to be looking back as we enter into a new process of this.
M: Yeah. And also, it was a buddy of mine, Aaron Poole, who we brought into an early rehearsal that coined this phrase that Polly and I really stuck with, which is “Oh, it’s not theatre, it’s a conversation”. And that sort of became our – I don’t know if I ever told Aaron this, I should probably call and thank him – but that kind of became our… motto, and so anytime something felt a little bit poetic or whatever, we just tried to rip that apart, like that’s not this play. It’s a lot of other beautiful plays, but that’s not –
P: Which is so hard for me, because I tend towards the poetic. I tend towards, like, “here’s an image, it’s conceptual and maybe not something I would say in real life”. Or I don’t know – I say weird things in real life, so maybe it is.
M: That’s always your argument. You’re like, “I say these things!”
P: You’re like “But you’re weird!” No, but it’s true. And that’s been such an interesting challenge too in terms of structure. Because plays, for better or for worse, do have a structure. You hit your rising action, your climax of some sort, there’s a denouement, and however much we roll our eyes, but the formula of it – there is a structure that most narratives follow. I think How We Are still does have an element of that. But there are moments to me where I feel like that pinch of wanting to bring it to – to be a play, and especially when it’s in script form outside of the actors, I sometimes forget that it’s a conversation, but then as soon as we get into the room with you and the actors, I’m reminded of just how close everyone is physically. Am I making sense?
M: Yeah, absolutely. And this really came to a head when we tried to figure out the ending. How do we wrap this thing up, this thing that we want to be like life, and have actors that are so good and so present with each other, and dialogue that’s so real, and hopefully nothing feeling staged or forced or false. How do we end something like that? And I don’t think we hit it, the first time. I sort of had Sochi curl up and put the covers under her head –
P: Spoiler alert!
M: Oh, yeah. But something to let the audience off the hook, like you can leave now, and it was sort of in this grey area, and the second time we did it, we had Deanna, who was our front-of-house, open the door and turn the light on, but Sochi was still moving and breathing and being in this space. And that’s – I became really excited about – if it really is like life, and that’s what we’re trying to create, like you’re a fly on the wall, it shouldn’t end. But you have to leave, you have to go home, you can’t live here. And ideally – and I would always tell Virgilia to wait as long as possible to come back so she wouldn’t run into audience members on the way back from the coffee shop where we sent her – so that the audience can have that experience of “I went into this home, and I saw this thing happen, and then I left, and as far as I know, one girl is still in there, and one girl has gone off.”
P: And the full experience of the two is very important to us, that quality – that it is site-specific, that you do walk into a house, and you walk up the stairs, and around a corner, and you see someone’s things!
M: All of your senses – the smelling, the sweat off their bodies, touching the sheets and the pillowcases on the cushions. We set an eyelash on Virgilia’s cheek, every night, there’s that eyelash moment, where she’s like “You have an eyelash.” She really hates me for this, but –
P: – actually glued an eyelash onto her cheek.
M: Makes me so happy.
P: One audience member –
M: – so happy. There’s one seat where you can see it! I love it.
P: I love it too. It’s like a hyper-specific – and we had something like 12-14 audience members fit in every night, which –
M: We downsized. The space the second time was even smaller.
P: Yeah. I think we – 15 was our actual capacity.
M: Yeah. But that was people sitting on people’s feet on the floor.
So it seems that there would be something missing if you were to remove it from that site-specific context. Is there a way for the experience to grow and to get more audience members in without just lengthening the run?
P: It’s such a good question.
M: Like in a theatre space?
P: I don’t know. I think the fact that you’re a fly on the wall necessitates walls behind you. And if – I’m picturing, if this was in the Round, and the audience kind of sat up, all around… Well, no, because a part of it is the intimacy of the voices too, like someone could say something in the faintest of whispers, and you still catch it.
M: I think there’s a world where we can find a bigger bedroom, and still try and create that intimacy with a really clever designer. But I think we would be losing something to put it up in a theatre. Not that it couldn’t be exciting and relevant and instigate conversation and debate – amazing. But there’s something about – what is it for an audience member to be in the scene of the crime? Like I am here, and did something happen here last night that was not consensual –
P: What does the air here tell us?
P: And it’s the smell, it’s the stuffiness, it’s the fact – and it is uncomfortable sometimes. And it is – you’re so close… I don’t think, yeah. I don’t think that you can replicate that without – and the fact that you have walked through this house, and you hear them, you hear the stomping down the stairs, and the shutting of the door, and all of the other things. Of the other noises in the house.
The neighbours outside.
P: Yeah, the creaking.
M: I became really excited by the visceral experience that an audience member could have. So the writing is fantastic, and the actors are fantastic, that it could be really great in this space, but I think it would be missing that special thing that gets both of us so – and gets Virgilia and Sochi so excited, as well.
P: Yeah. There’s something I love so much about the opening sequence, just for a very, very long time – probably 10 minutes or something – well, maybe not. But a long time – we’re just in the dark with these girls, in a bed, breathing.
M: As people are coming in.
P: As people are coming. And then even when the door closes, and it technically begins, there’s a very long time before any dialogue starts, where Sochi gets up, and puts on some clothes, and goes out, and we hear her walking down the hall, and water running, and its whole –
M: Sochi says she pees, she really pees every show.
P: Every show, yeah!
M: Real pee.
P: And she actually wipes off her makeup that she has on for all of two seconds in the dark that nobody sees.
M: And Sochi and I have those moments down to like a science. I remember, even as the shows were going on, I was like “okay, maybe 6 minutes 37 seconds?” Really working out how much can we sit in this place before we’ve really lost people’s attention.
P: But I think that the space actually does – I don’t think that in a big theatre we wouldn’t sit there for quite as long. I think that we might lose the magic of that moment, and there’s a moment – I love that direction off the top, too, of settling us into the world. Like audience members start looking around, when they realize that – you know. There’s less movement, kind of take in the world of what books do these people have, what kinds of things are in this room, what story does the room itself tell about them?
M: And if there’s sound, you hear Sochi opening her mouth, and sort of tasting the pastiness in her mouth. We wouldn’t catch that in a theatre, right? That’s so specific.
P: And everything becomes so hyper-acutely visible. And I would say almost a more than film way, because tiny little – once the lights come on, and they start talking, there’s the tiniest of shifts in their facial expressions, and their eyes are seen, caught. And micro-movements become important.
M: Build a challenge. The difference, really, is that in films, you direct the audience’s eyes to the editing, right? But here’s it’s like, how do we – how do I tell you where to look at what time?
Talk a little bit about the setting. How do you choose whose bedroom you’re going to use, and where do you find that location? And then how much dressing do you do once you’re there to make it personalized to Sochi’s character?
M: We do a lot of personalizing. It was really important for me, for Sochi to have a huge say in the design of the space. Polly and I figure out seating-wise, we sort of have half of our producer brain on, like how many seats can we fit, and Polly and I would – both times we went in alone and rearranged the bed in 7 different positions, and got someone to come in, and sit in different spots and figure out –
P: I just remembered the moment where you hid in the alcove! [laughs] You thought it was me, but I thought it was you.
M: I was trying to figure out what the sight lines would be. And I’m pretty sure – I think it was Polly that did this –
P: I think it was – no, no –
M: But she swears it’s me. But my memory is Polly was looking at me, like “can you see me”? And I’m like “yes, I can see you! You’re looking at me.”
P: It was you, because you were in this little tiny corner, and you were like… “can you see me?” Why would I be asking that question?
M: I don’t know, I don’t know. So we spent some time figuring out what our options are. Polly and I together would set along where the bed is, and what that will be. But then we bring Sochi in, and she has a big say in where things go, what kind of books – and Sochi and I would fight about it, like “I wouldn’t have this book!” “No, actually, I think you would, and here’s why.” This hyper, hyper-detailed stuff – we’d get Sochi to fill out her own calendar, we all bring in clothes and think “would Jess wear this, would she not,” so it becomes quite a collaborative effort, and Virgilia weighs in.
P: It’s very fun.
M: It’s very fun. We think we’re interior designers now.
P: We do, we do. We should start a company. You did interior design, somebody said!
M: I did, I did. I’ve done it twice before.
P: And the houses themselves – very much is who’s willing to rent out their space for rehearsals, because we have to rehearse there, of course, to really live in the space. That’s something that was more so in the second production, I’d say, than in the first round. We really brought in the sense of the space earlier. Because we had more props earlier on this time around, so the space – this lived-in, it’s our garbage that’s in her garbage can. It’s actually – from an early point, we’d start bringing in the life of it. The first time around we – both times we just posted on Facebook asking if anyone had a space, and generous people responded, and the second time we actually had a lot of people who were willing. We had options. We wound up going with Rosamund Small’s house. She’s a good friend of mine, and it’s a really good location. I think we really loved– it was on a side street, and you kind of walk down this – it was great. It has a good vibe to it, this house. A lot of memories in that house, also.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in the play, and a lot of ways it could be read. How important is it to have two different perspectives in the creation process debating both the facts and the morality of the events of the play?
P: So many [debates]. So many. Did we even agree about it?
M: I don’t know. Yeah, Polly and I are really good at holding each other accountable for our own personal affinities to characters, or moments, or events, because of our different life experiences. For anyone, we all relate to different people at different times, and we’ve become very good at defending characters to each other – which in some cases is even inside a dialogue, so it’s all part of the creative process. And it’s especially tricky in having these conversations with Sochi and Virgilia – both of us have had very different conversations with “this was your experience, and this is what happened.” We’re all on the same page, this is what happened. And then I go to Virgilia and be like “okay, this is what’s happened.” And that’s what creates tension. So I don’t know.
P: It’s a much better answer than any I would have given, it’s good.
M: I don’t know if we’re on the same page. It’s great! I don’t know if we should be. We went out after the opening of the second round with my parents and godparents and had this fiery debate about what had happened. And they all disagreed, and it’s interesting, because I think of my wonderful, really intelligent left-wing parents, and my wonderful, really intelligent left-wing godparents, and they were really arguing about what went down, and whose responsibility it was.
P: One of the things that makes it so interesting for me – which actually wasn’t – I didn’t write it with two women because of this, but it became an interesting thing – was the consent aspect, it seems, would shift if one of them were a man. This was one of the arguments that I think your godfather brought this up. That he felt if Jess, Sochi’s character, had been a man, then it would not be a debate for him. That it wouldn’t be grey. That the situation would be –
M: that Cass had been taken advantage of.
P: That Cass would have absolutely been taken advantage of. And because she was a woman. Which makes me angry on so many levels – not your godfather, but that concept. There were so many ghost pages of semantics-
M: – fondly recalled –
P: – fondly recalled pages that wound up not making it into the thing. And for the best. But this kind of fires up all of the semantics hour debates that Jess and Cass had in earlier drafts. What is sex, and why do we have this perception that sex between two women doesn’t count? Because that relates to a non-consensual situation not counting, or not being as intense, because – was it assault, but not rape? Was it – what words do we use? And it is grey and complicated and messy and uncomfortable. What was the question?
There’s so much consensus within, as you said, a community of intelligent left-wing people. How important and rare is it to have a piece that people can look at the same thing and see something different?
M: I love that. There’s someone who came to see the show that I always – I love his perspective – he saw the show, and I was like, “what did you think?” He’s like, “I really liked it.” “Did you side with one character in particular?” And he’s like, “I absolutely sided with Cassandra.” And I was like “oh, interesting! Why?” And he was like “well, it’s clear that she’s an alcoholic, and if Jess is her best friend, Jess should know that, and Jess was taking advantage of an alcoholic.” For him, that was the story. No two ways about it. For him, zero debate. Like, “I don’t know how anyone could see it any other way.” It was so clear. And then I’ve had people with the complete opposite perspective. So I find that so fascinating, to open up debate amongst all these like-minded people posting the same shit on Facebook, but actually be like – I’ve had heated, passionate arguments with you, with Sochi, with Virgilia, with – really close friends, with my parents, about what happened, and what that means. And I think that’s amazing. It’s great for me.
P: Absolutely. I completely agree with that. I think that – especially topics like consent – but other things too that we in our left-leaning artistic circles all seem to have a consensus on, on paper… are messier than we make them out to be in our Facebook posts, as you say, you know, we can raise our hands and fists and be “ra ra feminism”, and that’s fantastic. But boiled down to it, like if I put myself into this situation, is it so cut and dry? Is it so simple? I think that one of the things about creating – you know, Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech stuck in my head about creating empathy and art as a means of putting ourselves into other people’s shoes for a moment. I think it’s very important for us to challenge our own beliefs constantly and understand that I believe that anyone is capable of anything given certain circumstances. I am just as capable of the most horrific acts given a certain set of circumstances. Those circumstances may be different for me than for you and for you, but they exist. And I think that to vilify, or to write somebody off- however horrific their actions, or however unlike the actions that we would ideally take in a situation- I think that vilifying somebody right off the bat is not useful.
M: It’s like living in the grey, which I think we all do, but this is one of the first experiences where I’ve really tried to just – let’s live in the grey, and “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, here, look at it, I don’t know, what do you think? I still don’t know”.
P: And there’s never an answer, there’s never a solution, because life doesn’t work that way.
M: And all my debates that I’ve had – I’ll flip sides all the time, just to fuck with whoever.
P: Like the opposite side of a thing, yeah. That’s great, I love it.
I think it’s probably revealing too that you know those characters best, as opposed to someone who’s just seen it one time. So your ability, depending on the perspective of who you’re talking to, to see both sides and empathize, speaks to the better you understand something, the more you can empathize with anyone.
M: Mm-hmmm. Totally.
P: I find it just as informative, though, to talk to people who’ve only seen it one time, because it’s a fresh perspective, and it’s that first time glance, right? I have all the drafts in my head at the same time, and I have all the different versions of Cass and Jess, and they have changed! They have, their voices have changed… it hasn’t always been – there were drafts where it’s not grey, and there have been drafts where… they’re going for brunch now!
Have there been drafts where it was not grey in both directions, or just in one direction?
M: Both. There was that – we went through a weird phase once. Remember when we were going to make, like –
P: Oh, yeah!
M: Yeah. And like – that didn’t last very long, but it got weird for a bit.
P: It did.
M: We basically created psychopaths. We had this idea that maybe –
P: We were playing a game.
M: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
P: Oh, thank God I read your mind.
M: That this was a game that they play. It was like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It didn’t really get written.
P: It didn’t really get written.
M: But we improvised it.
P: Did we?
M: Yeah. We left that meeting being like “yes, this is the plan”. And then “hello, this is a terrible idea.”
P: This is a terrible idea, I agree! So rewrite the whole play!
M: Abort! Abort!
P: But you know what? That’s part of the development process. How many drafts did we go through, like, 25?
M: I don’t know. Polly always ends her drafts like “20.7.”
P: I do, because sometimes it’s like – a page has shifted. And then Mikaela’s like “can you highlight what you’ve changed, please?” You don’t know all the lines by heart.
M: I do now.
P: You do.
Talk to us a little bit about casting, and the choice of the actors. How you chose them, and how did they shift who the characters were and how you saw them in your head?
M: Mm. Well, I knew I wanted to work with Virgilia – she’d come in to audition for another play, which she wasn’t quite right for, she was joining an ensemble that was already cast, and she wasn’t quite the right person for that, but there was something about her audition that just blew me away. I was like “I need to work with this girl.” So I sat down for a coffee with her, and we were thinking, what can we work on? I always want to work with Sochi Fried. And so the second Polly and I started talking about this, I think without hesitation, we were like “Sochi and Virgilia.”
P: Yeah. Because Sochi had worked on scenes with us, and Virgilia, I also have known for a decade.
M: Right. Because Virgilia and Shannon, and Polly –
P: – we all did Soulpepper programmes together as teenagers.
M: So that was really easy. The tricky part was figuring out who should play who. And I brought it to both of those girls to see if either of them had a strong instinct. I think we did a reading both ways.
P: We did.
M: And then we talked about – Virgilia really educated me when I met her. It was an audition for a scene. The first question she asked when she came into the room was “how does my body and the way I look affect the story you’re telling? I’m a black woman, and what does that do to your story?” And I’ve thought about that a lot since she asked me that question, and our responsibility of taking those things into consideration as we cast plays. And so I thought a lot about how – what is the story between a white woman and a black woman. What currency does that have? And Polly and I had talked about bringing that into the play, and ultimately felt really strongly about not having it in the play, that’s not an issue –
P: – that’s not what it’s about –
M: – at all. But there are visual stories that are happening in people’s minds all the time based on their relationships to everything. And so that was a really active part in how do we tell this story, and ultimately I became more interested in Virgilia being the woman of desire. I thought that that was a more interesting choice, to add some balance to our world where… this is so complicated and delicate. How do I phrase this? That felt like a more important story to tell. We are inundated with images of young women being the objects of desire. And the irony – I’ve had this discussion with somebody else – the irony is like, this is all through such a patriarchal lens in the first fucking place, so what the fuck, who cares? Smash it all to pieces. However, it’s a currency that people have. They come in and see shows, and they see shows through this lens, and it’s an active thing. And so I became interested in that, so that was another reason.
P: But I think really important to underline as well is what you’ve said – yes, of course that was a consideration, but ultimately the play is about two individuals and beyond the initial casting, that was never –
M: Yeah, once it was done, it was done. It never came up again.
M: But you know – my hat’s off to Virgilia to having the courage to walk into an audition room and saying “so here’s a fucking thing no one’s talking about. And I’d like to ask you what you think about it.” And me being like “oh, okay. I’d better decide what I think about that”, and in conversation with her, making sure, what’s my responsibility as a director to add some balance to our incredibly imbalanced, fucked up world? So yeah. That’s a tiny little part of the big thing, but once they – once we’ve sort of settled on that casting, it just –
P: It felt right.
M: It felt so right.
P: It did.
M: But both of those girls could play the opposite character. I’ve seen it, they can.
And how did they change your original conception of the characters?
P: I think a lot. I mean, this always happens, right? That actors breathe a life into the words that – I’m sitting a lot in my apartment, reading aloud to myself and reacting the way I would react. But I’m one person with one set of instincts, and one life history, and so it’s so interesting to go into a room and have these girls and Mikaela paying attention to where things don’t ring true to them, or do ring true, and where… I’m trying to think of a specific instance, but there have been so many, haven’t there? Of where they’ve challenged us on moments that don’t ring true. I’m trying to think of one.
M: Oh, yeah! Where both girls were like “I wouldn’t say this. I don’t get this.”
P: That’s true.
M: “Help me understand this. If you can’t, cut it.”
P: All I can remember right now is that after the Safe Words reading, and before our October production, we had a weekend in Stratford, where we came and stayed with Mikaela, and just worked the script for three days straight, and had a little gathering reading at the end. And I remember – sitting around this table, and actually, me and Mikaela for 15 minutes debating over whether a line should be “hmm” or “huh.”
That’s a big difference.
M: It is!
P: It is a big difference, it is.
M: Worlds apart.
P: And so similar things happened all the time with the girls. And also, some of the most challenging moments… moments of climaxes, of conflict… there’s a moment where the conversation goes beyond words between the two women, and that was a moment – just before the eruption of violence, there’s a moment where Cass goes into a rehashing of what happened last night, and we worked on that moment a lot. Those couple of pages, and I think that was very difficult for all of us to figure out exactly what that looks like, and what that does, and what Cass is doing. And the girls were so instrumental in indulging that. And actually being in that room, saying “well, what is my thought shift here?” And Mikaela would challenge them, and challenge me. We’d all challenge each other.
M: But also, once we cast Virgilia and Sochi in those parts, it was like – even as you and I would talk through the story, it was always through the lens of Virgilia and Sochi. And so I think it would have been a different script with two other actors.
M: So that’s a really neat thing, that there’s such a huge part of that.
P: Huge, huge, huge part of it.
And other than physical space, what were some of the major evolutions between the first and the second workshop?
P: I think that climactic moment of violence changed a lot, I would say. It became more grounded in a character reality, I think. Cass is doing something more actively to Jess, I think, in that. The violence in the first iteration was sexual, and in this iteration, I don’t think it was. I think it was to humiliate and to hurt. Which I think is a stronger choice. The ending is different.
M: It got greyer, I think.
P: It did get greyer, yeah. It had a lot of grey. A lot greyer. We really were focused, too, on making Jess – I think a lot of us will instinctively side with the person that we’re left with at the end, and also the person who’s in a more vulnerable emotional situation. Jess is the one in love, right? And so I think that the way that we’ve grown used to hearing stories, in the broader world, we tend to side with that – and we worked a lot to strip that down, to say “okay, well, sure this is part of the story, but Cass also has this very deep well of feelings that are no less than Jess’s”, and the betrayal is no less painful. I don’t know. I’ve been talking about it like a pencil that’s been sharpened. It’s like the same thing, but it’s sharper, and greyer.
M: I think we all did better work.
P: Yeah, me too.
M: We just all dived in deeper.
P: We’ve been with it for longer, as well, and that’s what happens, right?
You mentioned that you’re working on part two. Ultimately, you’re aiming for a three-part series?
P: That’s right.
So what can we expect from the other two parts? How is that going to come together?
P: Part 2, I can talk about. Part 3 is still kind of up in the air, in terms of exactly what is going to happen. All three of them are site-specific, all three of them are in real time. And all three, I think, deal with – the second one’s called The Mess. I was going to say “the mess of human existence”.
M: And young people.
P: And young people.
M: That’s become something that’s really important as well, right? That these are stories for people our age, younger – and relevant to any age, but that immediately people can see themselves reflected.
P: Yeah. We’re calling it a sort of coming-of-age story for the millennial generation. It’s a little tagline. But do you hate it?
M: I don’t… you call it that.
M: It just sounds like… I don’t know. I don’t even know what half those words mean. Like, I do, but I don’t know. We’re going to work on that.
P: We’ll work on that. Okay. Well. So, the second one is –
M: That line. “Do you hate it, do you hate it, do you hate it? You hate it.”
P: And half of our conversations are that. “You hate it?”
M: “I have a terrible idea, do you hate it?”
P: Yep. I love it. Terrible idea. Shitty. [Laughs]. So the second one deals with grief, and death, and loss. And what else does it deal with? It’s three strangers that clash over the death of a man, a young man that they all knew. Or thought they knew. And it’s in a storage locker. And we’re really excited about it. I don’t know what else I can say.
P: We’re workshopping it with a fabulous team of actors I’m so excited to be working with- a workshop with script development. It’s not going to have a production this time around, but hopefully in the next year, as we develop, we’ll have a production of all three running simultaneously, is the idea.
M: And each, although… characters will be referenced. Like there are characters that are referenced in the first part of How We Are that will then get their full stories in another part, so you can shed some light on these plays.
P: This world.
So they’re stand-alone pieces within a linked universe?
P: That’s right.
M: There you go. That’s good, steal that!
P: That’s pretty good. [laughs]
And where would you like to see the project go in the future? Three simultaneous productions?
P: Do you want to talk about the two –
M: So Polly and I have joined forces with a –
P: – producer –
M: – producer, and we hope to turn this into a TV series. And each episode would be stand-alone, real-time, one location, young people.
P: Like a 30-minute anthology series.
Something like Easy.
M: We’ve used a lot of inspiration from that. So we have 8 episodes mapped out, and we’re just in the process of –
P: Developing that.
And each of the plays is one of the episodes? Like, will there be a How We Are episode?
P: So this is an interesting rebranding thing we’re doing where the whole series is going to be called How We Are, and the first part that you know as How We Are, and that we’ve known as How We Are is now going to be called Morning After.
So like Star Wars- A New Hope was called “Star Wars”, and then it was retitled when Star Wars became the name of the series as a whole.
M: Exactly like Star Wars!
P: We’re just like Star Wars.
M: Actually, I love that title so much.
P: How We Are?
M: It’s that line – “that’s what girls do, Jess, that’s how we are”. It just encapsulates everything that we’re trying to explore. Like what is it? How we are!
P: But this idea of who people are, and the images of that– I love it.
M: Yeah. My prevailing theme for them – so far, anyway – is how we never really know each other. How everyone kind of has these perceptions of each other, and then we have our own internal lives, and they sometimes go well together, and sometimes they clash. Very painfully.
So you mentioned you started your MFA.
Tell us a little bit about that.
P: It’s an optional residency Masters of Fine Arts at UBC. So I’m doing it online, and in the summers, there’s an opportunity to go over to Vancouver and do an intensive, and it’s five years to finish it. I’m finishing up my coursework this year, and then I’m going into thesis, which in my case is going to be a young adult fantasy novel about a shapeshifter. So that’s another project I have going on. It’s a Masters in Creative Writing, and you have to take at least three genres, so I’ve taken playwriting, poetry, screenwriting, and writing for children and young adults, right now. And I love it. I think it’s fantastic – I really need that fire under my ass, of deadlines, and the thesis- I won’t graduate until I have a book that I can send to publishers. Like a book that’s gone through a couple of drafts. I’m terrified and excited about that.
Do you have anything else you want to talk about project-wise?
P: We’re both doing a million things individually and together. Facebook is erupting with your face, and they’re trying to sell me tickets to your show – [referring to Stratford’s The Changeling which Mikaela will be starring in this season].
M: Really? They just keep trying to sell me tickets to Guys and Dolls. I get it, I’m going!
P: A lot of your face.
M: Really?! I’ve never seen my face.
P: I love your face.
M: Guess I’m not my own target audience.
P: Oh my God. Sidebar. Google thinks I’m going to kill myself because of the play that I’m writing – and it’s suggesting therapists.
M: Google thinks I’m moving because I keep looking up storage lockers.
P: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. I’m Googling “how to live in a storage locker” – oh, spoiler alert- I’m also Googling “what drugs can I take to kill myself in a way, that looks ambiguous?”
P: And half of them are anti-depressants. Like, “what are side effects of anti-depressants?” It’s great. Anyway, I’m also writing a screenplay and I have a couple of projects – I’m also working for the Paprika Festival as the Artistic Programs Manager. We’re planning a really exciting festival in May, with that. And then I have a couple of projects that are to be confirmed for the summer. That’s me in a nutshell.
M: I’m going back to Stratford, that’s fun – I get to work with Jackie Maxwell. When I first moved to Toronto, I created a little Word document of people I wanted to work with.
P: Was I on it?
M: I didn’t know you. And I was already working at Soulpepper. I had Antoni Cimolino and Jackie Maxwell. And there were some other people. But I found it the other day, and I sent it to my mom, and I was like “win!” Yeah. I’m thrilled to be working with her. That’s very exciting, I’ve admired her for a while. So that will be really cool. And then I’m doing the RBC Emerging Directors thing at [Canadian] Stage, so we’ll be developing my solo show there.
P: Is there a public performance that people can come to?
M: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to do that. I have two weeks to workshop it, and I’ll be there in residence and talking to people, and that will be great. But it’s a solo show I’ve started developing in the Academy. It’s about meeting my half-brother for the first time on Facebook. It’s a very real story, and it’s a verbatim piece of messages I actually wrote to him when I was 17. So that’s a cool thing. I’ll mainly be working with them, and just directing these next few workshops with Polly. Am I doing anything else? I’m in a play right now called The Libertine at Talk Is Free Theatre. So doing those shows at Stratford and doing some directing stuff – it’s a really nice balance.
You wrote a really interesting piece for Intermission Magazine over the summer about your time in Breath of Kings and the cross-gender casting. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
M: Sure. I mean, Intermission’s so cool. It’s so neat to be able to read other artists’ perspectives on things, and for me, I find it’s a conversation that so many of us are having in dressing rooms. And that they are now getting front and centre on our Facebook newsfeeds. So that was a really exciting thing. I was really nervous writing the article. I’d been advised by all kinds of people saying “maybe don’t say this” or “maybe wait to publish this” – and I was really thrilled to have the support of the Stratford Marketing Department, who okayed it completely. But yeah, it was a scary thing to talk about something that I have been feeling for a long time, and I still have a lot more to say about it. I’m really fortunate to be having my hand in the development of new modern work that I feel really represents women’s voices. And also be exploring work as an actor in classical plays. That, in some plays, women are a little bit more limited. And so that kind of juxtaposition has been a very interesting tightrope to walk, and I’m wondering, I’m always looking for opportunities of how can we take some of these great classical plays, which we say we’re still producing, because they represent humanity, and actually make them represent humanity?
P: Mikaela just did that. She directed a secret Shakespeare play, Richard II, in which Richard was a woman, and-
M: Bolingbroke played by Virgilia Griffith.
P: Yeah, yeah. It’s a woman as well, and so that – you’re probably taking that idea and bringing it into very strong practice.
M: I’m trying. In that play, I change the pronouns, so that was sort of the opposite of Breath of Kings, and that’s become my new political –
M: Yeah. I’m all about changing the pronouns. I found that huge. Virgilia did this monologue, and “my noble uncle, let me know my faults”, from the Duke of York, and I’m like “that could be your party piece. You should be going in and auditioning with this monologue. The arguments are so strong, it’s so interesting – you are a badass woman. This is a badass character. That should be your thing!” Same thing with Kim Nelson, who played Richard II, and “let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Queens”. To just feel that, to be all “oh, wow, for the first time I felt that could be me! That could be someone I know! That doesn’t need to be this male experience that I’m just on the outside of, and oh, wow, Shakespeare’s such a great writer, Richard II’s so interesting and complex. Like, that could actually be me! I’m allowed to have those thoughts and be in it! And not just say “let’s give women a chance too, and throw them onstage!” To really live, breathe, see me as a woman and as a person.
P: It is so important. As important as it is to have women play these major roles, changing the pronoun means that it’s not just a costume. It’s your body actually loving that.
M: I really believe that. I think it’s important for us to tell stories where men can be sensitive, and in touch with their emotions. And it’s important for us to tell stories where women can be strong and run countries, and start wars, and to have those juxtapositions.
P: And also have actual existential crises. We see sometimes the flip side of the damsel in distress trope, is strong woman trope- the flawless badass. But real women… I know I’m deeply flawed.
What? You’re human?
P: Yeah. But more often now, I think, in the canon of plays, we so rarely see women have genuine flaws that are not either “if a woman has a flaw, than she’s a whore, and is condemned” and “if she doesn’t have a flaw, then she’s the one that gets married”.
M: It’s been interesting seeing women go do The Changeling, and when I was auditioning for it, I started to do some research about how this character’s been received, and historically, she’s been critically slammed. There are very few critics that have embraced unanimously a woman’s performance, while you’d have lots of “he was an amazing Macbeth, a flawless Hamlet” – but that hasn’t been that for Beatrice-Joanna. How we receive flawed, complicated women is very different from how we receive flawed, complicated men. And it’s been interesting to work on this play called The Libertine when Jake Ehman is playing Don John, and he’s fantastic in it, and his character is a raging asshole. He’s a fucking psychopath. And there’s something sexy about that, it’s written that way, and it’s directed that way, and it’s performed that way, and it’s meant for us to be like “why am I reacting this way?” – but that’s the active currency, right? And for women, it’s like– Beatrice-Joanna is really a pussycat compared to Don John in The Libertine. But my guess is that she’ll be received as “she’s really kind of awful, what she does”, so I’m really curious to engage in that gender battle.
P: That’s so interesting. I keep fitting in this article about Hillary Clinton. Let’s face it, the problem is, why do we need to find her likeable? Why do we have to like women? Why can’t we just trust them to lead us? And I think that’s the same thing. We need “likeable women”. What the hell does that even mean?
I also feel that the divide is further perpetuated by the gulf in the number of male versus female playwrights. Putting aside the men who just can’t be bothered to write interesting female characters, I think there are some who fail on that front because they simply don’t understand women well enough to write convincing ones.
P: I wonder – and I don’t know the answer to this at all- but I wonder how much of that is fear. I had a debate about a friend who’s a fantastic writer– he was challenged to write a scene between two strong women. And he felt concerned about not getting it right. And I feel the same way, if I’m challenged with writing a story that is very unlike my own experience, a story from a different culture, then that fear might actually… I wonder whether that fear stifles our ability to be creative and unabashed.
And that brings up the issue of to what degree is it appropriate for creators to tell other people’s stories.
M: This is such a good debate.
P: I think that it’s very important for men to write women. I know it’s complicated, and I know that once we go outside of the gender conversation, cultural appropriation is another big, big thing. So, my novel spans Russia, China, and BC in the 1880’s, and two of those three– in BC it’s the Indigenous cultures- I don’t belong to these cultures. Do I have the right to tell the story? I think that I’m going to do an immense amount of research. So I think that in that spirit of art being the great empathy machine, I think it is vital for us to include everybody in our storytelling. That said, I do think that we need to promote voices that have not been in positions of power, historically. I think that it is also very important right now- and it’s so messy and complicated, right? Because I don’t want to exclude these wonderful, straight white men-
What do we do with all the Shakespeare and Miller and Ibsen and Pinter?
M: My stepdad and I are always engaging in these e-mail debates. And I think it’s art – the way we perceive cultures, genders, sexuality is in our stories, whether they be in our books, on our screens, on our stages, that’s how cultural narratives come about. And if a type or group of people haven’t had a chance to tell their own story, then that narrative has only been seen through a certain lens. And that’s when I think our responsibility as creators needs to come in, and Polly and I have talked about this, because we really want to make our series as diverse as possible. But where do we actually need to ask for outside help? And really bring in other writers and other directors –
P: One of the really important things in our conversations with our producer for the TV series is bringing in people in front of the camera, but also people behind the camera who are women, women of colour, queer people, trans people, all sorts of folks who are historically underprivileged in the positions of power in storytelling. I think it’s important – but it is messy, though, because I keep thinking of Jill Soloway’s keynote address at TIFF, and she makes that kind of tongue-in-cheek comment that cisgender males, cismales, should just kind of stop making films for 100 years. And that, of course, is not something that I want. I have wonderful friends who are cisgender straight white males, who make amazing work, and who also struggle and have feelings and have only this one life, and want their voices heard. So who are we to say stop making work? But at the same time – and also, we as cisgender white females, fit into that – so should we stop making work for 100 years? Which makes me actually very upset. Yeah. I don’t have an answer, but maybe that would be something that would actually help, if we just shut up for a couple decades. For the rest of our lives. Or devote ourselves to promoting the work of others.
M: Well, I think we need to be in dialogue, and we need to do both. We all have our own artist drives, and we need to do what’s in our soul, but we need to be looking for opportunities to share, and engage.
P: Actively. It’s so tricky, inclusion without exclusion- it’s like we need to exist in both worlds simultaneously. How to add without subtracting.
Did you have anything you wanted to add?
M: We said all the things.
P: More than all the things.
M: We’re really excited to be included.
P: Yeah. Thank you for having us, and it’s also so – I’ve read a lot of these interviews, and I find them fascinating, and it’s so fun to get into the minds of other artists who I really respect. So thank you for making it happen.