My Theatre

27 January 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Mikaela Davies (2017)

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Mikaela Davies refuses to stay in her lane. Having focused on modern work most of her career to date, she stormed onto the Stratford Festival’s prestigious Tom Patterson stage in 2017 in the leading role of Middleton & Rowley’s Jacobean classic The Changeling and earned an Outstanding Actress nomination. She then re-teamed with her indie collaborator Polly Phokeev for The Mess, the continuation of their series of intimate site-specific one act plays where Mikaela’s credited as both director and co-creator, looking to earn her second Outstanding New Work trophy in two years. She won’t choose between big stages and small, contemporary or classical, directing or performing (or creating or producing or general ass-kicking). And, because she won’t choose, she’s proving that she shouldn’t have to.

Catch us up on how you’ve been since last year’s Nominee Interview Series.
I had a pretty cool year. I did three shows at Stratford, which was great. During my time at Stratford, I did a remount with Polly of How We Are – The Morning After, in Kingston, which was insane. I did it during tech for Madwoman of Chaillot, and I just sort of went to Kingston and remounted that, and also rehearsed it in my apartment in Stratford, so that was crazy. I was very excited to pull that off.

And then, as soon as I came back to Toronto, Polly and I dove into The Mess, which was awesome, to work in a storage locker, and deal with all that. Now Polly and I are doing some workshops together. Polly and Hailey Gillis and I are going to be working on a musical adaptation of The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. We’re going into a workshop for that at the end of February. So, a lot of creative stuff on the go right now.

What attracted you to the role in Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling?
I’d never heard of the play until I was asked to audition for it. For some reason, it completely escaped my theatrical education. But when I started reading it… I didn’t look up the synopsis or anything, so I just started reading the piece, and I started to get the feeling like “Ooh. What is going on here? Am I reading this right? Is she into him?” And I had this very interesting discovery process of like “Holy fuck, did she just use the word love?” And so I had to go back, and was like “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s happening?” I think that was part of the attraction. The darkness, and the really creepy dynamic that these two were playing into each other. I love pieces in acting or directing that examine the grey, and this certainly examines the grey.

The Changeling with Ben Carlson (photo by Lynda Churilla)

There are multiple ways of reading the character, and her level of culpability. What’s your perspective on what spurs Beatrice to do the terrible things that she does, and then the extent to which she’s made to pay for those acts?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how this piece resonates in 2018 – or 2017, when we did it. And I know that there has been, and continues to be, a lot of criticism on the sexism of the piece. And I understand that. I would argue that Beatrice-Joanna is a really wonderful example of a female character with agency. She spurs all of the events of the play. Her actions do that. In classical theatre, female characters, even some of our heroines, can be a little collateral-damaged. It’s a male’s quest, and [the women] sort of get sidelined or affected by that. But Beatrice-Joanna is the person that creates the action in the play. And it’s her unwillingness to live within the expectations of society that ultimately creates her demise. Now, to me, that is a strong woman living in a sexist world, and I think that’s the difference. When we just write off that piece as a sexist, misogynistic piece of theatre, I think we’re missing something. Is there sexism and misogyny? Yes. A mass. But you have a woman trying to fight against that, and ultimately she has to die for it.

I kind of see her journey as an awakening, of sorts. The first awakening is when she meets Alsemero in the church, and she realizes – it’s like Romeo and Juliet, right? She instantly feels this kind of love and attraction, so she’s like, “Oh. Whatever my father told me love was gonna be like – that’s not love. This is love!” Then she engages with this thing with De Flores and all of a sudden she’s actually really met her match, where he’s just as smart as her, if not smarter. He challenges her, and it’s like “Oh no. This is love!” I think she just gets swept up into doing things that cause an enormous amount of pain for all kinds of people because she’s on this journey of discovering who she is.

How did the updated setting reframe her role in the story?
When we take classical [plays], and we put them in different periods, what’s really going on? Because ultimately, we still have to say the text that was written by Middleton and Rowley. What it did for me was create a sensuous environment where we talked a lot about what was happening in Spain at the time, and the violence on the streets – the sanctity of life was different in 1930’s Spain than it is in 2018 Canada. The idea that somebody’s life could be disposed of was still vile, but wasn’t as vile as we would see it with our 2018 Canadian perceptions. There’s something about that that played into it, the kind of sexuality of these characters, and the forbidden-ness and the darkness. The heat. All of that is kind of fun environmental things to play. But ultimately, you’re left with Middleton’s text, and so it becomes this duality where you have these two worlds happening at the same time. So it creates a lens and a way in. It creates an image, but for me, the story’s in the text.

As you touched on earlier, so much of the play flies or dies with the connection between Beatrice and De Flores. Can you talk a little bit about working with Ben Carlson in that role?
Yeah, that was fantastic. I first met Ben at Soulpepper, in the global cabaret version of Spoon River, and he was there playing bass. I’d recently moved to Toronto, so I didn’t know who he was, and there were a bunch of musicians in the group, as well. And so I just assumed he was a musician. I remember some people knew him, and I was like “Oh, that’s kind of interesting! He knows some of the people in the room.”

And then we were given monologues, early in rehearsal, and we all had to just do a read. And he read his, and I was like, “That’s pretty good!” So I went up to him, and I was like “Hey! That was great!” And he’s like, [skeptical voice] “Thanks.” I was like “Huh, all right, bass players are strange.” [laughs]

And then finally one of my friends, I think it was Kat [Gauthier] or Hailey [Gillis], was like “That’s Ben Carlson. He’s not just a bass player.” And I was like “Ohhh”. And so I Googled him, and I was like, “Oh, that’s really embarrassing.” So I love that story. I don’t know how much Ben likes it. Because I had no idea what I was dealing with when I first met Ben. By the time I was cast in The Changeling, I knew what I’d be getting into. He’s phenomenal. Ben was so, so good to me, and really took me under his wing. I remember him taking me out, and talking about “Okay, we’re getting into the tech period soon, and so this is a time where things might start to get set, so if there’s anything you’re uncomfortable with, or anything that you don’t feel like we’ve got, talk to me about that, and let’s start to change it.” He was so open in creating a dialogue. He was patient with me.

This was my second classical show ever. And I was playing the leading role. And Ben is, god, I don’t even know how many classical pieces he’s done. And he let me kind of fumble my way around in the dark for a bit, try to figure out what the hell I was doing. And when I finally started to get it together, he was absolutely there. An amazing sparring partner. I love doing those two-handers with him. I live to do those scenes with him.

Tell us about working with director Jackie Maxwell. 
I love Jackie. So when I first moved to Toronto – I think I told you this last time, that I made this list of directors I want to work with. She was top of my list. So it was so exciting to actually get in the room with her, and similarly, she really fought for me. She didn’t have to fight very hard in my case, but she really made it clear that she wanted me to have a voice in the room, and for me to have agency.

She also took me out for a drink. It’s what people do. They just take you out for martinis and tell you what’s what. So she took me out for martinis, and spoke a little bit about her vision for the piece, but she wanted to make sure that I felt that I had agency. And because of that, I really felt like I did. So I was able to take on this part with lots of sexuality, and a lot of ugliness in the way she’s portrayed, and feel confident and safe throughout the whole process. I really admired that about Jackie.

You say that she didn’t have to work that hard to give you a voice in rehearsals. Would you say you’re more outspoken than most in the rehearsal room?
I think I’ve become that person. I don’t think I started out that way. I think I was quite shy at first, but working with directors that have left me room to have a voice, I’ve grown into that person. Like Mitchell Cushman, like Jackie Maxwell, Stephen Ouimette- they create a space for you, and then you realize “Fuck, I do have things to say, and I have questions to ask”.

That’s awesome. Especially as the young woman in the room.
It is, it is. And I think we need to work harder to empower the younger women and men in the room, to speak and to ask questions, and that’s not to say – there are always people that will be smarter than you, and just know more shit, and you need to give them space, too. But there’s this old mythology of younger artists just having to shut up and listen. I think that kind of mythology perpetuates an unhealthy power structure. I think younger artists have a lot to say, and should be treated with respect and equality.

Timon of Athens (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

You mentioned Stephen Ouimette who directed Timon of Athens, one of our most-nominated productions.
Yes, I saw that! I told Stephen he’d won theatre. 

What stands out in your memory about that production?
God. You know, watching Joe [Ziegler] and Stephen together was a really winning combination for me. I worked with Joe on The Crucible at Soulpepper and fell in love with his work there, so being able to sit back and watch him do his thing in the room was fantastic. I think Stephen’s sort of masterful in his work with Shakespeare. All of his directions were always so human, and constantly just trying to get you to be in your own body and your own self using this text, and making it sound like improv. So that was a great production, because I didn’t have very much to do in it. It was a great opportunity to go from The Changeling, where I had enormous amount of responsibility on my back, to be a glorified extra in Timon when I could just sit and watch these guys do their thing.

You’re actually nominated twice this year, including as a co-creator for The Mess, in the Outstanding New Work category. Can you talk a little bit about the development of The Mess and what came first, the story or the storage unit?
[laughs] I think – and if you’re going to talk to Polly, she might have a totally different idea – but I think it was the storage unit. I think that’s what we were attracted to. And then we did an original workshop of The Mess where the character of Annalise and the character of Mark were also millennials, so it was a bunch of young people, and then at some point we realized “Oh, no. There needs to be a generational divide”.

And then the piece really started to change. Polly and I sat in this diner and kind of mapped out the beats, and who these people were gonna be, and what they were gonna be going through. And she went away, and did some writing, and brought it back to me, and then we started shifting stuff around. Once we got into rehearsal, similarly to Morning After, the piece started to change. Poor, poor actors. Once they were on their feet [we were] cutting lines, rearranging stuff, rewriting things every day. Improv-ing to try and generate more dialogue, and figure out what we were doing.

There was a moment we were in this storage locker – it was very late – and we still hadn’t finished the ending of the play. I think we were opening in a week, or something. We’re sitting there, and we’re both exhausted, in terrible moods. Polly was like “I’m feeling faint”, and I’m like “No! We have to finish this play! We can order a pizza to the storage locker, but we’re finishing the play!” And we deliriously just hashed it out, and it ended up being something we stuck with. It’s a very strange working process.

How has your collaboration with Polly grown and evolved since The Morning After and through The Mess?
Gosh. I think we’ve become so in sync, and what we’ve really worked on, in a funny way, is how to be kinder to each other, because we’re both very passionate. What we’ve done the most work on in our professional relationship, is to give each other more grace and space and just be nicer to each other. I forget how good [a writer] she is. Like, I take it for granted, and I’ll be like “Ugh! I hate this line!” and sort of pinpoint something. But in reality, it’s like one line out of 500, which is fucking awesome. What I’ve been doing – and I think she has as well – is just realizing how great and unique and special this working relationship is. Our communication has gotten a lot better, which means we’re working faster, and we’re working more confidently. So the work is getting better.

Michael Ayres in The Mess (photo by Dahlia Katz)

We talked about this a little bit last time with The Morning After in the bedroom, but even more so with The Mess, the clutter was full of character details. What were some of the things that we might not have noticed, because you obviously filled the entire storage locker with details of this man’s life.
There was an old poster for Mark’s one-night-only open mic standup in Chicago. That was on the inside of the drawer. There’s also a ripped-out calendar of clouds, in the top left-hand corner. I thought, if you’re in this dark storage unit, and you don’t spend very much time seeing the sky, it’d be nice to have. What would they wanna look at?

There were things like toothbrushes and floss. There was a little lunchbox. There was a water crate with two plastic cups. There was a pizza box in that recycling pulley. There was lots of men’s clothing that would have been Mark’s clothes. Oh, yeah – there were the books! These detailed books. Robyn [Stevan] and I got it down to a science of what books she was gonna take, and hang onto. I loved them, and nobody ever really saw them because she’d already started sorting it by the time people got in there. But for some reason, we were given a lot of books on death and dying, and grief. So there were these themes of grief everywhere, in different corners of the space.

What were you hoping audiences would take away?
I don’t know; life is complicated. I mean, both in Morning After and The Mess, and Lecture, this third piece we’re working on, we hope that audiences will really ask questions. There’s no moral, there’s no message. There’s no protagonist in terms of a winner, and an antagonist, in terms of the foil. We’re really trying to create these slices of life, and these people are all complicated.

There’s this thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, as I think of mentors of mine in the past, that I think have done some ugly things. I’ve been thinking of this statement: “Both these things are true”. I think about that a lot in the characters Polly and I create, and the work we do, that both these things can be true. Inside of us, we can have these polar opposites running through our veins. And that’s what makes us human. So I would hope that audiences would come in and get invited into the mess of the world we create, and kind of sit and sift through the grey with us.

What can you tell us about Lecture and where the series goes from here?
Lecture – right now, we’re in a workshop for it – it’s currently being inspired by some of the outspoken university professors that we might have seen on the news. Right now, we are examining two questions. One is freedom of speech versus hate speech, and censorship. And another is generational feminism, which is a big theme right now we’re seeing in the news with the whole Me Too movement, and there are a lot of women in the boomer generation that are stating, “This has gone way too far.” And there are a lot of women in the millennial generation that are saying, “Not nearly far enough.” And so, examining those questions.

What else are you working on now? What do you have coming up?
The next piece I’m going to be working on, aside from Master and Margarita, is this piece Mars Interviews 2.0, which we might have spoken about last year. We’d done a little version of it at the Honest Ed’s farewell, and so we just got some funding to go back into a workshop. This is with Aaron Poole, and Polly. Which is about the Mars One mission to colonize Mars. So right now, it’s a long-form improv piece. We did a workshop with Ali Badshah, Barbara Gordon and Sheila Ingabire at Honest Ed’s, creating these three very different characters that were being interviewed to leave the planet permanently and create new life on Mars.

I’m fascinated by that piece, because it’s currently something that I think we will see, an attempt, failed or successful, to establish life on Mars in our lifetimes. And to me, it really speaks to – what is it that people want to run away from? It’s such a human story, and of course there’s an enormous amount of science involved. But at the heart of it, it’s about these humans that are trying to leave their lives behind.

And do you have anything you’d like to add?
I think what I’d like to add, because I’m doing all of this work with this group Got Your Back with Martha Burns and Jennifer Wigmore, and started by Thalia Kane, Maev Beaty… I think I would like to encourage artists to get involved with their unions and their associations, and start asking questions about the policies and measures that are in place to protect them, to create a safe working environment. There’s a lot of change happening right now, and a lot of dialogue, which is a really exciting thing, and it feels like people are really listening, and so I would encourage people, say now’s the time to speak up.

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