Last year’s winner for Outstanding New Work, playwright Polly Phokeev returns to the same category this year with The Mess, the second instalment of her How We Are series, developed with her creative partner Mikaela Davies. A triptych of complex site-specific one-acts that bring the audience in close to the action and never let us off the hook, How We Are is one of the most interesting ongoing projects in Toronto and Polly has quickly become one of my favourite creators, marked by her fiercely open mind and dedication to beautiful, ugly, emotional honesty.
Catch us up on what you’ve been doing since last year’s Nominee Interview Series.
Well, lots of things. Mikaela [Davies] and I have been working on the second part of the How We Are triptych, The Mess. We had a production of that in December. We also toured How We Are: Part One, Morning After, to Kingston in the summer, to the Kick & Push festival, so that was really exciting.
Now we’re working on a lot of projects together. I think we have four or five. The third play in that triptych is called Lecture, and I’m really excited about it. It’s also going to be site-specific, set in a lecture hall, in a university with a dual narrative happening. There’s going to be a professor in a university who’s giving a straight-up academic lecture, and that’s one part of it. And the lecture is about the ethics of free speech versus hate speech. It veers into inflammatory territory.
And at the same time, the audience and students – who are played by actors – are connected by laptops to a chat forum. So while the lecture’s happening, there’s also a chat happening, like in university classes, you’ll see people half paying attention to a lecture hall anyway, while chatting to each other on Facebook. This will be happening, and as the story begins, the chat is casual, and people joke around, and stuff. It becomes about the lecture in a more meaningful way, and then becomes about dismantling the lecture, and then perhaps becomes vicious towards the professor herself. Perhaps they find something about her personal life that they can use against her. And it kind of becomes about who is in the right.
It’s a question of generations too, [with] a professor who’s from a generation where free speech was the most important thing, and it was maybe more acceptable to do or say or believe certain things that oppress others in the name of free speech. Her case can be seen from that. On the other hand, there are students – [from] my generation, for the most part – who are also sometimes referred to as the snowflake generation. Maybe a little bit hyper-sensitive, and too politically correct, if that’s a thing. And so, what is the balance? What are the goods and ills of each of those things? That’s a very long explanation for a play that will not be so long. [laughs]
What are you doing outside of your work with Mikaela?
I am doing my masters as well. I’m writing a novel. It’s a historical fantasy YA novel, about a shapeshifter in the 1880’s in Russia. I was starting it last year when we spoke. I’m still writing it. Novels take a long time, I’ve discovered. It’s really hard, and rewarding in a lot of ways. And really scary, in a lot of ways.
I find it fascinating to be on my own, in a way – I haven’t been on my own as a writer a lot. When I’m collaborating with Mikaela or anybody else as a playwright, I still write on my own a lot, but I’ll write a draft, and I’ll bring it to someone, and they’ll say stuff, and I go back and write a draft, and bring it to someone. And then we bring it to actors, and I find as a playwright, the majority of the changes that I make will be actually during the rehearsal process, because there is so much that you learn when you see actors embody those characters and words. But with the novel, I have a thesis advisor, who’s very lovely, and has a lot of thoughts, but I only send her something once every six months, or something like that. So for the rest of the time, unless I share it with a trusted colleague or friend or whatever, it’s just me writing. There’s no accountability. Nobody knows if I’ve done it or not. [laughs] The freelance life. It’s just the writer life.
So I’m working on that, and I’m also working on a project with a couple of people – Jajube Mandiela, Darcy Gerhart, and Charlin McIsaac. [We’re in the] very early stages of a project called The Parry Sound Project, working title. It’s going to be a collective creation involving movement and music, that’s going to be about Charlin and Darcy’s family lineages through Parry Sound, and then through the States, and Europe. Examining their side of colonial legacy – they’re both white girls whose families have been involved in different ways in the oppression of indigenous peoples, or the monopoly over certain industries. I’m not going to speak for the two of them, but I think they have a lot of feelings about that. While these people in their family have also been lovely parents and grandparents, or great-grandparents who loved their children and tucked them into bed and sang them lullabies, how do we contend with that complexity?
Let’s go back and talk about what you’re actually nominated for. Tell us a little bit about the development of The Mess.
The Mess is the second part in the triptych that began with How We Are, Part One: The Morning After. And then The Mess, and Lecture’s going to be the third. After we did How We Are (later renamed “Morning After”), Mikaela and I talked about this feeling of incompleteness in the story, and we didn’t want to continue the story of the two women in a way that answered it. We wanted to give it a companion piece, and then we liked the idea of threes, so we decided on a triptych. We were looking for companion pieces that could be emotionally different and similar enough, if that makes sense. To me, there’s a line of heartbreak through all of them. They’re different kinds of heartbreak that happen.
And then as I was mulling things over, I had this thought of spaces of storage, garages, unpacking someone’s life in some way. At one point, there was a thought of having it at someone’s house, again, and having a house to rely on through the triptych. I had a family friend who committed suicide this September that I started writing it, which wasn’t this September but the one before, I think. And that certainly weighed heavily on my mind.
It’s funny – I don’t know if it’s life imitating art, or art imitating life, but my grandma also died last year, this past year, and I think grief has been really big on my mind. The thought of losing people, and what it means to revisit their lives. When my grandma died, and we were going through her things, her pockets had candy wrappers in them. Just the thought of this woman on her own in her room, having candy and hiding it in her pockets. She wasn’t allowed to have candy, because sugar made her cancer worse. Stuff like that. What does it mean to get to know somebody through the things they leave behind? I think that was interesting, contending with different versions of a person. The different versions of my grandmother, the different versions of this young man who killed himself in my life. For me, that’s kind of where the impetus came from, for this script.
We did have a workshop of The Mess last winter, as well, in late January, early February. So we’d already been working on it. My grandma dying happened after that. We came together and did a workshop with actors. Some younger folks. Really great. In this production that we just did, Robyn Stevan played Annalise, who is older than the original Annalise that we were thinking about, played by Alice Snaden in our workshop, who is in her twenties. We thought it would be really interesting to have a generational difference, as well. The premise of the play is that there’s a woman whose estranged ex-husband has died, and she’s cleaning up his storage locker. And then a young man arrives, who has been involved in his life in a new way, and they kind of contend with who knew him better, who loved him better. There’s also a third character, who’s a young woman, who’s there, and provides some outside knowledge of this man who died. Just curious about the generational gap, as well.
I was going to ask you about the generational divide, which Mikaela brought up in her interview. How did you find that the decision for it to be two different generations really shifted the piece?
Tremendously. For one, it was a question of, “What would be higher stakes?” For Annalise, who’s the estranged ex-wife of the man who died – his name’s Mark – I think it is a bigger deal, if they were married for 20 years, and then this young man shows up and says, “well, I knew him for two, or one, or however long, and this stuff is therefore mine and I loved him more”. There’s a bigger imbalance in that, and how much more would it hurt if he was right? And how much more would it hurt if she had to defend herself in front of this young man who couldn’t possibly know Mark better? So there was a doubt of that.
And also, there was a mothering that also always existed in that character. There was this taking care of Tristan, who’s the young man that shows up. And I’m curious about that, too – the layers of [how] each of them, actually, have an attraction for Mark. Even Mackenzie, who’s the young woman who is most distant from the immediate relationship between people and Mark. But my opinion, anyway, is that they all have a sort of attraction to him, whether it’s Mackenzie having a light crush, Tristan having a beginning, burgeoning deep love, and Annalise, on the flip side- they didn’t divorce, but post-separation, which I imagine also had a lot of fights involved. Those things were really curious to me.
How has your collaboration with Mikaela deepened and evolved through working on your second project?
A lot. I’m really proud of us. I think we are kinder to each other.
That’s exactly what she said!
[laughs] It’s true. I think that we are getting better at communicating honestly, but in a kinder way. I think we’ve always been pretty good at telling each other exactly what we feel. Like if we hate a thing, we hate a thing. I’ll pitch an idea, she’ll be like “I hate it!” And vice versa. I do the same thing. But I think being kinder with our thoughts in a way that isn’t coddling.
We still are very much on each other, for having clear ideas, as much as possible. But I think that there’s more room for moments of rest, and caring for each other’s feelings, and taking space sometimes if we need to take space from an idea. And trust, too. I think we’re more trusting. On my end, for sure – more trusting, and more trusted. If I have an idea and I can’t explain it quite well, but I’m just, like, “Bear with me, can we go down this line for a little bit and explore it?” She’s like, “For sure, let’s do it.” It’s reciprocal. [laughs] I feel great. She’s great.
Tell us a little bit about the casting process for The Mess, and how the actors you ended up choosing helped to shape the characters from what had previously existed in your head.
Oh, fantastic. They are all super rad. We knew Michael Ayres from a workshop. He provided the voice of Mark in the workshop. We really wanted to work with him. We’d held invited auditions for the workshop, and he had originally read for Tristan. He brought this discerning intelligence to his initial audition, and the way that he approached Mark – and again to the way that he approached Tristan in this iteration, which was full of really useful questions and heart. He really dives into the emotional reality of his characters, in a really inspiring way.
And then Robyn – such a beautiful circle in my life, actually – when I was 16, in a Soulpepper youth programme, Robyn was my mentor. That was a really formative experience for me. She’s always been on my mind as a person to work with one day, and it just so happened that the timing worked out. She’s been working as a teacher, but her schedule just allowed – just barely. It was definitely not an easy time to schedule for anybody, but she had just enough time, and had the desire to commit, which was amazing, to this project. Mikaela and I were both really excited to work with her on that. Again, she brings such immense heart. And combat. She’ll fight for her character in a really exciting way. She’ll defend that character, and her ideas, which is great.
Mikaela had worked with Rebecca [Applebaum] in a VR shoot at one point. She’d coached her in a VR film, which is such a cool medium, but that’s another story. I hadn’t met Rebecca, and so we actually Skype-auditioned her, because I hadn’t seen her work. And she read through a scene with me. I was in a bathrobe at my parents’ house, having a coffee, and she blew us away. She had this amazing commitment to the character, and great, discerning thoughts about the character’s arc, and the arc of the scene. And as soon as we hung up from Rebecca, Mikaela and I stayed on the line, and we were like “Yeah, for sure. Just 100%.” And then we e-mailed her instantly being like, “You. Yes. Let’s work with you.”
As you mentioned, your scripts tend to change mostly in the rehearsal process with the actors. What were some of the major changes that came about through the discussions you were having once the show was on its feet?
Man. Mikaela and I are the worst, and the best, for changes during the process. There were changes up until two days before we opened. There was a change after opening, actually – not in lines, but in a blocking scene. There was an ending moment that was added.
What were the biggest changes in the process? There were overhauls. No overhauls of the whole plot, but there were days where we’d come in, and we would cut some of our favourite exchanges of dialogues. Half-pages. Multiple pages. In the earlier parts of the process, I would bring in editions. There were some times where I’d bring in a new speech, or a new re-jigging of the order of things. I don’t think anything in the plot changed, per se, but some of the integral arguments that they made did change our vision of Mark, the man who’s dead. Some of those things changed pretty significantly, I think. Bless the actors for bearing through it. It’s never easy, but it’s a process that works really well, and I think lighting the fire of “Oh my God, we’re opening in two days” also helps us make clear decisions in a lot of ways.
What were some of the challenges of producing in a storage unit?
Other people that are in the unit. There was a man who lives there, maybe, possibly. I don’t know if he’ll get in trouble now that I’ve said it. There’s a man who we think may be living in a storage unit- who was very nice. But sometimes loud, and he’d walk around with music, and we’d talk to him, but he was still around.
There was a band that started rehearsing at the very end of one of our shows. That was a very surreal moment. The closing image of the show is quite a still one, and there’s a little bit of silence. And just at that moment where if this were a movie, the credits would roll – a rock band started playing in the very distance. Kind of muffled, but kind of echoing through these empty halls. I was like, “Oh my God. If Mikaela was here, she would freak out.” [laughs] She did freak out when I told her. She found out that it had happened, she was like “What? No!” It was all fine. But I went and talked to the band, and they were very nice people. Had a super rad rehearsal hall in a storage locker – I know so much about storage lockers now.
But the people that owned the storage unit were really nice. We honestly really lucked out. They were so nice. They accommodated us so well. They had a green room. There’s a boardroom you can rent upstairs. This is the Apple Self Storage. Everyone go there. They’re great.
But we did actually have trouble finding a storage unit. This was the third or fourth place that we attempted. Maybe more. Myself and our producer, Alex Rand, reached out to a lot of places, and a lot of places were knocked down for security reasons, liability stuff. Apple Self Storage were super game. We had insurance, and paid them for a month of rent, and also paid for a person on their staff to be there.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
What I’m interested in audiences taking away from all three of the pieces in the triptych is a sense of having been really close to a feeling. Holding a feeling really close to them. I think the physical proximity of the performers and the audience adds to that possibility. But also, hopefully, the complexity of some of the irreconcilable realities that are explored in the piece might create a close feeling. That’s a little bit vague, I don’t want to prescribe a certain feeling – I just want people to feel something, and walk away, and be like, “You know, I felt that.” [laughs] I don’t know. To me, good art is about feeling alive in whatever way that means.
Are there any other new projects you want to talk about?
Yeah, I could mention some of the things that Mikaela and I are developing. There’s nothing set in stone in terms of timing of viewings, but we’re also really excited about a collaboration with Hailey Gillis. We’re working on a musical adaptation of Master and Margarita. We’re going to get into a workshop for that in like two weeks for a little bit, and create the score simultaneously with the adaptation. I’m translating from Russian. It’s gonna be a rad time [laughs].
Mikaela and I are also developing a full version of The Mars Project. We did a short iteration of that at the Honest Ed’s farewell festival last winter, and it’s an immersive, long-form improv play. It’s sort of based on the Mars One mission, inspired by that. It’s a one-way mission to colonize Mars, but not related to NASA or any formal government-sponsored space organization. It’s a private organization, and it’s a series of interviews with hopeful applicants to go to Mars. It does have that same specificity of being in close proximity to the relationships between people. It might be a grand space odyssey future, but it’s about the people. About the conversations between the people.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks so much for having me here. This is so great. Such an honour.