Interview with ARLINGTON Composer, Polly Pen
An Interview with Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco
and ARLINGTON composer Polly Pen
LG: I’m so happy to have you here. I have talked nonstop about this to anyone who will listen. I’m so interested in first impulses and this blind date. What was it that made you say “I want to work with Victor Lodato?”
PP: I had just read his novel, Mathilda Savitch, and I cannot stop reading ever, so I will read everything. And the novel had been recommended to me and immediately, because it was character-driven – not all novels are – but it led from the heart. It was shamelessly heartfelt, and shamelessly comic as well, as people are, and there was something in the blend of his voice, which is both merry and scary; that is how I’ve always thought of it. And it reminded me of me, with a difference. I don’t want to work with somebody who thinks the same way I do. I think the fun of a collaboration is not only that you love things in each other, but you also can fight. And we have, which is great. You grapple with things. And I knew from reading the book. I had no idea that he was a playwright.
LG: Really? So it wasn’t recommended as “This playwright’s written a novel.”
PP: No. And I didn’t know that he was a poet as well. But, the other thing I felt, and I can only say, I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s something in me that says “I can set this to music.” This prose. You know, it’s not lyrics.
LG: When you read the book!
PP: When I read the book. I said this person has an ear for sound. And many great great writers don’t have it.
LG: Right it’s the poetry. The rhythm.
PP: Just the sheer rhythm and the sounds of it felt musical to me. And without that, I can’t write music. I mean, I can; I can sit and I can probably set the phone book to music, and it would be a good exercise, and I may try it some day.
LG: But you’re saying it just caught you, it excited you, it ignited something.
PP: Exactly, even without it being in song form, I knew that there were rhythms here and sounds, and a character behind them that felt right to me. And I have to say that I had written a show a while ago that was through-composed, all music, and I said to myself it is the hardest thing in the world to do, and I said I’m never doing that again. And I’ve always loved the texture of spoken to music. And then, the minute I realized this is all going to be music I went “Oh my god,” but in fact, I think you find the great joy is always from something that’s difficult, and I won’t pretend that this has not been hard. It’s been hard, but in the most enjoyable way. Where you go “Oh my god, am I ever going to be able to do this?” And then you go “Oh my god, I just did it!”, and it was easy, and it was fun.
LG: Well, I’m wondering about the blind date. So you see all of this potential, and you feel yourself being fueled by this writer that you don’t know. So what happened?
PP: We discovered each other. It was sort of a little smarmy, like being on the web.
LG: That’s what I mean, what did you do?
PP: He said “Okay Polly, you can find my plays and stuff, and poems, and all. Go to New Dramatists; they have all my stuff.” And then I sent him my music. So here we are, on separate coasts, and I’m listening to his plays, and he’s listening to my music, and we start to go “We’re interested in some of the same things. “ And I think the biggest thing is we were both interested in the human heart. And not being afraid of it, and not being afraid to be emotional. But also to understand the reasons why people are cold. I think there are just so many things we had a common interest in. And also I think we both are subversive enough to want to do things differently to want to do things differently. I like working with somebody who’s never done a musical. That excites me. I don’t want to feel that I’m going to need to do some things that…
LG: Be obligated to do something for the sake of…
PP: I’m never going to want to do that.
LG: What happened when you actually started? How did you respond to each others’ work? I’m assuming that the vocabulary originated in writing.
PP: We wrote each other love letters. And we’re both effusive. I mean, you know, Victor will go on and on; it’s just over the top, it’s wonderful. He is an eloquent and rich writer. I’m a little more terse. I save that for the music, you know?
LG: Yeah, yeah, there’s a reserve.
PP: I am more reserved, I think, in certain ways, but it goes into the music.
LG: What was it like, sitting with him in person for the first time?
PP: We laughed; we had a jolly jolly time. He came to visit me, and I have a house in the country, and you know, you’re having a guest in your home, and you have no idea, oh my god…
LG: This could go very well or very badly.
PP: But it was beautiful. There we were in the country; we were able to take some walks, and we clearly both loved food. This is always a good thing, we had good meals. And we also love to laugh. And also we loved comparing books; we love to talk about things we’ve read, things we appreciate. It was a joy.
LG: How did you go back and forth with the material?
PP: What was interesting, and sometimes frustrating, Victor is not as comfortable, I think, on the phone. I’m a phone person. The phone is quick; I like to pick up the phone, and talk, and Victor and I found that we could really do our best work via email. So more measured responses, not as immediate. And it’s a time-sucker, email, especially if you’re a writer, because then you’re very careful on email.
LG: Because then you’re revising, you’re creating.
PP: Exactly. But it also may have protected us in some ways. It may have given us a space where we are truly considering what we’re saying. Instead of what happens on the phone sometimes, and then you “Oh my god, I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean to say ‘Oh my god, that part you wrote, that was just really horrible.’” You know, you can say those things on the phone sometimes; you don’t mean to. So maybe it was wise, even though it was hard.
LG: A mindful vocabulary that was being forged.
PP: Perhaps more respectful in a strange way, and more formal, so that even though we were growing to be friends we were also figuring out how to negotiate. Also it’s tricky because a musical, it’s not just words and music. They become entwined, so that both people are sharing.
LG: Well, I think that’s what’s so fascinating, especially in this piece in a way. I am very hard-pressed to think of another that is like this. It really is one-of-a-kind. Am I crazy?
PP: No, you’re not at all.
LG: I mean, it is such a hybrid!
PP: It is, in a way. I kind of felt it as – such a hybird. And this is the image. And actually, the guy who plays the lead, Jeff Pew, said “Polly, what was it like to write this?” I have my answer. Here’s my image: I felt like a centaur. The Greek mythological character. Is there a female centaur? There may be. But I felt like a centaur in the sense that I’m at the piano, and half of me is like a horse. My hooves are on the pedals, and they’re pushing. It’s a physical act at the piano. And the top half of me is human, and is a heart, and hands, and a brain. And there’s these two things. As I was composing it, I knew I didn’t want this to be this rarified, artsy kind of thing. I wanted it to be like this is a woman who’s making it up in the spot.
LG: One moment at a time.
PP: And if she feels like holding a note a really long time, she’ll do it, and if she doesn’t… and sometimes she’s talking, and sometimes she’s singing, and she’s not even sure which it is, after a while. But there was something about that animal-human image for me, and the sheer act of what you have to do to play. And because it’s largely one character, I would be alone in my music studio late at night, playing, putting on the costume of Sara Jane. You have to be her, to compose this. You can’t not. You can’t do it.
LG: That’s so funny, because that was my next question. How much of Sara Jane is you?
PP: I think I’m very different from Sara Jane. But I had to find my own Sara Jane, which will be nothing like what Analisa does, nor would I want it to be. But in order to write it, I had to reach into my gut. That character, there are things that are similar, but there are things that are very different too, and I have to understand her as intimately as possible in order to find what that is. And I can tell when I’m wrong, too. I heard her do some things that I go, “Ah. She knows that for her this word was more important,” Whereas when I wrote it, it was something else.
LG: The operative was something else.
PP: I watch those things, that I can address.
LG: What was First Day like for you? And I’ve already prefaced it with Victor; we heard very little of the music. It was like a skeleton in some ways. But, what were some of the things that were rushing though your head that opening day?
PP: One kind of jolly thing after another that opening day. I meant what I said, this is one of the most deliciously wonderful first rehearsals. You’re always nervous, and you’re always self-conscious, but there was something about the sense of community in that room. It was kind of terrifying; there were so many people, and all these students. But there was something that just felt like a big hug. And I think everybody felt it. And also, this lovely, clear reading by those two performers. Not trying to feel anything that they’re not ready to. It was just an honest, lovely reading.
LG: I thought it was so available.
PP: And I also felt I heard it. I didn’t feel like I was trying to hide, which can happen, I felt like “Gee, I want to be in the audience.”
LG: You were in the moment.
PP: Yeah, and I wanted to know what happened next. And I think that’s the best thing to try to… The first day is when I begin to forget that I wrote it, and to practice being in the audience, making it new.
LG: This is granular, and I’m sure the most boring question, but I’m so curious. So, Victor sends you text and you compose? You send him some composition? How does that ebb and flow?
PP: For me, because so much of my music comes from my love of words, I do not write music first. I believe, I am inspired by words. That’s how I work.
LG: You want the narrative. Not that what you’re doing isn’t narrative, but.
PP: So he would send me a section; we would then discuss it. I would say “I’m not comfortable with this; what do you think about this;” we’d question things. We’d go back and forth. But also sometimes I wasn’t sure of something, and I thought “Let me try it.” That would happen sometimes, Victor would say “Polly, I’m sure of this,” and I would try it and I would go “Gee, he’s right.” And I just hate this, but I have to admit that Victor is, ninety-nine percent of the time, he’s right. I hate to admit it. But there are also times when I think we forget, sometimes you don’t need to say things. Music tells us something. If you say it, you’re doubling it. And I think if we ever did learn some things it was that music can sometimes emotionally take your further, in places where you don’t have to say something.
LG: So you can say less.
PP: Right, exactly. So, there are people who do work from, you know, write the music and then the lyric writer will put in the text. It works. I know people who do it, I have students who do it, that’s just not how I feel it.
LG: How do you perceive moving forward into this place? I love what you said about First Day as being the beginning of trying to have fresh eyes and think as the receiver of this. And that rings true to me in a bunch of different ways. I’m curious how you and your new, very intimate partner, how you’re going to learn and revise. I feel like it’s so specific, and so fragile, so how will you negotiate?
PP: You have to be brave. You have to be able to, as many people in this business say, have the courage to kill your babies. And I once wrote a thirty-two page song that I was so in love with, in a show, and it was probably my best work. And got into the production, and the singer was amazing, she sang it beautifully. And we had to cut it; we cut it. And I knew we had to. It was too revealing. And it was hard, but you have to be able to, you have to be able to cut off that limb that is sticking out. And I think both Victor and I… You know, it’s funny, when we met here, we had this glorious three days, from being alone, on separate coasts we met for like three days. It was almost embarrassing; it was like a love-fest. And I was so worried, I thought “Oh my god, he’s going to drive me crazy, it’s going to be… help.” And most of the time we just talked about how much we just loved each others’ work. (Laughter) It was embarrassing! But then we also – I think we’re as likely to do that as we are to challenge each other, and I think that that’s what has worked here. We can be hard with each other. I’m much more evil by nature. Poor Victor is a very dear and sensitive soul, and I’m an old character woman. Comedienne.
LG: (Laughs) I need to send you back; I want to ask you one quick thing. There is one movement in this piece that is entirely non-textual, and yet is packed with emotional information and an emotional exchange. How often have you done something like that, and what was the springboard for it, and did it all come at once?
PP: It’s a good question. It’s not something I have done a lot of. Just to deal with the piano as an expressive means, and in this case two pianos, who are having a conversation. I had to reach into places in myself that – because I’m used to writing song, with voice.
LG: And it’s not a song, it’s a scene. It’s a big scene!
PP: It’s not; it’s scene. And it’s a scene where there’s no literal meaning. It is pure instinct, and some of it is truly – there is a song in the show called “Voracious” – it is voracious in its physicality at the piano. There are places where I have one of the people who’s playing just hits the piano. Most of it is very melodic, and then occasionally he just – you can’t figure out what chord you’re going to play, you just swat at the piano. Because you don’t know what else to do. There are things that I didn’t expect from it. I also could never really hear it, because I can’t play two pianos at the same time, and I didn’t have a convenient way of hearing it. So until I hear what they’re doing, I won’t really know what it’s really like. I mean, I’ll have it. I kind of have it in my ears.
LG: I have to ask one more thing about this. Was it your most male self at one point, being Jerry, and your most…
PP: You know, there is a gender thing about it. I mean, gee, do women play the piano differently than men? There’s a lot of talk about that. But it does figure into it. Look at the piano, it’s black and white, it’s contrasts.
LG: But it’s also these two people trying to define and wrestle.
PP: And so that goes back to my idea of being a centaur, somebody who’s two different people in a weird way, who’s maybe part animal, who’s fighting, and the other is doing something beautiful, also wants to make something beautiful. So one person wants this world to be glowing, and the other person is in pain. The pleasure/pain principle is what I think makes theatre glow. And that’s what I’m always looking for here.
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