“A look into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times” – SEAMS at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival
Interview by Bailey Green
I sat down with several members of the Seams Collective, Polly Phokeev (playwright), Elizabeth Stuart-Morris (producer/actor) and Mikaela Davies (director) to discuss their upcoming production of Seams at SummerWorks 2015.
Polly Phokeev began writing Seams four years ago during a playwriting workshop with Djanet Sears. She was asked to write a scene for 4-7 people and was inspired by an old photo of her grandmother sitting with a few other women. “It began as a play about my grandmother, and I drew from her memories of Russia and the memories of others in her generation,” Phokeev says. “But it became a play about accountability to one’s past and the loyalty we have to our friends, family and country.” The play is set in 1939 which comes at the tail-end of Stalin’s purges. “It’s a look into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times,” says Polly.
Polly worked Seams on and off for several years until it took the shape of a two and a half hour draft entitled Ranevskya and the Seamstress. They held a workshop reading and the play was well received. Producer and performer Elizabeth Stuart-Morris encouraged Polly to bring the script to the next level. “I was struck by how beautiful the story was and knew it was time to get the play on its feet,” says Elizabeth.
Polly then reached out to designer Shannon Lee Doyle. “Aesthetic was very important to me,” Polly says, “and it’s a memory play so things weave in and out, and I wanted to have the five senses very active in the piece. So I went to Shannon. She told me she liked it but that I should cut half the words, so I cut the main character of the draft and stayed with the seamstresses.”
For the design of the show, Shannon created two worlds for the characters to exist in—one is 1939 in the back of the theatre where the seamstresses work and the other is a dream world for our narrator Frosya (played by Clare Coulter) who is in the theatre with us. Those worlds break apart and become deeply entwined over the course of the play.
Next on board was director Mikaela Davies, who says she “fell in the love with this world and the people.” Dramaturge Simone Brodie became the fifth member of the Seams Collective (along with Phokeev, Stuart-Morris, Davies, Doyle) though many artists and collaborators have been involved over the process which began in January 2015.
The Collective participated in the Paprika Festival this year. Director Mikaela discussed the experience of preparing for Paprika, “We called it a workshop but we really went for it. And that has made this stage of rehearsing for SummerWorks much easier. It’s much smoother.” During Paprika, Polly and Elizabeth prepared anonymous feedback forms for their audience and they found that the firsthand comments were invaluable for the play’s development. Also during Paprika, they had a Russian actress come in for a night to perform almost all of her text in Russian. That night, a majority of the audience for that performance was Russian and the response from the community was warm.
Though the Russian audience had a very positive response, a few weeks later Polly ran into a Russian actor who questioned her about the backgrounds of the people involved with the project: how many members of the cast and creative team were Russian? This incident prompted the collective to address the ethics of storytelling. They took it one step further and hosted a panel discussion to explore who has a right to tell stories. Polly says, “We believe that with respect and with research, stories are ours to tell.” Mikaela adds, “We have to ask ourselves honestly, are we doing anyone harm? Are we silencing anyone? And for us, the answer is no.”
The play draws parallels between the Russia of 1939 and Russia in 2015. Polly shares a quote, that has become somewhat of a mantra for the collective, from Sergei Dovlatov: “We endlessly condemn comrade Stalin, and, it appears, with reason. Yet still I’d like to ask-who is it that wrote four million reports?” Mikaela emphasizes how this quote demands that the individual face the consequences of their silence.
“And it makes you consider, what stories are we covering up here in Canada? Who are we silencing?” Polly says, as she discusses the polarized international media response to Boris Nemtsov’s assassination—whereas in Russia the death was initially reported as a tragic accident with no political ties.
“This is not just a story about oppression,” says Mikaela “we want to offer another side to these characters’ relationship to their country—which of course is riddled with guilt and pain and terror—but there’s something really beautiful about the notion of service to something greater than yourself. There is a lot of beauty, integrity and love that these people feel for their country.”
When asked about how the characters cope with this obligation to their country, Elizabeth responded, “The characters are constantly grappling with the pull between what they want and their loyalty to their country. There’s a lot of hope and there’s a desire for something more. But the clothes they are wearing, the hours they are working and lack of food is something they have to face. They don’t have any easy way out. It’s a very intense world to exist in, especially when it’s a reality that many people are still living.”
Produced by The Seams Collective, presented as part of the 2015 SummerWorks Performance Festival
A dying Russian woman’s frantic recollections of her youth as a seamstress in Soviet Moscow weave through the lives of costume-makers working in a theatre during the fall of 1939. A series of love and hate stories emerge from the dust as she folds together the pieces of a past she has struggled to forget.
Seams is a play for anyone with ancestors, for a country born of immigrants, and for a community made of quilted-together culture.
Run Time: 90min
The Seams Collective
Directed by Mikaela Davies; Written by Polly Phokeev; Performed by Krystina Bojanowski, Clare Coulter, Sochi Fried, Jesse Lavercombe, Caitlin Robson, Elizabeth Stuart-Morris, and Ewa Wolzniczek; Dramaturged by Simone Brodie; Set and Costume Design by Shannon Lea Doyle; Assistant Set and Costume Design by Kelly Anderson, Sound Design by Nicholas Potter; Lighting Design by Steve Vargo; Stage Managed by Steve Vargo and Lisa Van Oorschot; Produced by Elizabeth Stuart-Morris; Assistant Produced by Rebecca Ballarin