For February 2016’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Jessica Moss, an award-winning playwright from Toronto, Canada. Jessica is a first year Artist Diploma student in the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. Her works have won many awards including the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festival Best New Play Award for her play CamBaby, and the 2013 Fringe Festival Patron’s Pick Award, Best of Fringe Award, and the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship for her one-woman show Polly Polly. She has also been recognized by the Playwrights Guild of Canada and during the RBC Tarragon Emerging Playwriting Competition. Additionally, in 2013, she was one of NOW Magazine‘s Artist of the Year. In her interview with OIA, Jessica shares not only her passion for playwriting, but also her love for acting, dance, improv comedy, and Canadian potato chips, and her experience dealing with the subtleties between Canadian and U.S. culture.
Eye on Culture has not featured a student in Juilliard‘s Playwrights Program before. Can you tell us a little about it and what attracted you to this specific program?
The Playwrights Program is an Artist Diploma program and part of the drama department. It’s a fellowship led by Marsha Norman and Chris Durang. There are ten of us currently in the program, and we write plays and bring them in and read them and talk about them, and occasionally the actors read them for us and then we talk about them more. It’s a very small and focused program and the most supportive academic environment I have ever been a part of. The other nine writers are the most talented people I know, and I remain in awe that they let me come from learn from them.
I very much wanted to be in New York: I had visited and come down to train briefly before and it’s an exciting place to be if you love theatre. I have a B.A. and then did conservatory style training for acting, so I had done a lot of school already, and wasn’t so interested in doing something where I had to take theatre history classes again, and do lots of writing assignments to try different styles. This program has a lot of freedom in it: there is a lot of time to write. And Chris Durang and Marsha Norman were very big influences on me (honestly, on almost every theatre artist I know), so to get to be in a room with them was a bit unreal…
Are there specific themes you like to explore in your writing? If so, what are they? What draws you to explore these particular themes in your pieces?
I think that everything I write is a comedy, and I think loneliness is at the centre of everything I write. My ideal piece of theatre would be where the audience is laughing along and then spontaneously weeps. And then laughs again. I really like dance numbers: I feel like I sit through a lot of plays silently hoping that the whole cast will dance together! And then I get afraid that they will dance into the audience and there will be audience participation and I will have to dance in front of everyone and that is my nightmare, but also my secret ambition.
I really love the limitations of theatre and the freedom that’s allowed by these limitations. You can’t do everything: so you can do anything. One of my favourite theatre things ever is in the notes to Angels in America, Tony Kushner writes (in regards to how to rig the angel’s flying entrance and how to do the other effects in the play): ‘The moments of magic…are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing’. I love that: maybe it’s good if the wires show. I like the idea that things can be epic and intimate at the same time: that you can see the actor making the effect, and it can still be transformative. That the audience participates in the illusion and helps the performers make it. I feel that’s what I’m chasing.
You are at Juilliard for playwriting, but you have an extensive acting resume as well. Do you have a favorite role, and if so, what makes this particular role stand out?
I did a production of Alice in Wonderland in Sudbury, Ontario, which is a mining city about five hours north of Toronto. It was December, and the snow came down and just did not stop. We did two shows a day for school kids that were bussed in from all over northern Ontario, many of whom had never seen a play before. Our calls were 8.30 a.m., and I had to walk from my billet and it was so freezing. In my day, I literally had to walk every morning in the snow to get to work! BUT! I played Alice’s sister, the Mouse, the Caterpillar, the Duchess, a talking Tiger Lily, part of the Jabberwocky, and The Queen of Hearts. The Queen of Hearts! She was so much fun. And backstage we were just running around and opening doors and moving the set and tearing from costume to costume and it was a total theatrical joy.
I’ve written two solo shows for myself, and performing those has been the scariest, most sickening thing, but also incredibly rewarding. I created those shows physically, working by myself in front of a mirror to find the physical language and the running back to my computer and writing the lines to go with it. Throughout the whole process, I kept telling myself, ‘You wrote yourself into this mess, now act your way out of it’. I wrote those parts to do things that I loved doing and do things that I never got to do onstage, and so they were very ‘me’, and also very not: they were both what I knew I could do and what I didn’t think I ever could. I felt so exposed doing them, but it was incredibly gratifying.
But, oh man, when you do a one-woman show that you wrote and produced on your own, you sit in that dressing room before you go out and there is just no one else to blame if things go badly, and in those moments, you are looking into the abyss, and the abyss is looking right back and saying, ‘Don’t you mess this up, Jessica Moss. Don’t you mess this up’.
If you had to choose, would you rather write plays or act in them?
Let’s not kid anyone, I’m just going to cheat at this question and say both, and also produce them. I have a touch of Nick Bottom disease: I just want to do the whole thing.
Last semester you started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens’ Brigade in New York City. Can you tell us a little about UCB and your experience with the classes?
I was doing improv on and off for years in Toronto and it’s just so fun and a great way to write and to practice being onstage. I really think it’s an incredible artform that cuts to the quick about what’s great about theatre: imagination, freedom, specificity, humour, commitment. I love that you build words out of nothing and immediately destroy them. I have really liked going to UCB and doing their method, which is a pretty specific thing all based around an improv format called the Harold. I really hope to keep continue working with them and exploring other improv groups in New York.
Okay, let’s see if those improv classes have paid off. Tell us a joke (clean joke). One, Two, Three, go…
How do you think the unthinkable?
With an ithe-berg.
I love that joke! I have a slight lisp so it is very personally relevant to me.
When you are not writing or acting, what do you like to do in your free time?
Looking at writing and acting and thinking about it, mostly. I am trying to explore New York as much as I can. I used to bake a lot and I’m pretty good at it, but my oven in my apartment doesn’t work too well, so I’ve just been looking at a lot of pictures of cake on the Internet.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about where in Canada you grew up? Do you feel that this environment has influenced you as a writer and performing artist? If so, how?
I’m from the west end of Toronto, an area called Roncesvalles. There is a great line on 30 Rock where a reclusive character played by Steve Martin says ‘Toronto is just like New York, but without all the stuff!’, and that is kind of unfair and kind of really true. But it’s my home and I’m very devoted to it, although I do not care about our hockey team.
I think one thing that has been important to me is that Toronto was a big filming destination for movies: but it never played itself. It’s just a big city so it plays Boston, or New York, or wherever. And I always really wanted to see stories that happened in Toronto, so most of my work has been set there, and referencing very Toronto/Canadian things.
Canada has so much influence coming up from the States, but also over from England. Sometimes it’s to the detriment of being able to create our own national voice (particularly in film and TV, where Canadian content kind of gets drowned under bigger American stuff), but it also means there’s kind of a cool melding of the best parts of both worlds. And, there’s a lot of French and European influence coming from Quebec, which is pretty amazing. I went to acting school in Quebec and took class in French, and did a lot of Lecoq-based jeu, Gaulier clown, physical theatre….so there are a lot of really wonderful things that you can be exposed to up there, and I think a lot of that ended up being in the things I aspire to make.
I saw this cartoon recently (below), and it made me chuckle, but do you think there is some truth behind it? Do you sometimes experience this sense of familiarity in NYC but simultaneously, a somewhat “strange” feeling?
Yeah, we are different and the same. It’s weird! I really feel New Yorkers are the greatest, and especially being a part of the school I have felt very welcome. But every now and then there will be a little difference, or I won’t know about something everyone is laughing about, and I remember that I come from a whole other country.
Although home is not too far away, what part of Canadian culture do you miss most while you are in the U.S.?
Canada has better potato chips. There. I said it.
Really the only thing that bugs me about New York so far is how fast people are to put things in plastic bags. Back home we were charged for plastic bags in stores for a while, in an effort to reduce waste, so I (and most people I know) got into the habit of carrying reusable bags around, and trying to not use plastic bags. And here I feel I am constantly saying, ‘PLEASEI’MSORRYIDON’TNEEDABAG’ very quickly and loudly and irritating every retail person I engage with. But it doesn’t work, and I am quickly losing the plastic bag fight, they are taking over my apartment, please help me.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I’m so grateful to be a part of the Juilliard community, to be able to live in New York and be surrounded by so many dedicated and exciting artists. It’s the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. I am so deeply in love with (and endlessly frustrated by) the theatre, and so it’s incredible to go to school in a place where that love is nurtured, and believed in, and then to walk down Broadway and see that it can be made into a reality, that a passion can be a career, a way of living. I’m so lucky. I’m just a lucky little Canadian. (Sorry).
Click the play button to watch highlights from Jessica Moss’ one-woman show, Polly Polly; winner of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival’s Patron’s Pick Award, Best of Fringe Award, and the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship. Polly Polly was also nominated for Best One Person Show at the Canadian Comedy Awards.
Note: This video contains some adult language.