“Pool Play” is immersive theater taken to a literal extreme – everybody, actors and audience, is immersed in water. Conceived and directed by Erin B. Mee, the fully-scripted play will take place in the Waterside Pool at 25 Waterside Plaza from February 7 to March 8, 2014.
Now, “Pool Play” is far from the first work of theater set in a pool. In “Metamorphoses,” the 2002 Broadway adaptation of Ovid by Mary Zimmerman, the actors performed in a 27-foot-wide pool of water that had been installed for the show at the Circle in the Square. But how much theater has taken place in an actual pool — and how many times has the audience been asked to join in?
“Pool Play,” as Mee explains, is “a collection of scenes and musical numbers, each of which is a meditation on water,” some historical — there are scenes about segregated pools — some fanciful: Characters include a penguin, and a fish who says: “Humans might be the stupidest species on this planet. It’s between you and the banana slugs.”
Three writers collaborated on the script for “Pool Play,” including Charles Mee, avant-garde pioneer, leading light of Off-Off Broadway, and resident playwright of Ann Bogart’s theater ensemble SITI Company, who is known for his experiments in text collages and site-specific theater. Erin Mee is his daughter. She is both a theater artist who has directed plays at New York Theatre Workshop, The Public Theater, and the Guthrie, and a theater scholar who works as an assistant professor of English and Drama at New York University.
“My goal as a scholar… is to foster thinkers who understand theater as an important political tool,” she says in our conversation below. “My goal as a director is to use theater as a medium for understanding and changing the world.”
We talked about her father’s influence, about whether her career as an academic enhances or detracts from her life as a theater artist, about the trend in immersive theater, and how she thinks theatergoers will react to this underwater experiment: “People we have talked to love the idea of putting their feet in the subject of the play.”
Jonathan Mandell: How did “Pool Play” come about?
Erin Mee: I saw a dance piece in a pool ten years ago, and have wanted to do a play in a pool ever since. But I could never figure out what it would be about. Or what the point would be. Jessie Bear is the one who really figured that out.
Who’s Jessie Bear?
Erin Mee: Jessie Bear is one of the most amazing playwrights around. No one knows about her yet because she just graduated from NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program. I knew her as an undergrad – she was one of my students.
So what did she figure out?
Erin Mee:. Jessie and I have been working on several projects together. I spent the summer swimming in various pools and making lists of what we might want to do When we got together in the Fall, we talked about all the things one does in a pool, about the history of pools in the United States, and about our complicated relationship to water. These conversations formed the basis of many of the scenes Jessie has written.
As we were discussing the play, my daughter – who is in middle school – was told she had to swim with her classmates, and Jessie and I spoke about swimming with one’s middle school classmates as a unique form of torture. So Jessie wrote a scene about it, based on her own experiences of having to swim in middle school.
I wanted one scene with a cast member rowing a canoe across the pool, so I asked my father if he would write a monologue for a person paddling a canoe across the water, and he wrote three of them, which are now in the piece.
We now have a fantastic cast, and the musical numbers are all devised by them.
What ties all this together into a play?
The play doesn’t have a conventional narrative. It is a collection of scenes and musical numbers, each of which is a meditation on water, our relationship to water, and the ways in which we use and interact with it. There is a scene about pollution, and a swim race, and some synchronized swimming, and some splashing, and a bit about the gender and racial segregation of early US pools.. What ties the piece together is the way it touches on all the myriad ways in which we interact with water, and the numerous ways we feel about it.
How did you pick the location for the play?
Erin Mee: I am a member of the Waterside gym, and I asked them if we could use their pool.
How does “Pool Play” fit into the context of the immersive theater we’ve been seeing in New York over the past several years?
Erin Mee: The audience will sit on the side of the pool with their feet in the water. Right now we are working out a way for audience members who bring a swimsuit and bathing cap to join the cast in the pool for the curtain call. So the audience is literally immersed in the water. At various points they will splash their feet along with the cast, and we think there may be a time they sing along with us, so there is a bit of participation.
Since the play is about water and our relationship to it, the audience will literally be immersed in the subject of the play.
“Pool Play” isn’t like “Sleep No More” or “Then She Fell,” where you walk through the play, have one-on-one scenes with various actors, or see a different play than other audience members. Nor will audience members be “cast” in the play, which some immersive and/or interactive theatres do. But the audience members will be in/on the set with the actors, and they will be able to do some of the things the actors do.
What if an audience member doesn’t want to take off their shoes or get wet? Can they sit at the tip of the pool instead?
The pool rules stipulate that no shoes can be worn on the pool deck. So everyone has to be barefoot or they have to bring flips flops, crocs, pool shoes, or some other form of pool deck footwear. We do have a limited number of cushioned seats for those who either don’t want to sit at the pool edge, or who (for one reason or another) need to sit in a chair. Our play is wheelchair accessible. So we won’t force anyone to have an immersive experience, although most people we have talked to love the idea of putting their feet in the subject of the play.
As the daughter of avant-garde playwright Charles Mee, was there any hope you would grow up to do something other than theater?
Erin Mee: I don’t know if he had any hope of my doing something else, you would have to ask him. But if he wanted me to do something else, he should not have taken me to see David Warrilow in Richard Foreman’s Penguin Touquet. David had a huge whale on his head, and I entered the most fantastic dream world in which anything was possible. Nor should he have taken me to see Southern Exposure, or Dead End Kids or anything else by Mabou Mines, or Robert Wilson, or Pina Bausch, or the Performance Group, or Martha Clarke, or SITI. How could I want to do anything else after seeing that work? What was he thinking?!?!?!
How did you get involved in academia, and in what ways does it enhance, in what ways detract from your life as a theater artist?
In 1991, after a two-year stint as Resident Director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I wanted to see theater in other parts of the world. I travelled to India where I saw the work of Kavalam Naryana Panikkar, a director who creates the most extraordinary visual and aural metaphors on stage. I was so impressed by his work that I travelled back to take workshops with him, to study with him, and eventually to direct two of his plays with his company.
Because he incorporates aspects of kathakali, kutiyattam, martial arts, and dance into his training and productions, I found that in order to fully understand his work I had to study those genres. And then I realized I had to study the work of all the directors who were part of the same artistic movement, the theater that he was reacting to, and Indian theatrical history.
This investigation led me to the Department of Performance Studies at NYU where I got a Ph.D. At the same time I was teaching, and found my interactions with students enormously enriching: they ask wonderful questions that make me go back and rethink what I think I know, which is very refreshing, and I knew I wanted to keep teaching.
My scholarship, my directing, and my teaching are interrelated. I teach plays I am writing about, I direct plays I am teaching, I write about plays I’ve directed. And each area enriches the other. My goal as a scholar and teacher is to foster thinkers who understand theater as an important political tool; a mode of both reflecting and constituting society. My goal as a director is to use theater as a medium for understanding and changing the world.
Pool Play, presented by This Is Not A Theatre Company, February 7 to March 8,