Pomegranate Season: A conversation with writer Victoria Cano and director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper
Actor/playwright Victoria Cano’s new play Pomegranate Season is searingly honest, poignant and darkly funny and explores boundaries, betrayal, sexual assault and rape – pertinent topics in the aftermath of #TimesUp and #MeToo. Championing women in the arts, she has teamed up with director Marylynne “Mac” Anderson-Cooper and an all-female cast and crew to create this very personal yet universal piece.
Originally from New York, Victoria trained at the London Academy of Dramatic Art and is a graduate of Northwestern University. Her plays include Converting to Bangladesh, What Are Friends For?, and The Human Side. Opening August 20th at the Cockpit Theatre as part of Camden Fringe Festival 2018, Pomegranate Season is her London debut.
Marylynne Anderson-Cooper (or Mac) – also from the US and a Northwestern graduate – has extensive directorial experience in New York and Chicago; her London credits include The Twentieth Century Way (Jermyn Street Theatre) and Take Flight (Theatre 503).
We spoke with Victoria and Mac before their run at the Fringe begins, to gain insight on their ideas and what inspires them.
Hello Victoria, Mac, thanks for chatting with us. I’d like to ask you about your new play Pomegranate Season, beginning with a few questions for Victoria:
Victoria, where did the idea for creating this piece originate? What inspired your interest?
VC: I wrote Pomegranate Season because three years ago I was raped by my friend and co-worker. This play is my reckoning. It’s my reckoning with my parents, with my friends, myself. It’s the reckoning with him I’ll never get to have. It’s my reckoning with the world. My interest wasn’t inspired, it was forced into me. Literally.
You have said: “I believe in the power of theatre to change the world.” I agree. Do you write primarily for social/political impact? What motivates you as an artist?
VC: Whatever they do to you, whatever happens, there is always one thing you cling to with your nail beds: it’s your story. When I was raped, my story and my whole sense of self were questioned. My rapist didn’t believe me. My boyfriend at the time conducted his own private investigation without my consent and queried all my former friends and co-workers to discern if I was believable. The police officer I went to told me with all the kindness and inevitably he could muster that if I did choose to go to the police it would be a case of he said/she said, and that I would have to spend month after month having a court pour over my entire sexual history, questioning every decision I’d ever made. My identity would be unravelled each night and like Penelope [Odysseus’s wife and a mythological victim of sexual harassment] I’d have to spend my days weaving it back together thread by thread.
I’m in the practice of telling stories, sharing my own and using my space and privilege to share the stories of others who cannot come by the same platforms I have access to. That’s what motivates me as a person and as an artist. Stories matter. They matter. They matter. They matter.
The #MeToo movement has brought to light the issues and anguish of sexual harassment and rape. Do you think we have finally reached a point of achieving sufficient awareness of these problems? How can theatre continue to help this process?
VC: No, we have not. We haven’t when Brock Turner serves the minimum sentence. We haven’t so long as Woody Allen continues to make films and be honoured with lifetime achievement awards. We haven’t when the president of the United States jokes openly about sexually assaulting women.
It took a stand up routine by Hannibal Buress to remind the world that Bill Cosby was a long-standing and well-known predator. Have we achieved sufficient awareness? Absolutely not.
How can theatre help this process? Promote the works of marginalized and oppressed people. Stop putting on plays by white men, with white men, telling the stories of white men. Celebrate new work and new voices. Don’t be complicit. Don’t be silent. Never stop. Persist. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
What were your reasons for choosing Marylynne as director of Pomegranate Season?
VC: It’s really a disservice to Mac to say I chose her because she definitely picked me. That’s the thing about Mac – once she’s decided on something, whether it’s a person or a project or an eight-month solo backpacking tour, she goes for it with her full heart. She’s got gumption in spades.
So, to re-frame the question: Why am I grateful that Mac decided she was going to direct Pomegranate Season? Because Mac is an incredibly competent, intelligent, nuanced, and respected director that I have had the great privilege to know for several years. Because she has been with this play since I watched her read my first draft over a coffee table in Cardiff. Because she is an activist. Because she is an absolute badass. I could not ask for a better collaborator or friend.
How do you compare your identity as an actor with that of a playwright? Do the two complement one another?
VC: I don’t compare the two, I respect them as two valid and essential aspects of who I am as I am. My acting is informed by my writing, my writing is informed by my acting.
Do you feel that symbiosis with the audience is an essential appeal of theatre? Does this influence your choices as an author?
VC: There are three types of symbiotic relationships: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. The relationship between an audience and the show touches on all three. Sometimes one side of the equation gets more out of it that the other: maybe the audience is moved, maybe they aren’t. Perhaps the show closes or the audience member remains unmoved. If you are a patron of the arts you’re gonna see a lot of forgettable stuff. If you’re an artist you’re gonna make a lot of great stuff that goes unnoticed. But there’s a crossroads, a perfect meeting spot between the night and the day, where a play is made its best self by the eye of the beholder and where the audience member knocks the first domino over in a long, long chain that leads to a true paradigm shift.
To put it less pompously: I don’t think you can write to please an audience. But you can choose the stories you spend your time telling and who those stories are for. I think it’s essential to have a relationship with the audience but I certainly don’t believe it has to be symbiotic. It has to be challenging and unsettling and questioning and moving. I don’t go to the theatre to be spoon fed. I go to reconnect with my humanity, in all its facets. And to have a laugh. Even the worst moments have a respite. Life’s full of laughter. Theatre should be too.
Mac, describe your experience as director of Pomegranate Season. Were there challenges, surprises, sparks of insight that emerged?
Mac Anderson-Cooper: It’s been smashing. It has certainly reaffirmed my love of working on new plays. Having the playwright in the room and seeing her work with the actors has been such a delight. I love seeing a play take shape and as the director, I am able to learn so many things from the whole process of working together with the cast and creative team.
All of the characters are dealing with the crazy and true experiences of life and not just being mouthpieces for different sides of an argument that the playwright is trying to spark. They all experience full journeys of struggle and growth, and sharing their journey as it’s taking shape has been a joy. Being in rehearsal helped me recognise Cora and the cast of characters as the people that I know and see on a regular basis – and that’s why this story is necessary.
Also, working with Victoria and the rest of the cast has been an absolute delight – we have an incredibly talented team and their work in the room has made me a better director.
How do you perceive working in London versus the US? How does the ambience differ in your view?
MAC: I love working in London. It is theatre’s city, and working here reminds me of why I love working in and seeing theatre. In London, it’s not just people who work in theatre who are going to see theatre, it’s everyone. Going and seeing a play is considered to be a viable way to spend an evening for anyone. You don’t have to be of a certain generation and/or economic status to go to the theatre. Here, the audiences are full of people from all walks of life, and they are excited to see a play.
There is also always tea in a London rehearsal room, and I find the US to be woefully lacking in that department.
It is clear from your directorial choices that women’s issues are a driving force for you. What else attracts you to a play? What was it about Pomegranate Season that inspired you besides the theme?
MAC: I love plays that explore different voices and that don’t all take place in one room. I love plays that demand water on stage. I love plays that are funny but also involve characters making huge mistakes and then dealing with the ensuing chaos. I love a good talking animal character.
Women’s issues definitely draw me in, but I am also drawn to a compelling narrative. Issue plays often forget to create realistic characters or a compelling plot because they are so focused on the symbolism and metaphoric language that they forget to tell a story. That is why I love Pomegranate Season so much; it tells a story about a young woman who goes through a terrible experience. It is something every person can relate to. You go about living your life and trying your hardest, and then the universe deals you what could be a fatal blow, and you find a way to fight back. Somehow, you find a way to make it through, and I love watching actors do that on stage. And then there is the humour. Laughter is healing, and Victoria’s play does not leave you without laughter.
This questions is about your passion for directing cutting-edge theatre as well as revitalised classics that highlight the marginalised: Innovation is crucial for evolution, but history can teach us as well. Do you think the past repeats itself until we learn?
MAC: I think the past repeats itself because people in positions of power have yet to admit that they have all of the power and the oppression of marginalised groups continues – whether it is cyclical or simply a horrible continuation of that oppression. So in a way, yes, I think that we are constantly learning from the past, but I think it is too simple to say the past is repeating itself when we are still dealing with the same issues – of hatred, sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, and so on – which have always existed.
I want to use theatre to expose the different forms of hatred that the human race innovates, rather than admitting the hopelessness of a world where the past must only repeat itself for us to learn. With that alone, we are not doing any of the work to get better. To learn and thereby progress and move forward as a people, we have to do the work.
With your inclination for narratives that are thought-provoking but also employ humour, as a director, how do you work with actors to best enhance these elements?
MAC: I like to keep the room light from day one. Everyone has a voice, and we spend time talking through the tough stuff in the play and find ways to laugh about it and to laugh at each other.
When I met my favorite playwright, Sarah Ruhl, I asked her what she looked for in a director. She said that she wanted someone with vision and who was funny and who was kind, and if they had great vision but were not funny and were not kind, they could f*ck off. I try to live by that advice every time I walk into a rehearsal room.
You are also a playwright. Tell us about your writing. Does being a writer make you a better director?
MAC: It definitely makes me better at demanding actors be word perfect! Playwrights spend a LOT of time choosing their words exactly, and I deeply respect that.
I would say yes, it gives you a better idea of what the playwright is trying to do – it also makes you better at analysing a text and seeing where the meat of every scene is. Maybe most importantly, it makes you aware of how terrifying it is to have your words brought to life by a room of strangers, and that is humbling. You are being trusted with someone’s baby, and you have to do it justice and take great care of it. I know that my responsibility as the director is to honour that work and that process, and lead everyone in the room to do the same.
Describe your collaboration. How has it benefited the project?
MAC: We’ve known each other for a little over five years, and it feels like 50. I’ve told the cast that I think Victoria and I were married in a past life. We have similar values when it comes not only to art but also to being a good person. The same things make us laugh and, by the same token, the same things make us crazy. With Pomegranate Season, we share a passion for this kind of story and for this kind of representation onstage. Professionally, this is our first time working together, but everything has felt incredibly natural and easy.
VC: I trust Mac deeply and implicitly. I think that level of trust is essential to a project like this – she’s been a godmother to this play from its infancy so she’s as invested in its success and well being as I am. Mac’s been staying with me the whole time she’s been over here and we do keep joking that we must have been married in a previous life – we share a vocabulary and a common language that allows us to foster a very intuitive working relationship. Also, she feeds me biscuits.
Besides your work, what motivates you?
MAC: The hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits just sitting in police departments and forensic labs. Also Janelle Monae, Michelle Wolf and my mom.
VC: Toppling the patriarchy vis a vis intersectional feminism.
MAC: I think we just said the same thing.
VC: Oh. And my mom and dad. Hi parents!
If you were not involved in theatre, what other careers might you have chosen?
MAC: Environmental engineering. In school, when I was not in rehearsal or at volleyball practice I was doing science fair projects developing ideas for improving different ways to harness renewable energy. Victoria says she would set herself on fire, but I would probably find other ways to include her in my quest for energy sources and environmental developments without self-arson.
VC: I wouldn’t actually set myself on fire. Probably. When I was 12 I used to want to be Secretary General of the United Nations. I still don’t think I’d want to do that but perhaps something in that ballpark. Or be a queen. Or Jane Fonda. Or Viola Davis. Is that an option?
Do either of you have ideas for future projects you’d like to share?
MAC: I love Victoria’s writing and would love to direct all of her plays. She’s going to write a play about the alleged love affair between two very well-known artists. I’ve called dibs on that one. She has already written a play called Converting to Bangladesh and I’m excited to see where that will go. Also, this is just Pomegranate Season’s first full production, and I would love to see it go further. It’s a conversation starter, and it’s the conversation that needs to be happening right now.
VC: Mac’s going to Tanzania for 27 months so I guess I’m gonna have to write a play that requires me to spend a lot of time in Tanzania doing research.
Victoria, Mac, thanks again for your time.
Pomegranate Season is playing at the Cockpit Theatre from 20th until 22nd August 2018 as part of the Camden Fringe. For further information or to book visit the festival’s website here.