Stevey Yockey and Michael Dove discuss Pluto
March 12, 2014 by Ryan Maxwell

Forum Theatre in Silver Spring is currently running a production of Steven Yockey’s Pluto, directed by Forum’s artistic director Michael Dove. Pluto is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, which received productions at Actors Express in Atlanta and Know Theatre in Cincinnati before opening at Forum, and is also currently running at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre.

I sat down with the playwright and director to discuss the show, its history, and the Rolling World Premiere process.

Steve, what topics did you start with in writing Pluto?

Steven Yockey: I really like exploring American myth: The stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and the way that we create these ideas about what daily life is like, even though a lot of us don’t move through a daily life that looks anything like that. I’m always fascinated by those types of stories, and deconstructing those types of stories. I wanted to write something about the way we can have someone in our lives and have a very specific idea of them; and then they start to grow and change, but our idea of them stays the same, and it starts to rub up against whatever it is they are becoming. And then there are some things that I just always love to write about: Parental relationships, the way people experience grief and time very differently, even though they are things that should be uniform.

Michael, what drew you to Pluto in particular for this season at Forum?

Michael Dove: I saw it at the National New Play Network showcase at Woolly in December, 2012. And it was a funny experience, because I used to make this joke that Forum would never do a play with a kitchen or a sink onstage, but when the reading finished, I remember thinking “I really, really like this show, and I really want to do it.” And as soon as the audience broke up and headed to the lobby, four different people came up to me and said: “That’s really a Forum show, isn’t it?” So it was clear pretty quickly that we wanted to do it.

Also, that reading at Woolly happened the week before Newtown, and in discussing this play in the immediate aftermath, we started to see that the play deals with some of the subjects in a way that is not usually presented in the media. And the way we want to produce our work and the plays that are important to me at Forum give people different perspectives, and give them an opportunity to talk to one another. And it has such a fresh and different angle, and like all of Steve’s plays, it takes these things that are very real and relevant and then gives us a whole different perspective.

How have audiences responded to the play so far?

SY: The thing that I’ve heard a lot is “I’m glad that I saw it, but I’m not sure it’s for everyone.” But that’s because it’s dealing with topics that we find it much easier not to discuss. I’ve been really heartened by the response in Atlanta and Cincinnati so far. I think of it as an odd play, so when it resonates with people, I feel like I’m doing my job, and more importantly, it’s doing its job in reaching people. Because as much as we say we like to see representations of ourselves onstage, if the representation of yourself is doing something excruciatingly negative, that’s not always something that’s easy to access or process, and so it puts you on the outside as an audience member. Whereas if something is a little mythic or in some way lifted, but still grounded in true human emotions, then it becomes a story that doesn’t feel too personal to access, and then once you’re in it, it becomes personal.

Can you talk more about what you mean when you say it’s an odd play?

SY: I’m very fond of writing plays that take place in a very realistic world, and then brush up against the larger workings of the universe in a way that we don’t always comprehend… and shouldn’t always. And in that respect it’s odd.

MD: Also: we are sitting on this set in a kitchen. This is the most realistic set we’ve ever had in a Forum show—except for the giant upside-down cherry tree—And from here, the play goes to places that are almost always unexpected, but once you go on the full journey of the play, it rounds into something that is very recognizable. It’s a world that lives under its own rules, and so much of the excitement and surprise of the play comes from that.

Steve, in your plays there tend to be staging challenges: elements that are difficult for the creative team to realize. Particularly with Pluto being a Rolling World Premiere, what is it like to work with several different theatres all striving to realize these tough aspects of the work?

SY: As a playwright, I came up in Atlanta, which meant a lot of writing for black box theatre, and it also meant constantly stripping things down, and I think that actually ended up being useful, because it helped me refine what I’m asking for. But then I went to graduate school, and I had this fantastic teacher named Elizabeth Diggs, and the very first thing she did was pound on the table and said “Don’t write a play that you’re worried about getting produced! Write what you want to write!” So I wrote this play called Octopus, where the stage gets flooded with hundreds of gallons of water, and that quickly became my most produced play because design teams and directors and artists get really excited about how they can accomplish that.

And the exciting thing about the Rolling World Premiere process is that instead of getting one production of your play where one group of people suss out what’s going to work, you get to see entirely different groups of people in entirely different theatre markets with entirely different resources all figuring out how they’re going to realize this thing that you’ve asked for. And because I ask for splashy things every once in a while, I have a lot of fun seeing people rise to the challenge, and it does tend to be people who are excited about the difficulty inherent in it.

Michael, with this being a new play and a premiere, have there been script changes throughout the process?

MD: We are coming third in this Rolling Premiere cycle, but we did have a reading with this cast the weekend before the rehearsals started in Atlanta…

SY: … Which I was in on, and that was incredibly helpful…

MD: … So these actors got to influence the journey of the play and the new draft that came of that. But since we went into rehearsal it’s been locked.

SY: But that’s mostly because at this point in the process, going into production three, I don’t want to be tweaking. I want to see how the play lands.

Is there anything you find is different about the way a play develops in the Rolling World Premiere process that makes it stand apart from other forms of new play development?

SY: I think the one thing that it gives you is a bit of a safety net. I always want the first production out of the gate to be as close to what I hope the play will be, so that every one after that can be whatever other people think the play should be. So I can feel confident that it works my way and then see if it works other people’s way too. And that’s why a lot of the other Rolling World Premieres of my plays have started at Actors Express in Atlanta because I have a very personal relationship with that company and the director, Melissa Folger, and I work very intimately together so that what ultimately ends up on stage is very close to what’s in my head.

And the Rolling World Premiere structure also lets you play a bit more, because you know that there’s a second production. You’re not worried about changing any one thing because that might be something that other artistic directors don’t like.

Is there anything you can point to from one of your Rolling World Premiere plays that was a choice you made or something tried that really paid off that was specifically a result of that freedom?

SY: In Wolves, which was the last RWP before PLUTO, there was a moment at Actors Express, in the first production, Melissa and the actors were all very keen on making it as messy as possible. In my mind, initially, that play wasn’t very messy. But they really just wanted to go grand guignol with it, they wanted buckets of blood, and I had written some blood moments in, without the idea that it would be people sliding around in it, and this mess that takes interns an hour and a half to clean up after the show. But I thought: “You know: I’m going literally into another production of this next week in New Orleans… So… Yes, let’s do that, if that’s the instinct.”

And it ended up defining the play. It’s now written into the script, the level of gore and blood. It was maybe not something that I knew to ask for. It’s the kind of thing that’s really cool in my brain, but then people read it and go “Eh.” That play started out as an intellectual exercise about gay male sexuality, and not a visceral thing. But when it hit the stage it went very far in that direction, and it turns out that that was just the thing to do.

Michael, in working with the fantastical and mythology aspects of Pluto, what has surprised you about the play? and how has the play changed in your mind from working on it?

MD: We have a cast of really funny actors with strong comedic ability, and that was a bit of a surprise, hearing that in the first read, especially for some of the subject matter in the play. But it also gave it such a lift that made the journey of the play huge. Also, we always approach the play as rigorous realism, so that when the supernatural elements appear in the play, the cast has really taken those and owned them in such a real way that those aren’t moments where the play takes a pause and goes somewhere else. So those things happen and we get to see these characters we’ve gotten to know in a realistic setting and how they deal with those supernatural elements or choose not to respond to those elements. So it feels like a very true and honest and rigorous performance by this cast, and it really excites those moments in the same way that really great horror works, or great sci-fi works: Just full commitment to these real, fleshed-out characters when these things hit them, and it takes on great texture and depth.

Was the set always going to be as realistic as it ended up? During the design process did you entertain bringing in more fantastic elements to the design?

MD: It hit very early on. I actually went and saw the Atlanta production. So we moved a lot of our design process earlier, because I wanted to go see the Atlanta production feeling really good about my instincts and then letting that other design butt up against them and see what works. What I really wanted to get across when people come into the theatre is that this is a world that’s established that then we get to see things happen to, and it doesn’t tip too far into the journey we’re about to go on.

Anything we missed?

SY: I’ve got to say I’m excited about it being here in DC. Just because of the volume of new work that happens in DC. It’s a different type of theatre community, with the dialogue that exists between the theatres and their audiences. So I’m very excited to see how the play lands and what audiences take away.