BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming

BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming
Celeste Roberts (Jule) and James Belcher (Mort)
Photographed by Rod Todd

POLLYWOG is heavy stuff. Not for the faint of heart. But I suspect, once you work through the uncomfortable challenging moments, it is, as POLLYWOG author Keian McKee attests, transformative.

The narrative is only a small chunk of the play's meaning, but it's my job to give it to you.

At nine, Polly's mother and swim teacher, Jule, suffers a stroke. The stroke ends Polly's childhood, thrusts the pre-adolescent into the role of caregiver, and adds additional strain to her relationship with her father, Mort. More importantly, it puts an end to Polly's swim lessons with her mother.

Now, Polly is an adult and her mother, sadly, is ashes. Determined, Polly plunges into the waters of the Atlantic and her own mind.

With her mother's ashes in tow, Polly sojourns across the ocean, encountering and eventually facing the main characters of her life: Jule, Esther and Johnny, Hollywood swim idols and Polly's imaginary friends, and her father.

BWW: Describe POLLYWOG in your own words.

Keian McKee:

POLLYWOG is my attempt to manifest a person's thought processes. Specifically the process of developing or recovering memories, on stage. The main character Polly is swimming but most of what the audience will hear and see is what is happening inside her head.

BWW: Could you also describe the narrative to me?

Keian McKee: Polly is attempting her first open water swim in order to release her mother's ashes. During the swim, as she gradually pieces together the circumstances of her mother's stroke, when she was a young girl, her thoughts are flooded with other memories of swimming lessons, school, tension with her father Mort, and caretaking of Jule after her stroke.

BWW: What do you think the audience reaction will be?

Keian McKee: I honestly don't know. In a rough staged reading of the play in 2006, the audience became quite engrossed in the language and action even though the narrative develops in looping and flowing bits and pieces.

BWW: How would you like them to react?

Keian McKee: I would like audiences to see glimpses of their own thought processes in Polly's and to connect emotionally to the characters who are swimming around in her brain.

BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming
Jason Duga (Johnny) and Autumn Clack (Esther)
Photographed by Rod Todd

BWW: What inspired you to write this play? What did you find important to express when you sat down to write it?

Keian McKee: There were several inspirations for me. I have a strong interest in exploring the ways in which our physicalities--our abilities, boundaries, and limitations, whether natural, imposed or assumed--shape what we know and how we know it.The idea for the play came to me during a period in which I was reading a lot of articles on neuroscience research and I was training for my first triathlon. I had to relearn how to swim using different techniques more suitable for open water swimming. It made me feel quite vulnerable at first and later very empowered.

Open water swimming, like marathon running, brings one's physical and mental systems into sharp relief. I wanted to find a way to capture something of those experiences in the script.

BWW: What was the source of the key figures in Polly's life?

Keian McKee: The mother of a close friend of mine experienced a debilitating stroke when my friend was a young girl. My friend's experience of growing into adulthood while serving as a caregiver for her mother provided a seed for me to develop the circumstances of the Jule-Polly relationship. The inspiration for Mort's occupation came to me from one of my grandfathers, who sold mausoleums during his later life. I never knew that grandfather so he has always seemed a bit mysterious to me. Johnny and Esther came from my fascination with old movies. I have almost a complete collection of Esther Williams films.BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming

BWW: What Esther Williams films were most artistically stimulating to you?

Keian McKee: My favorite is Million Dollar Mermaid (MGM, 1952). That film introduced me to Annette Kellerman, the Australian swimming star. Annette comes up in POLLYWOG.

BWW: How did Mildred's Umbrella work with you to develop and produce POLLYWOG?

Keian McKee: Matt Huff, the director, is a longtime collaborator of mine and has worked with Mildred's over the past few years. He and I first met when we both worked at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Matt had been helping me shop the script around, and he shared it with Jennifer Decker, artistic director of Mildred's Umbrella. I think the script fit the profile for the kind of risks Mildred's tries to take and the kind of stories they like to tell. I was very fortunate that the script attracted the attention of an individual donor, the Dollie I. Males Angel Fund, which has a strong interest in the issues addressed by POLLYWOG. And Jennifer was able to secure some additional funding. That support made it possible for us to develop the play in the way we felt it deserved. Mildred's Umbrella has been amazing!

BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming
Keian McKee

BWW: Could you take us through your artistic journey? Basically, how did you get here? Here being a woman who's having her first full length play produced. Many playwrights would love to add this to their list of accomplishments.

Keian McKee: What a long and winding road! Like many playwrights, I spend a significant part of my time doing other things to make a living. For me, that's being a human resources manager for a research center at the University of Minnesota.

In Atlanta in the early 1990s, I co-founded Different Voices Theatre Company with three friends, Elizabeth Davis, Deadra Moore and Sally J. Robertson. I had written a few plays prior to that experience, but didn't have any theatrical training. Producing theater on a shoestring budget was a terrific education. It also helped me to get a graduate internship at the Alliance Theatre during the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. That unpaid gig led to a paid job with the Alliance as its literary manager and a production dramaturg for a couple of years, where I had the honor of working with Kenny Leon, T. Jane Bishop, Edith H. Love, Susan V. Booth, Juliette Carillo, and Sandra Deer.

After taking a break from theater for a couple of years after graduate school, I returned to it by writing. My one-act DIRE STRAITS received readings and a workshop production with the Atlanta Play Lab, the Decatur Arts Festival, and the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Arts Festival.

Sally Robertson thought of me when Georgia Perimeter College Youth Theatre needed a new play for its 2003 spring touring production. That commission resulted in THE GIRL WHO SANG IN ORANGE AND CUBE. The next project for me was POLLYWOG.

In 2007, I moved from Atlanta to Minneapolis and found a lot of inspiration in the Twin Cities' vibrant arts scene and the support of the Playwrights' Center. My short plays NO. IDIOTIC (2008, Bedlam Theatre) and EGGS (2008, Specific Gravity Ensemble) were early, small successes that kept me motivated.

My most recent full-length work, MEXICAN BREAKFAST, examines the implications of America's post-9/11 response through the tale of two lovers who awaken to discover significant parts of themselves missing.BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming

BWW: What is your writing process? How do you approach each new project?

Keian McKee: I write in snatches of time. Finding the mental space for new projects is a big challenge for me. New ideas usually germinate in my mind or in short scenes or notes for a long time. I have several projects in process right now. I'm waiting to see which one will break open because of something that happens in the world or in my understanding to give it priority.

BWW: Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?

Keian McKee: If you have stories to share, then find a way to do so. Learn everything you can about the mechanics and business of producing theater. It can help you understand limitations and objections and enable you to figure out when and how you can challenge and surpass them (limitations and objections). Also, find one or two people whose advice you trust. Be ready and willing to listen if they tell you that something isn't good or if they tell you that it is.

BWW: Do you have any words of encouragement for those in artistic purgatory?

Keian McKee: There is a lot of dumb luck in art and life. Write because you want to, not because you think your work will get produced or published. If you write something that you would enjoy seeing on stage, then you have done your job.

BWW: What do BWW readers and Houston just have to know about POLLYWOG?

Keian McKee: It will transform you.

BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming
Not This.
BWW Interviews: POLLYWOG Playwright Keian McKee Talks Esther Williams, Neuroscience, and Swimming

BWW: I saved the most important question for last: What is your favorite children's breakfast cereal and why?

Keian McKee: I'm afraid I will be a disappointment here. I never liked cereal as a kid so don't have a favorite. When I was training for my first triathlon, I discovered GoLean Crunch by Kashi and decided to give cereal another chance.

BWW: If I see you when you're in town for the production, I'll give you a small portion of Crisp Berry Crunch, Captain Crunch's cheap brother.

Keian McKee: I'll look forward to trying Crisp Berry Crunch.

WHERE: Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, Spring Street Studios, Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street, Houston TX 77007 WHEN: July 31-August 16, 2014 (Thurs-Sat and Mondays). All shows at 8pm. PRICE- $20 general admission/ $12 Students and Seniors. Mondays are 'Pay as you Can' MORE INFO/RESERVATIONS: Visit, email or call (832) 463-0409

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