On the creation of THE MS PHOENIX RISING

Over the course of the past month or so, I absorbed the Playwrights Horizons Soundstage miniseries production of The MS Phoenix Rising, created by Trish Harnetiaux and Katie Brook, written by Trish Harnetiaux, directed by Katie Brook, and produced by Katie Brook and Ben Williams. I haven’t been much of a podcast or audio book person, though it’s unclear as to when that happened; I can remember, as a kid of twelve or so, listening to radio plays on an actual transistor radio tucked under my pillow after bedtime, the signal ebbing and flowing in strength. The programming was straightforward, radio adaptations of The Red Badge of Courage and War of the Worlds, others I’ve since forgotten. It was entertainment sure, but there was something else to it — the quality of listening actively, surreptitiously. The stakes felt strangely high. I felt the same way experiencing The MS Phoenix Rising, which I listened to through headphones (definitely recommended) while doing various things including the dishes, walking, cleaning, on the subway, and for at least two episodes, just sitting on my bed staring into space. I preferred the last setting, as there is an abundance of riches within the six-episode narrative and one doesn’t want to miss anything. The show, which you can listen to for free in its entirety here, struck me as something I had forgotten about combined with something I never knew I needed. In short — the premise, absurd, perfect, is that of a cruise ship relaunching post-pandemic in the year 2022 with onboard entertainment slated to feature an avant-garde production of Ionesco’s The Chairs. Unsurprisingly, everything goes wrong, but not entirely in the ways you might expect. It’s a must-listen.

Afterwards, I had some questions that the director Katie Brook and writer Trish Harnetiaux were kind enough to discuss with me.

It’s a radio play! Something I’m struck by is how… new? this hither-to-regarded-as vintage form of theater-making felt to me. How did you approach the medium differently than you might have done for a staged theater piece? Were there any major sources of inspiration while creating it?

Katie Brook: We were very focused on sound (mostly conference calls, a bit of radio) leading all of the content, framing and affecting all of the storytelling. Ultimately I wanted to make something that had to exist in the audio form; not something that would be better on stage. So yes, if it were a stage piece—if the visual and live element were available to us— it would be completely different.

Trish Harnetiaux: Exactly, like Katie said – we absolutely knew it could only exist, that this story could only be told through the medium of audio. And after this choice was made, it was exciting to lean in and push boundaries within the form. Okay, what are the tools at our disposal? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages and how can we subvert them? I was never thinking about what would make something good, but what would make it bad but in a good way. How technology could fail and structurally be a tool of miscommunication was inspiration in itself. It was almost like there was a built in layer of humor, playing around the literal idea of radio silence. Wait, does that even make sense?

KB: Absolutely!

TH: I’ve been obsessed with The Chairs since I first read it a million years ago. It was a constant source and it was almost scary (and funny) how relevant it felt. In the opening scene of the podcast, the front office of The MS Phoenix Rising greenlights it as their big on-board comeback show, without understanding the play at all laying the foundation for chaos. Fear not, the listeners don’t need to know The Chairs to enjoy the podcast.

KB: Another source for us were the experiences, dynamics, turns of phrase, etc. that were knew well from working in offices. We learned a lot about cruise ships too, and obviously, we were very inspired by the Fyre Festival…

The amount of marketing-speak in the work is borderline nauseating (in the best of ways). So I think it’s appropriate to apply a “it’s like” filter to the series and declare that it’s like if you combined The Office with Slings and Arrows and then overlaid that on a Fyre Festival documentary. It’s a workplace drama about people trying to make theater who don’t know anything about theater? How have you been describing it to yourself (or others)? How did you arrive at this specific idea?

TH: “Borderline nauseating” is a high compliment, thank you. The hope is that the show works on many levels and there’s something for everyone. I never write like that, and I was surprised how much fun it was. Correct, it’s a workplace drama about people who don’t know anything about, I would say, anything. Theater is one of many things they don’t understand, though a central one. I was interested in the concept of a group of co-workers who were consensually delusional. Exploring how quickly an idea can spin out of control and take on a new life. To really examine what motivates someone at work (selfishness, insecurity, relevance) and zoom in and out, examining the failures of collective decision making when the foundation is insincere = the Fyre festival was a huge influence. It was (and is) hard to look away. I still can’t get enough of the Fyre Festival. I want more. I mean, I want to visit Billy McFarland in prison kinda more.

I was very struck by how sound-appropriate the world that you created was. It’s defiantly audio, so much so that it becomes a joke at times (Zoom calls are forbidden). This makes perfect sense for the format and got me thinking about what the limitations might be. Did you run into any sequences that just didn’t work for an audio play?

KB: I was pretty strict about the real-audio-media, so the short answer is, no. We recorded the first five episodes with all the actors in the (Zoom) room together to try to get some really believable remote-work verisimilitude. It was technically challenging but also really fruitful acting-wise and a fun space to play in and send up. The final episode is a live radio broadcast from the cruise ship, and there are moments in it that seem to expand beyond that conceit, making them a bit more complex design-wise. I felt we were able to be a bit more liberal in the final episode, but there wasn’t a road that we went down and then had to turn back for formal reasons. But Trish may have had writing moments like this… scene ideas that couldn’t fit the form…?

TH: There was so much that needed to happen in the last episode and since we were fiercely committed to the audio only rules, that was a looming question for a while. Once I’d figured out that it would be a live broadcast of a radio show, the pressure was off. It was a huge relief. I really enjoyed working within the constructs we’d set up, so it didn’t limit anything.

The wealth of talent working on this series was striking across the board – I deeply enjoyed the performances and design choices. Is it easier to cast something like this, especially with most actors grounded by the realities of living through a pandemic? How would you describe the difference in resources between a staged piece of theater and an audio production based on your experience of it?

KB: For Trish, Riley (composer) Ben (sound designer) and I—and maybe for some actors too—it was a project to pour our hearts into while the theater was shut down. When we did the pilot, in May, 2020, many actors we knew were a little more available than usual, too…

TH: For a while it felt like, fuck it, the world’s ending, let’s ask all our favorite people to do this. And most of them could and did. One of the things that was awesome is that it felt like we were creating something that had no chance of coming together in an IRL way. A stellar cast of twenty? Even working with Playwrights Horizons, that would be hard to pull off. So recording remotely worked in our favor. There were still a lot of hurdles and the actors had to take on the stressful task of also being tech savvy, but they did it! The entire time, I had the feeling – which doesn’t always happen – that we were creating something that could only be done during the time when we were creating it. Somehow, it made perfect sense that we did it during a global pandemic. I think we created something that does three things; captures our current reality, comments on the future, and will hopefully have a long, relevant life after we’re through the other side.

For me, the work felt deliciously nihilistic, especially in reference to live theater. It’s the title of an entire episode so I don’t think I’m spoiling too much by introducing the term “Herd Enlightenment” into the mix while noting that, in context of the work, it’s in service of a theatrical vision in which the entire cast is imagined — no more bodies on stage. Which, on the one hand, is a meta-joke about our current state of affairs, but it also hit me somewhere deeper. That, in combination with the darkness that settles around the series as it progresses and the absurd anti-profundity of the MS Phoenix Rising’s solution to their mounting on-board entertainment woes had me thinking a lot about the state of theater that we are about to enter into. We’ve been imagining this for over a year now — what might it look like when we get to start making it again? What do you hope for? 

TH: I hope for an increased capacity, and want, for work that challenges us on many levels. That absurdism isn’t so alienating now. That collectively we’ve lived through the trauma of all this and watched and experienced our lives change in a moment. Being shoved into the unknown having altered our idea of reality. That sounds dramatic, but, of course, it was! I’m curious how this new reality will affect how we’ll take in collective experiences, like theatre, and if it will broaden the scope of what both institutions who present and produce and what writers, directors and other creators make. You mention a “darkness that settles around the series as it progresses” and I think that’s at the heart of a deeper form of comedy – which Ionesco does so brilliantly in The Chairs. Basically, I’m betting on a changed baseline throughout our theatre communities that paves the way for wild, brave plays and audiences who come with a new found openness for experience. That people are more willing to take a ride and go on an unexpected emotional journey without trying to solve something as they watch it. Because if this last year has taught me anything, it’s when you’re fully invested in the moment that you can be moved, or laugh harder than you thought possible — it only happens when you can’t begin to predict what will happen next.

KB: That all sounds great! I really want our society to emerge from this time valuing live performance more than we used to, having been deprived for so long, and that that enthusiasm manifests in more resources and bigger, more diverse audiences. For me personally, though: I’m just so eager to be in a crowded theater again, I don’t even care what the show is. Which is a feeling I have never ever in my life felt before.

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