POLLY POLLY written and performed by Jessica Moss. Presented by Theatre Mischief and the Fringe at Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). July 4 at 7:45 pm, July 5 at 1:15 pm, July 7 at 9:45 pm, July 8 at 4 pm, July 9 at 10:15 pm, July 11 at 6:15 pm, July 12 at 5:15 pm, July 13 at 8 pm. $10-$12, 416-966-1062, fringetoronto.com. See listing.
Interviewing Jessica Moss is like trying to keep an active volcano in check. There's emotion bubbling beneath the surface, and things could erupt in a giggle or outburst at any moment.
It's the same onstage, where she's shown an uncanny ability to access her feelings and crack jokes instantly.
"It's just how I am," says the actor and writer of this year's Fringe show Polly Polly. "I've always been that funny, wacky girl, from the time I was 16 and started doing plays at Bishop Strachan. I'd come into a show, talk really fast and move the play along or have a big funny moment.
"Summoning up energy isn't a problem for me," she says, blushing. "It's finding a bridle for it, learning how to control it."
Right now, in the NOW Lounge, she's trying to be low-key, discussing the challenges of her new play.
Polly Polly explores the idea of finding oneself. Not only does Moss play Polly, a humble call-centre worker, but she plays a couple of dozen others, including the voice in Polly's head - who narrates her life like a movie - and, in true meta fashion, a woman who says she's the actual Polly, the woman the first Polly is looking for.
"I'm really interested in this idea of finding yourself, your true self," says Moss, a week before the show's premiere at the Fringe. "We use that expression, ‘finding yourself,' but what does it mean? Does that mean you can lose yourself? I'm also interested in the form of the solo show and how to do a solo show that doesn't feel like one."
Moss's Fringe experiences can be traced back to her teenage years, when she'd get into a car with a friend and drive downtown to hit the late-night offerings.
"Mostly we'd choose the 11 pm shows with the funniest titles," she says, laughing.
Soon after, she began volunteering at the fest, selling tickets and ushering people around venues.
Then came a series of Fringe performances that made audiences sit up, open their programs and take note of her name.
In 2011's collective creation Swoon!, about people falling head-over-heels in love, she stood out as a woman who spotted the love of her life at a wedding. And in last year's Tick, she radiated charm as a precocious 10-year-old pissed off that the mayor was shutting down the city's libraries.
But it was at the 2012 version of the Fringe's winter fest, Next Stage, that Moss came into her own as a writer/performer. Modern Love was a smart, funny and heartbreaking look at online dating that showed off her unique talents: a tsunami of energy and an ability to tap into dark emotions with a wry sense of humour.
If Polly Polly sounds like a tougher sell than Modern Love, which used the tropes of social media and rom-coms to tell its crowd-pleasing story of singleton life, Moss is ready to step it up.
"The big technical challenge is about making moments clear," she says, pointing out an acting technique that Damien Atkins and Paul Dunn taught her at the National Theatre School.
To illustrate, she suddenly pretends she's a performer enacting our interview.
"So I'm talking to Glenn and Glenn asks me, ‘How did this come about?' and I'm like, ‘Well, Glenn...' and then he goes...."
She moves her head back and forth like someone watching a tennis match, her voice miraculously jumping up and down an octave to delineate who's who.
"You amp things up and automatically start doing this lampooned version of yourself," she says. "Playing you, I'd try to get to the essence of an interviewer - you're not doing that, but there's some truth in it. And you figure out where the characters are in space, who's looking at whom, who's trying to move forward and who's trying to stop something."
Lately, Moss has been trying to rely less on her default setting of big emotion. Working on a recent Rhubarb show, The Faroe Islands, with Nicolas Billon and Ravi Jain was hugely helpful, she says.
"What they do is so contained, so beautiful and elegant," she says. "I didn't think I could do that and tried playing my character like...." She lets out a loud, maniacal screech to illustrate what's in her mind.
"I asked if I could add some funny voices. And they said no. They taught me you're still a performer if you're sitting in a chair telling a story, and that's been influential. I'm hoping moments like that seep into Polly."
Chronicling the lives of 20-something women is pretty popular these days, what with indie darling Greta Gerwig (who even gets a shout-out in Moss's new play) and Girls creator Lena Dunham telling their stories and cutting lucrative deals.
"I'm such a big fan of both of them," she says. "If the media attention means people are more likely now to take a chance on a movie or TV series created by a 26-year-old woman, that's awesome. And if it means some girls will now have the confidence to go forward and say, ‘Not only am I going to be an actress, but I'm going to be the person who runs a show,' that's amazing."
But she also acknowledges all the fantastic women who came before her, especially in the Toronto theatre scene.
"One reason why my generation of women is so strong is that we had a terrific selection of role models," she says. "[Kristen Thomson's] I, Claudia came out when I was in high school, Erin Shields's works were around, Hannah Moscovitch was creating stuff. Kate Hewlett's work and career have been a huge influence on me - and she went to my high school!
"I remember seeing her in UnSpun Theatre's collective show Don't Wake Me at the Fringe and thinking, ‘Oh, if there's room for this person in this community, then maybe there's room for me.' Evalyn Parry's also like that. The idea of putting diversity out there - of stories, people, actors - is so amazing. It opens up your sense of what's possible."
Because of Moss's indie successes, others have quickly taken notice. She was part of the star-studded 50-woman Luminato show Tout Comme Elle in 2011 and got cast in Daniel MacIvor's Was Spring last year at the Tarragon, sharing the stage with veterans Clare Coulter and Caroline Gillis.
"That was an incredible opportunity," she says about the MacIvor play. "I felt really lucky and very scared. It's frightening when you see people you've admired for so long in the same room. But it's also encouraging, because you see them working through things, too, and realize it's all just work."
MacIvor and Ann-Marie MacDonald - Moss directed a production of co-writer MacDonald's The Attic, The Pearls And Three Fine Girls in high school - are two artists she once desperately wanted to emulate.
"I had this really obsessive thing about wanting to become them," she laughs. "And only recently did I realize I couldn't. You can admire people, learn from them, borrow from everyone, but ultimately - and this has been a really hard thing to learn - you have to do things your own way."
All photos by Mike Ford. Jessica Moss shot at The Randolph Theatre.
Up-to-the-minute reviews and reports at nowtoronto.com/fringe
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