Marjolaine Whittlesey and Ian Carlsen are one of my favorite art couples. This fierce married duo are a team of multi-hyphenate creators – they act, write, and direct for theater and film, (among other creative pursuits) – and were some of my first friends here in Maine. When we met we were all living in downtown Portland, and (amazingly) even after a few moves we're still kind of neighbors – they're living on a farm just four miles down the road.
When they're not taking care of horses or their relatively new arrival Robin (born last March), the couple can be spotted on screen, starring in the new sci-fi film short release, DUAL. Shot in pre-pandemic times but premiering now as part of the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, the film – which runs all of nine minutes – manages to touch on themes all too familiar: what's safe and what's dangerous, familiar or sinister, even within our own families and homes.
The festival screens virtually through Feb. 15: You can get your tickets here, and view DUAL as part of the sci-fi short package #10.
I caught up with Marjo and Ian (and Robin) at the farm this week, to chat about DUAL's release, art, world-making, parenting, identity, and post-pandemic possibilities.
CS: Marjo, Ian: HI! So, real quick, what’s your version of how we know each other??
MW: I met you in a classroom full of students: you were volunteering and I was super impressed with your rapport with them. I gave you a ride home, and by the time I dropped you off I knew there would be some magical times ahead. They soon developed into weird art projects involving ketchup in snow and tigers on trampolines, plus a great friendship to boot!
IC: And I met you through Marjo.
CS: Tell everyone a little about who you are as creators. What do you make!? What are your creative practices?
IC: I’m an actor trying to re-grow his writing side. I write screenplays and some poetry. I’m also in a band called Robber & Thief that I’ve been in for over a decade, and I host a podcast called The Bird Dad Podcast. Outside of that I help to produce films, and edit other people’s podcasts. Oh! I’ve also got a weekly tabletop roleplaying game that’s a pretty intensive creative practice. Do I do too much? Maybe I do too much.
MW: I’m a theater artist and spent much of the last ten years working on new works. I love devising with a tight ensemble where writing, playing, and figuring out what comes next is a shared endeavor. About five years ago I started working full-time as a teaching artist with a local nonprofit (The Telling Room), and much of my creative juices are poured into lesson plans. I've kept up theater, mostly acting with local companies, but for the past year and a half I’ve been on a whole other creative trip: making a baby. Now, 10 months into parenting a gurgling bambino, most of my creativity happens in the kitchen. Cooking up colorful meals and baking new recipes are my reprieve from juggling baby, work, and pandemic stress.
IC: I just want to say I am very much in awe of Marjo’s creativity. I feel like I do a lot of creative things, but that she finds ways to infuse creativity into everything she does.
CS: So – coolest thing ever – you are actually in a film together, and it's being released right now at a major festival. Tell us a little about DUAL! What’s it about? What are your roles and how did you each get involved in the project? When did you shoot and how long has it been in production? Why should everyone we know see this film?
IC: DUAL is a haunting sci-fi short that takes the feeling of being displaced from your normal life to a whole new level. It was filmed back in the fall of 2018 in Cape Elizabeth and Brunswick, ME. Jason Carrerio, one of the co-writers, reached out and had us read the script. Someone had recommended us as actors, and I guess co-writer and director, Sam Brosnan, was interested in seeing how our being married already would affect our on screen dynamic.
CS: Was this your first time working together as actors? What was it like to work with your spouse on that level? Do you go to a totally different realm when relating as a fictional couple, or is there overlap with your real partnership?
MW: I’ve always loved working with Ian. We met through the theater scene in Portland and had been in plays together before we ever started dating. Since being a couple we’ve worked on a few different projects together in both theater and film, and it’s always really fun. I love the freedom and expansiveness that working together brings. In those moments there’s no expectation to be holding life logistics in mind and we can connect on a purely artistic level. I think it also brings us back into that space in which we first met, so there’s a freshness and excitement to it as well.
IC: I really enjoy acting with Marjo. I think that maybe the one drawback is that it might be easier for me to fall into patterns of our personal relationship, rather than create new patterns for the role that I’m playing.
CS: How does it feel to have this film coming out now? Almost a year into the pandemic…
IC: It’s nice. It’s pretty average honestly. You often have some lag between filming and release with indie films. Sometimes a year, sometimes more. It’s nice to see something you worked on finally get released. Plus it’s a fun reminder of you know… the Before Times.
MW: I remember the shoot so well – it’s hard to believe that it was 2.5 years ago! Pandemic + baby = such a time warp. I love the reminder of how much I love being on film shoots. I sometimes think that I’ll just have time for work and parenting, and reconnecting to this project is a good reminder that, as an actor, being a part of an artistic collaboration like a film doesn’t have to be a time suck!
CS: So the fact that DUAL is a sci-fi film seems kind of fitting as we’re all living in what feels somewhat like science fiction right now. How do you think DUAL – and the rest of the films in the Boston Sci-Fi festival – relate to where we’re at right now, culturally-speaking?
IC: I think the genre of Science Fiction as a whole is an exercise in telling ourselves what we think will happen. It’s speculation on unknowns, contingencies for big questions. And I think that often it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way. You’ve got videochat on wristwatches in Dick Tracy comics in the 50’s and it lingers around in the subconscious or the zeitgeist and then finally someone is like, ‘Let’s do it, let’s do the smart-watch thing.’ I mean the whole Operation Warp Speed vaccine rollout wouldn’t be called that if not for Star Trek coining and popularizing the phrase and the idea of warping space-time. We create our future in the stories we tell.
MW: What he said!
CS: Let’s talk about world-making: What’s the world of this film? For you, how does sci-fi in particular approach the idea of world-making? How did you posit yourselves in the world of the film?
IC: DUAL is in that classic sci-fi vein of taking the world as we know it and just adding one fantastical element. In this case everyone’s just going along with their normal lives until this massive and mysterious meteor shower comes along.
MW: I remember being tickled at getting to play a couple who had a child and lived in a nice house. For the short time on set I felt like we were practicing a possible future. And then it got spooky and I sure hope there’s nothing like that scenario in our future!
CS: OK, now to the real life world-making that’s happening concurrently with the film release. We’ve been individually (and collectively) reconfiguring – and in many ways, remaking – our worlds for almost a year now. Remaking our identities, our work life, our relationships. How would you describe the moment of remaking you’re in right now? What IS your pandemic world? And how does your creative work exist within these new frames?
IC: It’s a pretty small world we live in now. I feel lucky that we have our parents in our bubble. Some people have it a lot worse and have been much more resilient than we have. Thankfully with our son we can just turn the focus inward to building his world.
MW: I’ve always created in collaboration, and I had envisioned that motherhood would also be a big collaborative endeavor. I loved the idea of raising a child not just with a partner, but with a whole community. It’s been really hard not to be able to share more of parenthood with the world. On the other hand, we’ve really focused on life as a trio and I think these early months have set up some strong patterns that will serve all of us really well. We’ve become pretty good at naming our needs and creating space for each other, and I hope we can continue to do that as we open up to taking on more artistic projects.
CS: You’ve had two HUGE life changes happen – becoming parents and living through the craziness of the pandemic – within the past year. How have these two world-changing events shaped your creative life and identities as artists?
IC: I think there maybe was a part of me that was worried I’d like creating things more than being a parent. Thankfully that’s not the case.
MW: When I was pregnant I decided to take a year off from any artistic projects. I wanted to be able to turn inward and focus on this new chapter. I turned down some big projects and felt pretty good about it, knowing that I could always return to artistic projects later. As of now I don’t have the drive to seek them out yet. I can’t quite tell if it’s out of preemptive (and real) exhaustion or lack of interest... I’m trying to not judge that lack of drive and just stay open to creativity flowing back in at some point.
CS: So Marjo, to follow up on that a little… This is a really big topic of conversation in our culture right now: motherhood, work, pandemic. I just listened to the special series Enough Already: How the Pandemic is Breaking Women on NPR a few days ago, plus, there’s the NYT's The Primal Scream multimedia project on working moms during the pandemic which has been buzzing around. How does mothering and working full-time and maintaining an “identity” as a creator and artist interplay for you in this moment? What is it like to watch DUAL and reflect back to the before-times, both regarding parenting and art making? Where are the losses and where are the gains, for you, and how do you feel you approach your creativity or making in your present “world”?
MW: I love my job and am trying really hard to bring my whole self to it, which can be a real struggle with a baby in the background. Now that I’ve been back at work for about six months, I feel like I’m just starting to hit my stride with being able to be present and deliver creative content while also showing up as a mother who is present and connected. However, I have zero energy for anything else. Except food! During the first few months of motherhood most of my waking brain hours were spent thinking about food: eating, breastfeeding, cooking. Feeding a family can sometimes slip into a place of worry or obligation, but I’ve worked hard to maintain it as an act of pleasure. The kitchen is the one place I've had energy for outside of baby time. Cooking has always been my grounding activity, and I’ve maintained that throughout this time. It’s a place where breathing, pleasure, daydreaming, nourishing, gifting, experimenting, playfulness, and ritual all mix together. I could attribute all of those words to some of my devising practices back in the day, so I guess the kitchen is my new creative stage!
On a different note, this year has also been one of more introspective growth around anti-racism work and personal awareness. That deep work is hard and slow and I don’t know how it’s going to permeate through the creative work to come, as I am not who I was two years ago.
CS: Ian – this one's for you. We were chatting recently about the isolation of the pandemic and how it almost spiritually alters you… How maybe the forces usually behind one’s creative drives (curiosity, boundary exploration, desire) are also forced into a kind of isolation or pause due to social distancing, working remotely, etc. How has the isolation of the past year affected your creative life, what have you been working on (or not), and how has all of this impacted your overall identity as an artist?
IC: Well, right now I’m in the process of finalizing a few years-long projects, so that’s not really creating as much as it’s shepherding the results of my creativity to completion. The isolation can be freeing if you accept it, and just work on creating things you want to create. If you continue to focus on the absence of creative partners, you’re bound to bum yourself out. For example, my music making really took a hit as I haven’t seen my bandmate Erik in almost ten months. Anything I try to put together just doesn’t pop like it used to and I think that’s because I’m just thinking more about how I miss my friend than the actual song.
Ian's music with Robber & Thief, on Spotify.
CS: You (Ian) have some fun things coming down the pipeline though, right? Tell me a little more about Nice People.
IC: Yeah, there are a few things I’ve got to look forward to. Nice People is a feature length film that I wrote and produced with my partner in crime, Jeffrey Griecci. It’s an anthology film like Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth, comprised of five short dramas and dramedies being played out in a fictional Maine, and none of them involve lobstermen. We’re in post-production on that and are slowly coaxing it along to the finish line.
I’m also looking forward to the release of another feature film Down East that shot up here in Maine in January of 2020, right before Covid hit.
Ian on his forthcoming film, Nice People.
CS: To close with a kind of game, I want to circle back to the idea of world-making – so let’s play a little round of fortune teller. If you had to dig into your gut, or the cave of intuition, and give it a guess: What do you think is in store for this world we’re all remaking? How do you feel looking into the rest of 2021, and what real or sci-fi –like realities we all might be culturally manifesting, whether we know it or not?
MW: I’m really excited about the different sorts of narratives that are rising to the surface (less dominated by white, affluent, cis narratives). With space for different kinds of stories to breathe, who knows what will shift? I hope that my little guy will have a different sense of who heroes are and what is possible than what I grew up with.
IC: In my cave of intuition I’m mostly nervous about our love for post-apocalyptic narratives, and the heroes that we elevate through them. Not everyone gets to be Mad Max if our world suddenly becomes The Road Warrior, right? There’s only one Max in that world, and everyone else has a pretty crappy go of things. Not everything can be solved by kicking ass. Yet if the stories we identify with are all stories of ass-kickings, what else can we do?