'Pen15' Creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine Are Making Middle School Great Again

To see Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine without braces, slumped shoulders, and their signature hairdos — bowl cut for Erskine, strategic strands rigidly framing her face for Konkle — is, for the first few seconds, a little disorienting. Their Pen15 characters, middle schoolers Anna Konkle and Maya Ishii-Peters, are so comforting in their awkwardness, such perfect avatars for the 13-year-old that lives inside all of us, that meeting them as grown-ups, with their hair down, a little lip gloss on, wearing normal clothes, is kind of like finding out Batman is Bruce Wayne, or seeing a teacher at the mall. In real life, the masters of preteen trauma are self-assured, engaging, quite beautiful, and, as of mid-January, both very pregnant. A coincidence, but somehow an unsurprising one.

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“It’s so embarrassing, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we do everything together,’ but also magical,” says Erskine, Zooming from the sunny office of her new home in Los Angeles in January. She stands up and turns sideways, cupping a flowy top around her midsection to give me the full view. “We saw each other for the first time the other day, socially distanced. We’ve been able to talk on the phone about our pregnancies, but not hang out or hug. So, Anna came over to see the house, and we touched each other’s bellies, and it was like — we almost bawled.”

Being pregnant during a pandemic would be emotional for anyone, but these two really live in their feelings. It’s the reason Pen15 transcends the sketch-show gimmickry of its conceit — two thirtysomething women playing themselves at 13, opposite actual adolescents — to reach into your heart and wring out all the stuff that’s been stuck in there since you, too, were a confused, temperamental, insecure middle schooler. It’s also what makes it riotously funny. The physical gag of adult women pretending to be kids quickly becomes beside the point. (In fact, it’s alarming how easy it is to forget that they are not teenagers.) What’s left, thanks to the co-creators’ brutally honest writing, is the crystallized experience of middle school in all its wretchedness and absurdity, reconstructed with enough distance to pinpoint both the humor and the pain. This isn’t The Wonder Years. It’s the “WTF Years.”

“There are so many funny and fucked-up and sad memories within the in-between time of childhood and high school,” says Konkle. “You’re not a child, and you’re not a teen. You’re experiencing sexual things, and your brain is changing, and your body is betraying you. It felt like, ‘I want to talk about the first time I was fingered. It hurt. And it was funny. I was pretending I liked it, and then I walked around with a waddle for a day, because he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. He was, like, mining for gold.’ The more shameful was the funnier stuff to us, and we thought that would not be accepted. But more people seem to appreciate the secret-telling, the stuff that we were told not to talk about.”

It’s a cliché of acting (and writing about acting) to call a performer “brave,” usually for things like gaining 30 pounds or wearing a prosthetic nose or, for women, being “unlikable.” But dressing as yourself in seventh grade and furiously masturbating on a set that looks exactly like your childhood bedroom, that’s brave. 

The degree of specificity woven into the show is what makes it so visceral, even if you weren’t 13 in the year 2000. Your bad fashions may have been tie-dye, not stone-wash, your toys Cabbage Patch Dolls, not My Little Pony, but the desperate first crushes, the melodramatic lashing out at parents, the withering self-loathing are the same. Konkle and Erskine are meticulous about everything, from the outfits they wear to the cabinets in their characters’ kitchens. That texture is what allows them to dig deeper when they recreate the experience of being bullied at a slumber party or fumbling through a first kiss.

“It’s so funny, because a lot of people say, ‘How did you guys remember that? Did you look at journals?’ ” Erskine says. “I’m like, ‘That shit is imprinted in my brain. I cannot get rid of it.’ Because your brain is forming at that time. You’re becoming an adult. So every experience that’s traumatic, or any experience at all, is there forever. I think some people maybe just choose to repress it or block it out of their minds.”

Konkle and Erskine have been sharing their mortifying stories since they became close as students in NYU’s experimental-theater program. They weren’t writing partners right away, just friends and confidantes as they struggled through their postgrad years in New York, going to auditions, waiting tables, and doing free-theater gigs. It wasn’t until Erskine had moved back to her hometown of L.A. and Konkle was ready to quit acting that they decided to make something together as a kind of last hurrah — the classic moment when the heroes say to hell with what we’re supposed to do, let’s do what makes us happy. They discovered they were ideal collaborators, both with an offbeat sense of humor and a rip-the-Band-Aid-off forthrightness.

The resulting web series, Project Reality, grew out of an internship Konkle had at VH1, where there was a file cabinet stuffed with rejected reality-show pitches and spec pilots, many sent in by D-list celebrities. Konkle never opened the cabinet, but she liked imagining what was inside. Using that as a jumping-off point, she and Erskine created fake pilots for each webisode, outfitting their characters in kooky wardrobes from Goodwill. It was “batshit insane,” Konkle says of the series, but it got them an agent, despite having “200 views.” 

At the time, Girls had just come out, so Hollywood was hot on female creators. Suddenly, the pair found themselves in meeting after meeting, being asked what kind of show they’d want to make. Being called creators “helped us to think of ourselves that way,” Konkle says. “Then there’s been a huge catch-up period that has not stopped, literally, until yesterday. We’d had some writing in school and some directing in school, but it’s just been a lot of [saying], ‘We can do that,’ and then being like, ‘Fuck, we need to learn how to do that.’ ”

Much of the learning curve for Pen15 has involved not just the ins and outs of showrunning, but figuring out where (or whether) to draw the line with content that could lean surprisingly dark. Initially, they thought the show would be pure comedy, built around what Erskine calls “the circus freakishness” of middle school. But as they workshopped the concept with their friend and third co-creator, Sam Zvibleman, and eventually gathered a writers room (a process that took six years), they determined that “the stuff that sticks are the things that we’re most embarrassed to talk about,” Erskine says, “or that caused us so much pain.” 

Thus we have the episode in Season One where Anna’s parents, whose marital strife has been an ongoing storyline, sit her down for The Talk: They’re getting a divorce. Or the one where Maya wakes to casual racism. Shot during the first week of filming, it turned out to be a watershed for how deep the show would wade into bygone traumas. 

The setup has Maya and Anna join three classmates for a group project where they decide to present themselves as the Spice Girls. As they’re choosing identities, the cool girls, who are all white, tell Maya she can’t be Posh because she’s “tan.” Then they order her to serve them drinks, riffing that she’s a Mexican gardener named Guido. Maya plays along, laughing but also flustered and upset. Even Anna piles on, clueless that her friend might be suffering. While the scene seemed funny in the writers room, it played out differently once cameras were rolling.

“Everyone was really excited and laughing during rehearsal,” Erskine says. “Then, as soon as we started filming, the moment they called me Guido, I got so triggered, I broke down. I was shocked by how upset I got. A lot of the crew members started to go into their own memories, so they started crying, and Anna started crying. It was this chain reaction.”

Though it “dredged up a lot of raw emotion,” Erskine says, the moment ultimately helped unlock one of the secrets to the show’s success. “It was kind of a revelation, like, ‘Oh, these scenes can have both. They’re funny but they’re also really painful, and it’s OK to feel that pain and sit in it.’”  

Even topics that seem light on the surface are set in a bedrock of deep discomfort. Erskine and Konkle are fiercely dedicated to pushing themselves to places most of us would happily avoid. The most famous example is probably that masturbation episode in Season One. Maya finds herself turned on while playing with her My Little Ponies, smashing their faces together in a makeout session, then spends the rest of the episode going to town under her blankets. As much as Erskine lets her freak flag fly as Maya — making weird faces and yawps that tap into a kind of feral alter ego her brother dubbed “the Graya” when they were kids — she says she was “terrified” the night before that show dropped, thinking it was a “huge mistake.” 

“I [was] scared to even put it out, because it caused me so much shame growing up,” Erskine says. As a kid, she figured she was a “freak” and a “full-on pervert” for touching herself, something none of her friends ever talked about or confessed to doing. “There was no sharing between girls. There was nothing on TV that reflected my experience. Even now, it’s still hard for me to talk about. But what we came to find was that all the things that we were most scared about sharing were the things that people were like, ‘I did exactly that.’ Or, ‘I had a version of that.’ It taught us to really go for the specific stories that are true.”

When I ask if there’s ever been a memory or a topic that was just too hot to touch, if they ever try to protect each other from exposing too much, Erskine’s response is immediate and unequivocal: “There’s never been a story that we feel like, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t talk about it,’ ” Erskine says. “It’s usually when it feels raw that we’re like, ‘OK, what’s that? Let’s keep talking about that.’ ”

Konkle echoes this idea of running headlong into the fear not for shock value, but with intention. “When we realized throughout the writers room over and over and over that the moments that we wanted to talk about scared us, we had a debate: ‘Is this an important thing to show? Why haven’t we been seeing this in the media if it is important? And who are we to say that this is important?’ ” Konkle says. “Having each other gave us the courage to be like, ‘No, no, no, everyone needs to see you masturbate. We have to share what really happened, and stop letting shame lead what we do as actresses and writers.’ ”

Occasionally, they get to use the show as a corrective, such as in a scene where Maya comforts Anna when her parents are fighting in another room over the sound of the TV. The real Konkle spied on her parents alone in that moment, frozen in the frightening reality of their split. It’s one place where she and her onscreen counterpart diverge. “My home life was very much a secret,” Konkle says. “So I got to rewrite history a little bit. Having someone who saw it with me and then rescued me was really cool.”

Erskine, whose actual mom (Mutsuko Erskine) plays her mother on the show, says the work has led to some heartfelt conversations with her parents. “I don’t think they realized how deep the emotions would go,” she says. “So when they sat down and watched the whole [first] season, they were really so great about it, but they were kind of upset. They were just like, ‘It’s so hard to see your own daughter go through that.’”

That’s not to say Konkle and Erskine have exorcised the demons simply because they’ve aired them on TV. The pair are still processing how that formative period of adolescence has metastasized, where it lives in them and why. Erskine confesses that she “never” tires of talking about middle school: “I feel like all the things that affect me now are from that time.” Konkle says she is “obsessed” with therapy and “can talk about how something hurt me or excited me forever.” Her father died during the filming of Season Two, succumbing rapidly after a cancer diagnosis. The pain of his loss only sank in deeper when she had to come back to work four days later and argue with a guy wearing the exact corduroys and driving the exact car he used to drive. Though the show has excavated one phase of her youth, she says there is much more to mine. She’s currently working on a memoir about growing up in Vermont with her “hippie” parents and extended, blended family — a project that has their blessing.

“My dad, before he passed away, was like, ‘Write it all.’” she says. “I was like, ‘You don’t mean that’ — and he was on morphine, so we’ll never know. But he was like, ‘Do it.’ I asked him many times, ‘Are you sure? Because there’s… a lot.’ And he kept saying, ‘Yes. It’s important.’ My mom has been doing the same thing. Now that it’s more real, it’s probably freaking her out a little bit more, but she’s still coming from that same extremely selfless place of: This is your art, this is your story, you own it, tell it.”

First, though, we’ll see what happens with Maya and Anna, whose story is winding down. Six days of filming remain on the second half of Season Two — Konkle and Erskine are hoping their postpartum bodies cooperate with their costumes — and then the events of Pen15 will conclude with Season Three; the intention was always to focus the series strictly on seventh grade. 

While the real Maya and Anna will carry around their 13-year-old selves forever, they may end up missing the terrifying freedom of revealing them to the world. “Right now, I probably seem like a normal person,” Erskine muses, “but Graya is alive and well inside of me, and what’s great is that I got to release her in Pen15. That freedom of being fully yourself, uninhibited, not worried about judgment, because I’m doing it through the role of a 13-year-old… Wow, that’s what I want to do in every show or film, because there’s nothing like it.”

“There are times when I do feel more like my authentic self in that costume and on that set,” Konkle says. “I don’t have to pretend that I’ve figured this out. I don’t have to cope. I don’t have to sit up straight. I can just let all of my insecurities out.”

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