Sunday, August 29, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 250: Jordan Harrison


Jordan Harrison

Hometown: Bainbridge Island, WA

Current Town: Brooklyn

Q:  Tell me about Futura and your triple premiere.

A:  Futura is having a shared premiere this fall at Theatre @ Boston Court, Portland Center Stage, and National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) in New York. Three different directors, three different productions – it’s weird and wonderful, and I hope it doesn’t make me crazy. The play was having a hard time finding a home – there were a few heartbreaking close calls – and suddenly three theaters all came forward the same month. So it made sense to have this kind of loose partnership.

The play begins with a 35-minute lecture about typography – then it goes somewhere very different. I liked the idea of writing a sort of thriller about fonts. And there are some stylistic things in the play that I almost never try: long, extended scenes; lots of crackling backstory. When I started working on the play, I quickly learned that I couldn’t write about typography without also writing about the extinction of the printed word. Which is happening so quickly that it’s hard to write predictive fiction about it.

Q:  What else are you up to?

A:  I’m workshopping a new play called Maple and Vine about a couple who move to a 1950s reenactionist society. A world where it’s always 1955, with all the gender and racial implications of that. It began as a project I was developing with Annie Kauffman for The Civilians, based on interviews with people who retreat from the modern world: the Amish, cloistered nuns, off-gridders, etc. And ultimately we decided to toss out the interviews – I wrote a whole new play fertilized by the ruins of the interview play. It was pretty scary to start over, but I was sort of relieved to discover that I’m better at making things up than editing. (I had always secretly wondered if I was better at editing, since I enjoy splicing things together a lot more than staring at a blank page.)

I also have a children’s musical called The Flea and the Professor at the Arden Theatre in Philly in the spring. I adapted it from Hans Christian Andersen’s final story with the composer Richard Gray. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better time writing something. There’s a giant magnifying glass and a cannibal princess and a big Carnival-type number in which the only lyric is the word “Gobble.” I’m also working on a grown-up musical called Suprema with the composer Daniel Zaitchik and the director Sam Gold. I kind of love musical theater. I was in denial for a while.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Everyone would go to it.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  (in reverse chronological order of encountering them) Charles Ludlam, Stephen Sondheim, Janet Cardiff, Wedekind, Paula Vogel, David Greenspan, Pina Bausch, Caryl Churchill, Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, Puccini, Meredith Willson (for The Music Man), and the kid who played Riff in high school.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Big and generous and ambitious and unabashedly theatrical.

There are some wonderful writers and directors who get a lot of mileage out of understatement and dryness, but I confess that I’ll often walk out of a theater saying, “Couldn’t someone have killed someone? Or fallen in love? Or time traveled?” I like to be taken somewhere, even if there isn’t a plot per se. I like things that risk tipping into melodrama or poetry. I like a play or a performance to go a little off the rails, but to have a strong sense that the artists are taking me there on purpose.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  After I wrote my first play, someone said to me “You’ll write a great third play.” And of course that stung: “I have to write a whole second play just to get to the third one?” But my third play ended up being the play that started everything for me, and by then I was glad that the first two plays were shut away in a drawer somewhere, safe from scrutiny. So don’t get hung up on the fate of your first play, or your second play. Just write the next one. It may be a boon if it takes a little longer to be recognized.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Oh, gosh. I’m almost effortfully out of the loop. My friend Bash Doran has a beautiful play called Kin coming up at Playwrights Horizons. I haven’t read Greg Moss’s play coming to Soho Rep, but I always love his writing. Will Eno’s wonderful play Middletown is coming to the Vineyard soon. What else. The High Line. Freaks and Geeks on Youtube. Banh mì at Hanco’s. Any kind of greasy noodles from the Flushing mall.

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