Tuesday, June 02, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 748: Sarah Harburg-Petrich

Sarah Harburg-Petrich

Hometown:  Tacoma, WA

Current Town: Los Angeles, CA

Q:  Tell me about Hard Sexy Serious Love Conversations.

A:  HSSLC grew out of a couple of different impulses: one was when I was working five part time jobs and still on food stamps, and I would write out these aspirational grocery lists. What would I buy if I could go to the grocery store and buy anything I wanted? So I developed these characters, these two rich kids who ran away to California and frittered away all their money and I wrote out their grocery lists as they got poorer and poorer. The other impulse was around the idea of what we do after loss. We often see plays about the loss, about that big moment of heartbreak or death, but we don't have a script for how to grieve. So naturally, I ended up with a play about four refugees from the Russian mafia all stuck in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica and there's a dead dog in the freezer. We've got a Vicodin-addicted FBI agent, the crown prince of the Russian mafia, a depressed hitman, and the hitman's exwife, who recruited sex workers for the organization. They have nowhere to go and nothing to do but deal with themselves, which is the kind of examination I've found happens in the process of “after” whatever that big thing is. It's also pretty funny—dark comedy is a comfortable place for these people.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm working on a musical about circus labor rights! My partner is in a band that plays speakeasy folk, and a director pal of mine asked me to write a musical around their songs. They have a nutty little ditty about a chainsaw juggler, so of course it had to be about the circus. Also, it seems like whenever you get a group of people in a performing industry together, they talk about labor rights—what they're getting paid, what they deserve, how they're struggling. So it's a group of workers at a second-rate bar in Alabama with a psychic band, trying to decide whether to unionize or not. (You can actually listen to the music if you'd like—smithfieldbargain.bandcamp.com.) Pack Up the Moon the Musical, in development for 2016!

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was eight, I cut my chin open. We were at my grandmother's house for a Come-All-Ye, a family reunion, and I had been playing in the basement with my cousins when we were called up to dinner. We ran up the stairs, me with my hands in the pockets of my dress, and I tripped and fell, and my chin landed on the edge of the stair in front of me. I have a very clear memory of thinking 'that kinda hurt', looking up, and seeing my entire extended family staring at me in horror, and someone swept down and hauled me up and ran me to the kitchen. Apparently I had totally split my chin open. It was at sometime after hours, and my aunt was on the phone calling every hospital in the area to see which one was open, and adult relatives kept coming in and out of the kitchen to reassure me. The funny was, I wasn't in pain and I wasn't afraid, I just wanted to see what was happening and I wanted to know what it looked like. To this day, I'm a little angry that I never got to see and I don't know. The whole thing was this funny mix of comedy and tragedy and cross-purposes, and I felt so frustrated by my lack of agency.

That's who I am as a person—I want to know what's wrong, and I want to fully experience what's happening to me, and I'll be damned if I let anybody limit my knowledge like that. It's also shaped me as a writer—the most interesting emotional stories happen when everybody is trying to do their best, but they're not listening to each other.

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

A:  I would pay playwrights better. Right now, it is essentially impossible to write plays for a living, and it's part of what's limiting our dominant theatrical voices to people who can afford to not have a day job. This is a problem. When American theaters don't showcase the full range of American voices, they stop being relevant and they lose audiences. We need to hear from the people who, often, don't have time to write, or if they do, don't have time to submit for festivals or readers, or don't have the money to go to the places they're accepted to, to build their network and audience. So we're not hearing from women, people of color, gender and sexual minorities, and heaven help you if you're a transgendered polyamorous Muslim lesbian of color.

It won't solve everything, but money is power, and we need to allocate more power to playwrights.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I really love Adrienne Kennedy and Gertrude Stein. Kennedy's work is a beautiful crystallization of technique used in service of story and character. She connects the personal and the political, she goes deep into tough feelings and complications, and her craft is impeccable. What I love about Stein is that she ditched structure and dialogue, and that she embraced the idea of a theatrical event being created out of ourselves as an audience.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I'm excited by theater that isn't afraid of itself or its humanity. I am excited by theater that embraces and loves its audience, that uses theatrical effects, and that is willing to connect. There are so many ways to get there, but it's got to make you feel. I just saw Lucy Alibar's Throw Me On The Burnpile and Light Me Up, and it was such a beautiful experience of being invited into the life of this little girl and feeling the depth and breadth of being nine and trying to piece together they way life works. A different but also connecting experience was seeing the national tour of Cinderella the same night as a ton high school students. They laughed, they cried, they gasped, they booed, and being in that community of audience with them was magical.

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

A:  Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. Don't ask for permission—write your work, share it with everybody, and put it up yourself. It's hard and scary, but the worst thing that can happen is that you've made some great work and probably some friends. Write as much as you can, and if you can only write a three-line-play one day, that's okay. It's still a play.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see Hard Sexy Serious Love Conversations in the Hollywood Fringe Festival! June 6, 20, and 27, tickets available at tinyurl.com/sexyseriousplay. Use the code REASONFOUR for $10 tickets.

You can also find me on Twitter @iceundrpressure and on Instagram @delishtagram. That's where upcoming work is announced!

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