Saturday, June 11, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 851: Harrison David Rivers

Harrison David Rivers

Hometown:  Manhattan, Kansas

Current Town:  St. Paul, Minnesota

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:   This Bitter Earth, a commission for New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco about an African-American writer grappling with his own political apathy in the age of #blacklivesmatter;

Heartland, a play with music inspired by Jacqui Banaszynski’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article “AIDS in the Heartland”;

And She Would Stand Like This, a ball culture scene set adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women for The Movement Theatre Company in New York;

An untitled adaptation of Euripides’ Alcestis for the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program;

Only You Can Prevent Wildfires, a commission for Ricochet Collective in New York about the woman who set the largest forest fire in Colorado history;

Five Points, a musical (with Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar) about the birth of modern tap in Lower Manhattan in the 1860s;

The Last Queen of Canaan, a musical (with Jacob Yandura and Rebekah Melocik) about a young black woman fighting for independence in the Jim Crow South;

And sweet, a play about two sisters vying for the affection of the boy next door.

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

It’s not really childhood but…
While living in San Francisco after undergrad
I began to hear voices
Believing like Harper Pitt that I’d “really snapped the tether”
I called my mother
After listening to my panicked explanation of my mental state
Very matter-of-factly
“Why don’t you write down what they’re saying?”
(Oddly enough, that thought hadn’t crossed my mind)
The next day
When the voices returned
I followed my mother’s instructions.
I wrote down what they said in a notebook purchased for that express purpose.
Their words became my first full length-play.

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

I’m not sure how this would be achieved
By magic?
But I’d banish the long-held assumption that characters in plays
(Unless specifically noted otherwise in the dramatis personae)
Are white.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

James Baldwin & Essex Hemphill
(Especially Jimmy B and Essex H)
Alice Childress & Lorraine Hansberry
George C. Wolfe, Savion Glover & the cast of Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk
Tony Kushner, Jeannine Tesori, Tonya Pinkins & the cast of Caroline, or Change
Stew, Heidi Rodewald & the cast of Passing Strange
Chuck Mee, Maria Mileaf & Anne Bogart
David Adjmi & Zakiyyah Alexander
Liz Frankel
Dael Orlandersmith
Jon Norman Schneider, Jehan O. Young, Christopher Livingston & Jon-Michael Reese
Josh Wilder
David Mendizábal, Deadria Harrington, Eric Lockley, Taylor Reynolds & The Movement Theatre Company

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

I’m excited by theater that makes me slide forward in my seat
Theater that makes me cover my face
Or grab on to the person’s arm next to me (even if it’s a stranger)
Or yell out, “oh shit!”
I’m excited by theater where I’m so engaged that I don’t realize until the curtain call that I’ve been crying.

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

Write every day.
A scene.
A grocery list.
A love letter…
Every day.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  If you’re in the Berkshires this summer, I highly recommend:

Boo Killebrew’s Romance Novels for Dummies running July 20-July 31st on the Main Stage and Matyna Majok’s Cost of Living running June 29-July 10th on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

My play Where Storms Are Born, directed by Liesl Tommy, will be read as part of the Festival’s Fridays@3 series on July 15th at 3pm.

Please check my website for updates.

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