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A Conversation with Playwright: Joshua Harmon

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A Conversation with Playwright: Joshua Harmon

Before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed playwright Joshua Harmon to discuss his work on Bad Jews.

Ted Sod: Tell me about yourself.

Joshua Harmon: I was born in Manhattan, and spent what I like to call my formative “year” in Brooklyn before my parents basically ruined my life and moved us to the suburbs, which is where I grew up. The suburbs are fine, but I think I understood from an early age that if I ever had a shot at being cool, I would have had to stay in Brooklyn.

TS: At what point did you know you were going to be a writer?

JH: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In middle school and high school I wrote poems and short stories, and some of them were published in the school’s literary magazine, but in secret I was also writing plays which almost no one saw. When I was 14, I started writing my first full-length play, about an anorexic girl who is best friends with her housekeeper. I wrote it in longhand in a speckled notebook which I carried with me everywhere. One night I left it in my backpack in my Dad’s car and someone broke into his car and stole my bag and that was the end of my play. I’m sure the thief took my discman (yes, this was the 90’s) and then just threw away my bag, but in my mind I imagined large circles of erudite intellectuals sitting around on fancy sofas drinking fancy drinks reading my play aloud, mocking me. It didn’t occur to me that the notebook was probably decomposing in a landfill somewhere.

I went to Northwestern for college, and even though I had thought of myself as this young writer, when I got to college, I stopped. I didn’t come from an artistic family, so I couldn’t imagine how you would pursue that as a career. I loved theatre, and Northwestern has a great theatre program but that felt totally impractical, and I loved music but I didn’t think I was talented enough to be a music major. I spent a long time feeling lost. I tried on several more practical majors but none of them felt right and I didn’t know what to do and then one night I was surfing the Northwestern website, so depressed, looking for anything that might speak to me, and I stumbled upon this major I never knew existed, a little program in the English Department called the Drama program (which is different from the Theatre program—different college, different building, etc.) which let you design your own course of study, and even though it was “theatrey” it was still in the English Department, so it felt safer somehow than being a full-fledged theatre major and so I finally signed up for that. So I never consciously decided to be a playwright, but I think becoming a Drama major ultimately sealed my fate. And that’s when I got to study with Mary Zimmerman—she really changed my life. She taught a class called Performance of Poetry that just lit my brain up like a pinball machine. In my final project for that class I spliced an Adrienne Rich poem called “For Ethel Rosenberg” with historical text from the actual trial and at the end of it I basically electrocuted a photo of Ethel Rosenberg with my eyes. Very intense. But a total game-changer for me. And I took a great playwriting class with Penny Penniston and completed my first full-length play, and then I graduated and came back to New York and worked for several years as an assistant in film and theatre. Then I moved to Pittsburgh and got my MFA at Carnegie Mellon, and then I moved to Atlanta for a year because I won this very cool fellowship from the National New Play Network to be the Playwright-in-Residence at a theatre down there called Actor’s Express, and then I went back to Pittsburgh to work as an assistant again, and then I quit that job and came back to New York and was living with my parents, unemployed, terrified about the future, trying to remember what had compelled me to get an MFA in Playwriting and how useless that degree is and how stupid it was to pursue playwriting at all, and of course, that’s when I got the call that Roundabout wanted to meet to discuss my play.

TS: What inspired you to write Bad Jews?

JH: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the seed for this play was planted at a depressingly unmoving Yom Hashoah service I attended my sophomore year of college. The theme of the service was “Grandchildren of Survivors” so instead of a survivor speaking, a group of fellow students whose grandparents had survived the Holocaust spoke. It was strange and sterile and laden with clichés but lacking in genuine feeling and it scared me. A year or so later I came up with the title Bad Jews and started taking notes about the characters during my senior year, but then I put that notebook away for many years (fortunately it wasn’t stolen). I think I felt like this play would either be the worst thing I would ever write, in which case, what was the rush; or, it might be the best thing I had ever written, and I somehow understood at 21 that I wasn’t good enough to write something really good. So I sat on it for many years, like a chicken a little bit, you know, hatching my eggs.

In December of 2010, I went to the MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire. I felt embarrassingly unworthy, like I had somehow conned these very nice people into thinking I was a legitimate writer, so to prove myself worthy of the honor, I felt like I needed to write a Really Important Play, which, word to the wise, when you set out to write a Really Important Play you wind up writing the opposite, i.e. the WORST PLAY EVER. I brought this piece I had been working on about gay bullies and whales, and I spent three and a half weeks trying to write it, but it just wasn’t happening, it was terrible, and I felt horrible about myself, churning out junk in the same studio where Alice Walker had worked. So I had a little ceremony to say goodbye to the gay whale play: I spent a night watching Schindler’s List which is my go-to movie when I’m depressed, and I sobbed, and the next day I said to myself, you know, I have to leave here with something so I looked at my list—I make “Plays I Want to Write Before I Die” lists every so often and Bad Jews kept making the list going on six years and I guess I got tired of seeing it stare back at me, unwritten, so I figured why not, and I left MacDowell with the first thirty pages and finished the first draft later that spring. Is it worth noting that when I finished the first draft I had a serious panic attack because I felt in fact I had just written the worst thing I’d ever written? My friend Libby talked me off the ledge. I was seriously ashamed of this one. Several workshops and readings later, here we are.

TS: What would you say the play is about?

JH: Purely in terms of plot, the play is about a young woman named Daphna Feygenbaum who comes to New York for her grandfather’s funeral and has something of a battle royale with her cousin over an object which belonged to their grandfather which they both want very badly, albeit for very different reasons. And though there is nothing in that humorless description to indicate the play is a comedy, it’s supposed to be funny. If any larger ideas or themes are at work, I really don’t feel it’s my place to lead that discourse. My job as the writer is to tell a story and then get out of its way. What resonates with the audience is for them to discover for themselves, not for me to dictate. The play, like all my writing, comes from a very personal place.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to write this play?

JH: Eudora Welty has a great quote about this: “I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”Which is to say, I didn’t do any research. I just lived my life and thought about the world around me and the world I know and then I wrote about it. And by no means am I putting myself in the same category as the people I’m about to mention, but I consider them some of my heroes, and I don’t think Tennessee Williams had to do much research to write A Streetcar Named Desire except maybe familiarize himself a little bit with the Napoleonic code, and Wendy Wasserstein might have had to reference a few art history books to write The Heidi Chronicles but no research was required to understand the challenges and fears that Heidi faces, and Alfred Uhry didn’t have to research too much to write Driving Miss Daisy, he just had to live in the South when he did and then be brave enough to write about what that was like. And yes, I say brave, because Welty’s right: daring starts from within. Always. Our interior lives are so much more terrifying than anything outside ourselves. But I think that’s where the best material lives.

TS: What was the most challenging part of writing your play? What part was the most fun?

JH: The most fun part was writing those insanely angry monologues. I’m not a very angry person in my day to day life, so trying to tap into all of that rage was new for me, and kind of thrilling to discover.

The most challenging part is the fact that the play takes place in one room, in one night, in real time. At one time, Bad Jews was going to take place over a weekend, but my friend Molly Smith Metzler wrote a killer one room/one night play called Elemeno Pea, and she encouraged me to give it a shot. It’s daunting to try and imagine how an entire story can be told in an hour and a half in one room, and to let the audience feel like they’ve really gone on some kind of journey, without any tricks or magic or scene changes. Just, come sit in this living room and watch what happens. That sounds unbearably boring to me… which is why it’s such a challenge, to try to find the ecstasy in that situation.

TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director?

JH: The writer-director relationship is a sort of marriage, because the goal is to procreate and make a little baby-play and raise it right and get it back on track when it veers off course and then send it out into the world. So you want someone who will balance you out and bring a set of skills you lack, someone you can trust to co-parent your kid. I guess the playwright is the mother because the writer really has the longest period of gestation and then gives birth and feels waves of post-partum depression while everyone else stands around and looks at this thing that has lived inside you and judges it. I’m not going to pursue this metaphor any further. I’ll just say I feel extraordinarily lucky to have Daniel Aukin as my co-parent. He has a genius mind and a light, delicate touch and he has devoted his entire career to working on new plays, so I know I’m in the most capable, excellent hands.

TS: What did you look for in casting this play?

JH: The comedy in this play doesn’t come from pratfalls and yucking it up but just from playing moments truthfully, so we looked for actors who could live in this world and be honest and truthful. And also, we wanted people who weren’t going to be afraid to be ugly at times, to be despised by the other characters in the room and maybe even the entire audience. Fearless, truthful, comic, smart actors.

TS: Has the script changed since the reading at Roundabout last winter?

JH: The script changed a lot leading up to the reading at Roundabout and went through a big workshop last spring in Atlanta. Now the work is really moment-to-moment, making sure the play is economical and pared down to the bone. I’m doing some rewrites before rehearsal to improve what I know I can improve. Basically, if I hear something and it makes me want to die because it’s so badly written, that’s something to rewrite. But I think we are all aware that we are going to learn so much in rehearsal and hopefully everyone will be brave and willing to try new things and stay open to lots and lots of new pages.

TS: Who are your favorite playwrights?

JH: Wendy Wasserstein is my favorite. Which is not very hip to say. You really won’t find a lot of emerging playwrights who are huge Wasserstein lovers, I promise you. But she is my icon, guru, touchstone—call it what you will. Her plays are so personal, and so funny, and so heartbreaking, and that’s a combination that I have always held up as the holy trinity of playwriting. Which is probably why I love Kenneth Lonergan, David Lindsay-Abaire, Annie Baker, Alfred Uhry, and many others. I also love Tennessee Williams—early on I wrote a lot of bad beginnings of plays that had atrocious southern accents because I thought if you wanted to be a playwright, your characters had to be either southern or British. William Inge is an amazing example of someone who found his subject matter and kept attacking it from every angle possible. I’m leaving a lot of writers I love off this list, I’ll be kicking myself later. And so many emerging/younger/youngish playwrights are writing such beautiful plays. I saw Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debatethree times here. I just kept coming back. I can’t believe my play is going up in the same space.

TS: Do you find seeing plays helpful?

JH: Seeing plays is helpful, but reading plays is valuable, too (and cheaper). Laughing at a play in a theatre is great, but when you laugh out loud alone in your room reading a play… there’s no greater feeling. I think we often laugh when we recognize something is true—so when someone you have never met has been able to look at the world and find a way to express something that is true to her and she writes it down and has her play produced and then published and then you find that published manuscript and read it and it makes you laugh because it rings true for you, too… what’s better than that?

TS: What are you working on now besides the Underground production of Bad Jews?

JH: This fall, I’m starting at the Playwrights Program at Juilliard. I have wanted to go there forever. It will probably be the last time in my life I’ll officially be a student, so I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as I can. I just finished the first draft of a new play, and I’m taking some notes on the next one. But mostly, I just feel incredibly lucky to be having a production like this at this moment in my career.

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Roundabout Theatre Company Roundabout Theatre Company is a not-for-profit theatre dedicated to providing a nurturing artistic home for theatre artists at all stages of their careers where the widest possible audience can experience their work at affordable prices. Roundabout fulfills its mission each season through the revival of classic plays and musicals; development and production of new works by established playwrights and emerging writers; educational initiatives that enrich the lives of children and adults; and a subscription model and audience outreach programs that cultivate loyal audiences.