Interview with Joshua Harmon
Before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod asked 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: 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 Jewskept 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.