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BWW Blog: An Interview With Marja Harmon - Speaking to A Working Actor from My Hometown!


I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the wonderful and kind and talented (!!!) Marja Harmon.

BWW Blog: An Interview With Marja Harmon - Speaking to A Working Actor from My Hometown! I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the wonderful and kind and talented (!!!) Marja Harmon, who just so happened to grow up in the same hometown that I did, a small town in South-Central Indiana called Columbus, Indiana. She went to my rival high school (I'll allow it), and did productions with the same community theatre that I did! She went on to receive her BA in Theatre and Music Industry at the University of Southern California. She currently (pre-pandemic) is the Angelica in the San Francisco Company of Hamilton, and made her Angelica debut in Puerto Rico with Lin Manuel-Miranda himself. Some of her other credits include Mrs. Brown on Broadway in the The Book of Mormon and Nala in the Gazelle Company of The Lion King. Marja and I chatted about school, auditions, aspects of the industry (racism, as well as how the industry continues to evolve in light of the COVID-19 pandemic), and much much more! Below is an edited (for length as well as to get all of my ramblings out!) transcript of our interview. Or check out this video version in case you want to hear Marja's answers in their fullness (I would highly recommend doing this!).

Brittany Davis: What is the audition / virtual auditioning scene looking like right now? Is it even active at all currently?

Marja Harmon: Right. I mean, right now, theater is definitely at a standstill, you know, and I'm currently in one of the Hamilton companies. TV and film in New York is starting to come back just a little bit like I think certain certain productions have been greenlit, too, because I know, like some self taped auditions and things like that are starting. So I think like TV and film in New York at least, might be kind of getting going. But other than that [...] Everything's going to be moved to self tape, even for theater, I think I think that's going to happen in the future.

Brittany: Audition advice?

Marja: My mindset about it [auditioning] over the years has definitely changed, and I'm in a place now where I kind of always just look at it as an opportunity to perform that day or just to do some new material. In my twenties, I would go into auditions being incredibly competitive and claiming something and saying it was like a spiral. And now I just go in and think "I'm going to have fun singing this material or acting this scene today." And then I'm going to leave it at the door, you know, but that took time to get there because it's definitely a very nerve wracking thing. I once had a professor tell me, like, don't make your audition the most important thing in your day. And I think that was a big game changer for me. The only thing that you have control over is your preparation and what you go into the room with. And so I would always just like to do my best.

Brittany: What are your thoughts on getting an agent right out of school? And as an offshoot of that, what has your experience with the Actors Equity Union been?

Marja: The Union is the performer's ally especially when there is a concern, overlook, or abuse in the workplace. It's always beneficial for the individual to be a part of a union and unfortunately the way our industry is set up (opportunity for work or AEA contracts) it can discourage affiliation. It varies from actor to actor and the level at which you're working, definitely plays a role, but at the end of the day it's a good thing to enjoy a part of. In terms of agents, an agency with a good reputation definitely offers advantages. You will have appointments vs. open calls which will give your more time to show your work and a more personal interaction with casting.

Brittany: Okay, so speaking of casting, there's been a lot of dialogue in the industry around casting and what should that look like going forward as we as an industry are reconciling that we are not as progressive as we would like to think we are. So, are there any experiences, positive or negative in that arena that you would care to share or like? What are some things that you would like to see going forward?

Marja: We're at a pause right now because of the pandemic. So I think everyone is really paying attention. Everyone is all ears. And there's been a platform given to BIPOC folks to talk about their experience, to talk about how they and how the industry can use this moment to transform. I know in my experience, I've definitely experienced a lot of racism in the business. It's never a comfortable feeling to walk into an audition room and have an entire table of mostly usually white men, even on shows that deal with cultural content that is not their own. You know, even the creative teams for Book of Mormon, Lion King, things like that.

There have definitely been many times in auditions where I have had some microaggression said to me about: Can I be more urban? It's that hard thing of being Black actor and then being asked to be a stereotype. And I thought that most of my career. To a point where I had to open the dialogue with my agents and say, you know what, I don't feel comfortable going in for things like this anymore, or if I'm going to go in for it, I want to go in for this role. It's one of the reasons why I'm with the office that I am today, because they very intentionally would push the nontraditional casting envelope, which is important. Hamilton did great things to start the conversation, but it is just a start. And one show can't transform the entire industry. And it's not just in casting. It's behind the scenes, too. It's in the wardrobe department, it's in crew, it's in band, in production. And the writers, the directors and producers too. I know I haven't been like a token ensemble person in a cast, but I have a lot of friends who have been.

There are too many experiences to count that have been hurtful and painful and done by people who probably thought that they had the best intentions, but who are just not understanding the broad scope of the picture. I know individually, a lot of companies have been having conversations about how to fix systemic racism in their internal infrastructure and also talking about how to get more people of color in casting and how to get more people of color in producing and writing. And ultimately it comes down to a pipeline issue, which then leads us back to systemic racism. To be in casting, you have to be an intern in the city for a year and people who can afford to be to live in Manhattan for a year without any salary tend to fall in a certain type of demographic. And that's why you have casting that looks kind of all the same, same producers. And I know at Hamilton, we've been having constant conversations with our producers and our head creative about how to be more active in getting people to vote, but also how to be more active in creating more of an array of color in their industry. And they've been coming up with a lot of great initiatives and a lot of great ideas. And and the biggest thing that they've said is like actually going out and doing the work to look for people of color and all of these areas because they are there and then also creating grants and scholarships to help people who do have an interest that may not have the means so they can go to school. So they can therefore be eligible to be one of these amazing creatives in the future.

It's not there's not just one solution. And it's not just an easy thing. It's not like, "oh, we've been having all these discussions about racism for two months. We're going to go back and everything's gonna be great". But I do think I do think a lot of really productive conversations are happening right now. And it's tough because we can't actually see them being implemented until we're back at work. I hope that the industry is really taking everything and that's being said, and by the time we're back, we can start to move forward.

I feel very proud to be in a show like Hamilton, I feel proud about what they stand for and what they've done in terms of casting and the artistry that's involved in the show. And I know that's like the very first time I saw The Schuyler Sisters, that was probably like one of the first times in my entire career where I actually saw myself reflected on stage. And that's not to say that, like, I haven't enjoyed being in Book of Mormon and Lion King and all those other things, I just feel that my white counterparts in the industry have had more access to play the type of women that I would really love to be playing. And for me, Angelica Schuyler is that.

Brittany: How was going to school in California? Was diversity better out there or about the same?

Marja: The theater program at USC was not great [in terms of diversity]. I was usually the only black person in class. And USC only did one musical a year. I did the very first one. And then after that I started just auditioning outside and I started working regionally and L.A. And the reason I did that was because I, I didn't feel like the shows that were being done had a place for me. I saw that like regional theater in L.A. would be doing Ragtime or Jekyll and Hyde. And I would just go audition and I would audition and I got work. And so I started like earning my points towards my equity card by doing that and kind of like getting an idea of what it's like to work professionally. But I ultimately did all that because I didn't feel like there was a place for me at other things.

Brittany: What do you do with your interim time between jobs? And right now, the ultimate interim time? And how do people respond to what you do for a living, are they understanding of that and the interim job / time sort of thing?

Marja: There are times where you're working and there are times when maybe you're not. I mean, I know very few people who have successfully gone from show to show to show, to show. Sometimes that happens. And especially if you have a really great relationship with a casting office, those the people I know it happens for. But they're definitely interim when you're auditioning and you're waiting for a job. And I would do you have to find something that's going to allow you to be flexible, to obviously go on auditions. I think the longest period I went without consistent work was like two and a half years and that was after Lion King and before Book of Mormon. And it was tough. I think that's one of the hardest things about being an artist, too.

I think it's just always important to stay creative. Don't wait for someone to give you an opportunity to do something like make your own art, find things to do to keep yourself occupied so that when that audition comes, it's not the Holy Grail, that everything is like [riding] on it because you have other outlets for yourself. I think that's the one thing that's kept me. Really. Balanced, like it's like if I have it, if I'm not working, like, say I'm having a really dry spell in terms of auditions, I'm like, OK, well, let's get a cabaret. Or like, let's start writing or let's work on this workshop over here and find ways to still express myself, but not and not be beholden to when someone's going to give me an opportunity.

Brittany: So talk to me about contracts. As a young artist, I don't have much experience with them and I find I am intimidated to try to negotiate on them because I don't want to come across as "too difficult."

Marja: Contracts can be intimidating. One of the great things about having an agent is that they can handle the negotiations for you. And a reputable office will have an understanding of the theater/contract and know what they can ask for. Whether you have an agent or not always READ your contract yourself. If there is something you don't understand don't be afraid to ask the question.

Brittany: Do you have any fun Hamilton stories you'd like to share?

Marja: Obviously I miss performing so much and I miss my cast and the beautiful magic that we create together nightly. And doing that show, I think it's very rare to have a show that is a commercial success, but that is also just so damn artistically fulfilling. It was pretty special being there in Puerto Rico and seeing the energy of that audience and having Lin [Manuel-Miranda] on stage with us was really unforgettable. I did my "Angelica" sister debut in Puerto Rico with Lin, which was really, really cool. So that's I mean, so there's because we had all had that moment together, I really feel like our cast and company has a really special energy.

Brittany: What's it like to cram all three Schuyler Sisters tracks into your brain?

Marja: It took about like a month to learn each sister. And then because you're not going on nightly, you don't have that consistency. So it's hard to know where you're jumping off point is, especially when you're so focused on, "let me just say the right words, sing the right harmonies and be in the right places." So it's hard to ever truly get comfortable in the role because you may you, Eliza twice one week and then not see her again for two months. I would run each sister every week on my own. You know, we're just kind of like walking through everything that I do. Obviously, the covers are always in rehearsal and we switch up the roles. We can keep getting practice and stay in the rhythm of the show that way. But it's a lot of work.

Brittany: Have you been cooking or doing anything fun or new during quarantine?

Marja: I love to cook! I've really been cooking everything my boyfriend will tell you. One of my favorite things has been working on perfecting a slow roasted chicken, which sounds really simple. But actually, everyone has issues with it getting to not dry out. So, I'm working on that. I've been taking master classes on mixology and making drinks.

I've been cooking a lot during quarantine and kind of compiling my recipes and then some family cooking experiences I've had during my travels abroad. So that's been my creative project that's been keeping me afloat when I'm not volunteering with the Hamilton activist stuff. And then we bike ride a lot, we cycle on the road and we'll do big 40 mile bike rides and things like that on the weekends, which is just fun.

Brittany: Is there any advice you would impart to college age students? What does the industry need from us coming forward?

Marja: I don't want to see more of the same, I think I think a really sad thing about Broadway is that there's no risk being taken. I think the shows that are being produced are just like surefire hits for tourists. And the commercialization of Broadway leaves a lot to be desired.

I want to see more risk taking. I want to see more art being creative. I want to see people like pushing the envelope with the content with casting. I want to see creative teams that reflect their cast in the world that we live in an art that does, too.

We are truly at a crossroads in our country and industry at the moment. Don't let it pass by without using your voice. Seeing the passion from emerging artists has been so inspiring. Continue to take risks, explore different stories, discover new paths! Now is the time for The Broadway community to step into a new identity and move forward.

Brittany: Last thing! What would you like to end on, what's something you want to put out into the universe to end this interview?

Marja: Go vote, everyone please vote. And wear a mask so we can all get back to work.

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