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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.

Tracee Chimo (Daphna) and Peter Ettinger (Jonah) in Bad Jews. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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 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 to 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: Are there any changes you anticipate making to the script as the play moves into another venue?

JH: There are. I'd like to make a few changes, and we'll see how that works in rehearsal. But the changes have more to do with the play itself, and less to do with the new venue. The question of how the play will work in a much larger space won't be something we'll really know until we get into the Pels. I'm excited to see it in such a big theatre. But I'm most excited just to get to see everyone again. A lot of really lovely friendships formed during the run in the Underground. It will be wonderful to reunite.

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

JH: I'm going into my second year of the Playwrights Program at Juilliard, and they expect you to be writing, writing, writing, which is good for me because I have a lot of writing to do. I'm trying to finish up a re-write of one play, and I have 2 commissions now, including one from Roundabout (which I think is officially overdue), so it's a busy time, but I'd much prefer to be busy than the alternative. But I know that the opportunities which have presented themselves in the last year all stem from the Roundabout Underground production of my play. I feel tremendous gratitude to them for taking a chance on me and my play. I know that's what the Underground was designed to do-to give someone their first NY production is an inherently risky proposition-but the magic of that leap of faith still hasn't worn off.

Bad Jews begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre September 19. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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