Jordan Harrison grew up on an island near Seattle. His plays include Doris to Darlene (Playwrights Horizons), Amazons and Their Men (Clubbed Thumb), Act a Lady (2006 Humana Festival), Finn in the Underworld (Berkeley Rep), Kid-Simple (2004 Humana Festival, SPF), and The Museum Play. His play Futura is currently running at Portland Center Stage, as part of a shared premiere with Theatre @ Boston Court and the National Asian American Theater Company. His next two works, Maple and Vine and The Flea and the Professor, will premiere this spring under the direction of Anne Kauffman. Jordan is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton, the Kesselring Award, the Heideman Award, a Theater Masters Innovative Playwright Award, Jerome and McKnight Fellowships from The Playwrights’ Center, and a NEA/TCG Playwright-in-Residence Grant. He is currently working on a musical for Ars Nova and a play for Playwrights Horizons. A graduate of the Brown MFA program, Jordan is a resident playwright at New Dramatists.
Check out Jordan’s plays available from Samuel French:
Q. What drew you to write about the famous WWII Nazi propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl in Amazons and Their Men?
A. I actually didn’t set out to write about Leni Riefenstahl. I was trying to write a musical adaptation of Penthesilea, the 1808 Heinrich von Kleist play. It’s basically a screenplay that was written before cinema was invented: many short scenes, a cast of hundreds, herds of elephants. And the problem was, I could never find a good reason for the characters to sing. So I put the project on a shelf for a couple years. And then I read somewhere that Leni Riefenstahl had made her own ill-fated adaptation of Penthesilea, just before World War II, and that she had cast herself in the leading role. I thought: there’s the play.
Q. Why does your play Doris to Darlene have the subtitle “A Cautionary Valentine”?
A. I wrote the play as a valentine to two seemingly different but interconnected kinds of music: Wagnerian opera and Phil Spector girl-group pop from the ‘60s. The three young people in the play need music (and the people who make it), but it doesn’t make them happy. Late in the play, one of the characters says, “Once you let music take you over you can never be cured.” In that sense, the valentine is cautionary. Love at your own risk.
Q. Your short play Fit for Feet was a winner of the Heideman Award and presented as a part of the Humana Play Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Was that your first experience of submitting your work for a competition? How do you feel winning the Heideman Award impacted your career?
A. It wasn’t my first competition—my copy of the Dramatists’ Sourcebook was already dog-eared and tear-stained, and I was on a first-name basis with some of the clerks at the post office… Humana called during my last year of grad school at Brown. It was an amazing shot in the arm—like someone was saying “It might not be so crazy to try and do this for a living.” Before the big Humana industry weekend, where the Heideman winners are produced, I splurged on an eggplant-colored Italian suit from a vintage store. Then I came down to Louisville and wore the suit and shook many hands and drank many bourbons and met my agent. I always kind of thought that the eggplant suit had a lot to do with that. And Actors Theatre has gone on to produce three of my full-length plays, so it was the beginning of an enormously helpful and enduring relationship.
Q. When and/or how did you know that you wanted to create plays?
A. I didn’t write my first play until my senior year in college. I took a playwriting class, and the final assignment was to write a full-length play in four weeks. And I remember all of us grousing about how unfair it was, how impossible. But when I finally sat down to write, everything flowed. Before, when I’d tried to write fiction and poetry, I had to plunder my journal entries for material—it felt like every sentence cost me a real-life experience. Somehow, writing a play, I was able to make things up and still put myself into it.
Q. What inspires you to take on a new project?
A. There’s usually an element of discomfort, an element of the unknown. I’m drawn to something that I haven’t tried yet, formally. With my play Futura, I wanted to try writing a play that took place in (almost) real time, with very few scenes. With Amazons, I was interested in a play that could be told with a bare stage, where the scenery was embedded in the dialogue. I’ve started to realize that you can divide everything I’ve written into Plays With Furniture and Plays Without Furniture. The distinction is less glib than it sounds. When plays have furniture, the characters are bound by this visible history—they tend to have complicated backstories. In Plays Without Furniture, it’s more likely that someone can take off their hat and become another character, or say “And then we went to Africa” and suddenly they’re in Africa. I’m recklessly paraphrasing the writer Bert States here.
Q. Have you ever come across a production that made you see one of your plays in a new or unexpected way?
A. Sometimes an actor will show me the full weight of something. When you’re sitting alone at your computer, something can sometimes arrive on the page so quickly and instinctively that you don’t understand the weight of it yet. Like in Doris to Darlene, there’s a scene where a young gay man thinks he’s on a date, and it turns out that the other boy wants money to have sex with him. And it’s awful, but after the initial shock wears off, the young man says, “I’ve got seven dollars, what’s that get?” I don’t think I fully understood that scene until I saw that the actor in the Playwrights Horizons production, Tobias Segal, rooting around in his pocket for these crumpled little bills. He’s willing to sacrifice his dignity because he’s so desperate for a little experience, desperate for his life to start.
Q. You’re currently working on a new play, Maple and Vine, for the Humana Festival at ATL. How is that going? Are you working on any other projects, as well?
A. I think it’s going wonderfully, but we go into tech tomorrow, so ask me again in a few days! The play is about a married couple who move to a 1950s reenactment society, so it’s the ultimate Play With Furniture—we’re going to learn a ton once there are real hi-fi sets and couches and poofy skirts in front of us. After Humana I go to Philly to work with Annie Kauffman again at the Arden Theatre. We’re doing a children’s musical called The Flea and the Professor. I adapted it with the composer/lyricist Rich Gray from one of Hans Christian Andersen’s last stories. It’s this silly, strange, sardonic little picaresque—pretty different from the work for which Andersen is famous. We had a great time writing it. It gave us the permission to rhyme “paprika” with “creek-a.” As in “water from the creek-a.”