Jordan Harrison Artist Interview
Warning: This interview contains spoilers about the plot and content of Marjorie Prime.
Tim Sanford: You’ve got narwhals on your chest!
Jordan Harrison: You’ve never seen the narwhals? It’s like my go-to T-shirt. I loved narwhals as a kid. My friend said I always wear it at the start of a journey. I hope we’re recording, that’s not a bad beginning.
Let’s talk about the funny genesis of this play. So Julia Hansen, who used to be the Grande Dame of the Drama League, called me up one day and told me in her own inimitable way she had an idea to offer some playwrights commissions in conjunction with the Aspen Ideas Festival. She was asking three theaters — I know La Jolla was one of them because Kirsten Greenidge was their writer and we ended up co-producing her play, Milk Like Sugar, with them. I can’t remember the third.
It was Rebecca Gilman, with the Goodman I think.
Right. So Julia called me and said, “We have this idea to invite playwrights to come and be in residence for a week, and attend sessions of the Ideas Festival, and maybe they’ll be inspired to write a play.” And she asked if I had an idea of someone who might be interested in this offer. I think we had different notions of what kind of plays might provide a model for an idea play. My mind went towards writers who aren’t known for writing “idea plays.” We had just produced Doris to Darlene and we had never commissioned you before so I thought of you. You aren’t the kind of writer who sits around and thinks, “What’s my thesis?” Your work is more theatrically conceived
so I thought maybe this kind of challenge—
To have the idea first.
No, I actually didn’t expect you to write a play differently than you usually do, but I just thought you would make it your own in some way, and that maybe it would defy expectations. So I called you up and presented this idea to you, and what did you make of it?
And what was sort of astonishing is that I pushed back. I was worried that the prompt, “Write a play about big ideas,” could be potentially crippling — in the way that when someone tells you, “Tell a funny joke! Be funny!” it becomes impossible to be funny. An easier prompt would be, “Write a play about a purple squirrel who learns to speak French.” Because then there’s a specific prompt to help you get out of your own way, whereas “Write a play with big ideas” sounds like, “What do I have to say to the American canon?” (Laughs.) You know?
What were the sessions like, at the Ideas Festival?
There’s a massive itinerary, and you’re self-guided and at any given hour there are maybe 10 different panel discussions or smaller break-out sessions led by a single person. One of the more glittering ones was Arianna Huffington and David Brooks and some others doing a roundtable about who they thought was going to win the 2008 election. Arianna’s money was on this young upstart, Barack Obama, and we were all astonished by that. That’s how long ago this commission started. That’s how slow theater can be!
So we just floated around to different symposia and were dazzled. There was one on India being the new superpower, there was something about teen obesity as an epidemic, there was one that I took to in particular about the thing where you receive something over social media that says, like, “Show up at Grand Central with an umbrella” — Flash mobs!
I’ve never heard of flash mobs.
You’ve never heard of flash mobs?
No one has ever invited me to go to a flash mob.
Did you go with any kind of notion of what play you might be ultimately writing?
I really didn’t. At that point I was already working on the “Modern World Project” with Annie Kauffman which is the play that became Maple and Vine, and I had a couple other commissions — it was hard to get inspired when I had my desk cluttered with other thoughts.
You ostensibly went to this festival thinking, “Maybe there will be some seed of an idea.”
Absutely, and I drank it all in. I have a 300 page notebook of notes I took at various symposia. And I probably know a lot that I don’t realize I know about India being the next superpower.
But I didn’t walk away from the festival knowing what play I would write.
So then when did the play actually start? Was there an “aha” moment of, “Oh, I know what play I want to do?”
I knew that I had a play in me about artificial intelligence, but I don’t think I knew how to approach it until I read Brian Christian’s wonderful book, The Most Human Human, and encountered this idea that artificial intelligence keeps getting better at imitating things that humans do, so what are the things that we do that A.I. can’t do yet; how can we continue to be better at those things than computers are? It’s not about hobbling the computers, it’s about bettering ourselves. How can we be more human humans? That is the fundamental question of his book, and possibly the fundamental question of the play too. Of course I didn’t realize this at the time, but Futura, my play before Maple and Vine, was a kind of practice science-fiction play for me. It was set in a future where there’s no more printed matter, and I would do readings and people would say, “Well what happened between 2010 and this future with no printed matter?” And I would add layers of explanation to the play, of detail, and what I learned was that the more I explained, the more people were unsatisfied, the more they craved more information. So, with this play, I knew I wanted it to be very distilled, not really about the science of the Primes. We only know the things we absolutely have to know, which is something I’ve seen Caryl Churchill do in A Number, in Far Away... We’re not sitting there asking, “How did this war break out between the butterflies, and the horses, and the Spanish?” because we understand that there’s an allegorical force to it. It doesn’t have to be believable. Anyway, I started writing Marjorie Prime not because I owed you guys a commission, although that was part of it, but because I needed a play for the Clubbed Thumb Writers’ Group, which meets every three weeks or so, and I just needed pages to share. It’s a wonderful thing to know that eight of your peers are expecting you to bring in 20 pages, you can’t show up with nothing, and so I dashed them off, even though I wasn’t feeling fertile — I think we were in rehearsal for Maple and Vine at PH — and we read the first scene between Marjorie and Walter. And Sarah Ruhl was Marjorie, and Matt Maher read Walter.
So you just started with the first scene? I’m trying to imagine what the response of your peers might have been just to encounter that scene without the scene that follows it. It’s a very disorienting scene.
Don’t forget that this is a group of fellow semi-experimental playwrights, so they enjoyed the dissonance of it. In fact, I remember Anne Washburn saying, “I think you’re maybe giving us a few too many clues about him being an artificial intelligence being,” and I said, “Well Anne, I think that’ll depend on who the audience is.” I suppose it’s possible that it would be too many clues somewhere — I haven’t encountered that audience yet. (Laughs.) So they responded to it, but they kept discussing the play as though they were robots. And I said “No! You’ve got it all wrong, they’re sophisticated holograms!”
Why does that matter?
It very likely doesn’t. I just happen to think that there’s something embarrassingly quaint about actual robots that you plug in in a closet, that gather dust. It just doesn’t feel like the future to me. We default to physical robots because of “The Twilight Zone,” and I love “The Twilight Zone” but it’s obviously an antiquated idea of the future.
You’ve expressed this distinction adamantly before, and one of my theories about why it matters to you is that maybe it’s like Annie Baker’s distinction of digital versus celluloid film in The Flick. Holograms are digital. Humans are analog.
Obviously the future is moving towards digital. The virtue of being a computer is you don’t have a body that decays and deteriorates, so why would we make a body for them? Why would we make them fallible in the way we are? I guess the other reason it’s important is for staging. You can touch a robot or an android but you can’t touch a hologram. So there’s something about them looking so much like your loved ones, but not being able to quite achieve intimacy with them. The loneliness can never be quite extinguished, never satisfied, because they’re just pixels.
But they don’t know they’re just pixels. When Tess talks about getting a new dog, Marjorie Prime expresses her willingness to take care of it for them and Tess kind of gently demurs, “I wish that were possible.”
I think the Primes want to be as good at being human as they can, and sometimes they’re a little innocent about their limitations.
That reminds me about what you said about Brian Christian’s book; the Primes aspire to be more human and the humans aspire to be more human too. At one of the talkbacks, a woman asked about the choice to make Walter Prime young. And Tess wonders about that too. She says…
“At first I wondered if you just wanted him to be handsome again.”
Right. But then she says she thought maybe Marjorie chose a young Walter so he wouldn’t have the emotional baggage of their son being dead. But doesn’t the first scene also embody this idea in a way of depicting a man in his prime, showing Walter Prime at his best?
Don’t things that are far away become precious to us simply because of the way the years have piled up? I mean, I’m nostalgic for people I knew in high school that I didn’t even like being in the company of, things we did that I didn’t even enjoy the first time around. (Laughs.) Now I’m obsessed with what they’ve done with their lives, I google them partly because I’m trying to recapture those 20 years I used to have ahead of me.
I have the same relationship with ABBA.
You know, I like ABBA more now as well. Whitney Houston. Heart. I remember hating The Bathos the first time around, and now they’re touched by some kind of lost-time sadness that makes them…better.
This sense of memory and loss enters the play right away. Would you talk about how that evolved?
You invoked Annie Baker earlier. I think part of the genesis of this play for me is that, in between me writing Maple and Vine and starting Marjorie, there was this kind of sensation surrounding Annie Baker and Amy Herzog. I guess it’s reductive to describe it this way, but the kind of hyper-naturalism movement of Circle Mirror [Transformation], The Aliens, Belleville, 4000 Miles —something that this theater played a role in igniting — and people just were drinking it. It felt like the culture was drinking that in deeply, the sort of new Chekhovian writing. And my writing has never been like that. It’s been more of a piece with this kind of mid-1990s, Connie Congdon/Paula Vogel/Len Jenkin sprawl, this...
Highly theatrical. Crossing a lot of time, using a lot of locations, a lot of doubling in the cast. Something that owed more to Shakespeare than to Chekhov. So I felt a little bit like the thing that the culture was responding to was not a thing that I had ever really done, and I was curious what it would be like for me to write my 4000 Miles, you know?
I think it took me awhile to understand that. When I read the play, I was impressed with it conceptually, but I didn’t quite get how it needed to be played to work. I was looking for the Jordan Harrison Shakespeareanness I had come to expect in your writing. I was looking for its theatricality and it really was a play that was going to work based on the acting values.
Like, really fully inhabited human beings. And I wasn’t looking for that.
It’s maybe the first play I’ve written that the actors are truly in control of. I don’t know that I’ve ever said this in an interview, but I think it was my attempt to write something in that more neo-Chekhovian mode, and of course it’s the partial failure of that that is interesting to me.
Where’s the partial failure?
I mean that it isn’t an Amy Herzog play in the end, of course. Only Amy Herzog writes Amy Herzog plays. There are these sustained domestic scenes between people with history, sure — and there are only seven scenes, as opposed to my usual, like, 30. (Laughs.) But there are also ways in which it doesn’t behave like a neo-Chekhovian play because the seemingly flesh and blood people in front of you turn out to be...not that. Because of the way that the rug is pulled out from under us at the end. The other night I ran into Adam Bock at the PH holiday party,and he said, “Was this your attempt to write a normal play?” And he said “normal” in an arch way. He hadn’t seen it yet, but he had a hunch. I don’t want it to sound like we think Amy and Annie are writing normal plays, far from it. But Adam Bock said that’s what he’s always trying to do as well, write a normal play.
My friend, the playwright Sylvan Oswald, has said that to me too. “I just set out to write a play that people will want to do, and then, in between”—
He can’t help himself.
None of us can help ourselves. The deviation from “normal” is what we mean when we talk about a writer’s voice.
Adam’s latest play, A Life, feels very much like, “Oh, I’m just going to tell the story of this guy,” and then it takes a real leap. Chris Durang said when he wrote Betty’s Summer Vacation, he had done Sex and Longing, which was this kind of notorious, glorious catastrophe: so ambitious. And he said, “I just wanted to write a fun play of people going to the Jersey Shore, but then on the third page a guy showed up with a head in a hatbox.”
Absolutely, yeah. My new play, I’m trying to do this sort of Yasmina Reza, people-having-at-it-in-a-living-room play, that will practically beg for production, and already on page 15, this baby played by a hirsute adult man has already shown up.
There’s always a strong vein of those kind of instinctive and surprising impulses in your work, but there’s another side of crafting something too. So you wrote the first scene and then was the second scene between Tess and Jon always the next scene?
Yes, and it proceeded in order... The thing that comes out as my first draft — I really don’t want this to sound like I’m patting my own back, but my first draft is probably more like some people’s fourth draft — by which I mean I’m editing before it even hits the page, which I don’t necessarily think of as a virtue at all. I’m jealous when people can sort of put their id out there freely and have these 300 page first drafts. My first drafts are 60 pages and then they grow a little bit in both directions; they expand outward as I find more details, until they’re a full evening.
Did you know what the title of this play was, early on?
I think I did, yeah.
One of the things that does that I’d never thought about, but as a woman at a talkback astutely observed, “After I got who Walter Prime was, and the play’s called Marjorie Prime, I knew she was going to die.”
Right. And as I said in the talkback, that doesn’t bother me. I actually like that there’s a kind of tease of the title. Sometimes when I’m watching this play in front of an audience, I get nervous around page 18 that they think it’s just going to be a full evening of a woman trying to hold onto her memory. I get nervous that they think it’s going to be an experience that’s that straightforward, or sentimental. So I start to feel more at ease when the structural traps begin to close, and you see that this is a play with more than one Prime in it. So, I like that the title hints at the complication to come, if you’re looking for it.
And how developed was the Tess/Marjorie relationship and the Jon/Tess relationship as it came to life?
I did steal some things from my parents’ lives, as we nefarious writers do. My mom’s relationship with her mother was much better than the one between Tess and Marjorie, though there are some parallels. My grandmother was someone who loved to hold court and entertain and sit on the porch with a cocktail and address passersby. Her husband, my grandfather, was an executive at Polaroid in the mid-century, when it was the cool company of the decade, a ’50s Google. And then her daughter, my mom, got married barefoot by a brook to an activist with a beard who she met at Kalamazoo. (Laughs.) So the class argument running through their relationship is one that I observed in my own family.
The important thing is you have this daughter and her mother who still have a lot to say to each other.
And there could be many ways to do that.
And I make it sound like Tess and Jon are my parents, but actually Tess resembles me more than anything. That sort of self-lacerating quality, that over-analyzing of things, imagining obstacles and adversaries where there aren’t any. (Laughs.) Like their friend, Bruce, who she decides has been railing against her… Yeah, there’s a lot of me in there.
But I want to say something about why they’re called Primes, before I forget. There wasn’t an “Amazon Prime” in 2012 when I did the first draft — or it wasn’t on my radar — and I worry that people will think that’s the inspiration. As if it means the better version of something, “prime rib,” you know? Prime Marjorie. But what I was actually thinking of was this long-buried mathematics lesson where a prime of something — it’s a mark that looks like an apostrophe. In an equation, you might have “x” and then “x prime” — something that is related to “x,” but not quite the same.
I knew that! Buried for me as well.
So they’re Primes because they reference the original, but aren’t quite the same. Thank you, math.
I want to turn the same question we had about Walter Prime to Marjorie Prime. Why is Marjorie Prime older? And the theory of the play, which is absolutely true, is, “Maybe you picked the Marjorie you still have things to say to.”
But also on a kind of meta-level, it’s also Marjorie as you remembered her, because you talked about having your own experience, a Proustian moment with your own grandmother as being one of the emotional resources of the play.
Right. I think it’s completely true that Tess’s Marjorie is 85 because she’s... Part of what’s made Tess’s life stall out is this feeling of missed opportunities with her mother, things she could have said, ways they could have connected about Damian, ways she could have forgiven her... The missed opportunities, that’s what’s fueling her conversations with Marjorie Prime —whereas Marjorie’s relationship with Walter Prime, which was more about solace, and nostalgia, and time travel. I missed the second part of your question.
Oh, it was about your own relationship with your grandmother.
It’s funny, this is my third play that’s really fueled by either my grandmother or the era that she embodied for me. I think when we talked about Maple and Vine I spoke about how I weirdly loved my grandparents’ slideshows — seeing them on cruises, the sort of faded colors of those, copies of old menus they saved. The glamor that held for me, that was part of why I chose a ’50s society. I wonder if it’s confusing to my mom and dad that I have draped so many plays over my grandmother’s shoulders, because — I mean we had a good and loving relationship, but we weren’t especially close. The fact that she’s become this recurring figure in my work is a thing that I’m not sure I understand.
Well Chekhovian realism is really tied up to what’s gone.
Moscow. Memories of the father in Three Sisters, and... You know, I wrote in my bulletin piece that this is probably the most Proustian science fiction I can think of. And if you think about the grandmother in Proust, the grandmother is this kind of holy figure, like the embodiment of pure love, but also the fragility of time. It’s a different love than you get from your parents, you know.
I’m ashamed to admit I still haven’t read Proust, but I think you did make me think of a reason I return to my grandmother, because she’s not, for me, an “embodiment of pure love” —that doesn’t describe it. She had some Grande Dame qualities, and that’s a kind of woman that I’ve always been interested in writing. My own mother is very tender, very accessible, sensitive. And it’s not like I have a disinterest in characters like that, but I mean, when you think of Amazons and Their Men and Futura, there’s a kind of sharpness, and wit, and volatility in a lot of my female characters, and my grandmother probably embodies that the most, of the women in my family. I suppose I’ll also say that there were tragedies in both my parents’ families when they were young, sudden losses. And on my mother’s side, the grief seemed to go unprocessed and unspoken. On my father’s side, there was a culture of saying the names of the lost loved ones as much as possible. I heard a lot about them, when I was young. And so I had two examples of how grief ripples through a family and is processed or not processed. And that perhaps is part of why I’m still writing toward my grandmother, because of course things that go unspoken breed subtext — and drama.
And you just segued to the subject of the dead child, Damian. Jon and Tess are arguing about whether to bring up Damian...
...to Marjorie or not. And Tess is like, “Let her be.” But he’s like, “But that’s someone important in her life. Doesn’t she want to have that memory?” Thematically it’s extremely important as well. To be fully human we have to feel fully as well.
That’s the end of the play. I think one of things that’s redemptive about the final scene... And I don’t know that everyone would call that scene redemptive. But a redemptive quality in that final scene is that the son is remembered, his name is said, even after all the living characters in the play are dead and gone. That figure in Marjorie’s head that she was trying to remember at the very beginning of the play is remembered. That last bit of information seems almost to “complete” Marjorie Prime, to make her able to feel in a way she hasn’t before.
Let’s talk about Tess Prime. Were you writing towards this scene? You probably knew in some way that structurally it probably had to happen.
I think I surprised myself a little bit when the scene started and Tess was a Prime. I recall being a little like, “Oh, this feels both inevitable and surprising.”
The scene before she becomes a Prime is intense. Jon argues to keep her positive. And Tess is so self-lacerating, as you said. Her pain really floods in that scene in such a compelling way. It’s heading towards a suicide. Did you know it was going there?
I actually feel like, at least on the page, it’s a little bit of a leap. The play doesn’t necessarily take her right to the brink of suicide. There are moments where she might be considering it (“What if I died first?”) if you look closely, but I wasn’t interested in narratively putting the noose around her neck. I liked that there’s a bit of a jump-cut, so we have to listen closely to what happened in Madagascar. Of course it’s in the hands of the director and actors. I would say in Chicago the depression is a little more exposed than it is here at PH. The scene before Tess Prime is easily the scene that took up the most time in rehearsal because it’s such a dance. Jon is pretending that everything is okay, and Tess is pretending that everything’s okay. And how do those dual attempts at normalcy actually end up unraveling each other? Like, the entire “castle of okayness” they’ve constructed comes tumbling down at the end of the scene.
I’m sure boatloads of people who have had loved ones commit suicide wish they had seen it coming more clearly and would rewrite their lives to do something to stop it. But it’s usually such a shock.
A lot of people have mentioned in talkbacks how striking it is that Jon is almost rendered speechless in his scenes with Tess Prime.
He’s been a cheerleader for this technology for the whole play, and then when it comes to programming his own wife, it’s too much to bear. We’ve also never seen a Prime “right out of the box,” as Anne [Kauffman] would say. (Laughs.) What are the very first things you say to a Prime who knows nothing but their name? And that’s part of what is so harrowing for him.
I guess we surmise from the last scene that he must have gotten it together to some degree.
That’s how I think of it. I think we know Jon tried to talk to Tess a few more times because she knows the story of the proposal on Sugarloaf Mountain, the pinecone. But I think one more interesting thing about the Tess Prime scene is that he feels this need to tell her she’s dead. It’s important to him – that’s somehow part of this Tess being as wry and real as the actual Tess. But Tess Prime doesn’t understand that she’s dead because computers can’t die. I remember Madeleine George arguing with me, she was very resistant to the idea that the Primes take on a sliver of humanity at the end of the play. She thought that computers will never learn to be human because to be human requires an awareness that this is all transitory. Without that, how can you feel or be sensitive, or be artistic? (Laughs.)
What do you think? What’s your counter to Madeleine?
I don’t think that computers will ever be quite what we are.
Is that even germane to the way the last scene works?
No, I don’t think she was arguing for rewrites, I think it was just the way she interpreted the last scene.
It was interesting to me that in the talkbacks, many people want to speculate about the material facts of the last scene, and to me it’s so obviously, like...
And figurative. There are so many ways to read the last scene. From one view, we see a family across a span of time. Tess is right in the middle; she has her mother older than her, and her father younger than her. In a way we see the whole...
You see the Oedipus riddle.
We see the Oedipus riddle, exactly. The other great thing about the three Primes is that they each come back as Primes at the ages we were introduced to them as characters. It’s a requirement of the play theatrically. And it’s one of the great gimmicks of the play that it makes necessary emotionally and thematically what is necessary theatrically...
Right. The scene is made of all the scenes preceding it. All the information in it, we’ve been there with the Primes as they learned it. I think that’s, for me, part of the satisfaction; there’s a shared history between Primes and the audience. “Casablanca, I remember that!”
And to me it so beautifully encapsulates the animating principle of the play and the Brian Christian book of seeing these Primes try to embody humans by trying to be empathetic, and loving. That’s the final line of the play.
“How nice that we could love somebody.” Um, do you know what the “uncanny valley” is?
It’s the idea that we can project ourselves into very vaguely humanoid things, like, R2D2 or a sock puppet, because they don’t really resemble humans – but as objects get closer and closer to almost looking human, that’s the most grotesque and scary thing to us. Like a shop mannequin with a face, or a corpse, or a famous example from recent pop culture is the CGI version of Tom Hanks in Polar Express. (Laughs.) Something that stops just short of being human is a kind of mockery of life, and it’s unnerving to us. And I think that’s part of what’s happening in the final scene. The Primes are as real as they’ve ever been, they’re having this free-flowing, warm conversation. And then they stop abruptly and pause for these unearthly ten-second pauses. And what’s unearthly about them is that they’re totally tranquil, they’re not fidgeting or looking for the next thing to say. So, in a way we’re watching human, human, human, and then we’re suddenly dropped into the uncanny valley for a second.
But what is the uncanny valley?
It’s the shape of the graph of this concept. One axis is how human something looks and the other axis is our emotional response to it. So the valley is where it plunges because we find it unnerving, you’d have to see it… I have one other story about the last scene. I eventually brought the whole play to the Clubbed Thumb Writers’ Group, except for the last scene, and one of the writers asked, “Where is this all going?” And I explained — by then I knew that it was going to be the three Primes at the end, and the other playwright said, “I think that instead you should end it with humans all talking together, a kind of flashback to all the humans being together.”
Even writers do that with each other?
They try not to. (Laughs) So that was a legitimate structural idea, but it’s not my ending. You know, that’s why good ideas can be so dangerous to a developing play. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just not this play.
The other thing I love about the end — one more reading — the other analogy I get is that an artist is wrestling with what’s the most human human as well. I mean, that’s the whole purpose of, well, certainly theater.
Is to try to get to the bottom of human behavior, and I made the analogy at the talkback that it’s like these characters circulating in space are no different than all the characters of Hamlet who in a way live forever as well, circulating in a kind of aesthetic ether. And we’re always looking at them and trying to impute different interpretations of their motives and acts. People continue to discover new things about Hamlet, or new insights about it. And as pertains to your work, the answer to the question I had before, about, “Where’s the theatricality?” The theatricality is in the last scene.
That’s the scene that celebrates the theatricality of this project and of human life, in a way. These characters who are the creation of you, but in the play they’re the creation of this family, like, trying to understand themselves.
Indeed. I have one more question. It’s my impression that the thing that happened with this play at PH has happened to you before: that you mull over plays, you put them aside, maybe even pass on them, and then you end up doing them later. I guess I wish more artistic directors circled back to plays that way.
It’s really important to question yourself. We make choices all the time, right? Theater is this huge collaborative process, and you have to leave open the possibility that you can learn things about something. And in this case I had the luxury, after the Taper committed to doing it, to look at it again. There are growing moments in our relationships with our loved ones, too. You know when you argue something, and say, “I don’t want to do something.” Then you ask yourself why you don’t want to do that something, and it doesn’t sit well with you.
And you just, yeah... You find that you’re lying to yourself.
You realize, “This is stirring up something in me that I should look at. And I think you need to be open to that second-guessing of yourself in life, as well in art. I wish audiences did that too, sometimes.
Sometimes I’ll see a movie with my husband and he’ll like it and I’ll take the opposite stance. And the more we talk, the more extreme my point of view becomes. I’ll push against it and push against it, and then finally I’ll be like, “I’m not sure I even believe what I’m saying anymore, I’m just, like, trying to shore up my resistance… What if I didn’t win this argument? That might be okay.”
It might even be good.