Playwrights' Perspectives

Jordan Harrison on "Maple and Vine"

For nearly a month now, I’ve been throwing away old papers in anticipation of moving to a new apartment. This is harder than it sounds, mostly because I never throw anything away. My partner insists that these papers -- bursting from drawers, holding up short table legs -- are threatening to take over our lives. “Do you really need this envelope of receipts from 2006?” he asks. I hug it to my chest protectively. “What about this Christmas card from the dentist’s office?” Sentimental value, I tell him. Steam comes out of his ears.

Many of these papers are plays that never were. Or plays that became something better. These are the most difficult to part with. Sure I have digital copies, but there’s the impulse to save the scribbles in the margins, the X-ray of the creative process. (There is also my faint distrust of technology and its transience: today’s USB drive is tomorrow’s floppy disk.) Dwarfing the receipts and Christmas cards are the reams of pages that led to Maple and Vine. Back then it was called Untitled Modern World Project. Obviously there was room for improvement.

In spring of 2008, director Anne Kauffman approached me about working on a project with The Civilians, a theater company that specializes in investigative, documentary-style plays. But Anne didn’t want me to make an investigative, documentary-style play. She and a team of Civilians actors had already conducted hundreds of interviews with people who “retreat” in different ways from the modern world: the Amish, Civil War re-enactors, cloistered nuns, prospective Mars colonists, off-the-grid artists living in Maine. Anne hoped that, as a newbie with no direct attachment to the interview subjects, I could be unsparing with the material, I would play fast and loose, I would make something new. No one had told her about my problem throwing things away.

The interviews were irresistibly colorful: A Civil War re-enactionist explains how to make a fake wound out of raw chicken thighs; a Mars Society member talks about his wife’s reluctance to move to Mars; a cloistered nun discusses her relationship with her cell phone. It was unthinkable to throw any of this out, so I wrote a reverent first draft that was literally about the lives of Civil War re-enactors and Mars Society members, with sequences quilted together from the interview language. Something wasn’t working. The problem, Anne and I came to agree, was that most of the interviewees were simply proselytizing their way of life – they weren’t interested in the ambiguities or challenges of escaping the modern world. Their way was the way.

The project was already six months of my life -- giving up wasn’t an option. So I did something I’d never done before: I threw the entire first draft out, and the interviews along with it. (Or, more precisely, I shoved them into a dusty corner under the bed.) I started a new play -- simply making things up this time, the way I’m used to -- about a contemporary couple who move to a society of 1950s re-enactionists. Setting the new draft in a fictitious society allowed me to explore the condition of existing in two worlds -- and two time periods -- at once. Making things up also allowed me, paradoxically, to invest the play with personal experience. (I’m probably not the first person to fret that the modern world leaves me increasingly disconnected from other people, and from my own body and mind.

Something I never anticipated was that the cast-off interviews lingered, happily, underneath the surface of the new play.

Maple and Vine's central ideas, the surprising benefit of limitations, has its genesis in the interviews. Many of the escapees had said that they were scared by how much freedom they had in the modern world – they were compelled to go to a world where their choices were more limited, where a path was laid out for them. It's a somewhat queasy-making idea, that someone could be happier with fewer freedoms (a friend of mine, having lived through the first wave of feminism, was dismayed by the idea that someone would elect to be a '50s housewife), but if I've done my job, it's a comprehensible one. The interviews resurfaced, too, in the form of "farbing," a Civil War re-enactor term, which refers to anachronistic gaffes like wearing sneakers with your Gettysburg uniform. Writing Maple and Vine, farbing – or "disrupting," as the denizens of the "Society of Domestic Obsolescence" call it – became a major structural and dramatic cue. The danger of disrupting hovers over all of Act Two.

Tomorrow morning the moving truck will be here. Reluctantly I toss the dusty pages of the Untitled Modern World Project into a trash bag. I toss the interviews in with it. My partner nods his approval. I feel all right. A little lighter, even. Writing Maple and Vine taught me to be less scared of throwing things away: the most valuable parts still stick with you.

--Jordan Harrison, September 2011