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Interview

Tim Sanford and Jordan Harrison

Tim: Let’s pick up where we left off with Doris to Darlene.

Jordan: Oh, my.

Actually, I think we have to start a little before that. Anne [Kauffman] began the project that led to this play with The Civilians some time before we produced Doris to Darlene, right?

Yes, some of the interviews are dated 2003, 2004.

And just to reiterate for the public record, what was that project about?

As she tells it, it started with a conversation she had with a man who owned a restaurant in Hasidic Brooklyn. She went there with her then-boyfriend, now husband, Charles, and they were having kind of a rough time of it--these are her words, not mine--and the owner of the restaurant was talking to them about his arranged marriage. And there was a real sort of seductiveness to the simplicity of that.

Right.

And so she spearheaded this Civilians project, where she and a team of actors interviewed different sorts of people who retreat from the modern world. And that ran the gamut from Civil War re-enactors to cloistered nuns to the Amish to people in the Mars Society who want to colonize Mars. The actors included Nina Hellman, Matt Maher, Jennifer Morris, Gibson Frazier, Caitlin Miller, Maria Dizzia, Colleen Werthmann... They would crash in motels in rural Pennsylvania and talk to the Amish the next day.

Was their goal from the very beginning not to try to do one of their transcribed plays?

I think that’s right.

They wanted to see if they could inspire a play?

I’m reticent about putting words in Anne’s mouth but my understanding is they were always more interested in making something play-like, interested in making something where the interview material wasn’t visible in the final product. I think the model was the sort of Joint Stock Theatre process that led to Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 and Mad Forest which both had similar roots in researched interviews, but it isn’t apparent in the final form. So Anne came to me with about a hundred interviews, and the first thing I did was read them all five times and highlight the juicy stuff. And I think she thought that I’d be more unsparing and more willing to throw things out, since I was new to the project, but what happened is that I fell in love with some of them. And of course it was tempting to already have the words in front of me. So I made a first draft with three acts. And the first act was a kind of faux-Twilight Zone episode about a family of Mars colonists, written in the style of a 1959-60 Twilight Zone episode. And it was about a wife who is going mad because the household appliances are doing everything for her--there’s no room for her any more. The second act was about a troupe of Civil War re-enactors on the battlefield, including a woman who was passing as a male soldier, which was based on one of the original Civilians interviewees. The third act was kind of a vision of what would happen if there was a ginormous east coast blackout, what would it take to get out of New York City and get to a farm and start over, to survive with just what you could make with your hands? That was one of The Civilians’ questions: “What can you make with your hands?” Which has a nice kind of post-apocalyptic resonance.

And we had a reading at the National Arts Club as part of my Kesselring Fellowship. And after that, Anne told me she thought there was something inherently broken and doomed about the original interview source material. The original working title was Escape from the Modern World, but that was kind of a misnomer. Because for the Amish or the cloistered nun, they really only knew their world. They weren’t interested in the comparative virtues of the modern world and their more regulated one. And the Civil War re-enactors weren’t really escaping the modern world either. They were like accountants who would go for two days on the weekend and then return to their comfortable lives once the reenactment was over. Their stakes were low, as we would say in theater.

Did she say, “I just don’t think the idea works, and please, would you come up with another idea?”

No. She’d already been through the process with another writer on the project before me, so she was more inclined to shake hands and call it a day. And I said, “You know, we convinced Berkeley Rep and Actor’s Theatre of Louisville to co-commission this piece, and this is my income for the next year, so give me another shot at this and I’ll just write a Jordan Harrison play this time.” So it felt like I swept all the papers of the interviews off the desk and proceeded with a clear desk.

It’s interesting that there’s a certain similarity in your description of the original version to Doris to Darlene in that it had three completely different time periods and places. And I assume your conception for that first draft would have had actors playing multiple roles. You often create fun opportunities for actors that way.

Yeah. I do like doubling. You can sometimes use multiple roles to give a unified impression of a character. I did that in Act A Lady in particular.

And yet your conception was they would be discreet pieces and not have that kind of Jordan Harrison-ish, throw-it-all-together collisions of time and place.

It’s true; it was less interwoven than Doris to Darlene but it may also have been too-comfortable territory in a way. Three different time periods and three different tones. In a way, it’s been nice to have to really stick it out with Katha and Ryu, to follow these very large character arcs from beginning to end. And even though the play is still a bit of a fable, the people in it are much more multi-dimensional than they were in that first draft. It feels to me like one of the few plays I’ve written that takes place in the world we live in, rather than a world created by the play. We have to buy into Katha and Ryu’s decision to try out the SDO as though they’re people who work in our own office and not people who inhabit an invented world where things are loosier and goosier.

That seems to be a good conversation point you just opened up. You often invite your characters and audiences to jump into created worlds, whether it’s a prohibition-era small town or pop music of the ’60s or the SDO. That’s a common thread...

I suppose so. It’s hard to look at oneself so globally.

Is it?

It is, honestly. Because when I’m writing I’m just kind of keeping my head down and moving on to the next project each time. Conversations like this are the rare time that you look back and say, “Oh, look how Futura was followed by Maple and Vine. I guess I was in a groove about man and technology.” Or the way Amazons and Their Men and Doris to Darlene were connected by this third-person narration device and by these nearly bare stages.

Uh-huh.

So, yes, there are patterns, but you don’t always see them while you’re in the thick of it.

So how did your impulse “to stick with Katha and Ryu” affect your approach to the play?

I am someone who, when I’m an audience member, will buy into almost anything as long as the play honors its own rules and its own tone. When I wrote the first draft of Maple and Vine, the first scene was these two nasty office people talking about this unhappy woman, Katha, who we, the audience, had never met before. And then the next scene she’s already meeting this ’50s guy and she’s deciding to go there. And that’s a leap that I find that I’m usually willing to take in other people’s plays. And in developing Maple and Vine I felt like part of me was preserving that kind of quick leap, the abruptness in the storytelling. An example of that would be Craig Lucas’s Reckless. I love how we begin with this shiny-happy Christmas Eve, and then seconds later, the main character’s jumping out the window to escape the hit man that her husband has hired to kill her.

“I have a confession to make, honey!”

It’s just so nutty. And I like plays to move that quickly. So on the one hand I was trying to preserve that impulse, but also to honor what I was hearing from people. Some people wanted help understanding why a Japanese-American man with a successful career could come to make such a radical decision. And I like to think I’ve had it both ways. It still feels zippy, their decision, yet realistic. Hopefully.

Was there a husband in that first version?

There was a husband, yeah. But we didn’t meet him until later. I was a little nervous when I added the first two scenes where we get to know Katha and Ryu’s specific unhappiness. I was nervous that it would sort of shift the rules of the play and actually make us crave more realism. Those first two scenes where they’re at home in their separate little computer worlds, trying to sort of anesthetize themselves--that actually feels like the most nakedly personal part of the play.

I think this tension between the Jordan Harrison leaps and the new sense of here-and-now realism is very important. You still want a sense of playfulness in the “real” scenes, like in Omar and Jenna’s banter, but you also want to keep attention to realistic character motivation alive during the ’50s scenes.

That’s right, but you don’t want to push it so far that people start to ask questions about the SDO like, “Do they have their own police department?” Or “How big is this place anyway?” You want to put people in a mood to accept the fantasy of it.

Someone brought up the importance of family in the ’50s in a talkback the other night and Anne answered that it’s important for the play to work as a fable, so you want to keep it simple. You don’t want a bunch of kids running around.

Plus the baby has more gravity at the end because there haven’t been children before.

Let’s talk about some of your characters. When did Ryu become Japanese-American? Did he appear that way?

Yeah, he just appeared that way. I don’t think I was thinking, early on, of the implications of being Japanese-American in the ’50s. It didn’t occur to me until later that the reason for that may partly be because the Japanese-American experience during World War II was such a big part of the place where I grew up. Bainbridge Island, Washington. There was a very large community of Japanese-Americans and every single one of course was interned during World War II. And it became a real source of shame and regret on the island. And it actually is still kind of a provocative issue. My mother sits on the Board for a memorial they’ve been building on the island to commemorate the internment, and you would think that everyone would be on board with that. But in the years following 9/11, there was a kind of backlash as some people became suspicious of Muslim-Americans, and they started to reevaluate the issue and ask, “Are we looking at that WWII decision through a revisionist lens? Maybe it was necessary. We didn’t know what the loyalties of Japanese-Americans were.”

Really?

So I’ve heard. That obviously isn’t an opinion I agree with.

You said Dean appeared in your second scene in your first draft. Did you know he was a homosexual?

I didn’t know that Dean was a homosexual when I first started writing his monologues, no.

I know you’d prefer not to look for reasons why you’ve written something...

Just because it’s instinctive doesn’t mean there’s not a reason. It certainly adds a layer of density to the second act. But also, I remember at one point Tennessee Williams said that he has to desire at least one character in all of his stories, and I identify with that. Maybe that’s how the kind of angry erotic encounter between Dean and Roger outside the cocktail party first came tumbling out. Then once that was in the play, I had to deal with the emotional fallout of it.

You said once you’re drawn as a gay writer to periods where there were more obstacles to it...

Right. I mean this is a dangerous discussion in that I don’t want to say that there are no longer challenges in 2011 for gay people when there’s this kind of terrible epidemic of gay teen suicides happening and anti-gay bullying. When I was in high school, there was no one out in the entire school. But as soon as I got to college the world was changing very quickly. And as an adult I’ve always been proud to be gay. I don’t bring any anxiety or self-hatred to it. So as a result I don’t feel the need to write plays where people come out to their dads and tears are shed and fists are shaken. Instead I end up going to a time where it wasn’t even possible to discuss such things, where it’s hidden under the surface. Like in Doris to Darlene there’s this scene at the opera where this young man is kind of leaning his knee really close to the young man sitting next to him and sort of daring their knees to touch and there’s an entire world of risk and desire in that. My early plays didn’t have a lot of subtext, but increasingly it’s become something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

But there’s a difference in this play, of course, in that the gay people choose to go back to a more restrictive time.

I think I understand that Dean and Roger would go somewhere where their relationship is less acceptable because it adds fire to things, and because they feared that assimilation was kind of robbing their relationship of its energy. That’s a somewhat uncomfortable idea, I guess. But I think I’ve encountered less resistance to the idea that a gay couple would move to the ’50s because I have a sort of permission to be politically incorrect in that way. It was a more difficult thing to broach the idea that a Japanese-American man would feel all right, even for an instant, being prejudiced against. I felt less permission to give an audience discomfort in that way.

Isn’t it the same for Katha too?

Yes. Actually Carey Perloff [Artistic Director at ACT in San Francisco, which will be doing Maple and Vine this spring] told me that when she first read the play she was alarmed that a successful and brilliant career woman would choose to be a housewife. And her daughter, who I think is an undergrad at Harvard, said, “Mom, like it or not, this is something that’s interesting to people my age now. Family and babies and such...”

Even though they arose instinctively, I love how there’s a commonality between them all. It gives the Ryu and Roger scenes a kind of wonderful progression, which has grown even more nuanced since Louisville.

Very early on I knew that I wanted to explore the idea that people could be happier in an atmosphere of difficulty, where their freedoms were more limited.

Many of our conversations since Louisville have been about bolstering Ryu’s decision to take the leap by deepening his relationship to Katha, to suggest it could be rewarding for Ryu to “wear the pants.” Do you feel these changes have tipped it more towards realism, or has it rounded out the fable aspect of the story? How have you felt about it?

I feel like we only have to believe that Ryu would endure that racism and that it would energize his relationship with Kathy as long as the play is going on. I don’t necessarily buy that he’s going to accept that forever, that the SDO will always work for them. But I do buy it in those sixteen scenes in the second act. One thing that maybe isn’t textual but that I get out of Peter [Kim]’s performance is that there’s a kind of weird pleasure for Ryu in being ahead of Roger in their scenes together, that he’s sort of toying with him a little bit. Like when he says, “I was an ikebana master,” he’s baiting Roger a little bit.

Do you feel like you’ve planted the seeds of the explosives that would eventually blow it up? Or do you want us to feel ambivalent about what’s going to happen?

My impulse has always been to give Katha and Ryu a happy ending. If the play ended with them running screaming back to the Upper West Side, I think it would let us off the hook as an audience. I enjoy seeing the tension of seeing that the main characters flourish there. They were only miserable when they led the lives that we the audience choose to lead every day. And I think the fact that they’re happy elsewhere, I hope it makes us think about the small unhappinesses that we’ve come to take for granted in our modern lives.

Let’s talk about Katha’s journey and how you relate to it.

I certainly pacify myself all the time with You Tube videos of Anne of Green Gables, so we have that in common. I also relate to what Kathy says about having to keep it together in the ’50s. In my life as a freelance writer, I have the luxury of being neurotic. There’s time and space to overanalyze your everyday state of mind. But I find when there’s a real crisis, it often brings the best out in me. So I think I identify with the way that Kathy grows when she no longer has the opportunity to fall apart. She has to sit up straight in the SDO. You can’t crumble at a cocktail party. You have to be your best self. And with those boundaries, she becomes a kind of powerful person in the second act.

Of course, there’s a paradox here in that a housewife is such a retro role model. But don’t you think that female role models have slid backwards in some corners these days? Like what’s that appalling show? “Jersey Shore!” The women on that show are so...

Mindless?

And backwards.

The men too, of course. Yeah, it’s baffled me as far back as The Simple Life with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. And the Kardashians of course. It’s strange that our role models are idle, rich people who don’t read. You know? I mean the closest thing you get to brainy heroine in pop culture today is probably Liz Lemon on “30 Rock,” but even she is a mess and can’t hold on to a boyfriend. There are no heroines that would be played by Glenda Jackson anymore.

Alas.

Someone asked me that at the Patron Dinner, what living actor I’d most like to work with. And I said Judy Davis. And they said, “Who’s Judy Davis?”

That just proves your point. She’s definitely the artistic heir to Glenda Jackson’s legacy. But there aren’t enough roles for her. She’s probably moved back to Australia.

In fact she has. We asked about her for the Futura reading, and the agent said, “If you’ll fly her from Australia, she’ll consider it.”

Maple and Vine has been very challenging to produce because of the many scene shifts. But it’s not uncommon that your work will shift time or location without spelling out how it should be done. It will ask for creative, theatrical solutions from its director and designers. Do you have thoughts about this?

Doris to Darlene taught me something about what it’s like to be an audience member seeing a lot of scenes. I remember how the room changed when we got to those two long scenes deep in the second act with the Young Man and the teacher and the long scene with the Young Man in the front seat of his car. It felt like the audience was leaning forward in a different way, taking pleasure in something unfolding in real time. So after that experience, I was interested in exploring sustained action and I wrote Futura, which only has five scenes and begins with a 35-minute monologue. But that’s the exception. I realize I like to move very rapidly from location to location and then deep in the play there will finally be an expansive scene, a longer kind of reckoning scene. It was that way in Doris, as I mentioned, and Amazons and their Men. And in this play it’s the long scene between Ellen and Kathy. Things that have been only hinted at or subtexted come to the fore.

But more about short scenes: I’ve said before that the way scenes talk to each other in my plays can be more important than what happens in the scene itself. The way one scene runs up against another. Like the way the scene between Roger and Dean fighting at the pond speaks to the scene where Roger refuses to give Ryu a raise, which speaks to the scene where Kathy asks the Authenticity Committee for more racism, and then later a brick comes through her window. Like, there’s not exactly a linear, direct causation between those things, but we understand them to be connected. Paula Vogel would call that “asociative storytelling.” Shakespeare’s plays are associative as opposed to Greek tragedy, which is linear. And so you’ll have a scene in the castle with the nobles, and then you have a scene in the graveyard with the gravediggers. Comedy runs up against drama, high stakes run up against low stakes. And that’s the way I am usually inclined to make things. It makes for a lot of transitions, it’s true!

You know it’s interesting that the reckoning scene is with Ellen here.

Right. This supporting character.

Because we haven’t really tracked her that way. And yet we made some really interesting discoveries about her and Kathy’s relationship to her during previews. We really looked at the bond between them and the truth of the moment when she says, “You really helped me.”

Yes, “You’re my neighbor.” I think when I first wrote it it probably was much more of a diva cage match like, you know, Alexis throwing Krystle Carrington into the swimming pool in Dynasty. And working with Anne and Jeanine Serralles and now Marin Ireland on that scene, I’ve come to see that there’s greater rewards in there being an actual bond between them--a kind of tense bond maybe, but a real one.

I think in a similar way the, Roger/Dean story seems deeper now.

Yeah, I’ve given them a little more language in that storyline since Humana. We realized there have to be a few flickers of tenderness between them in the few moments together that they can steal--or else we don’t understand the choice Dean makes near the end of the play.

You know, the one place that we do have the kind of Jordan Harrison collisions of style is in the dreams. And there’s a beautiful progression to them. The first two are more disorienting for Katha, almost comedic in a way. But the last one is the only one she describes as a nightmare. All the characters seem fully ensconced in the fifties world and yet the machinery of instant gratification from today is beginning to creep in again. And the language Kathy uses to describe the dream feels very deeply felt and personal. Is she speaking for you too?

I think that the pathos in the final dream is real, and I don’t know that I would say that I’m coming down hard on the Luddite side of the fence, but for me that final scene comes from a sort of fear of--it’s not that I long for the ’50s. I wasn’t there. But I certainly long for the ’90s, that feels simple to me relative to today. I feel like, increasingly it’s difficult to--as Dean would say--be quiet with my own thoughts. It’s more difficult now to fall into the experience of reading a book and being transported by it and it’s more difficult not to be on Facebook and yet be connected to my friends. The terms of our world are changing. The terms of the way that we engage with other people...

But you’re in theater, Jordan! It’s a totally throwback profession!

I know.

And as adventurous you are as a writer, it is an old structure. People gathering in a room, sharing an experience together. It’s hard to be anonymous.

Well in a way, I don’t think that theater will ever die for that exact reason, because it’s not dependent on--I mean even film in its way is a novelty. It’s a certain kind of technology that will come and go, and now it’s victimized by the fact that people watch movies now on tiny little screens. And that changes how long narratives are and the kind of narratives we tell. And you know, society could fall, and one of the things we can make with our hands will continue to be theater. It may be at the fringe of public awareness now, but it’s also like the cockroach of the arts. It will always be around.