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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dreamworks: The playwright

Dream Works Graphic.png
Graphic by Rachel Wong

Please put your phones on silent, keep talking to a minimum and enjoy the show… Today we will be talking with acclaimed playwright Joshua Harmon, the creator of the new Broadway show “A Prayer for the French Republic.”

Harmon always loved the theater, but, from a young age, he knew that his place was not on stage — where all eyes are on you —  but as the storyteller.

“I loved theater, and I loved writing, and so there was something about playwriting that combined a lot of the things that I loved. You get to be solitary for a while and be on your own, and then you get to collaborate with people and be together," Harmon said. “But you’re not the center of attention in the same way [as being an actor]. And so it felt like a really natural fit for me.”

In pursuit of joining theater, Harmon attended Northwestern University where he majored in English, concentrating on drama and history. After working in New York for a couple of years in film and theater, Harmon completed a Master of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University and then studied for three years at The Juilliard School with Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang, American screenwriters and playwrights. Unlike other professions, a playwright’s path after college is not a defined one.

 “I think it is the scariest thing and it sort of never ceases to be that way. You’re always building and forging your own path. And it’s hard to do that without the structure inherent in a lot of other jobs. So when I graduated, for example, [from] Carnegie Mellon and had worked all these years as an assistant and now I had my Master of Fine Arts …. nobody cared and I had to go and get another assistant job,” Harmon recounted. “Because it's not a path that promises any kind of financial gain. … So it’s an ongoing challenge of trying to figure out how to pay your bills, how to forge ahead.”

Just like there isn’t one path to making a career as a playwright, there also isn’t one typical day on the job. It all depends on where one is in the process. Now that “A Prayer to the French Republic” has closed on Broadway, Harmon is back in the “abyss,” figuring out what comes next and spending lots of time writing and thinking. Harmon described how idea generating can get more challenging as time goes on.

“When I was younger, if I had an idea for a play, I could just say OK, I'll write it. And I would go and write the play. As you get older, at least in my experience, plays take several years of work of writing them, of trying to get people interested, and so it takes a minute to figure out what you want to devote several years of your life to,” Harmon said. “With the ‘Prayer for the French Republic,’ I started working on that in 2015. And it opened on Broadway in 2024. So that’s nine years of work.”

During the 2016 elections, Harmon utilized theater as a political outlet, a mode of social protest and an exercise of free speech (a right that he felt he may not have forever) with his play “Ivanka: A Medea for Right Now.” To his dismay, the play is still relevant today.

“I was just ingesting what felt like bad news all the time, and had no outlet for it … and so I wrote this protest play. And we read it at theaters all across the country on election eve 2016. And it didn’t work,” Harmon said, “but it felt good to just be doing something. It felt, frankly, very American, to be using our voices, using our energy to protest something that we thought was wrong. I had hoped that the play would have a very short shelf life, but here we are eight years later, and [Donald Trump is] still running for president.”

But, getting back to the ‘routine’ life of a playwright, during other phases of the process, like rehearsal and preview, the days look very different than the periods of initial writing and research.

“There’s no routine. So, for example, if I’m in rehearsal for a play, my day to day is … being at rehearsal, coming home, rewriting the play at night, not sleeping, thinking about the play, being obsessed with it,” Harmon said. “Then we go to preview, spend all day rehearsing the play, all night watching the play, come home, think about it [more].” 

He continued, “There can be periods of research, where, depending on what the project is, I’m talking to people, or I’m reading a lot, or I’m going to see a bunch of movies or going to museums.

To me, the preview phase of writing a play seemed the most terrifying. Harmon described the feelings and events in detail.

“It's a bizarre art form, where the only way you can evaluate it is if a roomful of strangers come to watch it. And, the playwright stands at the back of the house to watch the play. So you have to stand behind this roomful of strangers who have all come to evaluate your play, and some of them will love it and some of them will hate it and everything in between. It’s hard,” he said. “You know, you write a book and you don’t stand over the shoulder of the person reading it to see if they yawn. You paint a painting that goes up in a museum, you don’t stand in the back of the museum and watch people come and go like, ‘I don’t like it,’ but a playwright has to watch people watch it and that is a very painful experience.”

When it comes to choosing what to write about, Harmon explained that in his experience it only gets more difficult over time.

“It has to be something that engages my mind for a period of time … And for me, it’s usually a question that I don't have the answer to and that feels like an unanswerable question,” Harmon said. “A play is an opportunity to look at a question from lots of different points of view, to consider lots of different angles. And there's something very exciting about giving myself permission to step into lots of points of views I may agree with or not.”

Choosing what to write about is a process, but, once the idea is found, an intense seesawing connection with the piece begins.  

“It's a very weird thing where you get obsessed with a piece. You're very highly involved,” Harmon said. “You sort of hate it for a while. And then you look back at it later with a lot of love.”

Then, once a first draft is written, the rewriting begins. The script is tested live with readings.

“85–90% of writing a play is rewriting it. So you write that first draft, and there’s either some seeds in there that are right or there’s some sections that are right. But the great, great work begins when you start to rewrite it — when you start to hear it aloud with actors,” Harmon said.

When I asked what advice he had for future writers and drama fanatics, he described the qualities needed to succeed: bravery, patience and persistence. It takes a lot of plays that don’t go anywhere, compromises and communication. Harmon recommended to digest the most amount of theater as possible.

“You don’t have to be intellectual about it, but you emotionally connect to something. And so you say, wow, this play really moved me and it goes in a pile. And then after you’ve read enough, you have this pile of plays that have all really spoken to you, and then you can look at it and say, ‘Okay, what is the line throughout? What are these kinds of plays doing that speak to me?’” Harmon said. “Hopefully your goal as a writer is to write the kind of piece that you as an audience member would be desperate to see. And so when you can start to understand what the plays you love do successfully, then you have a better sense of what you need to do as a writer, to try to create that experience for somebody else.” 

This is no longer a surprise in this series, but, again, I was presented with a thought-provoking response to my usual question, when I asked Harmon if he was living his dream career.

“It’s a weird thing to be doing something that you wanted to do when you were 16 or 17, and to still be doing it all these years later. How did a 16-year-old make this decision?” he said. “But it is an incredibly interesting and exciting way to spend one’s time on Earth by telling stories and doing it with groups of people who also are spending their time telling stories. I think I am definitely living like that 16-year-old’s dream. I think that kid would be pretty ecstatic to know that I am still writing plays all these years later. So, I'm living that kid’s dream.” 

Most people reading the Daily are at least a little over 16, but the sentiment remains the same. What are your dreams now? Will you one day look back and say, “Damn, I’m doing what 20-year-old me envisioned.” Or maybe you are more like me and have no idea what your dream is yet. It sometimes feels challenging to write about dreaming without feeling overly cliche, so I ask for your forgiveness, and of course…

Wishing you luck in all your dream-catching endeavors…