Jordan Harrison: Living the Airport Terminal Life

MINNEAPOLIS — Playwright Jordan Harrison may be a veteran of Actors Theatre of Louisville's annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, but that doesn't mean he no longer has butterflies in the pit of his stomach when a work of his — in this case, Act a Lady — debuts at the festival, which this year runs March 7-April 8. Nor has he forgotten his feelings in 2004 when another play, Kid-Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh, premiered there.

"When I arrived for rehearsals for Kid-Simple, I told the actors this was the first show where I didn't Xerox the programs myself," Harrison says.

Modesty aside, in the last few years Harrison has earned a reputation not only for the way he explores the ins and outs of his characters and situations, but for his interest in the very nature of theatre itself. Kid-Simple used literally hundreds of sound cues to portray the decaying universe inhabited by its characters. In Act a Lady, the line between the play and a play-within-the-play blurs until the audience can no longer discern between them.

A Seattle native and a graduate of Providence, R.I.'s Brown University, Harrison landed somewhere in the middle when he came to Minnesota on a Jerome Fellowship from the Minneapolis-based Playwrights' Center. He has since earned a number of other fellowships and residencies and has seen his work presented around the country. His other plays include The Museum Play and Finn in the Underworld. Act a Lady is actually his third piece at Humana: His 10-minute play Fit for Feet won Actors Theatre's Heideman Award in 2003.

Act a Lady looks at a curious Midwestern custom from the 1920s and '30s: the presentation of elegant full-scale weddings in which every "part" — including brides, bridesmaids, and flower girls — was played by men. The play was commissioned by the Commonweal Theatre Company, which asked a quartet of playwrights to craft tales about Lanesboro, Minn., a small town (population: 788) in the southeastern corner of the state. Harrison received the commission about a year after moving to the Midwest following graduation from Brown. "I look back on it as my 'fish out of water' play," he says.

It also took awhile for inspiration to strike. "I drove down [to Lanesboro]; I spent four weeks total wandering around the town; they asked me for a play that spoke to the community and its history," Harrison recalls. "What could a city slicker say about this community? [Guthrie Theater literary director] Michael Bigelow Dixon told me about these photographs of men in drag for a wedding from the 1920s. The most striking thing about these pictures: These men had put a great deal of effort and care into portraying women. They were not lampooning women. When I asked people in town about it, it started me thinking about the innocence at the time. I don't think a bunch of guys in a small town thought they would crash through gender boundaries."

As noted, Harrison's work tends to play with audience expectations, and Act a Lady is no different. Not only is the story told in nonlinear fashion, but rules set up in Act I — the men dressed as women are confined to an area behind a velvet curtain — are changed in Act II as those characters come forward and interact, sometimes with male-dressed versions of themselves. This sense of playfulness comes out of the work, he says, not a desire to be obtuse.

"It just comes to me that way," Harrison says. "I don't sit around and say, 'How can I make audience members scratch their head?' My first act sets up a world, the second act takes it apart — the rules we have learned become more unreliable. That's where the dramatic climax comes out, almost as the play itself becomes restless."

Like many new plays, Act a Lady has been through an extensive reading and workshopping process, with Harrison counting at least a dozen different events during its development. Although he had to be careful when listening "to the thousands of voices telling me what to do with it, I think it has become more of what it wants to be, not a confusing potpourri."

One such event came earlier this year in Japan, when Harrison took part in a cultural exchange arranged by the Playwrights' Center. Act a Lady was translated into Japanese and presented in a staged reading. (See the related story at www.backstage.com/bso/news_reviews/midwest/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002116908).

"The surprising thing is that they read it as a piece about sexual identity: They thought it was a statement on the transgendered," Harrison says. "The Japanese are saturated with more vivid images of sexuality [than Americans are], but in dealing with the gay person in your family or that you see on the bus, they are not as far along. The gay content is much more submerged in the [Louisville] production."

Knowing that the play would receive a full production also helped him complete the work, Harrison says. "I've noticed that the changes I make in rehearsal often are where I cut things away that aren't necessary‌. The dialogue can seem overexplanatory once the actors are on their feet." Additional productions of Act a Lady are already in the works, including one in Oregon and possibly one in Minnesota.

Although Harrison is maintaining his Minneapolis residence, it isn't much of a home at the moment: "I spend a couple of days a month there right now. I've been away in a residency at the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle. I've been working on a play about girl groups in the 1960s, along with [participating in] community outreach programs, teaching writing workshops at local nonprofits, and producing an event of 'postcard' plays. I've been earning my keep."

And he's more than happy with how his career is taking shape. "I think the ways things are going have exceeded my ambitions," Harrison says. "I'll be happy if I can see each of my plays produced and make a living, and both of those are happening. I think actually I've got plenty on my plate, and I would just like to figure out a way to do more reading and thinking and sitting quietly. Life is a series of airport terminals right now." His career, you might say, is taking off.