Trish Harnetiaux: Using dark humor to break the rules
By Caroline Jumpertz
Trish Harnetiaux is a playwright and director whose plays have been performed in theaters across New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Trish has won numerous awards for her work, including the prestigious Himan Brown Creative Writing Award. She is a co-creator of Steel Drum in Space and her sketch comedy and shorts have been seen at film festivals around the country.
Trish’s father is also a playwright, so she grew up around the theater in Spokane, WA. She wrote her first play at 12.
Currently her artistic home is the Ars Nova theater, through which she is developing a new work titled “Weren’t You In My Science Class?”
Trish Harnetiaux. Photo by Jude Domski.
Q: Writing is such a lonely process, but it strikes me that the kind of writing you’re doing is less so — you get to work with actors and various people to develop the work...
A: Its definitely a combination. All the initial work is solo, whether its informed by working with actors or not, but at some point you have to open it up to be seen by people that don't know how to look at something in progress. That's a constant struggle. How early do you want to let people into the process? Who do you want to let into the process?
Q: How much do you want to give them?
A: I think that is really, really interesting. Those are all choices. It’s only as I am doing more of this, by trial and error, that I can shape who to let in when. Then I'm able to identify what I need in order to move forward in a script.
Do I need to just have a friend read it? Do I need to bring it in and set up a reading and back myself into a corner to finish it? It always changes.
Q : If you were to choose just a few words to describe your work, what would they be?
A: 'Unexpected dark comedy'. I'm interested in humor. I think that humor can be really powerful.
Q : A lot of the reviews for “How To Get Into Buildings” also said things like "unexpectedly funny”. I think there's an expectation with the kind of work you do that it's going to be very serious and very intellectual.
A: I think we live in a world that doesn't know how to talk about humor, and I think humor is intellectual, much more so than heavy drama. I find that the smartest people I know are often the funniest.
Q : Well, humor is a way in to big, heavy topics.
A: Of course. It's not only a defense mechanism, but an escape. What else shares those sort of principles? It's kind of beautiful, how we use humor. I'm really interested in continuing to explore that, always.
TV is so good right now so I’m trying to figure out some transition into that.
Q : How involved is the playwright in the process of getting productions up, casting, staging, rehearsing, directing, and how much do you let go?
A: I think it's a really individual question. It's so hard to get anything done, ever, and it takes so much energy, especially, I think, with playwriting. No one cares about your play as much as you do. I'm very lucky to be part of this Ars Nova group right now, because it's a kick-starter, and it's a support system. When I'm not involved in something like that, I have to do it myself. It's submitting things, or creating events where you're bringing everybody in. I think the modern-day playwright is a producer and makes things happen. I don't understand just sending plays off or thinking that someone will discover you.
None of that is interesting, nor do I think that's the way the world works. I think that you have to just dive in, and it's really messy.
Q : Is it that the institutions and the structures that used to facilitate 'being discovered' just don't exist anymore, so you've got to be your own institution?
A: Yeah, you do. Luckily, there's a lot of really wonderful non-profits, but it's also not going to save your life. You have to want to do it for much bigger reasons. You just have to choose it.
Q : You were writing and putting on plays at 12. Was there a moment when people responded, and you were like, 'This is it. This is what I want!'
A: When I was young, I was an actor, or thought I was what my idea of an actor was. My first experiences with theater were from that point of view. I very much liked sitting in the dark and listening, I liked the smell of coffee in a green room, all of these elements that make up theater. I didn't know I could be a playwright then, even though my dad did it.
I fell in love with the community and the magic of it.
Q : So how did you move from acting to writing?
A: I got to college and I was like, "Oh, I'm a terrible actor." I wrote a couple plays in college, but they were so terrible, they're hysterical.
My boyfriend and I were reading one out loud the other day and it was so bad. I had no idea what I was doing, and everything was so heavy-handed. There's no nuance.
There's no craft in it, all of these things that I take for granted now. It was just out there, like a heart on a page.
Q : You're talking about how long the process is. How do you find that energy? What fuels you?
Q: Fear of what?
A: Failure. What else am I going to do? I've been doing this for a really long time and I love it, and I just feel like my interests are always changing, and then my work is changing, and I think that's exciting. My style keeps changing, or I keep understanding what I like and what I'm drawn towards. All of that is really exciting. You cannot make a living as a playwright, so I've been writing some pilots, too. TV is so good right now so I’m trying to figure out some transition into that.
Q : As an income strand?
A: Yeah. There's more platforms everywhere you look to tell a story. I am not against writing other things, or working in other mediums, though I totally feel like plays will always be this core foundation, where I came from. It's very exciting to go other places.
Q : Was there someone who gave you some really good advice at a crucial time?
A: I ended up going back to graduate school seven years after I moved to New York City to study with Mac Wellman, a playwright at Brooklyn College. That ended up completely changing my trajectory as a writer.
Q : In what way?
A: It opened up the community of playwrights I knew; it had me seeing and reading all the contemporary work of really experimental, amazing authors. I've gone to school with incredible people. I've just met so many talented, different writers through that program. It's a great program, it's very diverse, and you seem to know people that are in it all the time. There's only four people a year that get in, or something, but it's such a wonderful community of weirdos that are all trying to do their own thing. Pretty much everybody's working in some sort of experimental form, trying to push some boundaries, which is great. Mac has been a huge mentor.
Q : So finding your passion was not the hard part, and you seem like you have the energy and the fear of failure that it takes to propel your work, in your words. Is it your livelihood?
A: I don't make any money from it. Someday, I hope that will be the case. I think living in New York is like that. It's f**king hard. It's sink or swim. The thing about theater that's wonderful is that there are so many traits that bleed over into real life. The skill set that it takes to write and produce a play and get people to see it, those are transferable skills.
So I'm a consultant and I am a speech writer. I produce big events. I write award show galas. I do PR for magazines and run red carpets and do some copy writing. I have been lucky enough that I've had the same clients for a long, long time. I freelance, and it's been good. It's all project work. I don't think it's terribly different than working on a play, or working on part of something, except that the budgets are different, the scale is different ...
Q : And you get paid at the end…
A: You get paid. A lot of it is anticipation, and being in the moment, and understanding a brand, and communicating with people. Communication is such an under-rated skill. I've spent more than a decade working at Conde Nast, or working with these places that are really intense on signature events. I would rather do that sort of work than wait tables, but I've done that too.
Q : What's the best lesson that you learned?
A: I think I've learned to pick my collaborators wisely. In the process of developing a play, and working to fulfil a vision or a script, it's very important who you choose. It's important that people are interested in the same sort of process. Sometimes people are interested in different ways of approaching a project. I've definitely picked the wrong partner sometimes, and that can have disastrous results.
Q : If people aren't working to solve the problem, then they're not really working together…
A: Correct. There are a lot of problems in theater. There's nothing but problems to solve.
Q : If you had unlimited resources, what would you do?
A: I think my answer goes back to picking your collaborators. With unlimited resources, sure, you could probably attract different talent to work with. I would ... who knows? Maybe build a theater in Brooklyn, and create a fully-funded experimental theater space that had a season, or something like that?
That would be a life dream, and I don't know if that's my dream.
I would probably just move to an apartment with outdoor space so I could work outside.
Q : I saw some of the short comedy videos you’ve been working on with your collaborators Anthony Arkin and Jacob Ware…
A: We have this thing called Steel Drum in Space. We've been together for four years, making a short film and lots of small videos.
Q : Have you got any advice for young writers or playwrights?
A: I do, sure. Just write. Keep writing. Keep writing, set yourself deadlines, and surround yourself with people that inspire you and whose work you like. One of the things I'm really glad I did when I first moved here, was just to do it, do your work, get your work out there, join things. Write, write, write. Don't wait for approval or validation.
Here's my other advice — this is coming straight out of personal failure — you do not need big sets. You don't need to create big sets for your work. Theater is so expensive to do. It's insane. Don't make it harder.
I would say always pay your actors, even if it's like $20, always pay them something, because they'll like you more.
Q : What about your younger self? If you could go back and say something to your younger self, what would it be?
A: I think it would be 'just write more'. Write as much as you can. I look at stretches where I wasn't really working, because sometimes life just gets too hard or you're trying to figure stuff out. I'm really interested in the plays I haven't written. I wonder what those would have been.