Trish Harnetiaux and I met at Mac Wellman’s School for Degenerates, also known as the playwriting program at Brooklyn College, in the fall of 2007. I immediately took a liking to Trish—her no-bullshit sensibility, pragmatic intelligence, and wry sense of humor. And she’s sort of a babe, rounding out a total friend crush. Over the last six years, I’ve had the joy of performing in Trish’s work several times, most recently in the development of How To Get Into Buildings, a work she teased out in the 2011/12 Writer/Director Lab at Soho Rep. (A personal favorite, I got to play a narcissistic novelist who early in the play delivers an impassioned monologue about his coterie of 17 cats.) Here we sit down to discuss losing control, the limits of comedy, and the strange influence of crazy Uncle Mac.
Jess Barbagallo (Rail): After our conversation last night I was thinking a lot about your plays, and I got to talking to my friend Katie about one in particular, Your Pretty Little World, because I thought she should direct it. We were discussinghysteria, a theme she’s been meditating on in her work lately, and your play features a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. I don’t know if that could technically be considered a version of hysteria, but I felt as though the two were linked, maybe just as hyperbolic states of being. I started thinking about the various meanings of the word hysteria and whether or not it could be applied to the atmosphere of your latest work If You Can Get To Buffalo. Does the possibility of looming hysteria as a driving dramatic force have any resonance for you?
Trish Harnetiaux: Well, please give the play to your friend Katie stat. Your Pretty Little World is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest. Working on that play was such a cool experience—Jackson’s a complicated, nuanced writer and her novels make you feel like you lost your mind, but in that awesome way like Sylvia Plath does with The Bell Jar—very slowly. Attempting to theatricalize that was challenging, but also fun in that way where it’s like—oh, right, this is why I love plays: to find these moments in a story where it is absolutely clear that this story could only be told this way in the theater. I think theater is very forgiving when it comes to jumps in time and place.
Regarding hysteria, I’m sure the word can be used to describe the main character of Elizabeth in Your Pretty Little World, but, for some reason “hysteria” seems like code for some sort of misdiagnosis. In my mind it always sounds dated. But, if we’re looking at hysteria as someone that lacks or loses control, I would definitely say that’s a theme I am interested in. In If You Can Get To Buffalo, Eric Nightengale (the director and my partner in developing this play over the last four years) and I have had so many conversations about how, if you distill it all down, the play is about control. New forms of control over one’s life, how that is a game changer, and ultimately loss of control.
Rail: Are you referring to the Internet as a “new form of control” here? Or, why don’t you tell us a little about your play, Trish, premiering February 13th at Incubator Arts Project?
Harnetiaux: With If You Can Get To Buffalo I’m specifically talking about what the Internet was in 1993. The world of the play is one of the very first online chat rooms (LambdaMOO)—so it was basically a social experiment as well as a feat of technology. Imagine, you would have had to understand the potential and the practicality of how to actually get to the site and write the code to use it before you could even participate. In developing the play we were constantly caught up in discussing what it was like to be one of the very, very first people in a community such as this. It’s an origin story at heart. So when I’m talking about control, I’m talking about the control of the individual as it relates to being a character in a brand new world. They could be anyone, the world was completely comprised of text so they could literally write their own description of who they were, what they looked like, anything. It was full immersion and became important as part of their identities—so when someone came in and stripped them of the identity they worked so hard to build, to many it was a violation when they could no longer control their character.
Rail: You’re talking about a kind of cyber-terrorist here?
Harnetiaux: Yes, exactly. The culprit in the play, however, had no other tools than the ability to overwrite code and assume the identities of other players. A hijacking.
Rail: Talk to me a little more about the form the story took and how you found it. What was your dramaturgy like? And why is the shape of the current script the way the story had to be told?
Harnetiaux: There was an article from 1993 in the Village Voice called “A Rape in Cyberspace” written by Julian Dibbell that kinda kicked this whole project off. His writing was so exciting to read, even 20 years after the fact, as he told this story of how a virtual utopia was turned upside down. So I started digging and couldn’t really find any other source material on the event other than a subsequent episode of Charlie Rose that Dibbell had gone on shortly after his piece came out. I had some ingredients to start with now. When creating this piece I knew it wasn’t going to be an adaptation or anything, but rather an exploration of a period of time when we were on the brink of this new world of sorts. For the first couple years we worked on it, it was pretty brutal trying to find the right tone, the right way in. I was so lucky that Eric was on board for the long haul because it was literally through trial and error, and error, and error, that we’ve come to where the script and show are now. A major breakthrough for me was to include lo-fi text projections in the script itself to help fill out the world of the text-based LambdaMOO. It took so long to figure that out! Our dramaturgy for at least the first four years was to write a bunch, have a reading or workshop, throw a ton of it out because it was shit, and keep a little that worked. Slowly, a script was built. But, now in this production at Incubator, we have the amazing [dramaturg] Allison Lyman on board to help keep us honest.
Rail: What is your relationship to technology? I know you have this other artistic outlet, Steel Drum in Space, a production company you’ve created to make sketch comedy and film for the web. It’s totally weird and I love how it deals with people who appear to be living in disastrous anachronisms. “Dealing with the issues of tomorrow today with yesterday’s science.” How did this come about and what is the relationship between this project and your theater works?
Harnetiaux: I’m not any sort of tech guru—it’s really not my own obsession that I’m interested in, but the effect it has on society and the most basic levels of how it has influenced language and conduct and how we interact with each other. Look at the past decade! The difference between the Internet in 2004 and the Internet in 2014 is ridiculous. I know that a societal shift has taken place when my dad stops asking me if places have websites, because he now understands that everything/one has a site (including him).
Steel Drum in Space has been a completely separate outlet for me in many ways. We created it after my partners in crime—Jacob A. Ware and Anthony Arkin—and I made a short film about two years ago called You Should Be a Better Friend. It seemed one of those perfect and rare melding of aesthetics between the three of us—all bringing our own sensibilities and skill sets that complemented each other. There’s a direness to a mundane existence that I’ve always been drawn to.
Jacob’s the sketch comedy genius who cut his teeth in Chicago, and Tony’s been making movies his entire life. So together we’ve been finding our shared situational perspectives involving a combination of bad sci-fi, ignorant/arrogant people, absurdist reenactments, and lo-fi production values to create work via the one-to-three-minute sketch video form. It’s been some of the most fun I’ve had making work.
I do think that making these helps me as a playwright because our focus is on pushing the comedy as far as it can go to see what happens. Also, it continues to be a conversation between us, the constant redefining of what is funny and why. If you’re looking for that traditional comedy punch line, we’re probably not right for you. My mother recently told me that our last video, arguably my favorite,“The Mezmorini Brothers,” was “excruciating.” But I kinda took that as a compliment (and I actually think she meant it as one).
Ultimately we know we’ve succeeded if we make each other laugh. The comedy can be pretty buried in some of the sketches—basically surfacing only as the viewer asks themselves the question, “Why does this exist?” Yes, we say, exactly!
Rail: I like building these artificial archives for the future to find where all history just becomes this kind of hoax. Which, as you recall, was Mac [Wellman]’s prophecy for the future of all theater. I’m curious, because it is the background we share: What are your reflections on his mentorship?
Harnetiaux: Mac gave permission for us to do what we wanted as long as we could do it well. The longer I’m out of the program, the more good it does me, I think. So much of it’s about the people we meet there, right? They are ridiculously talented. I’m working with old class-chum Rob Erickson right now: he’s not only designing sound and creating music for our production, but he’s in it. It’s an ensemble show definitely, but working with Rob has been extraordinary, and I think part of it is because we came through that program together and have a certain shared vocabulary. I could tell you stories of how I was so petrified, especially my first year, that I would mispronounce words (we had to read aloud a lot as you recall), or how Kelly Copper scarred me for life when I had to read pages in French (which I do not speak) when she brought in No Dice. I could go on, but our word count is running high. But you get it, Mac was like the only person I could probably study with. He’s like the cool mom who lets her kids smoke pot, right?
If You Can Get To Buffalo, written by Trish Harnetiaux, directed by Eric Nightengale, runs February 13 – 23 at Incubator Arts Project (St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 2nd Floor, 131 East 10th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info, visit Incubator Arts Project
IN DIALOGUE was created by Emily DeVoti in October 2001 as a monthly forum for playwrights to engage with other playwrights in print. Since then, over 120 playwrights have been featured. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jess Barbagallo is currently acting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Lyric Theatre. Additionally, he works as an adjunct professor at New York University and is a contributing writer at Artforum.