Theater In Conversation
The Absurdity of American Acclimation: TRISH HARNETIAUX with Liza Birkinmeier
Tin Cat Shoes by Trish Harnetiaux will premiere as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks this May. She describes the piece:
Blessed with the can-do American spirit, a troop of dedicated shoe store workers embark on a madcap odyssey of personal (employer-mandated) expansion. But when "work is your life" and systems break down, all that remains is you, some nachos, and the truth.
I talked with Trish on subways, over peanut butter pie, behind home plate at her softball game, and once even at a Shake Shack.
Liza Birkenmeier (Rail): Could you describe the tone of Tin Cat Shoes in one word?
Trish Harnetiaux: Unsettling?
Rail: Is there anything new to you or your writing in the ideas of this piece?
Harnetiaux: I consider it my most political play. I wrote the first draft in 2016 and then did a workshop in 2017, having watched everyone go through acclimation.
Rail: Do you think it can harm the reception of the play to talk about it politically?
Harnetiaux: I want to talk about it politically.
Rail: The idea of acclimation is political to you?
Harnetiaux: The world of the play very, very quickly adapts to its circumstance and doesn’t question outrageous occurrences. There’s a feeling of being out of control that’s associated with that, and…danger, too. That’s what I’m trying to pull through with this piece.
Rail: If we adapt to outrageous circumstances, it’s scary. But isn’t it also funny?
Harnetiaux: The theory is that we’re desensitized. This is where this idea of acclimation comes from. I guess I was curious what that looked like in an everyday setting, with co-workers or friends. These aren’t people who spend a lot of time reflecting. What kind of theatricality exists in an environment void of reflection? The X-ray or dark matter of the play is what they leave behind and what they don’t revisit. It’s as interesting as what they choose to do and how they choose to continue.
Rail: But in that lack of reflection, your characters are so remarkably good-natured. They’re generous and faithful to the point of absurdity.
Harnetiaux: Absolutely. I’ve made some choices about that. This is the kind of play we’re going to watch: they love their jobs; they’re kind, “normal” people. This all breaks down along the way, obviously. We start in a very different place than where we end.
Rail: Yes, you subtitle this play An Odyssey of American Acclimation. It feels epic to me.
Harnetiaux: I am interested in it being an Odyssey—being an epic—over the course of one day.
Rail: Is that part of what you’re saying about acclimation?
Harnetiaux: It is part of that. Look at what was the norm. This is an overused example, but our norm used to be a leader who was an incredible orator, and now our norm is this despicable, insane man. It’s been an epic journey. And I wanted to draw on this really deep journey for this group of people to go through, where upsetting things happen in order to set up that principle: Hey, just this morning we were sorting shoes.
Rail: And by the nighttime they’re at the casino. What does that mean for you?
Harnetiaux: There’s a lot of self-control you have to exhibit, or not. It’s dangerous. I think it’s interesting when people are in that place, asking, “How did I get here?” and we get to watch a whole group of people do that.
Rail: And somehow, in this play, it’s hilarious. Why could that be?
Harnetiaux: Because of how sad it is?
Rail: It’s deeply funny. And I want to go back to the comedy of good-naturedness, which seems rare to me. I think most contemporary American humor riffs on the opposite sorts of interpersonal dynamics… I’m thinking of everything from Three Stooges to The Office.
Harnetiaux: It’s always funny to me when you give people a lot of confidence. When you give them blind confidence with what they’re saying and doing onstage, it’s not like reality. It brings the whole situation to a really off-center place.
Rail: Here it seems that loyalty is funny, that faith is funny.
Harnetiaux: Unconditional love plus confidence equals humor. It gives—that mixture—gives a sense of being outside of naturalism.
Rail: Yes, and your characters want so much to do the right thing, even when they’re failing.
Harnetiaux: There’s something to be said for dousing things with a little bit of earnestness sometimes—because it’s confusing. It’s human.
Rail: Even when Rex isn’t there to tell them what to do, they ask: what would Rex say right now?
Harnetiaux: Authority is really funny to me.
Rail: And there’s a lot about that in here—not just bosses or authority figures but the idea of applying systems.
Harnetiaux: Systems never meet reality smoothly.
Rail: Are there any systems that work?
Rail: Are there other artists who work in the humor of system failure?
Harnetiaux: Most good comedy is really, really dark. A lot of it could be derived from system failure—real anger that expectations are never met.
Rail: But what do we do without systems?
Harnetiaux: [The characters] are untethered because of system failure. They don’t know where their north star is. They’ve never had to think for themselves. To go broad and political—it’s like every liberal we know being like, “ohhhhhh, this is the country we live in?” because our focus has been so like-minded.
Rail: And it’s not just that people want rules and systems—they also want to know how to behave. We have this unrealistic idea that other people are out there who know how to behave normally.
Harnetiaux: We replicate the idea that there are people out there acting normally through our art and reinforce it. There’s a name for that—The American Dream. But it’s just a lie, Liza.
Rail: What plays propagate the illusion of human normalcy?
Harnetiaux: All the bad ones.
Rail: As you know, I’m excited to see Tin Cat Shoes in this year’s Clubbed Thumb Summerworks season. Where are you in your process right now?
Harnetiaux: We’re ready to go. Full blast. I’ve been working on the play for a year and a half, done a bunch of readings, had a radical workshop with a killer cast and director and then did a pretty big rewrite of the third part. I feel like the script is ready on the page, and it’s time to see what we have as a play. It’s a dream team—the cast and design team and Knud [Adams, the director]—and I’ve wanted to work with [artistic staff] Maria [Striar] and Michael [Bulger] and the Clubbed Thumb team for a long time.
Rail: Generally, your plays seem to teeter at the edge of what’s familiar onstage, and constantly surprise—using both frenetic motion and stillness. They play through the spectrum of hyper-casual to choreographed abstraction. They are definitively not boring. Is there anything that you’re tired of right now in the theater? Is there anything you’re consciously pushing away from with your formal playfulness?
Harnetiaux: It’s so rare that things turn out the way you expect them to; I guess I just ask that plays do the same thing.
Rail: We have talked before about how we’re both sparked by visual art—perhaps more than anything else—in our processes of writing plays. Why do you think that is?
Harnetiaux: It’s like I constantly surprise myself that I have reactions to visual art. The structure of my play How to Get into Buildings was inspired by a Cornelia Parker piece titled Cold Dark Matter that was an installation she created of a wooden shed that had been packed with everyday domestic items and then blown up. She hung it milliseconds after the explosion, the pieces isolated and frozen in their inevitable trajectory, and lit it from within. I was blown away by how moving the piece was, how she’d harnessed the energy of the inevitable, which led me to want to write a play with an “Exploded View” structure.
Rail: What are some of the things you find funny?
Harnetiaux: Please see the chart below.
Rail: Could you describe your ideal nachos?
Harnetiaux: No onions, no cilantro, please. Tons of cheese, beans, shredded iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes, pickled jalapenos. Sour cream. The chips would be burnt a little on the edges, warm. A nice hot sauce on the side that I could use or not use. Oh, yeah, and avocado.