Interview with the Playwright: Jordan Harrison

Boston Court: Fonts are a rather obscure subject, and I doubt many people would know or think about what an interesting history they have. When and how did you become interested in them?

Jordan Harrison: I tend to be pretty fastidious about how my plays look on the page, which fonts I write in. One time I arrived at a theater for a reading and the theater’s computer had changed my beautiful Perpetua font into a cruddy, generic sans serif. I could barely recognize the play. I just barely mustered the self-control not to ask them to reprint the scripts. It may sound superficial, but I think we often invest something of ourselves in our font selection – it’s personal somehow. Which font looks like your thoughts. Since I started doing readings of Futura, many people have come up to me to say “11-point Courier all the way!” or “I can’t write in anything other than Garamond.”

So the play started with my attachment to certain fonts – I wanted to explore why this was so important to me. I wanted to dive into the secret history of typography, the reason why there are serifs and italics… I wanted to show people what a red-blooded, high-stakes subject it could be. And I soon realized that it was impossible to write about fonts in the 21st century without addressing the extinction of the printed word. Since I started writing the play in 2007, so much has accelerated – the closing of newspapers, the flourishing of the Amazon Kindle, entire university libraries being digitized and put online.

BC: Did you receive any assistance in the development of this play?

JH: God yes. At a certain point I can’t be alone with a play any longer. I need directors and actors and dramaturgs and audiences.

BC: Futura features a very strong female lead, and it’s no secret that those are few and far between.  Your only other female character is far from being a sweet and smiling picture of femininity.  Did you set out with the intention of creating strong and postfeminist characters, or did it just fall into place that way?  How does their version of femininity tie in with the futuristic setting?

JH: I think I just really enjoy writing female characters. I don’t think I have an agenda to populate my plays with strong women. It just appeals to me to have this 50-something woman of letters on stage wielding a gun. Just as it appealed to me to have a brilliant, vengeful girl inventor in my play Kid-Simple and a visionary female film director in Amazons and their Men. But all of those characters are weak as well as strong – I wouldn’t have written them very well if they weren’t. The Professor in Futura is so passionate about her subject that sometimes I think we question her judgment. I don’t necessarily want everyone to leave the theater agreeing with her – but I do want them to wish they could take her class!

The character of Grace (the unsmiling one you mentioned) is, you could say, a young, inverted version of the Professor. She’s grown up in a different world, so she ended up using violence instead of ideas.

BC: Futura is going to be world-premiered by three companies: Boston Court, Portland Center Stage and the National Asian American Theatre Company.  Have you found any unexpected complications due to the process of bringing the play to production?

JH: Certainly it’s a rare privilege to be guaranteed three productions of a new play, with three different directors, three different design teams. The only challenge so far – and it’s a small one – has been in developing the script. For the most part, the three directors have been in agreement about the revisions I’ve made. But there have been a couple of times when one director says “What if you made it more orange” and across the country another director says “More green, I think.” And what’s terrible is they’re both right in a sense. So then I have to go away and turn off the phone and gnash my teeth and figure out which color is right for my play.

BC:  How involved are you personally with each of the three productions?

JH: I’ll be there for at least two weeks of each rehearsal process: a week early on, and then back again for previews and opening. I definitely like to be involved. I have to remind myself to make myself scarce now and then – not to sit in the front row mouthing the words every day. Collaborators need space. So at the very least I go and mouth the words in the back row.

BC: You chose to create characters who have a distrust of modern technology, yet placed them in a futuristic (yet still recognizable) setting.  What are your feelings on the subject: did you write Futura because you have a dislike of technology similar to that of your characters, or does the setting really indicate your love for technology?

JH: I’m not sure I agree that the characters distrust technology. But they believe that something fundamental was lost when people stopped interacting with letters on a written or printed page. Something was lost when reading and writing became acts that are only performed on a screen. I set the play in the future in order to better look at what’s happening to our world right now.

BC: The theme of education runs through the play.  How do you think education needs to evolve either in spite of or to make use of new technology?

JH: When I was in school, the internet wasn’t around to be a boon or a distraction. Even at the end of my college experience, you still had to make the decision to turn on the modem and go online, for maybe ten or twenty minutes a day. I’m wary of the fact that we’re almost never off line any more. There isn’t really an “on” and an “off” anymore. So I think it would be great if schools taught the discipline to concentrate, to slow down, to live some part of your life offline. Certainly I wish I was better at doing those things.

I recently read about a high school in Washington state where there was a movement to teach cursive writing again. Many of the students had never learned it, or had forgotten since they first learned in grade school. When I first started writing plays, I would write the entire first draft in longhand. Now I can barely write a grocery list or a thank-you card without my hand cramping. I suppose the most frightening thing to me is how quickly things are changing. I can’t say for sure that they’re changing for the worse, but I can say that I find it frightening. And fear is usually a good place to write from.


One response to “Interview with the Playwright: Jordan Harrison

  1. Just saw Futura in Portland, OR. It was amazing! I loved the script and the lead was perfect. The company did a great job staging the play, especially the flashing fluorescent lights in the apartment during scene changes. Great idea. I am building my own zero drive!
    I would love a copy of the script because the words are beautiful.
    I look forward to seeing more of your plays.
    Thank you


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