An interview with Harrison David Rivers

Our 2016/2017 Ruth Easton New Play Series continues March 6 & 7, 2017 with Core Writer Harrison David RiversThe Sea & The Stars. Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn talked with Harrison about ‘90s power ballads, being sad on a sunny beach versus in New York City, and the unique nature of sibling relationships. Reserve your spot for The Sea & The Stars »

This play feels stylistically a departure from your other plays. Do you agree with that? What are you working on with this piece?

Ha—you noticed! Yes, I definitely agree. There’s a whimsy and a humor in The Sea & The Stars, an embrace of the ridiculous, that isn’t really present in any of my other work—at least not in an overt way. Plays come from different places. Some come from joy, others from history or from research of a specific topic. This particular play was borne of heartbreak—prompted by the kind of break up that leaves you bereft, struggling for air, wearing the same outfit for days at a time and bursting into tears in random places—the supermarket, for example. I felt—at the time—like the only thing I could do to combat my grief—because nothing else was working—was to write a play. And to write a funny play, at that. Writing The Sea & The Stars was therapeutic. It wasn’t therapy! But it was therapeutic.

So many of your plays have popular music written into them. What is the reason you’re finding yourself bringing those references into your work?

I came to the arts through music. Growing up I played the piano, violin, viola, and I sang. My first experiences with that “goose-bumpy” feeling you get when you encounter a work of art that resonates with you, were through music. So when I write, music… it’s always there. It was [director] David [Mendizábal]’s idea to feature ’90s power ballads in the play. He was like “what if…?” And I was like “f**k yeah!” because outside of Beethoven or Shostakovich or, like, Max Richter no one (quite) captures the anguish of the human heart like songwriters from the ’90s. What’s most brilliant about them is that everybody of a certain generation knows them. Even if you don’t want to admit that you know them, you totally do. At least the chorus. And if one of them—Laura Fabian’s “I Will Love Again,” for example—comes on the radio in your car or on a playlist at a bar, you will sing along. You can’t help it because you know exactly what she’s singing about, her lyrics are your lyrics, they’re somehow in your DNA. All of the characters in The Sea & The Stars use music to express their seemingly inexpressible emotions.

One of the themes that came up pretty strongly in this play was love and loss. Were there other themes that you were looking at?

The relationship between Finn and his sister, Franny, is quite special. I don’t have a sister. I have three brothers. But no matter how many siblings you have, there’s something about the idea of shared history, the idea that there are things that only you and your sibling or siblings know, experiences that only you had. And those things bond you together whatever the state of your present relationship. I guess I’m interested in exploring what does that mean, what does shared history mean for siblings when you’re all grown up? To what extent—given your shared history—do you owe your brother or sister comfort or understanding or commiseration?

I’m interested in the relationship with the parents. Caregiving seems to be another theme in the play. How did that theme emerge?

Many of my plays have absent parents. Sometimes it’s an absent father. Sometimes it’s an absent mother. It’s funny because both of my parents are very present in my life so I’m not really sure where that comes from. When I was writing the play, David, who was my roommate at the time, was also in the midst of a break up, so it’s possible that some of the caretaking in the play is a reflection of the caretaking we were providing for each other. In the days that he found it tough to engage with the outside world, I stepped in to soften that blow and vice versa. Something I’m thinking a lot more about as I’m getting older is this idea that if my dad or mom needed extra support, I’m the oldest child—it would be my responsibility to take the lead on whatever steps needed to be taken. I wasn’t thinking so much about that when I wrote the play initially, but now I think that aspect of the piece feels very relevant.

Place is very important in this play. A lot happens on the beach; there’s a returning home. What were you thinking about in terms of this environment?

I’m convinced that New York City is the worst place to be sad. It’s the worst place to be sick. And it’s the worst place to be sad, the absolute worst, because you’re surrounded by people. There are so many people. And none of them care that you’re sad! I remember David and I had a conversation about where the play should be set and we were like “New York?” (which is where we were living at the time) and we were both like “Nah,” because then the play would have become a tragedy and who wants to see that? We chose the beach because it’s a happy place. The sand. The sun. We thought it was fitting that all of these very sad people end up in this very happy place. There’s something hilarious about that. There’s something about this idea that the sun can be shining, the world can be moving forward, people are laughing, people are doing what they do, and you can still not know where you’re going and feel lost. And maybe that’s slightly depressing, but also maybe that’s the truth of life. It can be sunny. You can be in your bathing suit on the beach. You can even have a drink in your hand. And you can still be sad.

I’d love to hear more on what you’re hoping to get out of this workshop process.

This is a play that I wrote a while ago and always said I wanted to come back to, to re-look at, and I didn’t want to do that without David. So I’m excited to be back in a room with him and the play. I’m excited to see it with fresh eyes, to hear it with new ears, and to respond to the work as a more—knock on wood—mature and content me. I’m excited to figure out ways to underscore and deepen what’s there.

As part of the Ruth Easton New Play Series, you get to have two public readings of the play. What do you look for as you sit in the audience?

A playwright can’t base their impressions of their work entirely on the reaction of the audience. It’s just not healthy. That said, I love it when audiences laugh. I love it when people forget they’re in the theater and they laugh the way they would laugh at something at home—loud, long, and unbridled laughter. I love that. The only thing I love more than audience laughter is an audience in tears. I’m crossing my fingers that maybe we get a little bit of both.


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Harrison David Rivers