As part of Playbill Pride 2016, we set our sights on the next generation of LGBTQ artists. Meet playwright Joshua Harmon.
Throughout the month of June, we will profile 16 LGBTQ artists whose work is changing the way we view gender, sexuality and life, both onstage and off. Check back tomorrow to see who is revealed next.
WHY HE MATTERS:
Playwright Joshua Harmon burst onto the New York theatre scene in 2012 with his dark family comedy Bad Jews, which became the third most-produced play in America in the 2014-2015 season. His second endeavor with the Roundabout Theatre Company was Significant Other, which shed light on the young gay twentysomething who must watch all of his girlfriends marry and move on—while his relationship status is at a standstill. He aimed to put the gay sidekick in the spotlight, and the work received critical acclaim.
In a work such as Significant Other, why was it important for you to show the coming-of-age of a twentysomething through a gay lens? How were issues that most twentysomethings face (unable to find love/a significant other) enhanced because the lead character was gay?
I wanted to take the gay sidekick character, who maybe gets to say three witty quips and shift the camera, so to speak, so that he wasn’t standing on the edge of the frame but was front and center, to see what happened when you took a character people assume they know and told the story from his point of view. At just about every wedding in this country, with maybe the exception of the Westboro Baptist Church (or maybe not), there is some random gay guy standing in the back of every picture, often fifth or sixth from the left, who came without a date, who is sharing a hotel room with a straight couple he vaguely knows, who gets dragged onto the dance floor by well-meaning couples who feel badly that he's being left out of the fun even though he would legitimately rather stand on the side scarfing down rolls (with butter) than have to awkwardly dance in the middle of couples he does not know. This play is for him.
How has your sexuality and/or your coming out process shaped the pieces you've created?
I think writers are always outsiders on some level, regardless of their sexuality, but certainly anyone who isn’t straight is on the outside of things. That sense of otherness might be personally painful, but is of course incredibly useful for a writer.
Who has been especially crucial in your creative development? Who do you regard as a mentor?
Chris Durang and Marsha Norman. Not only because of what they taught me in school, but also because of the example they set in their own lives as writers—their devotion to the craft, their willingness to keep pushing themselves, to take risks, to forever explore and to somehow maintain a sense of humor throughout it. I treasure my time with them.
LGBTQ theatrical moment that most impressed me:
I was just out of college and saw a production of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. The value of being young and naive is that a great American playwright can be unknown to you, and so a revival can be an entirely new experience. I remember so vividly sitting in my seat as the young woman in the play asked the strapping young male character to strip down to his shorts and pose for her so she could draw him for art class. My mouth was hanging open because I was like, “Oh my god, this playwright is SUUUUUUCH a closet case is anyone else seeing this?!?!” And of course, when I went home and looked him up, I discovered that indeed he had been closeted, and had spent his life feeling tortured by his sexuality. It was kind of thrilling and also very painful to feel that struggle unwittingly radiate out of the play, and to imagine what Inge's life was like, and how he suffered, and how that suffering informed his work. I wondered if Inge included this moment, whose necessity to the dramaturgy of the play is questionable at best, because he needed to create a space in the world where he could justify looking at a half-naked man, which must have been both exciting but also torturous for him. It's a little dirty, a little heartbreaking and obviously affected me very deeply. I subsequently read all of Inge's plays and his biography and everything else I could get my hands on. I still don't understand why his play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs has not had a major NYC revival since it is so relevant and so moving.
I wish the theatre had more…
Favorite artist of all time and why:
Joni Mitchell. Genius. We are both women of heart and mind.
The next challenge I want to take on is…
A Holocaust drama.
I hope my legacy as an artist will be…
Ask me when I'm on my deathbed. Unless global warming wipes us all out prematurely, which is something I think about for at least twenty-two minutes every day.
Who’s Next: Tarell Alvin McCraney, Playwright
Who’s Next: Roberta Colindrez, Actress