In Conversation with Jenna Harris – Playwright & Performer of “Mine” at the NSTF
Interview by Hallie Seline
It’s January. It’s cold. But if there is one thing to make this bleary month bearable, it is the excitement for The Next Stage Theatre Festival, a curated festival from The Toronto Fringe which provides past participants the opportunity to take their work “to the next level”. It is a great chance for artists to dig deeper into their projects and for audiences to see a variety of indie work and be introduced to new artists in between trips to the heated beer tent where you can connect with friends old and new and discuss the work over a local brew.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Jenna Harris, playwright/performer of Mine playing in the Factory Theatre Studio Space. We discussed the benefits of wearing many hats in the theatre world, playing with form and poetry, where she looks for inspiration, and the need to produce more work featuring the lesbian voice and authentic female sexuality.
HS: Tell us a bit about yourself.
JH: I am an actor, writer/creator, arts educator and dancer (although formerly!), and the Founder and Artistic Director of Discord and Din Theatre. I am also a member of the [elephants] collective, a devised theatre collective. Originally from Kingston, Ontario, I went to acting school at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (NY) before moving to Toronto.
HS: You wear a lot of hats in the theatre world. Can you speak about the benefits of this and what you’ve learned because of your experience?
JH: Absolutely! I am currently the Interim General Manager of Studio 180 Theatre, and was once the Assistant Box Office Manager at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. These two jobs, have been invaluable in teaching me the skills required, as well as the confidence, to self-produce.
Producing was not something that was taught to us or even spoken about when I went to acting school, so I never thought that would be something I would end up doing. But after moving to Toronto and seeing what a vibrant indie theatre scene existed here, and that it was possible to self-produce if you have the knowledge and skills to do so, I really wanted to learn as much as I could to create opportunities for myself and to get my work out there.
HS: Talk to us about Mine and why you wanted to put this story out in the world?
JH: Mine is the story of the relationship between Bea and Abigail who meet when Bea is an undergrad and Abigail is her T.A. It is a story of joy, laughter, desire, miscommunication, sex, sadness, vulnerability, anger, lust, humour, growth, fear and love.
There are sort of three components to the story that, when I first started writing it, I wanted to tackle. The first one was that I was interested in musing on relationships: why they work, why they don’t, what it feels like to be in them…love, conflicts, power dynamics… And with this, the second one was, more specifically, that I wanted the relationship to be a lesbian one; not about being in a lesbian relationship, but simply about one. It’s a mystery to me why lesbian voices are not as numerous on Toronto stages as I feel they should be, given the strong lesbian presence in the theatre community and in the city as a whole. Lastly, I was interested in writing a play that paid homage in some small way to female sexuality – something that I also feel is lacking in theatre in an authentic and relatable way.
HS: Can you speak about your use of poetry in Mine and a bit about the play’s structure?
JH: The role of poetry in this play is interesting, for me at least, because it wasn’t anything that I had planned to do. I didn’t start out by saying, “I would like to feature poetry in this piece”. It more just happened.
I am very interested in language and how we use language, particularly patterns of speech – the poetic rhythms of natural and not-so-natural speech. So this is where I first started. But then I guess I moved on to questions such as: What makes poetry/a poem? What is it about certain words or the way in which they are strung together that makes us feel things versus times when we don’t? And what does it mean when we can say things in a structured format like poetry or playwriting for that matter that we can’t in real life?
And so it was these questions as a playwright, coupled with the fact that Mine isn’t linear that I was interested to see how the theme of poetry, as well as poetry itself, could tie this play together and help to extenuate the journey of this relationship.
HS: Why do you think festivals like the NSTF are important for the Toronto arts community and Toronto as a whole?
JH: I think that festivals like NSTF provide an opportunity for artists to put their work out there in an extremely supportive environment where, not only is there the opportunity to continue to gain skills in self-producing, but also, because of the support of the Toronto Fringe, you are able to really focus attention on the art being created. This is a huge luxury.
Furthermore, NSTF creates a physical space, a hub, for artists to be able to come together and meet one another, and share and get excited about what is being created in our city, whether that’s a NSTF show or something else. Having this space and opportunity to interact with one another, and in solidarity brave the freezing winter to do so really bonds us as a community.
In terms of Toronto as a whole, I think NSTF is a chance to see work that might not be seen otherwise, or if it is, may go under the radar. Also, with the festival setting, I think people are more likely to come to one show and then maybe stay for another, see something they might not see otherwise, again exposing them to new work and artists.
HS: Where do you look for inspiration?
JH: Hmmm… I think content inspiration for me usually comes from things that I find fascinating in the world or that I have questions about. I am particularly interested in the personal and the interpersonal; what makes us tick as people, as well as the ways in which we as people interact with each other and the world around us.
As for aesthetic and writing style/structure, inspiration for this has come from constantly reading plays from all over the world, but also going out and seeing theatre and other types of performance. I love being inspired by the work of others, whether that inspires me to try something new in my writing, or pushes me to risk more.
HS: What is your favourite part about the NSTF tent?
JH: My favourite part of the NSTF tent is the atmosphere. There is so much energy and excitement in one place, you can’t help but be swept up by it. Even on our opening when it was -30, people were in the tent chatting with one another and getting revved-up to see shows. As a theatre artist, this is essentially heaven!
HS: If you could have your audience listen to a song or playlist before seeing the show, what would it be?
JH: Oooo…good question! Well, a song that our Director Clinton Walker had us listen to was Pentatonix’s Run to You. Although I would maybe say listen to it after the show as opposed to prior to. I would say listen to something before that you love and that makes you want to get up and dance because who doesn’t love to dance?
**No cheating… listen to this after you see the show:
HS: Describe Mine in 5-10 words.
JH: Mine is about what it means to love someone.
HS: What’s another NSTF show that you are most excited about?
JH: Okay, so I’m going to be that person who answers this way: I’m excited to see all of them!
I am, actually. I’m looking forward to seeing what the other companies have been working on the past few months as we’ve been working on Mine, how diverse the shows are, and the passion with which these companies are putting their works out there.
by Jenna Harris, presented by Discord and Din Theatre as part of the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Theatre Festival
A bar, two strangers and a Fuzzy Navel. Mine is a rhapsodic odyssey of love, loss, laughter and the lives of two women as they build a relationship together. Composed within a haunting and sensual rhythm, this is a play that speaks to our desire and desperation to be understood, valued and loved. Our human need to belong.
Tickets: $15 – Buy here.
Connect: Discord and Din Theatre @DiscordandDin
Where: Factory Theatre Studio (125 Bathurst St.)
Length: 60 mins
Playwright Jenna Harris
Director Clinton Walker
Featuring Jenna Harris, Michelle Polak
Sound Designer Lyon Smith
Lighting Designer Adrien Whan
Dramaturge Clinton Walker
Producer Emma Mackenzie Hillier
Stage Manager Christopher Douglas
Wed Jan 7 – 6:30pm
Thu Jan 8 – 9:00pm
Sat Jan 10 – 8:45pm
Sun Jan 11 – 5:00pm
Mon Jan 12 – 7:15pm – followed by a Talkback at The Hoxton
Wed Jan 14 – 8:30pm
Fri Jan 16 – 4:45pm
Sat Jan 17 – 2:45pm
Sun Jan 18 – 4:00pm