Artist Profile: Jenna Harris of “This is Where We Live” at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival
Interview by Brittany Kay
My theatre crush on Jenna Harris started out when I saw “Mine” at this past year’s Next Stage Festival. Her work in this year’s Fringe Festival in ”there/Gone” was uniquely engaging and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. My level of respect and admiration for this artist is at an all time high and that’s why it was an extreme honour to sit down and talk with Jenna about her SummerWorks show, “This is Where We Live”. We talked about the Toronto theatre community, creating your own work and finding inspiration in the world around you.
Brittany Kay: Tell me about the play.
Jenna Harris: It’s an Australian play, written by Vancouver born playwright Vivienne Walshe. She lived here until she was 10, then moved to Australia and has been in LA for the last little while. It’s a play set in the middle of nowhere about two teenagers [Chloe and Chris], both of whom are not from there. It focuses on Chloe, who’s recently moved in with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend and so she’s figuring out her life there. It’s quite dark – it looks at both of their outcast lives and what they’re dealing with at home and a little bit with how they see the world for themselves…their disparate views of fantasy versus reality and how their life will unfold. It’s gorgeously poetic in the most beautiful way, talking about some really heart wrenching and very dark themes. These characters tell their stories through their eyes- you see the other people through their perspectives and thus they end up playing the different people.
BK: It’s just a two hander?
JH: Yes. They take on and play the different characters in their lives. It’s loosely based on the myth of Orpheus. So Chloe is Eurydice stuck in this small town hell, in which sees as an underworld. She kind of conjures Chris to come and save her maybe, but there’s some kind of connection there.
BK: How do you move from one character to the next?
JH: It’s an interesting thing because the characters are from the main characters’ perspective. So some of the characters overlap. The teacher in their school is Tim’s character’s dad. We both have slightly different views on who this dad is, but that it’s similar enough for the audience to get. So it’s playing with that. It’s a combination of physicality and voice and it happens really quickly. Sometimes it’s one word to the next.
BK: Have you been able to find your own nuances and make you own choices with a script that’s already there?
JH: We’ve done a decent amount of movement work, which has definitely made things our own. Because it is a bit like performing a poem or spoken word, there are certain things you can’t break out of due to the rhythm. But within that, there has been lots of room to play.
BK: Your company, Discord and Din is producing it? What has it been like wearing both hats as actor and producer?
JH: It’s been interesting. For the production of Mine, [Next Stage Festival 2015] it was still my company but I wasn’t the producer on it, which was a good idea. For this one, there have been moments where there are only so many hours in the day, it’s what do you chose to do – whether it’s split 50/50 working on the show or working on the text and the acting.
BK: Like memorizing your lines…
JH: Ya, you know that… or in this case, dialect. Or whether it’s actually working on the production side. Time will tell with the show how the producing goes around. We have a really great team. We started the process as early as you know with SummerWorks. It’s almost the same design team I worked with on Next Stage so having that ability to communicate is great. It seems to have all come together.
BK: How did Discord and Din come to be?
JH: I put together this company as you end up doing when you want to put up a show. I didn’t go to school in Toronto, so when I first moved it was knowing nobody and figuring out how to negotiate and understand the business here and the people who are here. I think after a few years of being here, I decided that it was actually doable. It’s a lot trickier in New York, where I trained, to be able to put up a show. So I put together this company and the name is from a movie that I loved as a kid called the Phantom Tollbooth. It’s about this boy who’s very bored and this present arrives on his doorstep (I think the movie’s from the 70s, my aunt showed it to me) and this box opens up and it’s this car that takes him out of his boredom and into this animated world. There’s a doctor in it named Doctor Discord and he has this character with him, Din. It’s about all sounds and noises. I liked the idea of sound and noise and it doesn’t always necessarily go together, but it makes something beautiful, hopefully. That’s where that came from and shortly after, my friend wrote a show that I co-produced with her. SummerWorks used to have a performance gallery and I did something there. The company was on the backburner for a bit as other things were going on and recently it surfaced. I think I have a better sense of what I want to produce with it and the type of work I connect with. I just started to figure out more and more as time goes on what that mission is, for lack of a better word.
BK: How did you find this play?
JH: When I have time – which is not right now – I like to read as many plays as humanly possible. Sometimes I’ll try and go through places in the world. It gets trickier when you get away from the English language countries, but at one moment I went, “Oh I don’t know anything about Australia.” I know nothing about their theatre scene. I don’t know what they’re producing. And given that we’re not altogether dissimilar as countries, in terms of coming from the British Commonwealth, I was really curious what they do there and how their system works. There happens to be a website called Australianplays.org and it’s a huge database of plays where you can read excerpts and get a membership. I read a bunch of them and I came to this one and I kind of just went “yes”. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I knew there was something there.
BK: So, is this a North American premiere?
JH: It’s been done before but her work has never been shown in Canada. It’s her coming home debut, which is great. I found it very fascinating that out of all of the plays I read, it was one that was written by someone who is still a Canadian citizen and who was born here.
BK: Tell me a little bit about working with your director Taryn Jorgenson?
JH: Taryn I met several years ago when she was bartending. I found out she was a director and the way we talked about theatre was quite similar. It was really nice to sit down and have similar conversations. Having that same sort of excitement about the show has been great.
BK: What has it been like working with Tim Welham?
JH: It’s been great. I didn’t know him before. He and Taryn both graduated from Ryerson. He’s super lovely and open. It’s been very collaborative, as much as you can be with a script that’s already there.
BK: Talk to me about the playwright?
JH: We also have a dramaturg on this. There are things we couldn’t tell if they were Australian slang or language that she made up for the poetry of the piece. We needed someone else in the room to research and look those things up. We’ve been in dialogue with Vivienne – she’s asked a number of questions. I did too. She’s been great and available. She’s been excited and has been giving great feedback.
BK: What are some of the major themes or ideas in the piece? What do you want audiences walking away with?
JH: It is so much about these two characters that hopefully audiences will find another level of connection with them. The main one for me is the feeling of being an outsider. Neither of these characters feel like they’re a part of the world that they live in nor do they have any control whatsoever being teenagers. It’s their making the best of it and their coping strategies and how they both deal with that. Within that, it’s also about Chloe’s dissociation when things are not going right. What we do when we’re not feeling in control. It’s also the idea of home and friendship and love and how do we build that world for ourselves-not only in the moment but also in the future. I think both of them are trying to figure out where they want to be and where they see themselves being. It’s about the places where we live and where we grow up and how that affects how we go out into the world.
BK: Let’s shelf the play and move into your life. What has been your journey up until now?
JH: I was born and raised in Kingston I did very little theatre there. I grew up around theatre but primarily was a dancer. I would do theatre camps. I think, truthfully, I always wanted to be an actor or be in theatre, I was just afraid as a kid I wasn’t going to be good at it. In my final year of high school I kind of shelved the dancing because it was just too much. I knew I wasn’t going to do that for my life, so I kind of put that on hold and did a Midsummer Night’s Dream where I was a fairy that had to make up my own name.
Then I applied to University for Physics and Astronomy and got in and then freaked out because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I took a year off and ended up doing a couple month program in the UK for acting, which was kind of my first concentrated acting program. And then came back and still didn’t think theatre was a viable option, obviously, and so did my undergrad in International Development and Anthropology at Wilfred Laurier. So that’s what I was going to go into with theatre somehow involved – theatre for social change, maybe? Laurier was tiny and so as soon as I got there the four theatre classes they had were canceled and disappeared, which I think worked to my advantage because I would audition for the fringe that happened there. It made it a safer environment to get in it and work. I did a show in my 3rd year, which was a two hander and it was kind of the first show where I went, “Oh I think I might actually be able to do something with this.” At the end of the year I applied for a couple schools in Toronto and a couple schools in New York and then told my parents. Then I went to New York to audition and ended up getting into a school there and deciding to go.
BK: What kind of program was it?
JH: It was a two-year theatre conservatory. New York was great. It’s amazing looking back realizing what you actually needed and for me, I think I needed to get away. I needed to be somewhere where I could completely fail and be in a new city where I knew no one and be completely overwhelmed. It’s theatre school – one day you’re on the top of the world and the next you’re bawling and the world is over.
BK: Yep, theatre school.
JH: Yes, so it’s a common experience for everyone. It was great and exhausting and then it came to the decision to stay or come back. I decided to come back for a number of reasons. So I arrived here not knowing anyone and not having any sense of who people were or how any of it worked. That took a bit of time to do that. I was fortunate enough that I got into a couple of small shows when I moved but quickly realized that I needed to find places where I fit.
There was a certain point where I was working at Buddies [in Bad Times Theatre] and surrounded by all of these artists but no one knew me to be an artist. I couldn’t go there and be like hire me as an actor, here’s my resume and now I’m going to go work front of house for your show, not that this is awkward at all and I’m not making it more awkward by talking about it.
So I went – okay, how do I do this? How do I build community and make connections with people?
In New York I started writing a bit because auditioning isn’t the most creative outlet. Here, I was writing more and finished a draft of a play and I had this idea for a monologue book. If I couldn’t give my stuff to other people, maybe I could solicit stuff. It was a combination of that, a Fringe show called Tick, and my decision to leave Buddies and move away from admin jobs to be an artist. It feels like in the last couple of years the foundation I started to foot when I came here now feels like there’s something actually going on.
Yeah, so there’s my really long-winded story.
BK: It’s fantastic. I find it very admirable – your perseverance to break into the Toronto theatre community. For people who are just trying to establish themselves in the theatre scene, do you have any advice?
JH: Being in the theatre is hard, regardless if you went to school here. For acting, when you do shows you naturally build that community but it is getting in there in order to do that. One of the big things that I learned which isn’t super tangible, is that having goals are great… you should absolutely have goals. In the going after them, my advice would be to stay open to anything else that is going to come your way. That doesn’t mean saying yes to everything. What theatre school does is focus you, whether that’s to focus on acting or playwriting. If your focus is too wide you’re probably going to flop around. The world isn’t quite that way. There are so many different options and so many grey areas. What it means to be an actor is so varied. It’s not necessarily one thing. The big advice is have those goals but allow yourself to be open to other possibilities and if it’s of interest, go for it. I would have never thought to become a playwright. In terms of building community – really try hard not to see it as a competition but that you’re all in it together. Do intensives or programs. Getting out there. Also trying stuff, even if it never sees the light of day. It’s bit by bit and then one day you wake up and everyone is there. What’s nice about the city is you can rent a small place and get a bunch of people together and do a small reading. Just create. Being around people that like doing stuff.
BK: Where do you find your inspiration?
JH: I like watching people. I like seeing how they interact. Sitting on a bench. I also find life really funny even at the darkest possible times and that humor is fascinating to me. What is it that makes us human is really interesting and finding ways to solidify and write that. It also comes from, sounds crazy but I’m not I swear, is hearing voices of characters and by that I mean dialogue. Sometimes that’s what starts it and I have no idea where it’s going to go.
Rapid Fire Round:
Favourite book: The Shadow of the Wind
Favourite TV show: 30 Rock
Favourite play: August Osage County
Favourite food: Anything chocolate
Favourite place in Toronto: Anything by the water.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Never settle.
This is Where We Live
presented by Discord and Din as part of the 2015 SummerWorks Performance Festival
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
Ticket Price: $15
Run Time: 75min
When: Wednesday August 12th 7:30 PM – 8:45 PM
Thursday August 13th 9:45 PM – 11:00 PM
Sunday August 16th 7:45 PM – 9:00 PM
About: Discord and Din Theatre
Directed by Taryn Jorgenson; Written by Vivienne Walshe; Dramaturged by Emma Mackenzie Hillier; Performed by Jenna Harris and Tim Welham; Lighting Design by Adrien Whan; Set and Costume Design by Jenna McCutchen; Sound Design by Alicia Porter; Stage Managed by Laura Paduch; Produced by Discord and Din Theatre