Before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed playwright Joshua Harmon to discuss his work on Bad Jews.
Ted Sod: Tell me about yourself.
Joshua Harmon: I was born in Manhattan, and spent what I like to call my formative “year” in Brooklyn before my parents basically ruined my life and moved us to the suburbs, which is where I grew up. The suburbs are fine, but I think I understood from an early age that if I ever had a shot at being cool, I would have had to stay in Brooklyn.
TS: At what point did you know you were going to be a writer?
JH: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In middle school and high school I wrote poems and short stories, and some of them were published in the school’s literary magazine, but in secret I was also writing plays which almost no one saw. When I was 14, I started writing my first full-length play, about an anorexic girl who is best friends with her housekeeper. I wrote it in longhand in a speckled notebook which I carried with me everywhere. One night I left it in my backpack in my Dad’s car and someone broke into his car and stole my bag and that was the end of my play. I’m sure the thief took my discman (yes, this was the 90’s) and then just threw away my bag, but in my mind I imagined large circles of erudite intellectuals sitting around on fancy sofas drinking fancy drinks reading my play aloud, mocking me. It didn’t occur to me that the notebook was probably decomposing in a landfill somewhere.
I went to Northwestern for college, and even though I had thought of myself as this young writer, when I got to college, I stopped. I didn’t come from an artistic family, so I couldn’t imagine how you would pursue that as a career. I loved theatre, and Northwestern has a great theatre program but that felt totally impractical, and I loved music but I didn’t think I was talented enough to be a music major. I spent a long time feeling lost. I tried on several more practical majors but none of them felt right and I didn’t know what to do and then one night I was surfing the Northwestern website, so depressed, looking for anything that might speak to me, and I stumbled upon this major I never knew existed, a little program in the English Department called the Drama program (which is different from the Theatre program—different college, different building, etc.) which let you design your own course of study, and even though it was “theatrey” it was still in the English Department, so it felt safer somehow than being a full-fledged theatre major and so I finally signed up for that. So I never consciously decided to be a playwright, but I think becoming a Drama major ultimately sealed my fate. And that’s when I got to study with Mary Zimmerman—she really changed my life. She taught a class called Performance of Poetry that just lit my brain up like a pinball machine. In my final project for that class I spliced an Adrienne Rich poem called “For Ethel Rosenberg” with historical text from the actual trial and at the end of it I basically electrocuted a photo of Ethel Rosenberg with my eyes. Very intense. But a total game-changer for me. And I took a great playwriting class with Penny Penniston and completed my first full-length play, and then I graduated and came back to New York and worked for several years as an assistant in film and theatre. Then I moved to Pittsburgh and got my MFA at Carnegie Mellon, and then I moved to Atlanta for a year because I won this very cool fellowship from the National New Play Network to be the Playwright-in-Residence at a theatre down there called Actor’s Express, and then I went back to Pittsburgh to work as an assistant again, and then I quit that job and came back to New York and was living with my parents, unemployed, terrified about the future, trying to remember what had compelled me to get an MFA in Playwriting and how useless that degree is and how stupid it was to pursue playwriting at all, and of course, that’s when I got the call that Roundabout wanted to meet to discuss my play.
TS: What inspired you to write Bad Jews?
JH: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the seed for this play was planted at a depressingly unmoving Yom Hashoah service I attended my sophomore year of college. The theme of the service was “Grandchildren of Survivors” so instead of a survivor speaking, a group of fellow students whose grandparents had survived the Holocaust spoke. It was strange and sterile and laden with clichés but lacking in genuine feeling and it scared me. A year or so later I came up with the title Bad Jews and started taking notes about the characters during my senior year, but then I put that notebook away for many years (fortunately it wasn’t stolen). I think I felt like this play would either be the worst thing I would ever write, in which case, what was the rush; or, it might be the best thing I had ever written, and I somehow understood at 21 that I wasn’t good enough to write something really good. So I sat on it for many years, like a chicken a little bit, you know, hatching my eggs.