Education Dramaturge Ted Sod sits down with playwright Joshua Harmon to discuss the origins of "Skintight" and his relationship with Roundabout.
Ted Sod: What inspired you to write Skintight? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how? This play was commissioned by Roundabout after your debut play at RTC -- are there any specific challenges in writing a commissioned play?
Joshua Harmon: Skintight was the first commission I ever received. Roundabout offered it to me in 2012, right after Bad Jews opened (Yes, that is 6 years ago. These things take forever). In theory, a commission sounds like a total win-win: I write plays, now someone is giving me some money to do just that. But I found it was actually very challenging. Whenever I had written a play before, it had been entirely for myself; now I was in a position where I knew someone was waiting for the play, and would read it, and would read it from the position of having essentially bought it, and you don't want to disappoint. So, I wound up playing this weird mind game with myself where I pretended it wasn't a commission, it was just an idea I could write for myself and throw away and never show anyone. And I guess that worked, mostly.
I think Skintight is about so many things -- beauty, youth, sex, desire, history, fashion, aging, class, religion, sexuality. But those are just themes. The play itself is, in many respects, a traditional American family drama. What makes this different is that these characters aren't typical to the genre: a multigenerational, queer Jewish family. That's not something I've seen before. An exploration of identity is at the center of much of my work, and getting to tackle two of the central identities of my life -- Jewish and gay -- in the context of a traditional family drama, has been really thrilling.
It's a little mind-blowing, to consider the distance one family can travel in the course of one century -- economically, ideologically, religiously, linguistically -- and while I suppose that could happen anywhere, it does feel particular to a certain moment in time in America. This family represents that idea, but to the extreme. As Elliot (the family's paterfamilias) realized his own American dream, he moved farther away from his personal history; at the other end of the spectrum, his grandson is deeply fascinated with the family's ethnic and religious roots, and in many ways is seeking to return to the place his family left. These characters are quite specifically drawn, but they're also enmeshed in relationships, both familial and romantic, that we all understand. It's my hope that the things which make these characters specific will also make them identifiable and accessible to people from all walks of life.
TS: Will you give us a sense of the kind of research you had to do in order to write this play and how you went about doing it?
JH: Almost none. But that's pretty typical for me. I usually work from the inside out, so with a few exceptions, my plays tend not to come from extensive research, but rather, from lived experience and careful observation. That said, I did read and watch A Streetcar Named Desire over and over and over, but I don't know if that was research or just love.
TS: Your play deals with strained parent-child relationships as well as the unforgiving way American culture treats women over 40. Another theme in the play is how many successful older gay men take up very young partners. Why were you interested in writing about these subjects?
JH: I was in my twenties (so young!!) when I started writing this play. I wanted to write a play about our obsession with youth while I was still technically on this side of it. I had a sense, starting in my teens, that I was going to be much happier once I got through the early years, and I was right. I did not love being young, so it baffled me that our culture exalted youth when I found that time of life so fraught with unhappiness. Not every culture is as infatuated with looking young as ours, but the quest for the fountain of youth did not begin with the advent of Botox. It has ancient antecedents.
The writing of this play was an attempt, I suppose, to ask questions about things I did not understand. As a young person, you see older people doing crazy things to their faces, and you want to understand why. Or you watch powerful men get older, while their arm candy never ages, and you wonder why. Or you begin to notice that your favorite actresses stop appearing in new movies. Or the models, both male and female, you've seen in advertisements, start to disappear. Where do they go? Embedding these questions within the context of a family drama meant they could be more than merely thematic musings; they could drive the engine of the play. Jodi especially is in a tremendously raw and emotionally vulnerable spot, but her pain and anger free her up to dig into some of these questions in a way that's deeply personal. She can expose some of the hypocrisy around her, even though she's still at the mercy of these oppressive cultural tenets.
Which brings us to hypocrisy, a favorite theme! We are all hypocrites, in so many different ways, but I guess it really does excite me to find those places and examine them. American culture is certainly ripe with examples, but perhaps in no place is our hypocrisy more obvious than the contradictory messages we send children. Be yourself, we tell them, but also spend lots of money to attain a completely unattainable ideal of beauty. It's kind of like Polonius telling Laertes, "to thine own self be true." Um, ok Polonius. But as global warming becomes an increasing threat to our planet, the fact that more and more people are ceasing to look, well, human... it's disturbing. We live in an age when people are more disconnected from what makes us human than ever before -- isolated, on our phones. There is some correlation to the fact that just as global warming begins to really take hold, we are looking less and less human. But who knows? Maybe the coming age calls for more injectables in order to survive the looming catastrophes.
TS: The play also makes some very salient points about lust vs. love in primary relationships – what intrigued you about this particular argument?
JH: In exploring questions about desire, one can't help but crash into our nation's Puritanical roots. For example: during the years when gay marriage was being hotly debated, I remember being struck by the way in which the question was framed as an issue of love: It shouldn't matter whom you love, love is love is love, etc. I don't disagree, but I tend to think sexual orientation is an expression of desire. A man is not heterosexual because he falls in love with women; it's because he's aroused by women. It's about attraction. The person you desire might become the person you love, but watching people pretzel their words around, to turn sexual desire into something more palatable, something less uncomfortably explicit, for the mainstream public -- I understood why that was smart branding, but it still struck me as strange. We live in a culture that still treats desire with a lot of shame, even as it seeks to profit from it. I don't exactly have a thesis here, but there was something I wanted to explore not just about how we think of desire, but also the way in which it is both the bedrock of our families -- the thing that brings two people together -- and also a destructive force in upending those family bonds. Toward the end of the play, Jodi asks Elliot, "what is so great about hot?" In other words, why does desire matter? Writing this play created a space to contemplate that question.
TS: Will you talk about the development process for this play? What important revisions did you make during its development, and do you feel you will continue to rewrite throughout the RTC rehearsal and preview process? What events usually motivate your revisions during rehearsals or previews?
JH: I had the idea more than six years ago and asked to write the play as my commission for Roundabout. I wrote the first draft a year later, while I was a student at Juilliard, and we did a workshop in December 2013. Then I sat on the play for a while, too scared to turn it in, but eventually I did, and Roundabout did a workshop in January 2015. Then I went off to The Magic in San Francisco for a weeklong writing retreat and did a big rewrite of the play, then we did another workshop in May 2016. At that point, Todd felt it was ready for production, and then it was a question of scheduling. The basic structure of the play has not changed -- it has remained two acts and five scenes from the beginning. But within that structure, much has changed. For example, in the first workshop of the play, there were six characters. I killed off one of them (Trey's mom made an appearance!), and by the next workshop I'd killed off another. So, it became a four-hander. But then I felt we needed to have a sense of Elliot's power and wealth -- I didn't believe that these people were alone in the house -- so I added the two servants to the play, and now we're back up to six. The play has actually changed quite a bit in that sense. I anticipate doing a lot of work in the room, and that mainly has to do with staying open in rehearsal. I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from the particular actors I work with, so as I come to know them better, I respond accordingly in the writing. But at the same time, especially with something that's not brand new, it's essential to trust the impulses I had when I wrote it.
TS: How have you been collaborating with your director, Daniel Aukin? This will be the third play of yours Daniel has directed. What makes you want to collaborate with him? What type of questions did you ask each other while working on this play?
JH: Daniel has directed every workshop and reading of this play, so it's been five years of conversation. That's a very different process than with Bad Jews, where he and I met for the first time in April and went into rehearsal five months later. I can't yet say whether it's better for something to happen super fast or for it to take time. But in the course of five years, I've changed, and I bet he would say he's changed some. We're not entirely the same people we were when we started working on this, and our relationship has changed, too -- it's grown deeper, and richer. But the short answer -- why do I like collaborating with him? Because he's brilliant. He's a lovely person, and that helps -- but I have learned so much sitting beside him. Daniel has a deep respect for the mystery of making a play. He never pretends to have all the answers. He is unafraid of saying, "I don't know," which actually takes great confidence. In not having all the answers, one leaves space for something else to emerge. It is almost mystical. And then an answer appears, no one knows where it came from, but there it is, and you keep going.
TS: What traits do you feel the actors need for the characters you’ve created in this play?
JH: Gutsy. Fearless. Brave. Funny. These are some of the most specific characters I've ever written. Finding people who could meet those descriptions AND were thrilling actors took a lot of work. God bless Carrie Gardner. But, oh my God, we have such an amazing group of actors. I can't wait to be in the room with them.
TS: What other projects are you working on? What are you most excited about writing next?
JH: I don't know! This is the last of the plays I wrote during my time at Juilliard. It's the end of a chapter. But after the back-to-back openings of two plays this year, I'm thinking a vacation would be really nice?
TS: Can you tell us a bit about your experience working at Roundabout? This is not a question designed for you to be a shill, but an opportunity for us to hear what you’ve found valuable about working here as a playwright.
JH: Obviously, I feel tremendous gratitude toward Roundabout. They gave me my first production and have continued to support me in such meaningful ways. This is the third play of mine that they're producing (Bad Jews and Significant Other). But gratitude alone isn't reason enough to keep coming back. I keep wanting to work here because everyone has so much respect for artists. They don't breathe down your neck, they don't micromanage you. They seem to understand, kind of like Daniel does, that if something is going to work, it's not because a group of people sat around and made executive decisions. Every time you make a play, you're taking a huge risk, there's just no way to mitigate against that fact, which is something they seem to embrace. I love them.
2017-2018 Season, Skintight