#67: Emily K. Harrison
Emily K. Harrison is a theatrical powerhouse: In addition to guiding and directing Boulder's inventive square product theatre, she's an actor, teacher and booster of alternative theater along the Front Range, forever advocating for her own company and others engaged in the same kind of newfangled, original play-making. Harrison has a lot of ideas about theater and what it should bring to the community -- as evidenced by her answers to our 100CC questionnaire, which she turned it into something all her own. Continue reading for Harrison's eloquent answers and a look at what's on square product's plate in the fall and beyond.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?
Emily K. Harrison: Wow. Way to ask me the hardest question ever right off the bat. You know, when I was in high school I was obsessed with Lucille Ball. I videotaped every episode of I Love Lucy from Nick at Nite: 8 p.m., Central Standard time. It drove my parents nuts, and I think probably caused them a lot of anxiety (although I'm certain they considered it an improvement on my previous obsession, which was the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty by the Bolsheviks. I didn't have a lot of friends, as you can imagine). I really wanted to be able to do what Lucille Ball did, and I watched those videos over and over and over again. I think she's one of the most gifted physical comediennes who ever lived. I would love to go back in time and learn from her.
I'm also pretty much in love with Annie Clark's guitar badassery (St. Vincent). I would love to write a rock musical or make a grilled cheese with her. I don't know what it would be about, that rock musical, but it would be a comedy, obviously. With shredding. Maybe we could just blink together or something. Even that would be awesome. I'm seeing her play with David Byrne in July, actually, if anybody with connections wants to hook me up with a meeting. I would meet the hell out of Annie Clark. It would be super awkward for everyone involved, mostly her.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
Brené Brown, who is a therapist, teacher, storyteller, and public speaker. She's probably most well known for her TED Talk, "The Power of Vulnerabilty," but she's also written some great books about courage, vulnerability and shame, and has an awesome blog. She writes and talks a lot about taking risks and being willing to fail, which is something I really try to do with my work. Being brave in life and art is so hard; so many people play it safe, take the easy, tried-and-true route. It's something I struggle with every day: Do I choose the project I really want to work on, the project I believe in, the project I think has the power to create a profound shift in everyone who participates in or witnesses it?
Do I choose the project that terrifies me because it could force me to question everything I believe in, the project that could be a complete disaster because in working on it, I could reveal too much of myself? Or do I choose the project that I know I can easily tackle with little to no effort, the project that won't really challenge me or my audience, the project that will show off what comes easy for me and will win me easy adoration? I think artists run up against this sort of decision constantly. I think humans run up against this sort of decision constantly. She really highlights that struggle by sharing her own, personal travails, which are sometimes glorious and sometimes horrific. She's done a lot of research on these topics and is able to share that research in a way that's very accessible, which I can't imagine is easy. I like her. A lot. She does Texas proud, which is something I always find refreshing.
Continue reading for more on Emily K. Harrison.
What's one art trend you want to see die this year?
I don't really follow trends all that much; it took me years to agree to try on a pair of skinny jeans. So I'll just speak to a centuries-old trend that has seen its day: I'm sick of artists being asked (and often agreeing) to work for way less than they're worth. That's a seriously terrible, enduring, national trend. Get your shit together, America.
What's your day job?
I have several of them. I work as adjunct faculty for the Department of Theatre & Dance at CU-Boulder as well as for the School of the Arts at Naropa University. I also work half-time as the Graduate Academic Advisor for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. Oh: and I run a theater company. You know. In my spare time.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
First off, I would write them a thank-you note. Beyond that: I have lots of ideas. I would invest in an alternative performing arts venue in Boulder, to start. Our options are pretty limited right now and there aren't really any readily available flexible spaces. Then I'd offer my company members and some other awesome artists a living wage to make theater full-time. Think of that!
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
Think local. There's a lot of talk about supporting local businesses in cities like Boulder and Denver, but people often don't consider that it's just as important to support your local artists. Go see local theater companies and musicians, buy goods from local designers and artists. It doesn't mean you shouldn't also go see your favorite band when they play at the Ogden or the Boulder Theater, but show love in equal or greater portions for your local arts scene: it's a pretty fantastic scene, I tell you what. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Continue reading for more on Emily K. Harrison. Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Lord. There are so many. First off, Buntport Theater Company. They are ridiculously creative, clever and generous. They create what I believe is some of the most brilliant and relevant theater in the entire country right now. Their work is alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking and they aren't afraid to take risks. They are the bravest of the brave, and I'm a big fan of bravery.
Also: Janet Feder. For goodness sakes, Janet Feder! Her work is so amazing. Who knew that a guitar could make all those sounds? She's such a wonderful composer and musician, and a really wonderful human being.
I'm also pretty much obsessed with the work of Michelle Ellsworth, who is nothing short of brilliant. The way her mind works is just incredible. I've literally seen nothing like it: if you haven't seen her perform you MUST. There's just no telling what she will come up with but I can promise you: you will not be bored, not for a single second.
What's coming up for square product in the 2013/2014 season?
Oh, man, we have a great season coming up. We're kicking it off, as always, with a show in the Boulder Fringe. We're bringing our buddy Kelsie Huff back out from Chicago for the fifth time to do one of her solo shows, BRUISER: Tales from a Traumatized Tomboy. We presented it as a world premiere in the 2010 Fringe and people loved it. We also produced it in Chicago and it won the Chicago Stage Review Award for Best Solo Performance in 2011. Kelsie's seriously, seriously funny and the show is fantastic. If you grew up in the late '80s/early '90s or were parenting at that time, and/or if you love stories of triumphant humiliation, this show is something you'll really relate to.
Then in January we're co-producing the regional premiere of Johnna Adams' play Gidion's Knot with Goddess Here Productions. It's an incredibly moving play that's been getting a lot of attention lately. It was a finalist for this year's Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award as well as for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and we're really excited to have the opportunity to produce it. Wendy Franz, formerly of Denver's Paragon Theatre, is slated to direct, and Tammy Meneghini and I make up the cast.
Then in March we're planning to remount our 2012 hit 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood. We had a great run with it in Boulder and we want to bring it to Denver. It's literally the most fun I've had working on a show in about a decade, and we really think that Denver audiences will love it -- we just have to find the right space for it. Last year we did it in the Fellowship Hall of the Wesley Chapel, which is a campus ministry; it's a show that works really well in that sort of space. If anyone reading this runs a community center type space in Denver, hit us up!
We'll close our the season (our eighth -- holy crap!) in May/June with a show we're co-creating with Buntport Theater Company tentatively titled Peggy Jo & the Desolate Nothing. The show is based on the true story of Peggy Jo Tallas, who was, for a time, a very successful bank robber in Texas. She was gunned down by police in Tyler, Texas, in 2005. I grew up very close to Tyler, so I remember being fascinated by this story when it was happening, even though I was no longer living there. I'm beyond thrilled to be working with Buntport on this piece. I've been a great admirer of their work for several years and I can't believe they finally fell for my ploy to collaborate. Score!
Continue reading for more on Emily K. Harrison.
What makes square product worth a second look from local audiences?
You know, I think the thing I'm most proud of with square is that we're really focused on doing work that's different than what one typically sees in this region. We're doing some really weird stuff, by most standards, but the feedback we consistently receive is that even though the work is walking a weird line, it's still engaging and relative. We work really hard to avoid alienating people, and that's certainly no easy task with the majority of the work we take on. I understand the appeal of traditional, linear theatre, but it's not really what I'm interested in making. When we do choose more traditionally structured scripts, they inevitably still have a weird undercurrent.
We're choosing scripts or creating new work that has a twist, and we're specifically focused on work that has outstanding, challenging roles for women. We also do a lot of work that includes LGBT themes or characters. I personally really love theatre that keeps me a little off-balance and challenges my expectations, both as an audience member and as an artist, so that's generally the direction square leans. We want you to be entertained, of course, but we also want you to be engaged on another level; we like leaving our audience with questions.
Who do you think will get noticed this year in Denver's art scene?
Well, this is a tricky question because I'm generally much more interested in the work of artists who won't get noticed, because the work they're creating is too out there, or makes people uncomfortable, or doesn't fall into the category of "traditional." In fact, I challenge any journalist or blogger covering the arts scene to start investing (or invest more) in these sorts of risks instead of continuing to constantly celebrate what we already know, and I challenge their editors to LET THEM. Shakespeare and American musicals are great, and I love them as much as the next lady, but they don't need coverage in the way new work does; they have a built in audience. Artists who are taking risks by creating and presenting new works need the support of the local media. Get brave. Or be braver more often. The future of the arts in this community deserves, at the very least, a modicum of courage on the part of critics and media outlets.
That soapbox speech aside, as far as the Denver scene is concerned, I think Adam Stone's Screw Tooth has a good chance of getting noticed, despite the fact that he couldn't be less interested in doing anything even remotely traditional. Adam is probably most well known for his outstanding collaborations with Buntport and his gilded shenanigans as The Indestructible North. The guy is tireless and seriously creative, and he's collaborating with Boulder-based dancer Laura Ann Samuelson of Hoarded Stuff for Screw Tooth's first production, so it's likely to be completely awesome. I just saw their recent collaboration for 3 Things at Buntport and it was incredible.
Throughout the year, we'll be shining the spotlight on 100 superstars from Denver's rich creative community. Stay tuned to Show and Tell for more, or visit the 100 Colorado Creatives archive to catch up.
Do you have a suggestion for a future profile? Feel free to leave your picks in the comments.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.