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Strange goings-on in square product theatre's Ham McBeth.
Strange goings-on in square product theatre's Ham McBeth.
square product theatre

Colorado Creatives Redux: Emily K. Harrison

Emily K. Harrison has been the heart and soul of Boulder’s square product theatre since 2006, when she first took the stage under that moniker in a self-written solo performance, Skeet Shootin' Prodigy, at the Boulder International Fringe Festival. When we first tapped Harrison's mind as a Colorado Creative in 2013, she was already turning theater upside down at square product, with original, funny and only-from-the-mind-of-Emily works, but as she mentions below, she was just beginning to hit her stride. Learn more about Harrison’s trajectory and newest projects as she answers the Colorado Creatives Redux questionnaire.

Emily K. Harrison as JonBenét Ramsey in House of Gold, 2017.
Emily K. Harrison as JonBenét Ramsey in House of Gold, 2017.
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Westword: How has your creative life grown or suffered since you last answered the CC questionnaire?

Emily K. Harrison: I think I’ve done some of my best (best?) work as an actor and theater-maker since I last answered the CC questionnaire, or at least work that has challenged me more in certain ways, work that has pushed me to grow as an artist and a citizen. I don’t really love words like “best.” What does that even mean when it comes to art? What’s “best"? Lots of things get labeled “best” that I personally find to be uninteresting. I guess I’ve thought a lot about the sort of work I want to make and the ways in which I want to engage with the work and the ways in which I want to engage with the community, and it’s shifted quite a bit since my original questionnaire was published.

The work I’m drawn to is work that intentionally disrupts and unsettles; I think I’ve always been attracted to that sort of work, but perhaps I’m more intentional about it now. Or less afraid that people won’t like it, which is not something that’s ever within our control anyway. I do think that the ways in which many of us feel we constantly have to contextualize our work as artists is exhausting, but at the same time, it can be really useful and enlightening. What a mixed bag. Everything is everything.

I’ve also spent significant periods of time elsewhere; I spent a year in the U.K. teaching at Brunel University in London as a guest artist, and I just spent a semester teaching at Whitman College as a visiting assistant professor. While it’s not necessarily ideal to have to leave my home and family in order to earn a living, I’m grateful to have had those opportunities and to feel that I’m now part of those communities in some small way, as well.

Who wouldn’t want to spend a year in London? Who wouldn’t want to spend a semester in Walla Walla? (Seriously, I loved it.) Those positions afforded me the time and space to really think about the kind of work I want to make and how and where and with whom I want to make it. And, of course, in London, seeing theater and dance a few times a week for a year provided me with a lot of perspective and inspiration. Being away contributed greatly to my evolution as an artist and as an educator.

Emily K. Harrison as a cockroach, in square qroduct theatre's This Aunt Is Not a Cockroach, 2016.
Emily K. Harrison as a cockroach, in square qroduct theatre's This Aunt Is Not a Cockroach, 2016.
square product theatre

As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Colorado?

My vision includes everyone reading more books, and seeing more theater, especially theater made right here in Colorado. Checking out local musicians more often. Learning something new on the regular. Investing in art in new and different ways. I think there’s an abundance and a remarkable diversity of work happening in the arts and creative fields here – there really is something for everyone – and yet there remains a gap in awareness. In a perfect world, we would support each other more; that may be the crux of it.

It’s a challenging time for artists and creatives in the metro area, who are being priced out by gentrification and rising rents. What can they do about it, short of leaving?

I mean…maybe leaving is what we have to do. A lot of artists are leaving. I left for eighteen months to take on temporary gigs simply because institutions elsewhere offered to pay me a living wage, and those opportunities provided me with a sense of worth that I don’t always feel in Colorado. It’s nice to feel like you have something to offer and that what you have to offer is appreciated.

I love Colorado, and I applaud the artists who are making it work for themselves in ways that are healthy and sustainable. But the overwhelming majority of the artists I know in Colorado, myself included, are forced to make ends meet by piecing together disparate and sometimes wildly different sources of income. For some people, it works. But it can be very stressful, not to mention exhausting and unsatisfying. And of course, it’s a problem people in many different fields are struggling with, not just artists. Our educators are struggling, people in social services and in the nonprofit sector are struggling, people in the service industry are struggling.

I don’t know what can be done about it, aside from a total revolution that would dismantle almost all (if not all) of the systems that organize our daily lives (maybe that’s the best option, but, you know, I don’t love the word “best”). Again, I think in part it has to do with how we engage with and support one another. Why should the larger community support us if we aren’t willing to support each other? We can’t challenge each other if we aren’t engaging with the work.

A scene from SLAB, 2014.
A scene from SLAB, 2014.
square product theatre

What’s your dream project?

You know, I don’t know. I guess I don’t really think in those terms anymore. I invest in the project I’m working on, and I imagine other projects I might like to work on in the future, what they might look and sound like in a nebulous sort of way, but there’s not a big dream project lurking in the recesses of my mind. I don’t feel the need to play Blanche DuBois or Hamlet before I die or anything like that.

I can say that the projects I do work on I often dream can be more, somehow, were it not for resource limitations. I think mostly my “dream project” is to have the time and space and funding to really invest more in process without having to worry so much about product; to allow one project to inspire and build off of another without worrying that the audience will somehow feel cheated or disappointed. I’m fine with them feeling uncomfortable, but I don’t want them to feel disappointed. Or indifferent.

We’ve made a couple of original shows that I’m really proud of that I’d love the opportunity to continue developing and potentially stage in other cities – in particular our adaptation of SLAB, which we produced in 2014 and continued to revise for a staged reading in Chicago in 2016. It still feels like a work-in-progress in some respects, and a work that deserves a longer process.

Emily K. Harrison (with bandanna) as Ham Jones in Ham McBeth, with a chicken and some friends.
Emily K. Harrison (with bandanna) as Ham Jones in Ham McBeth, with a chicken and some friends.
square product theatre

If you died tomorrow, what or whom would you come back as?

Oh, god, I hope I don’t come back. I guess if I do come back, I hope it’s as a cat who lives with a sucker like me.

What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?

My advice would be to define the terms of your own success, and to allow those terms to evolve and grow and change. I would also say don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and your colleagues in clear and direct (but mindful) terms; to speak your truth about the work, even when it’s uncomfortable or painful, and to receive and process the reactions of others to the work, even when it’s uncomfortable or painful. This is something I think many of us, myself included, could do better; it takes a lot of practice. Start while you’re young.

What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?

I’m planning to eat some tacos. After the year in London, that’s my number-one plan.

Beyond that, I’m producing a show with square product called Celebration, Florida by London-based live artist Greg Wohead. Laura Ann Samuelson and I saw the opening-night performance at the Soho Theater in London and were really taken with the concept. It’s a show that features two unrehearsed performers who have never met, which is pretty cool — we’ve managed to get all sorts of artists from different backgrounds involved as performers, including some people that I myself have never met. It runs in both Denver and Boulder January 24 through February 9 [details below].

I’m also directing and producing an original work, Everything Was Stolen, with square product that I created and workshopped last year in London as part of Chuck Mee’s (re)making project. I’m continuing to develop the piece with Ayla Sullivan and a cadre of badass Colorado-based performers for a world premiere in March. The show will run March 14 through April 6 in Buntport’s space; it’s something I had a lot of fun working on in London, and I’ve been looking forward to continuing to tear down and rebuild and tear down and rebuild and tear down and rebuild.

I’m also back at CU Boulder teaching some classes, which is a joy, and am spending as much time as I can at home in Longmont cuddling with some senior cats I know and wondering what the hell Laura Ann is doing in her “studio” (what is she doing in there?).

Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

Easy. Colorado artists who should get noticed are writers Bhanu Kapil and Lisa Birman, at least on a larger scale. Both are making work that feels so important to me. If you haven’t read their books, run — I mean run — to the bookstore and get them. They both happen to live here on the Front Range. How lucky are we?

And if you’re not reading Bhanu’s blog on the regular, are you even a person?

Also, I haven’t met her or anything fancy like that, but Laura Ann sent me a link to Kelly Sears’s website the other day, and I am really digging her work. Her interests are very similar to mine, so I’m excited to be discovering her work and proximity. Maybe we can have coffee or something.

Square product’s Celebration, Florida opens on Thursday, January 24, at 7:30 p.m. at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, and runs through February 2 in Denver before moving to the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder for five performances beginning February 6 and running through February 9. Admission is $15 to $24. Everything Was Stolen follows from March 14 to April 6 at Buntport. Find tickets and learn more about square product and Emily K. Harrison at square product theatre online.

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