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The stage is set for a career as playwright

Jordan Harrison grew up on Bainbridge Island before finding success as a playwright. He returns home to speak on Tuesday. - Photo courtesy of Harrison family
Jordan Harrison grew up on Bainbridge Island before finding success as a playwright. He returns home to speak on Tuesday.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Harrison family

Museum brochures, while functional and informative, rarely play the role of muse.

But for Jordan Harrison, inspiration lurks in the shadows of obscurity, where forgotten slang, bygone eras and, yes, even the pages of the typically blase brochure, have proven their worth as catalysts for the 28-year-old playwright.

“Inspiration comes from all directions,” Harrison said. “I never sit down with a plan to say one thing or another about the state of the world – that would be paralyzing. I think the best thing a writer can do is design a comfortable room where his sub-conscience can take over.”

Harrison, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, participated in local theater and graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1995, is coming home to offer insights on his craft at 7 p.m. on May 16 at the Bainbridge Public Library.

The roundtable, organized by writing community Field’s End, is free, and will address the question, “How can you write for both the reader and the stage?”

Though young, Harrison has formidable credentials. He’s in the midst of a yearlong residency at Seattle’s Empty Space Theatre, where he’s been writing, teaching and producing since December.

Already the recipient of several awards and accolades, including a $25,000 McKnight Foundation Advancement Grant, he is humbled by his success and happy to be back in Seattle.

In the prelude to his current residence, the world was Harrison’s stage. He has lived all over, from New York to Florence, Italy, to Oxford, England, to Minneapolis, Minn.

“Part of the appeal of coming back to Seattle was that I’d never lived here as a grown-up,” he said. “It’s funny, but I feel simultaneously like a native and an immigrant.”

Although Harrison assimilated quickly into the thespian world, a career in playwriting wasn’t written in ink. Neither of his parents are in theater. His father, David Harrison, is a senior lecturer at the University of Washington. His mother, Cindy, is the branch manager of the Bainbridge Library.

“A lot of my friends who are playwrights have stories about how they were staging productions at age 5,” Harrison said. “But I didn’t know theater was something I wanted to do until the very end of college. I didn’t think I was good enough.”

Best bet

Harrison studied English at Stanford before completing two theater internships in New York. He was “toying with film directing” when he applied to graduate school at Brown University.

A story was circulating at the time about another aspiring film student who hoped a lucrative appearance on the game show Jeopardy would bankroll his education. Harrison wanted something more certain, and rather than taking on Alex Trebek as a benefactor, took on Paula Vogel, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, as a mentor at Brown.

Under Vogel’s tutelage, he developed a writing voice that led him to the first of two Jerome Foundation fellowships and brought him to Minneapolis after completing his MFA in playwriting at Brown in 2003.

The McKnight grant solidified his position as a full-time playwright.

Harrison then earned a grant that brought him back to the Empty Space, a theater with which he was already well acquainted.

“It’s the theater I have the longest relationship with,” he said. “They’ve read all of my plays and I’ve seen enough shows there to know that it would be a good fit. It was about finding a marriage of aesthetics.”

His plays, which have been produced all over the world, delve into the unique and fantastical.

In “Kid-Simple,” which premiered in 2004 at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., the heroine is a teenage girl who invents a machine that allows her to hear otherwise inaudible sounds. When the machine is stolen by the play’s villain, she is drawn into a magical quest to recover what’s rightfully hers.

If it sounds outrageous, then Harrison has succeeded in his task to tell “simple stories in a very complicated way.”

Ultimately, he said, “Kid-Simple” came from his desire to do a live radio play about the power of radio, with the title coming from a term he found in an antiquated slang dictionary.

He tries not to force his writing and finds that inspiration often strikes unexpectedly, but fortuitously, for the patient writer, as it did for him in “The Museum Play.”

The play, in which the exhibits at a museum come to life and escape, much to the chagrin of entrapped patrons, was born of Harrison’s fascination with “bad natural history museums,” but found its essence by way of a brochure.

Lost in a natural history museum in New York, he asked a security guard for directions. The woman gave him a pamphlet, having forgotten she’d scribbled rants across the pages about her own frustrating encounters with museum guests.

“She’d written, ‘I’m tired of these stupid questions’ over and over,” Harrison said. “It gave me the idea for this manic guard that became one of the central characters in the play. Sometimes the best ideas come accidentally.”

As for his future, Harrison is content to let things happen naturally.

He still ponders exploring fiction and screenwriting, but has no firm plans to do either.

“I’m not sure what I want to do next,” he said. “My main aspiration for now is to write for a living, which is something I’m very happy to be doing right now.”

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Crossing Jordan

Field’s End Writers Workshop welcomes playwright and BHS graduate Jordan Harrison at 7 p.m. May 16 at the Library. Harrison will discuss “How can you write for both the reader and the stage?”

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