Writer sets his own stage as a Pulitzer finalist

Jordan Harrison, a former Bainbridge Island resident, recently was nominated as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play, “Marjorie Prime.” He also works as a writer for the popular television show "Orange Is the New Black."

Jordan Harrison

Jordan Harrison still isn’t sure he’s made it big in the writing field.

That idea may seem ludicrous to most writers considering the fact that Harrison, 37, recently scored a slot among the crème de la crème in playwriting. In April, he learned his play, “Marjorie Prime,” was selected as one of the finalist pieces in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize playwriting category.

The surprise came after the playwright had already felt the success of “Marjorie Prime,” which hit the stage in Los Angeles starring big-name actress Lois Smith in the title role.

“There was no hint for it being a finalist. It was an enormous surprise,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his current location in L.A.

The play is loosely based on real-life events, but ultimately focuses on an 86-year-old woman whose dead husband ends up visiting her as a hologram. It runs 80 minutes long, allowing the audience to experience some of “the growing pains of humanity and technology” challenges.

“’Marjorie Prime is compassionate, troubling and (as anyone familiar with Jordan’s work has come to expect) beautifully written,” said Sarah Lunnie, Literary Manager of Playwrights Horizons, which will run off-Broadway performances of “Marjorie Prime” starting in November through January 2016.

“The play grapples with difficult facts of the human condition — chiefly, that the people we love and on whom we come to depend eventually will die — and explores how we might one day seek recourse in technology to stem the pain of our humanity, the pain of loss, regret and the passing of time. It’s a play that’s interested in what makes us human, and the ways in which technology does or doesn’t make it more possible to be human.”

Six months out of the year he lives in Los Angeles, and the other half is spent in Brooklyn, New York, with his husband and cat. And in addition to the Pulitzer nomination, Harrison currently writes for the popular television show “Orange Is the New Black.”

Yet despite such accomplishments, the former Bainbridge Island resident is humble and a bit shy when it comes to talking about his recent endeavors.

“It’s an honor just to be nominated,” he said. “The other finalist is one of the writers whose writing I admire. It’s great just to be on that list.”

The play recently ran at the Mark Taper Forum with a performance by a Hollywood legend and will continue its turn in the stage spotlight when it hits Playwrights Horizons in the fall.

“Jordan has a wonderfully idiosyncratic theatrical imagination and gorgeous facility with language. Each new play is unlike the last, but they tend to be formally adventurous, using the resources of the theater to create experiences that feel vivid, memorable, and new,” said Lunnie. “And the scale of the ideas is always matched by the skill of his execution,” Lunnie added. “The scope of his abilities is kind of astonishing, when I stop and think about it; for a play to move me as much as it makes me laugh as much as it makes me think is a rare thing, but Jordan’s plays all seem to engage every part of me. I saw his play ‘The Grown-Up’ three times last year at the Humana Festival, and it was as exhilarating and joyous as it was devastating, every time.”

For Harrison, it’s a dream come true to see his patience and persistence paying off in a competitive, if not cut-throat, field.

He attributes the interest of writing and acting to his early years on Bainbridge.

“I always wrote,” he said. “And I was always in theater, and I acted in plays at both BPA and in high school. I suppose it was acting that got me into this.”

His earliest memory of enjoying theater is a five-line role he had in third grade for a musical version of “Johnny Appleseed.”

“That was my power theater moment if I had one,” he joked.

While he continued to pursue writing and acting throughout his early education, he knew it “wasn’t a very practical thing to do in life.” He ended up at Stanford University, and then went on to receive an MFA from Brown University. But writing still called to him, despite being surrounded by technology opportunities and jobs that would ensure a steady career.

“You need some people in the beginning who push you off that cliff [to your dreams],” he said.

It’s ironic to him that he’s ended up where he’s at in his writing career, he admitted.

While developing his skills, he discovered improv to be a challenge in both theater and writing. He always wanted to have whatever he was working on absolutely perfect before he presented it.

Now, as a television writer, he doesn’t have that option.

“The irony of that is now working in a writers’ room for a TV show; you’re sitting with nine other smartass people,” he said with a laugh. “It’s improv … the thing I thought I was running away from is actually what I came back to.”

When he isn’t engaged in a writers’ room brainstorming session, he’s usually piling other projects onto his plate. At the moment, Sundance is looking at picking up a piece of his called “Maple and Vine” for television adaptation.

“I feel very grateful that I get to write like a cog in someone else’s vision and be a king in my own imaginative play. I hope every writer gets to write alone and in a team. It’s such a different muscle and experiences,” he said. “When I was just starting out, playwrights would occasionally cross over to TV and it seemed they never came back.”

But Harrison doesn’t see his career as a linear equation. He figures one day he may write a novel. Or he might have his own television show. He never knows where his writing and love for acting will take him, and it seems he likes it like that.

“I can’t even tell you which dominoes fell to get me to here,” he said. “You just try to sort of get your name out there, I suppose.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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