When Harrison David Rivers came to the Twin Cities from NYC in 2014 on a Jerome / Many Voices Fellowship, he had no way of knowing that he was here to stay. Three years and a new husband later, Harrison has embraced his life as a Twin Cities playwright, and the Twin Cities have loved him right back. Three separate Twin Cities theaters will present his work in 2018. First up: The premiere of A Crack in the Sky, a collaboration with Somali writer Ahmed Ismail Yusuf (directed by Faye Price, History Theatre, St. Paul, Feb. 10 through March 4), a piece History Theatre Artistic Director Ron Peluso calls “a beautiful play about Ahmed’s journey from Somalia to the USA…a story of love, literature, and perseverance.” Next up: Five Points, a new musical with book by Harrison David Rivers, music by Ethan Pakchar & Douglas Lyons, and lyrics by Douglas Lyons (directed by Peter Rothstein, Theatre Latté Da, Minneapolis, April 4-May 6, 2018). This world premiere chronicles the journey of two different men, a former Irish jig champion and a young African American step dancer whose lives are thrown together during the Draft Riots of 1863 in lower Manhattan, New York. Also upcoming in April: This Bitter Earth, a two-character work commissioned by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul stages its second production April 26-May 20 under the direction of Talvin Wilks. (The premiere runs in San Fransisco September 22-October 22, 2017, Ed Decker, dir.)
I reached Harrison by phone in NYC where he was in pre-production mode for another world premiere this fall: Only You Can Prevent Wildfires, at Ricochet Collective. Written by Rivers, conceived and directed by Sherri Eden Barber, this commission (Ricochet’s first) explores the true story of Terry Lynn Barton, a former U.S. Forest Service employee who started the largest wildfire in Colorado history (playing October 7-28 at Teatro Círculo). Harrison’s dizzying schedule of upcoming work naturally led to a conversation about how living and working in Saint Paul has made his life more manageable, even when faced with the reality of long-distance collaboration. He explained that while he may have missed out on collaborative opportunities because of geography, a life in Saint Paul has afforded him the opportunity to breathe and focus on his work in a space that is less frantic than his former life in New York City. He has also found here in Minnesota a support system that includes his new husband, Christopher, and the Playwrights’ Center, where he was granted a McKnight Fellowship in 2015, has joined the board, chairs the artistic committee, and is now in his second year as a core member.
Like so many playwrights in our community, Harrison came to the Twin Cities through the PWC and stayed because it’s a great place to be if you’re a playwright. In talking about the development opportunities he’s been afforded by Twin Cities theatre companies (such as Raw Stages at the History Theatre and the NEXT series at Latté Da), he mentioned that This Bitter Earth also had its developmental workshops here at the PWC, and that Twin Cities actors H. Adam Harris and Michael Hanna are following the production to San Francisco for the world premiere.
I loved hearing how Harrison might have passed on the initial opportunity to come for his Jerome in 2014 if it weren’t for Jeremy Cohen’s open-hearted invitation: “I know you have a very full life in New York, but we want you.” In Harrison’s words, “The warmth and commitment I felt from the Playwrights’ Center and their willingness to open their arms to playwrights from around the country showed me that it was the right decision to make, and of course I’m thrilled that I made that decision.” And he doesn’t feel like NYC is really so far off. It’s only a two-hour plane ride away, and as he says, “The work I bring into the rehearsal room in New York is stronger because of the life I get to lead in the Twin Cities. Without the pressure and stress, I know I’m getting a better draft.” With his intense schedule of back-to-back world premieres, it’s hard to imagine that he’s completely devoid of pressure or stress, but I’m glad the Twin Cities are treating him so well.