Interview With A Playwright: Bryan Harnetiaux
Playscripts met up with award-winning playwright Bryan Harnetiaux, author of National Pastime.
Bryan Harnetiaux, tell us how you first decided you wanted to write.
I probably had playwright yearnings as a kid, but no idea what to do with them. My earliest works were hammy after-supper skits for the family. This need to write remained dormant – except for, on again off again stabs at poetry – until after law school. This is when I took a deep breath and realized I had to try to write for others.
I started acting at a local community theatre (Spokane Civic Theatre), and served on its play reading committee. The theatre nurtured me and made available its black box studio theatre for my work. My first (forgettable) play, Caution: The Surgeon General Has Determined premiered on June 6, 1977. Most of the 40 plus plays I’ve written premiered in this space. (I’ve served as Playwright-In-Residence at the Civic since 1982.)
What was the first piece of theatre you ever saw?
I don’t recall attending a play until high school. Live theatre was not a part of our family culture – I was the oldest of six children, raised in a blue collar family in the salad days of Southern California. At that point, I just wanted to play ball. My favorite storyteller was Vince Scully, the legendary radio voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The first piece of theatre I “saw” was from the inside, as an actor in a high school production of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, playing Will Roper.
Do you ever find reviews helpful?
Helpful? Hmmm. A qualified “yes.” On a practical level, they are a necessary step in play development –a favorable review may allow the play to get traction and move on to other productions. Otherwise, I try to glean what I can from a review that is worthwhile in doing revisions, once I move beyond my initial emotional response to the criticism.
I think a playwright knows at an intuitive level what comments resonate and may be useful.
If nothing else, I think you know you are a playwright if you can survive a shellacking in a review, and yet need to continue writing.
Tell us about National Pastime and of its importance.
National Pastime is a play that I was compelled to write. It tells the story of the breaking of the color line in major league baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947. Some have pegged this moment as the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. What astonished me is how two men – Branch Rickey, the white General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson, the superb black athlete, together overcame enormous cultural resistance to integrate baseball – as a matter of sheer will. I developed this play over the course of nine years from Spokane, Washington to an Equity production in Stamford, Connecticut. It was the journey of a lifetime for me as a playwright.
This play is now published by Playscripts, and next January 31, is the centenary of Jackie’s birth. I’m encouraging theatres to consider mounting staged readings of the play in honor of this event. Perhaps exploring the possibility of a full production in 2022, which will mark the 75th anniversary of this transcendent event.
Is there a piece of advice you’d like to share with our readers?
For those readers who are playwrights, persevere. More specifically, search out a theatre you can call home. Also, find that balance that allows you to continue writing while promoting existing work – a very tricky thing if you’re like me and don’t have an agent out there working on your behalf. To be heard, you have to make noise, and keep making noise.
For those theatres reading this, leave room to consider obscure playwrights off the beaten path. You never know.
What keeps you hungry and continually inspired as a playwright?
Ultimately, I think my need to live out loud, and search out compelling stories that may provide a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Also, I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t doing this there’s a good chance I would simply burn up in the atmosphere.
Bryan Harnetiaux has been a Playwright-in-Residence at Spokane Civic Theatre in Spokane, Washington, since 1982. Thirteen of his plays have been published, and his short play The Lemonade Stand is also anthologized in More One Act Plays for Acting Students (Meriwether Publishing Ltd., 2003). These works include commissioned stage adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Killers, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Long Walk to Forever, all published by The Dramatic Publishing Company.
Bryan’s work has been performed throughout the United States. His play National Pastime, about the breaking of the color line in major league baseball in 1947, has received many productions, including an Equity waiver production at Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, California and an Equity production at (former) Stamford Theatre Works in Stamford, Connecticut. National Pastime is published by Playscripts, Inc. of NYC.