Today we introduce Susan Harris, who plays the Mother and the Medium. Susan has been with the HPCP since 2010 and has directed a number of shows, three of them with Paul Baker. She is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Corinna: You have been a part of the HPCP for 8 years!? How do you feel Rashomon fits into our production history?
Susan: In the early years of the HPCP, I sometimes felt like, when it came to picking shows, there was a bit of a tug of war between Team Tragedy and Team Comedy. But as time has gone on I think we’ve all rubbed off on each other, and now we’re doing more plays that don’t fit easily into either category, and Rashomon is a particularly interesting example of that. What happens in Rashomon is tragic. But there is also this vein of bitter irony running through it which occasionally blossoms into full-blown dark comedy. I think the fact that we’re doing this show says a lot about how we’ve grown as an organization.
Corinna: In Rashomon, you commit to two completely different beings in the mother and the medium. How do you make space for each of the characters in the span of an hour?
Susan: It definitely helps that there’s an intermission between them, and that each of them only has one appearance. Once I’ve done the Mother’s scene, I don’t have to go back and play her again, so I can sort of clear her away and focus on the Medium. I don’t have any formal training as an actor, so I don’t know how to do this Method-style. Instead, I have an idea of what the character should be like and then I try to use my voice and my body to evoke it. I think this helps build up a somatic memory that keeps me from mixing the two of them up, because physically they’re so different. So, as soon as I kneel down on the mat, that prepares me to be the Mother, and then once I pick up the staff, that prepares me to be the Medium.
Corinna: In your professional world, you have devoted much of your studies to Irish drama. In terms of interest for you, how does Rashomon compare?
Susan: I do love Irish drama, but after On Baile’s Strand I realized that I should not direct plays that I teach all the time. Directing forces you to develop and commit to a single interpretation of the text, which then becomes a problem when you’re trying to open up discussion of it in the classroom. (I have gone back to the Irish drama well, but with plays I don’t regularly teach.) But over the past ten years, like a lot of people in my field, I’ve been looking at Irish drama in an international context, and there actually are several ways in which Rashomon connects with my work on Irish drama, though in my mercy I will mention only one. The late lamented Brian Friel, one of contemporary Ireland’s most important playwrights, wrote two plays–Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney–based on the Rashomon premise: several characters delivering monologues which tell different and conflicting stories about the same incidents. I spent a lot of time with Faith Healer when I was writing my masters’ thesis, and I knew critics compared it to Rashomon, but now I have a better understanding of what that means.
Corinna: You were thrust into the role of medium by necessity. Was this an exciting challenge for you, or just a call of duty?
Susan: I try not to show this, because I feel very bad about the fact that Bobbie got injured (not during rehearsal) and couldn’t do the part; but I am extremely excited to play the Medium. Due to the amount of time I spend with Yeats, I have done a surprising amount of thinking about mediums. It is also, I will admit, terrifying; but that’s what makes it exciting. I mean, I am glad that by picking the part up I can partially repay Bill for the enormous debt I owe him for taking over Lord Goring when I was directing An Ideal Husband. But I’m also really excited.
Corinna: The mother is a story teller. Do you think she believes what she says? How much of her speech is a performance for the magistrate and how much is her actual reality?
Susan: I think the mother is definitely performing for the magistrate, as she has been performing for everyone around her her entire life. I see her as being very focused on selling people on the idea that she was born into the class she’s now trying to occupy. But I also think she has come to see her stories about Kinume’s girlhood as being just as ‘true,’ in some ways, as what actually happened. Like Blanche DuBois says: she doesn’t tell things that are true, but things that from her point of view OUGHT to be true. But she also always knows that her whole act is always on the verge of failing. She tends to go off on these flights of fancy right after she’s said something difficult or painful or potentially shameful. She’s deflecting, but she’s also using these little riffs to comfort herself.
Corinna: Initially, you committed to be props mistress. Then you were cast as the mother, took on assistant director and became the medium as well. Did the props assignment become more difficult with additional acting and directorial duties? What were some challenges of finding unconventional props with very few resources?
Susan: There’s a lot of stuff that I made out of cheap or free materials. The bonfire is basically stuff we found in Adam’s garage plus rubble collected from somewhere by Bill. The scrolls are made partly of old cork coasters that our cats have chewed on. The Husband’s gag is one of our dishtowels. And so on. I enjoy this. In my own family, I have always been the comically inept nerd who is baffled by the material world. But I do kind of have a MacGyver streak. I remember back when I was replacing the mildewy baseboards in our basement in Chesterton by repurposing the chair rails that we’d pried off the dining room walls when we first moved in, and talking to my sister on the phone, and when she asked what I was doing and I explained it to her I said, “You know, it’s times like these that I think: maybe I AM the daughter of an engineer!” Making the props gives me the same feeling.
However, the key is that I have finally learned how to delegate. Adam built the two most badass props, which I could never have done myself. Vanessa made great bags for the Wigmaker and the Priest and bought a lot of other stuff. And most of the props I made, I made before Bobbie got injured, which was lucky. So it didn’t get that much more difficult. And in fact, picking up the AD role made it easier, because it meant that I was familiar enough with the rest of the show to work out where they’re all supposed to be and then hand that over to Hannah, who’s doing a great job of keeping track of them all as stage manager. So it all works out. Being used to directing, when I act in something, I sort of feel like, “I just show up and do my part? Can that be all? Surely I am not doing enough for this show.” And in this show, I do not have that feeling!
Susan Harris with Corinna Christman