Playwright Harrison David Rivers likes to make lists. Actually, he likes to cross things off them.
With four new plays appearing in the Twin Cities in a two-month span, lists have come in handy.
No full-length play by Rivers has been produced here, but that changes with the Feb. 10 opening of “A Crack in the Sky” at History Theatre. That begins a Rivers flood: Theater Latté Da opens the musical “Five Points” April 7. The Playwrights’ Center has readings of “The Bandaged Place,” a drama about three generations of family, April 9 and 10. And “This Bitter Earth” starts April 24 at Penumbra Theatre.
“It’s a bit busy,” Rivers, 36, said in an understatement, swaddled in a huge scarf in the St. Paul Victorian where he lives with husband Christopher Bineham’s parents.
You could argue all of this started when Rivers swiped a copy of “Angels in America” — still his favorite play — from a library in Manhattan, Kan., where he grew up.
Or you could say it began when, talking on the phone, he worried aloud that he was hearing voices and his mother advised him to write them down. Those voices became his first full-length play in 2006, “Prophet’s Wife.” You could date it to his 2010 play, “When Last We Flew,” in which a teenager steals a copy of “Angels in America.” Or you could pinpoint the 2014 phone call when Playwrights’ Center producing artistic director Jeremy Cohen told him, “The Twin Cities needs you.”
Rivers came for a yearlong Jerome Foundation fellowship and, like many playwrights before him, decided to stay. For a list of reasons.
Why HDR loves the Twin Cities
• People are intelligent and kind.
• People have families and dogs and kids, which was not necessarily the case when he lived in New York, and that means there’s a lot to talk about other than work.
• It asks you to slow down and appreciate it, to look out the window and see how beautiful the snow is.
• It’s easy to get to other places, if you need to, because we’re in the middle.
“I feel like St. Paul is going to be home base,” said Rivers, who will move to Ohio this fall for a temporary teaching job at Kenyon College, his alma mater. (Initially an actor, he developed stage fright and shifted to writing.)
His husband has begun a writing/editing career that will make the two more mobile. Bineham is Rivers’ first reader, his scheduler (he finally convinced his husband to list his commitments in a calendar, rather than trying to remember them). And, in the case of “This Bitter Earth” — about the romance between an African-American playwright and a white activist — he’s a direct inspiration.
“I said when I moved here: No men. No dating. No distractions,” Rivers said. “The goal was to put on blinders and churn out this huge output.”
Nope! He met Bineham on his third OKCupid date, arranged by e-mail while Rivers was on a Playwrights’ Center retreat in northern Minnesota.
“He changed me,” Rivers said. “Having someone who is passionate about art but isn’t an artist himself means that he has this critical view, but with this knowledge of me.”
As his reader, Bineham also is a kind of collaborator — and collaboration is crucial to Rivers’ work.
“I’m not a playwright who needs all the credit,” said Rivers, who shares it on half of his upcoming plays. “A Crack in the Sky” is co-written by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, whose life story informs the play about a Somali boy who, inspired by African-American heroes such as Maya Angelou and Malcolm X, journeys to the United States.
“Ahmed tells me all these stories, and it’s my job to figure out which need to find their way to the stage,” Rivers said, but Yusuf is more expansive about their work together.
“He has a disarming smile. You talk to him. You hear his soft words,” Yusuf said. “He’s a really mild-mannered guy, very thoughtful, very intelligent, but also very humble.”
They met via History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso, who told Yusuf his life could be a play. “Harrison listens to the people around him and then comes up with the best answers for the play,” Peluso said.
There’s a reason for that, Rivers said: “I love that part of theater: that you can’t really do it alone.”
Yusuf specifically wanted to work with an African-American playwright, because of the importance of his black heroes. He says Rivers helped him tell exactly the story he wanted to tell, “in a language that is flexible and soft, beautiful, emotional.”
Latté Da’s “Five Points,” which Rivers calls “a big, dancey musical,” also came together over a period of time. He was working on a different musical with Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein, and passed along an in-development script. “Five Points,” co-written with Ethan D. Pakchar and Douglas Lyons, is about the diverging paths of a black man and a white Irish immigrant.
“I was really excited about it, so we did a workshop a year ago,” Rothstein said.
One thing that makes Rivers a good collaborator is his confidence, Rothstein said. “I don’t have to tiptoe around. I mean, there are not a lot of writers who want you to critique their work when you’re in the room with a bunch of actors. He overwrites, in his opinion, and then he cuts when he hears it out loud. So when we read something, I’ll say, ‘Harrison, do you want to lay out your cuts?’ And he’s immediately like, ‘Lose that. Lose this. Lose that. And add a “well” to the front of that line.’ ”
“Something that’s important to me is listening to actors,” Rivers said, who has a file on his laptop labeled “Actors to Write Parts For.” He often invites a few over to drink wine and read a few pages aloud. “The way actors phrase lines, the way they stumble over things, is so helpful.”
HDR’s actors to write for:
1. JuCoby Johnson
2. Michael Hanna
3. Kevin Hanshaw
4. Cristina Castro
5. Joniece Abbott-Pratt
H. Adam Harris, who starred in the original staging of “This Bitter Earth,” had participated in a reading of the drama in 2016, then stayed with it through the world premiere in San Francisco last fall.
Doing the play “was probably the most profound seven weeks I’ve ever had as an artist,” said Harris (who won’t be in the Penumbra production). He particularly cherished a monologue “about blackness and dreaming” spoken by the playwright character he played. “When I read the play, that monologue wasn’t there, and he came back the next day with that scene. I read it for the first time and I just remember weeping.”
That’s how Rivers likes to work: quickly, early in the day and guided by a question to explore, if not answer. During a December interview to talk about his four upcoming plays, Rivers casually mentioned he’d risen at 4:30 a.m. to finish yet another play, “To Let Go and Fall,” whose draft he completed in a week. (“It’s just for me,” Rivers said, but two weeks later Rothstein had read it and was imagining how it might look on stage.)
Speed and multi-tasking have been important in herding all four projects toward production, although Rivers speaks as if it’s no big deal.
“Everyone at the theaters knows what’s going on with the other plays, so that helps. I tend to work on more than one piece at a time, so switching to work on one play in the middle of another isn’t so unusual,” he said, adding, “I’ll be like, ‘I need to cross Act One off my list before I can get to Act Two.’ But, honestly, sometimes I add things to the list after the fact, just so I can have the satisfaction of striking them.”
Juggling projects also helps keep Rivers from getting blocked in his work, although he has tricks for when he runs into trouble, such as using his favorite candy as an incentive.
HDR’S ways to get unstuck:
• Buy a box of Hot Tamales. Put it across the room. Stare at it and, somehow, the pages will come.
• Take his laptop and ride the Green Line to the stadium and back. There are all these narratives going on around him.
• He really likes the downtown Minneapolis library, being in the middle of all the people, such as at the computer stations.
• Almost every play, he has a piece of music and listens to it on repeat until he’s done.
One musical inspiration is the Dinah Washington song that gives “This Bitter Earth” its title.
“I would listen to it, cry and write, and then listen to it again and cry again,” said Rivers, who said he heard the torch song 150 times in a row.
The crying could have something to do with the fact that “This Bitter Earth” seems to most closely mirror his life.
“Portions of the play are pulled from my own life, but even when it isn’t your own life, you are pulling from places deep within you, probably the ugliest places,” saids Rivers, who describes himself as an autobiographical playwright. “I mean, why write a play about the best day of your life? That’s boring.”
The actors in the San Francisco production took advantage of the play’s autobiographical elements. Harris recalls riding on San Francisco’s rapid transit with Rivers and Bineham and co-star Michael Hanna.
“Studying them was Michael’s and my favorite thing! There’s a scene in the play where the characters are on a subway, just being cute and flirtatious and sweet. And we were on BART in San Francisco. Christopher and Harrison were just being cute together, and Michael and I — Locked. It. In. They were laughing at us and saying, ‘Are you doing research?’ And we’re like, ‘Yes. Yes, we are.’ ”
For Rivers, inspiration is everywhere. He jokes, for instance, that living with his in-laws seems destined for the stage. (“I think it’s a comedy?”) And there’s a reason grandmothers recur in his work, including one prominently featured in “The Bandaged Place.”
“I love me some grandmothers,” said Rivers, who’d watch “Murder She Wrote” reruns with his Grandma Gerry as an adolescent, before she went off to bed and he, beginning to figure out his identity, descended to the basement to watch gay-themed films he rented from Blockbuster.
“Most of the characters didn’t look like me. Now, in my work, I do feel like representation is something that’s really important,” he said.
That focus on representation may be another reason so many theaters are responding to Rivers’ work.
“We have about 100 theaters we work with around the country,” said the Playwrights’ Center’s Cohen, who officiated at Rivers and Bineham’s wedding. “Being able to pitch him to theaters and say, ‘You responded to this piece. Let me send you another one you’ll like’ has been so exciting. And he’s just a great person to have in the room, so I knew it was just a matter of time before all of this happened for him.”
Rivers seems ready to deal with it.
“I maybe shouldn’t believe this, but hard work, determination and kindness matter,” he said. “My thing is I’ll pursue opportunities that feel right for me and then, when I get them, I’ll make sure I hit my deadlines.”
In other words: Keep crossing things off the list.