Andrew Harmon Theatre Director & Writing Coach Interview

andy harmon  interview bookblast diary

Theatre director and writing coach, Andrew Harmon, gives BookBlast an exclusive interview from his home near Palm Springs CA. He talks about 1950s Hollywood, writing for the screen and stage, producing ‘Improvisathon ‘85’ for Live Aid at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, directing and teaching in Scandinavia in the 1980s, and the importance of Zen meditation to boost creativity. The ‘big mind’ process helped Andy to develop his ideas behind the Four Crises of Change and the Change Dialogue techniques which he uses with writers as well as at ‘small is beautiful’ executive development consultancy Actor’s Mind™. Harmon’s ‘scientific fairytale’. Freud’s Golem, is a play inspired by Freud’s case studies of The Ratman and The Wolfman. It imagines the case, The Psychoanalysis of a Vampire.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in 1946 in Studio City, California. Studio City was ‘The Home of Republic Studios’ where innumerable John Wayne westerns and singing cowboy pictures were made. It was also where Orson Wells made Citizen Kane. This juxtaposition of high and low art must have seeped into my pores. I’ve always felt, as a writer, that if Abbot and Costello could meet Frankenstein, then surely Freud could meet Dracula and Dante could meet the Marx Brothers. Or as a director, that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could happily relocate to the souks of Warner Bros Casablanca and that the Winter’s Tale could wander into the forests of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I spent my middle and late adolescence at a boarding school south of Los Angeles completely unaware that such mysterious conjunctions would one day bubble up into my consciousness. By the time I’d finished graduate school in Massachusetts in 1970, I began to suspect they might.

studio city california

Which sorts of books were in your family home?
I remember a whole shelf filled by the black bound volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. My father was a film producer and writer. He read all sorts of stuff because he was always on the lookout for stories that could be adapted for the screen. He also had collections of plays and books about the theatre, politics, science, art and education. There were several books on psychoanalysis, including Earnest Jones’s biography of Freud and his Freudian interpretation of Hamlet – a book that seduced Olivier into his Oedipus-saturated film version. As a kid, my Mom got me reading the Wizard of Oz and it’s many sequels, which I devoured along with the Hardy Boys series (the American equivalent of the Famous Five). I also had a hefty collection of Classics Illustrated Comic Books, most notably Frankenstein. In my mid-teens, my Mom gave me a copy of The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm, the prominent Neo-Freudian. From boarding school, I brought home Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and in my final year, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Moby Dick – the last two had me completely enthralled.

Which actors and movies were formative influences for your subsequent career as an actor and dramatist?
First, there were American films – the ones I saw as a kid. The films of John Ford of course (especially The Searchers with John Wayne) and George Stevens’ Giant (with James Dean). I later found out that Stevens had directed Talk of the Town, (with Cary Grant, Ronald Coleman and Jean Arthur) a political screwball comedy based on my Dad’s original short story (he was nominated for an Oscar for it). There was also Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe and Mr Deeds Goes to Town (with Gary Cooper) and Leo McCarey’s films with Laurel and Hardy, who along with Buster Keaton occupy a favored place in the pantheon of my comic imagination.

In high school I discovered international cinema and it blew me away. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with Max Von Sydow, Renoir’s The Grand Illusion with Jean Gabin, Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu and Fellini’s La Strada with Giulietta Masina and, a few years later his 81/2  with Marcello Mastroianni and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai . Later, in my late-twenties, I was completely taken with Casablanca and, soon after, petrified by Night of the Living Dead.
But I mustn’t leave out the theatre: Becket, Pinter and especially Ionesco and a production of his The Lesson I will never forget. Also, Hal Holbrook in his amazing one man show, ‘Mark Twain Tonight’ and Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose inspiring improv work led me to my own teacher, Viola Spolin – and, in the late 1970’s, a whole new way of teaching and directing (and writing). I didn’t begin to appreciate Shakespeare until I’d moved to London and began to teach acting in earnest.

Writing for the screen or stage, which do you prefer and why?
I can’t really speak about screenwriting because I only ‘wrote’ for the screen when I was in film school as a grad student. For the few documentaries I made afterwards, the writing was mainly lists of locations or possible events. I created the films afterwards, in the editing room and discovered I had a knack for it. I also made several fictional short films, including a Fellini-influenced thesis film for my MFA called The Virtuoso, over which the ghosts of Stan and Ollie happily presided along with Federico. Such writing as these films needed was confined to notes to myself or the cameraman. There was virtually no dialogue.
My overriding ambition was to be a film director like Bergman or Fellini, but I had a fear of writing and no gift for raising money. I ended up editing industrial films and teaching film-making for a living at a small film school run from the basement of the Orson Wells Cinema in Cambridge, Mass.
When my wife, Anita, and our son, Jacob relocated to the UK in 1977, I got jobs teaching and directing in London’s drama schools. In the process I began to read a lot of plays, from Shakespeare to Chekhov; from Brecht to Becket, from Wilde to Coward; from Arthur Miller to Harvey Grenville-Barker and every stop in between. In 1988 my father died, and my brother took his own life, and I found myself compelled to write. I’ve spent the last thirty years working at writing with varying degrees of success.

Freud's Golem andy harmon bookblast diaryI always find writing difficult, but I seem to have a gift for dialogue (supported by my background in improv, I think). Once I immerse myself in the ‘given circumstances’ of the scene I can inhabit the characters and give them a voice. But facility with dialogue does not a play make.
Freud’s Golem started with two women having an amusing conversation over the kitchen table, but it didn’t become a finished play until twenty-five years, later, long after that scene was gone! Happily, that quarter century wasn’t in vain. I learned how to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end and in doing so, have written a few more plays and become a useful editor and story coach.

So, the short answer to your original question is that I prefer writing for the stage. I have a director and actor’s instincts. I feel the need for a live audience and collaborators to spur my creativity. The odds against getting a screenplay produced are astronomical. At least with a play there’s a hope of seeing it up on its feet and reaching an audience, even if the audience is small and you must produce it yourself.

Your chief collaborators when writing a script?
My first full length play, La Comedia: Dante’s Journey to the Gates of Paradise was created totally through collaboration with my co-author, Boel Larsson who produced the play and was also one of the two actors. She and her fellow actor would improvise, and I’d use my notes of what they’d done, with reference to Dante’s text, to structure the scene, writing in English. Then Boel would translate back into Swedish and that would become the text the actors would work from. That in turn was translated back so I could create an English version. There was a huge amount of give and take in this process. La Comedia is hardly a literal adaptation of The Divine Comedy, but it’s true to Dante’s spirit, even if the ghosts of the Marx Brothers seem to haunt it. Although demanding it was relatively easy to write because we had to get it done. It was a commissioned piece. Opening night was scheduled and publicized. Even when the actor we cast as Dante went mad and had to be hospitalized after our initial rehearsal, Boel found another actor! This concentrated our minds wonderfully. When people are counting on you, there’s no time for writer’s block.

Freud’s Golem has been a completely different experience. Much more solitary. Playwrights, by definition, need collaborators. They need producing theatres, directors, actors. In the case of this play, my next step will be to put together a workshop, so I can see and hear the play, as I’ve written it, on its feet. I need to hear it out loud, read by actors on a stage to know if it’s ready to be produced. I’ve started to submit this play to theatres and the rejections are starting to come in. The challenge is to overcome self-doubt and keep going. As I’ve told other authors in the same situation, if you don’t believe in your work, who will?

Dante andy harmon boel larsson bookblast diary

What is Drama?
If you do an internet search, you’ll find that ‘drama’ derives from the ancient Greek word for ‘action’. It’s not ‘action’ in the everyday sense (which the ancient Greeks called ‘praxis’). ‘Drama’ implies a special kind of action, the kind of action that has consequences for the social order. This why most dramas before the 19th century, involved the actions of ‘important people’ like Kings and Queens (Comedies were a little different).

Most people associate drama with conflict. This isn’t quite the whole story. Drama is conflict that leads to change, in either the protagonist’s external or internal world. If Ebenezer Scrooge hadn’t changed, his story would be of little interest (or a tragedy – but that’s another story). Aristotle, who knew a thing or two about drama, defined it as the action, taken by a protagonist against antagonistic forces that leads, through escalating conflict and crisis, to a ‘change of fortune’ from good to bad or bad to good. In many dramas, there is a dilemma or difficult choice the protagonist must make to bring about this change. The story functions to drag the hero into the heart of this dilemma and put him or her under pressure to choose. In making the choice, heroes often discover they are not the person they thought they were when the story began.Scrooge, for example, didn’t start off wanting to be a Good-Person-and-Benefactor-of- Humanity. Quite the opposite. The drama drags him into the central dilemma of his life and forces him to choose between his love of money and what’s left of his love of people. There’s pain either way. Loving people has always meant a life of painful rejection and loss for Scrooge, but loving money means an eternity of torment in Hell after his death. To make the choice and resolve the dilemma, he must change and become the person be never wanted to be: A Good-Person-and-Benefactor-of-Humanity!

How Important is an understanding of human psychology when writing?
I don’t think it’s a question of understanding human psychology in any academic sense, but of having a feel for it. I think Chekhov had a feel for human psychology. I think the same for Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mark Twain or Tolkien or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I’ve studied psychology a lot, but I don’t consult my ‘knowledge base’ when I’m writing. The character acts and thinks and speaks and doesn’t tell me why. If it feels true, if it grips me, I know I’ve done my job. For me it’s more like listening than thinking. Thinking comes later, with the editing, and that can be pretty tricky. The power of dramatic action, for good or ill, is that it overrides logic.

chiller-diller time bookblast diary
It’s chiller-diller time . . .

Can just anyone write?
I’m very tempted to say ‘yes’. But there’s a caveat. The act of writing well doesn’t mean you can always become a ‘Professional Writer’. Same with actors. You must have a certain temperament to become a professional. You must be self-motivated, persistent and able to take rejection and keep going. And you must be able to think like a business person too.
On the other hand, to write as self-expression. To write well. Yes. Anyone can do it if they are willing to write from a place of vulnerability rather than defensiveness. If they are willing to write from their authentic selves. You have to be willing to learn this. You have to give up generalities. If you practice, if you find a good teacher or a supportive group and stick to it over time. Yes. I’ve got a group of about 8-12 writers I’ve been working with for the last several years, and their work just keeps getting better and better. Only a couple write professionally, but they’re all learning.

Do you trust dialogue over images to make a scene suspenseful?
This is a great question. The answer is both, depending on the situation. For suspense to work, a writer needs to put someone we care about in jeopardy and set a ticking clock on their survival. I don’t think it matters whether this is expressed in dialogue or images – although with images, it may be more visceral. What really matters is how much we care about the victim and how real the perceived threat.
Whether it’s a lion chasing down a wildebeest, or Frodo wrestling with Gollum for the Ring at the Crack of Doom, it’s the same thing. In the old Hammer horror pictures of the sixties you’d have Vincent Price as a mad doctor on a mission to save humanity. He lives in an isolated country pile filled with vampires or zombies or drug crazed perverts chained up in the cellar for experimental purposes. One night, Jane Asher, his niece/assistant, hears a sound below. Price has warned her never to go down there, but her fiancé, the handsome Reginald, has been missing for weeks. Jane, ever hopeful for his return, gets up and goes down the basement stairs to investigate, wearing only a negligee and a flickering candelabra. What will happen to her? As ridiculous as this set up is, it’s archetypal. There is a part of us that will remain glued to the screen wondering about the outcome, despite ourselves. (At least I did!)
Suspense is generated by actions like this, whether expressed in dialogue or images.

Consider Dickens’ Bleak House, and the fate of its characters. Dickens brilliantly uses suspense to propel us through the whole story, setting a trio of attractive and sympathetic young people against a heartless and corrupt legal system and the monsters that live off it. How will Esther and her cousins manage to survive? Will Rick be ruined by his dreams of inheritance? Will Esther marry her young doctor? Will Lady Deadlock escape Tulkinghorn and get to speak with her daughter before it’s too late? Can anyone be saved? All these questions generate suspense and emotion and are raised by the actions of the characters and the threats they face. What dialogue may reveal perhaps better than images do is Character and the psychological struggle of a given character to make a choice. Lady Deadlock’s conversations with to her husband are a great example of this, creating suspense as much by what she doesn’t tell him as what she does.

What were the high points of your career before becoming a writing coach and mentor?
I directed a musical in 1970, in my first year of Grad School, called Four (a musical book by Stan Thomas with music by Craig Safan). It was my first full length production, and a seminal experience working with very gifted people which showed me that I had a certain talent for getting people to collaborate creatively and go beyond themselves; and that I had a feel for story and acting. I was surrounded by amazingly gifted people – who could ask for more.
viola spolin interview with any harmon bookblast diaryIn 1978 I studied Improvisation with Viola Spolin and, inspired by what she taught me, I began a lifelong creative journey exploring and extending her work. Viola’s interest was in the player and the creative process much more than the product, and I followed her in that. In 1981, when I became artistic director of the Drama Studio, London, I used her games to develop my own approach to teaching and directing, not just improv but scripted plays.
My later encounter with the work of actor and teacher Dan Fauci, challenged and ultimately deepened what I’d learned from Viola and left an indelible mark on what I did to help facilitate the creativity of others.
oth, in their own ways, gave me the tools to explore my own creativity and to support and enable it in others. Viola created a technique I could teach others. Dan taught me the value of taking risks.
In 1983 I directed my first long form Improv show, Trouble in Public at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. I began to use what I’d learned from Viola and Dan and make it my own.
In 1985, Anita and I along with actor Graham Christopher produced ‘Improvisathon ‘85’ for Live Aid at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. It was a truly mind-blowing experience. Actors such as Jonathan Price, Michael Palin and Hayley Mills, and a gang of then newcomers Kenneth Branagh, Tim Roth, Ruby Wax and Robbie Coltrane among others, improvised in shifts as guests of three different improv companies – Theatre Machine, The Omelet Broadcasting Co and Trouble in Public – over a period of twelve hours and raised over £21,000 for African famine relief. I’ve since learned that there is a small collection of memorabilia from the event at the V&A! I think it’s safe to say we helped launch Improv Comedy into the mainstream of the UK entertainment scene.
From 1983, I spent ten years directing and teaching in Scandinavia. I was brought over to Sweden by the incomparable Birgitta Hellerstedt-Thorin, who ran a liturgical drama group in Lund and had worked with Ingmar Bergman as a young actress at the Malmö Stadsteater. Later, in 1988, I directed an incredibly joyful production of Twelfth Night in Wasa, Finland, and after that, in 1995 I created my second longform improv show, In the Story Factory at the Atelier Theatre in Gothenburg with my former student and now colleague, Mats Thorin. In 1999, Boel Larsson, who I’d first met when she was a student in Birgitta’s group and who had la comedia dantes journey andy harmon bookblast diaryplayed Malvolio in my Twelfth Night at Wasa, asked me to come back to Sweden to direct and co-author La Comedia, which was one of the most rewarding experiences of my artistic life. In 2016 she came to the US and did a public reading of it with me at the Hi Desert Cultural Center in Joshua Tree California. It won a prize (the only one I’ve ever received!).
In the 1990s, the Director’s Guild of Great Britain put me in touch with Price Waterhouse Management consultants which launched Anita and me into a collaboration to develop their consultants’ leadership and communication skills based on my theatre work training actors and her psychological expertise. We also collaborated with McKinsey & Co, and met some great people. We were exposed to a whole new world. This experience in change consulting led, in part, to my ideas about the Four Crises of Change, outlined in my book Change Journey.
In the early 2000s, after studying Zen meditation for 20 years, I learned the ‘Big Mind’ process, created by Genpo Merzel Roshi. This came hot on the heels of an article I was writing about organizational change leaders and led me to my ideas about the Four Crises of Change and the Change Dialogue technique that I use with the writers as described in my book.

What is more important: having a strong three-act structure in which a film is divided into the set-up, the confrontation and the resolution, or understanding emotion and motivation?
Aristotle says structure is more important than Character. I think he really believed it’s both – I certainly do. Plot and Character are mutually reinforcing. Unless Oedipus is a stubborn, impulsive character who is highly motivated to stop the plague that’s destroying Thebes, the story won’t go anywhere.

What do you love about teaching? How long have you been doing it?
It’s hard to put into words. I get a strong sense of joy in seeing people work together, deeply engaged in a project. I have an almost tactile pleasure in figuring things out and sharing my thinking with others. I love seeing a student suddenly ‘get it’ or take a leap forward in their skill level. Plus, I get a lot of ego satisfaction feeling like I’m the source (or at least the medium) of something useful and admired. I’ve been doing it since 1968 and I feel lost when I’m not doing some kind of teaching.

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life.
I love being able to dictate into a phone or recorder and have it come up as text. Almost invariably it helps me. When I feel the blank page too intimidating, I walk and record my thoughts, put the resulting file into my computer and bingo, I’ve written a first draft. Or notes on a draft. Or something. OK, I’m not exactly Milton dictating Paradise Lost, but this technology gives me a place to start.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Oddly enough, the Great Wall of China, somewhere around 1500 AD when they were in the middle of re-building it. Why? I studied Ancient China in grade school and I have a ten year old’s appreciation of the amazing mystery of it and how far it goes. If your time machine let me stay there for a year I’d walk as much of its 2500-mile length as I could.

Your views on success.
I’ve always struggled with a sense of failure in my professional life. Looking back now, at the age of seventy-one, I think I’ve been a bit hard on myself. I think the drive to ‘make something of your life’, to be a success, is a good thing, overall. Especially if you can keep your inner critic from killing your creative impulse because actual success looks different than you thought it would. The idea of wanting success keeps me moving forward. But sometimes I can overdo it.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Birgitta Hellerstedt-Thorin and her husband Ingemar; David Hardy who was my film teacher in Grad School; Marc Chagall, the great painter and Martin Buber. And maybe some dancing girls.

Your five favourite playwrights?
Shakespeare, Moliere, Ionesco, Miller, Tony Kushner.

Your five favorite screenwriters?
Ingmar Bergman, Dalton Trumbo, Billy Wilder, The Epstein Brothers (Casablanca) Tullio Pinelli (La Strada, 8½).

Your five favorite prose writers.
Tolkien, Twain, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy.

What other writers are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
Jamie Moran and I have been great friends since we were school mates in California in the mid-1960s. Living in London since then, he taught psychology for years at Roehampton the room of no exit jamie moranInstitute. He’s written two books, self-published on Kindle, The Wound of Existence and The Room of No Exit. And he’s just completing a massive, visionary epic novel about America and the American West, set in the 1870s. We’ve been sharing ideas about art, religion and psychology for fifty-five years. When I was thinking through the ideas I write about in Change Journey, Jamie invited me to lecture to one of his classes about The Shadow of organizational life. And, over the twenty five years that Freud’s Golem was written and re-written, we had innumerable meetings over coffee at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court discussing the play, Jewish mysticism, Freud, Jung, the meaning of Drama, you name it. Jamie helped me think my way into the Vampire’s divided mind and grapple with the philosophy and psychology of the play and the incidents of the backstory.
My wife, the poet Anita Harmon, listened and really laughed at a conversation I’d imagined between two strange characters, Eleanor and Bernice back in 1985 and then, with endless patience, continued to listen as that conversation evolved into Freud’s Golem, giving me both unqualified encouragement and acute and trenchant notes on what was working with the play and what was not.
There’s also playwright Ric Edelman, whose classes in the 1980’s gave me a place to explore the play’s underworld and to write some of its earliest scenes; and screenwriter and writing coach Jurgen Wolff who co-facilitates my Writers Group at the CV Repertory Theatre when he visits the US and whose provocative questions and sharp observations contribute to the ongoing revisions of the final text.

Name your five favorite feature films.
La Strada, The Grand Illusion, 8½, Casablanca, Seven Samurai.

Your five favorite books.
Lord of the Rings, Improvisation for the Theatre, The Ronin (by William Dale Jennings), The Writers Journey (Christopher Vogler), Impro for Storytellers (Keith Johnstone).

Your chief characteristic?

Your chief fault?
Blindness to what I’ve achieved.

Bedside reading?
Often technical books (on Playwriting or Photoshop or Premiere Pro), sometimes self-help psychology (The Tools). Rarely a novel or a book about Mysticism (Jewish or Buddhist). Right now, On the Wilder Shores of Love:A Bohemian Life, by Lesley Blanch edited by your good self.

What is the most important thing in life?
Love and connection to others. Family.

change journey andy harmon bookblast diaryWhat is your motto?
I don’t have one, but if I did I think it would be: “Keep Going. Perseverance Furthers.” But maybe a better one for me would be “Appreciate Your Life”.

Harmon’s new book, Change Journey: Voices of the Creative Quest, moves through the four crises of authorship, and takes us through the landscape of dramatic storytelling, and the archetypes of mythic drama. Of the various ‘how to’ books available for writers who find themselves stuck down a structural and imaginative rabbit hole, Change Journey is one of the better and decidedly more original ones, offering insights and solutions in a concise and entertaining way.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.