Exclusive Q & A: 'Futura' Playwright Jordan Harrison
Mia Katigbak in Jordan Harrison's FUTURA
CREDIT: National Asian American Theatre Company
Banned books are nothing new in science fiction. But in those stories, the authorities usually ban the books due to their content, not because of their medium. In his new play “Futura,” Jordan Harrison has created a future where an all-powerful corporation has outlawed physical books — but not the words they contain, so long as they appear in digital form.changes in the publishing industry, the effect of the Internet on people’s brains and the future of font design. Also, since the play revolves around a college lecture, acts of terrorism and brutal kidnapping, he also manages to work in a good mix of drama and comedy.
"Futura" is currently running at the TBG Theater in New York City and the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, California, and it closes this weekend in both cities (so don’t wait to get tickets).
In our exclusive interview, Harrison tells TechNewsDaily where this idea came from, what he thinks of the future of reading and how addicted he is to the Internet.
TechNewsDaily: The idea of banning physical books amounts to banning their content, due to the malleability of digital media, is a novel take on a classic sci-fi scenario. Where did the idea for the play come from?
Jordan Harrison: I’ve always been pretty fastidious about how my plays look on the page. In the days before I was PDF-savvy, it was alarming to see how my plays would get twisted out of shape and uglified as they passed from one computer to another. So "Futura" started with my attachment to certain fonts – I wanted to explore why this was so important to me, why one font looked like my thoughts while another didn’t. I wanted to show people what a red-blooded, high-stakes subject typography could be, to show them how completely it permeates our lives. I quickly realized that I couldn't write this play in the 21st century without addressing the extinction of the printed word. Since I started writing the play in 2007, everything has accelerated – the closing of newspapers, the flourishing of the Amazon Kindle, entire university libraries being digitized and put online. The future has been arriving more quickly than I can write it.
TND: How much research did you do for the play —what were real facts, and what was made up?
JH: Mostly I read wide-reaching graphic design books, and a few more specific ones: Simon Loxley’s "Type: A Secret History of Letters," which has a lot of good material on Paul Renner, and Robert Bringhurst’s "Elements of Typographic Style." Then, after I'd already written a couple drafts of the play, I went back and did another wave of research – the future was arriving so quickly that I was worried my dystopia would start to look quaint. Or that the argument about the future of books wouldn’t be up-to-date. So I read Jaron Lanier’s excellent manifesto, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Nicholson Baker’s piece on the Kindle in The New Yorker , Kevin Kelly’s seminal piece in praise of digital libraries in Wired …
I did make up a few things because they were thematically useful. As far as I know, Gutenberg didn’t print a special edition of Bibles with the final page written by hand. So you could say I made it up. Or you could say that I've predicted that those Bibles are still waiting to be discovered in the next few years!
TND: Many of the arguments about the Internet killing book reading are reminiscent of the arguments that recorded music would kill the live performance, the movies would end plays, and that TV would end going out to the movies. As someone who writes for a medium that was supposed to die at the hands of film, how has that history of innovation and coexistence affect your thinking about the future of books?
JH: I would argue that all of these things – live music, theater, going to the movies – are still in the long process of dying. Probably people will always do these things, but they aren’t at the center of the culture in the way that they once were. It’s hard, for instance, for me to see that more people now know “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as a performance on the TV show "Glee" than ever knew it in the full context of "Funny Girl." Maybe this isn’t a matter of life and death. But it’s a reminder that our art is changing to better suit our technology - to be more quickly viewable, post-able, and shareable. The internet has largely become a place where pre-internet cultural contributions are revived, remixed and rehashed, as Lanier argues in "You Are Not a Gadget."
So I don’t think that people will ever stop reading. But I think it’s likely that people will be less compelled to write – or read – 500-page novels when their main device is an iPad or something like it. It’s not a machine built for concentrating in the way people used to when they read or wrote by candlelight. Now people pay for a program like MacFreedom, for the privilege of not being online. I don’t think writing will go away, but it will become something different, to suit our technology. And that’s a scary idea to me. It doesn't really help me to know that people were scared in a similar way about the invention of the printing press.
TND: How would you characterize your own relationship with technology in general, and the Internet in particular?
JH: My relationship with the Internet is an addict’s relationship, to be honest. I’m not some pure Luddite, tending his garden in rural Maine. I spend a huge amount of time online, and it's miraculous, but I can feel it impacting my ability to surrender myself completely to a book. Or to write for four hours without getting up. I can feel the Internet impacting the way I think, and that's something that has fueled the play.
TND: And finally, has your relationship to technology changed during the writing and performance of "Futura"? If so, how?
JH: Well, I have been wondering if more people would know about the play if I was on Facebook!