Mora V Harris is a fantastical playwright whose plays have been produced nationwide. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and Theater from Oberlin College, and an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. She teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and is the Pittsburgh Regional Co- Representative of the Dramatists Guild. On her work, she has stated, “At the nerdiest, most formal level, my work is always an experiment in comedy and the place laughter holds in a world that feels violent and heartbreaking.”
Playscripts: How did you initially become interested in playwriting?
Mora V. Harris: This particular form of story-telling has always been a strange impulse of mine. As a kid I loved to make up plays to perform for my very indulgent family members. For a long time I thought that meant I wanted to be an actor, but even then I was always writing my own stuff on the side or picking apart the structure of the play I was acting in my head. One of the things that made me really want to get serious and less secretive about my writing was feeling bored by the ingenue parts I was getting as a young female actor. Writing allowed me to explore any character I wanted and express ideas and emotions that I didn’t get to explore playing Belle in A Christmas Carol. Young women aren’t fundamentally boring, they’re brave and hilarious, and I wanted to create plays that showed that.
What excites you most about theatre?
Spending time in a room experiencing stories with other people, whether that be in rehearsal, or as an audience member. I didn’t have a religious upbringing and am a classic introvert, so the theatre is really the place I go for community and connection.
How do you envision your pieces going forward?
Tough question! My plays almost never turn out as I envision them! I’ll often start out thinking I’m going to write some sincere drama condemning humanity and the play ends up being the complete opposite by the time I’m done. But I do love making people laugh and feel connected through my work, so if that happens I’ll feel good, even if I didn’t end up writing Death of a Salesman.
Your writing style is very fun and quirky, specifically the fantasy elements of your plays. What interests you in writing plays about the supernatural?
Basically, I just think that stuff is fun and that theatre should be fun! A lot of the media I consume for pleasure is fantastical in some way. Why shouldn’t plays utilize the things we love in books and TV shows?
Space Girl is about an alien girl and her father who move to Earth from their home planet Zlagdor, what inspired this piece?
I began writing Space Girl waiting in an airport at 5:00 a.m. Something about being awake at this unusual time in this strange cold transient space made me feel like an alien who was just barely fooling the humans around me, and that’s when Arugula’s “Do you ever feel like this alien being?” monologue came pouring out.
As I began developing the rest of the play, I thought a lot about the comedic trope of aliens trying to fit in on earth. I began to play with balancing the fun and comedy of seeing human behavior with totally fresh eyes, with the total horror of seeing human behavior with totally fresh eyes that the sitcom version of the trope doesn’t usually hit on.
Space Girl is very much about being an outsider in a new place, why did you write about this theme specifically?
I grew up paralyzingly shy and I always felt like the new kid in school, even when I wasn’t. But the thing about being afraid to join in is you end up meeting the other people who are hanging around on the outer edges and those people become really beautiful friends. So I think in writing a play about friendship and coming of age, I kind of had to also write a play about feeling left out or lonely.
What made you choose a non-happy ending for Space Girl?
In Space Girl, the great enemy to the human race is not the aliens but climate change. No one is coming to save us, we humans have to save ourselves. So in that way, the play is a work of realism!
On a character level, the end of the play is sad for Arugula, because her experiences on Earth have changed her into someone who doesn’t fit in on Zlagdor, and I think audiences, especially teen ones, are sometimes a bit jarred by that. But to me, this is the only possible ending, and not an entirely pessimistic one. A coming of age story should be less about finding a place to fit in and more about finding out who you are. At the end of the play Arugula and Charlotte, and even the adult characters of Bruise and Nancy, have grown up a little and I have hope for how they will deal with whatever comes next. In the meantime, yeah, they might feel loneliness. But loneliness is part of being human, it’s a yearning for connection, and I think in the end it says something good about us that we feel it.
You were a scholar at the 2018 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, what did you learn from the experience?
I always love spending time around other writers and feeling like we’re all in this together, and Sewanee is a place where you can feel that kind of team spirit very strongly. When you’re not in the rehearsal room, playwriting can feel very solitary, so I like to seek out opportunities that remind me that I’m part of a supportive community.
What advice would you give aspiring playwrights?
Read and see lots of plays and when you love or hate something, pay attention to that and really investigate why. Learn about different aspects of theatre like acting and design, so that you understand what you’re asking for in your stage directions. Finally, write plays that you would be excited to see.