Jeremy O. Harris Is Spending HBO’s Money on Producing Plays and May Be Funding the Revolution

Jeremy O. Harris. Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Most people know Jeremy O. Harris as the writer of Slave Play, the swaggiest Broadway show ever to hold the curtain for Rihanna. “Meteoric” doesn’t cover it: Harris, who is 31, has moved fast through the New York theater world — in a truncated season, Slave Play garnered 12 Tony nominations — and he now has a contract with HBO, the much-anticipated film Zola in the can, and Hollywood at or near his feet. But he hasn’t dumped the old toy for the shiny new one. As part of his HBO deal, Harris has secured a discretionary fund for experimental-theater production, essentially a weird-art slush fund. So he’s now a producer, first donating $80,000 from licensing his own plays toward micro-grants for artists and then throwing a little of HBO’s Peak TV money behind works by his own coterie.

Last week, he had two shows running simultaneously — a beautifully designed Zoom remount of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, and Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s livestreamed multi-cam experimental work Circle Jerk. Harris contributed mainly (a) cash and (b) hype. And it was enough: He made sure that sluggers like Roxane Gay and Sarah Paulson were tweeting their support, and, with social media agog, he managed to make the shows feel like must-see events. So … is this a new thing? He talked to Vulture from Rome as he took a brief break from trying to write on deadline.

When did you pivot to producing?

A lot of people thought that I was being facetious when I was like, “I never wanted to be an Off Broadway theater person.” When I came to Yale, I came in with two other boys who both had very clear aspirations of working inside the institutional theater. But I had already given up on the idea that an institution would ever be a place that would house my work. I was looking at [Off-Off] companies like Half Straddle and Richard Maxwell and all these downtown groups as the model because I had never seen a Black person do that. And I was just like, Well, I think that might be the only way I can be a Black person making avant-garde work that I can control. At Yale, the first question I asked was “How do I produce my own work, and how do I start my own company?” And no one could teach me that. So I started figuring out through the Yale Cabaret [a student-produced venue] how to make events around my work. From the first show I did at Yale to the last year, I had lines down the block. And it was because I wanted to teach myself how to market, how to build an audience, and how to build relationships with audiences that reach beyond the theater community. That’s when it started.

Did you carry over any concrete things you learned from those Yale Cabaret producing experiences into Circle Jerk and Heroes of the Fourth Turning?

I think the biggest thing is that there’s no thing that’s too nice for the layman audience. Like, I think that there’s a lot of things that, in the theater community, we decide will only be things we will like, and therefore we don’t even attempt to make any of the modes of engagement accessible for the people outside of it — that’s from graphic design to social-media discourse. There are ways to make anything you’re doing accessible to my mom or an architect or someone in the Divinity School if you actually do the extra effort of engaging them.

Heroes is such a specific project: It already had this huge outside-of-the-theater-world reach because of the Pulitzer and also because it’s talking about Catholics. And, weirdly, Catholics really wanted to hear narratives about themselves, even if they weren’t in the most positive light, because they wanted to discuss them. When it came to Circle Jerk, there was this feeling that it would be this nice, gay, hypertheatrically referential piece that only people in the theater who read, like, the Greeks and French farce would get it. But I reached out mainly to my friends who I knew had high-camp sensibility and were part of spaces like TikTok and Twitter. And we got really lucky that people responded well to that invitation.

You’ve talked about your HBO deal, in which they gave you a pot of money specifically to put into theatrical productions, and these are the first two of those. Why was it important to you to get that fund from HBO?

I lived in L.A. for six years, and I really wanted to be in the film-and-television world. I was like, How can I be Lena Dunham? But after seeing how soul-sucking that system was, I realized I didn’t really want that. All I wanted to do was theater. And the minute I started doing theater, all those people started knocking at my door again. I remember talking to Jon Robin Baitz, and he said, “The minute Hollywood starts knocking, it’s the minute that you end up abandoning the theater.” So many of our best artists, right as they’re finding their voice in the theater, leave. And then all of these resources that were put into this one artist are gone.

So I said that if I ever did hear the knock of Hollywood after having a moment in the theater world, I would make sure that I could, like, replenish the soil, to give back the resources that were put into me. And that, for me, meant investing without questioning in the work of the most exciting young voices. With Circle Jerk, I saw the first workshop of that at Ars Nova, and I was like, Oh my God, this has to happen in 2020. Before Trump and Biden, I wanted to see that moment happen. Theater people had to engage with these questions about where their own liberal sensibilities intersected with white supremacy. And I didn’t even know what the second act was or the third act.

Was the plan for it to be digital theater from the beginning?

We were going to do it just in some Off–Off Broadway random theater, and I had like three other plays that were going to be grunge-cool little things I was going to invest in. And then corona happened. Theater was shut down. And I started beating the drum that this wasn’t a moment to be like, “Oh no, we can’t be in a theater.” This is actually a great opportunity for drastic shifts in what we think theater is and how we can make it accessible. People think about accessibility, and they think I’m only talking about Black people or young people, but no, there are literally people who physically can’t be in a theater with other people because normal theater people say that they’re an inconvenience to them, right? So it’s like, how can we make it okay for someone who has seizures? Or is a paraplegic? Or has three kids? How do we make it possible for them to see theater all the time?

And so when I said that, [the Circle Jerk team] came to me, and they were like, “We’ve already been thinking about how to do this. It’s going to be so ambitious, but we think our video designer, David Bengali, figured it out.” I gave them a nominal amount of money. I gave them $50,000. And with that, they rented all the cameras. [Ed. note: They also did some crowdfunding on their own.] With a very minimal budget, they were able to pull off a 12-camera remote-viewing system that streams live to televisions in Australia, Rome, the U.K., and New York. And that’s what happens when you say yes to young artists who want to make something happen without questioning what they’re gonna do with it.

On Twitter, you mentioned that the shows did well.
Circle Jerk hasn’t finished making all of its money back, but they have made 300 percent more than what they projected they would make. They thought it was going to make no money — they were thinking they’d get like 100 people a night, which is what they were getting at New York Theatre Workshop when they did [the small venue] Next Door. But I know that at their highest audience online, they had 1,000 people in a night, which is insane.

From Circle Jerk. Photo: Courtesy of Fake Friends

Now, the show that made the money back and then some from pure donations was Heroes. And these are the conservative numbers. They had 25,000 views over four days. They raised $33,566, and they’re still getting more donations from people who saw it and still want to donate. And I only gave them $20,000, just to make sure that everyone in the cast got paid two weeks’ Equity fee. Everyone who was a designer got paid as well.

Holy God.

Yeah. So, like, one thing that Danya [Taymor, the director] said was that conservatively — not even counting the fact that, like, many of those 25,000 views were people were watching it in pods or with friends — they sold out 50 shows at Playwrights Horizons.

So one thing that links these two shows is that the theater community had invested them with a lot of time and money. Heroes was already a complete Playwrights Horizons production; Circle Jerk had been developed and read at Ars Nova and the Prelude Festival and elsewhere. So I wonder if they are really an example of how close to the tipping point in the ecology we are. The investment in these shows exists, they just need that little extra goose to tip over into these big online audiences. Is that something you feel is widespread? 
Yes, absolutely. There are artists that are 90 percent there and just need that tipping over. [Harris briefly goes off the record to mention two commissioning initiatives he is working on that he can’t announce yet.] I think that there are a lot of people who have so much to say right now, and resources are spread so thin. But also I see how resources are thrown so deeply and heavily into certain artists who I think have proven themselves — quote, unquote — but don’t have much just to say or prove right now. And so I want to try to even that imbalance and say, “What if we put a lot of money into the person who has a lot to prove?” I don’t necessarily need a $50,000 commission from Playwrights Horizons or Lincoln Center, although I’m sure that on some lists, I’m at the front. I’m more excited to give it to the person who is gnawing their teeth to show the world what they have to say. And if I can do that with this little money I’ve, like, grifted from HBO, then I think that we might have a more healthy ecosystem for these young artists.

Also, neither of these things would be possible without significant designers onboard. Isabella Byrd [who lit Heroes both at Playwrights and on Zoom] was my lighting designer on Daddy with Danya; she does some of the best light design ever. So if you tell me that she is going to be doing the design of the lights for the Zoom reading, I know it’s not just gonna be a Zoom reading. I know it’s going to feel like a production in a way that other things haven’t. So that was a big deciding factor as well: Oh wait, I’m paying the designers because they’re actually going to design it? That’s lit.
How many more can you do?

I got $250,000 a year from HBO [for the production kitty]. The thing that I was hoping would happen with my announcement was that more artists would maybe put that in their rider and say, “I want this as well.” The worst thing they could say is no, you know? And the best thing they can say is “Here’s $250,000.” They’re so annoyed with me now because I’ve done so many of these little things. They’re like, “Can we just give you the money so it stops coming out of our business affairs? ’Cuz, like, we don’t care about what you’re doing with this weird theater shit.” [Laughs.] Right now, I have enough to do maybe two or three more projects this year with the money from year one. And of year two’s money, $100,000 is already claimed for a larger investment project that we’re doing. But the rest of the money I want to go to micro-grants. Little enhancements along the way. Mm-hmm.

So if people take one lesson from this, it’s …

“Look, this is doable.” It’s relatively easy. Artists are ready. We don’t actually have to sit around watching Zoom for the rest of our lives. The most obvious people who have that $50,000 sitting around are the major commercial producers, who are sort of like twiddling their thumbs and not knowing how to help artists right now. You know, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Greg Nobile was one of those commercial producers that helped out with Circle Jerk as well.

I am not rich! Like, I literally am not actually rich. In the sense of my peers, right, I have, like, money now. But I do know what actual rich people have, and I hope that some of the major producers in our community will say, “How can I do that as well?” because there’s a lot of people that need that help. I think that if Soho Rep had this kind of money right now, Soho Rep would probably be doing something that would blow everything we’re doing out of the water. If Movement Theatre had this kind of money right now, they’d be doing that. The thing is that what I saw Circle Jerk do was something that looks better than SNL at Home! And I wish that, like, as a community, we’d say, “Look, these non-technology theater people figured this out with little resources in a way that major companies haven’t.” So I hope that people listening or reading this not only take their capital and try to help individuals in our community but maybe look at some of the arts organizations who might need an extra lift and might have the infrastructure to truly help out some new artists and get them going.

Jeremy O. Harris Is Producing Plays With HBO’s Money