Interview with Bryan Harnetiaux

Bryan Harnetiaux has been a Playwright-in-Residence at Spokane Civic Theatre in Spokane, WA, since 1982. Thirteen of his plays have been published; these works include original plays as well as commissioned stage adaptations.  He has written a cycle of plays on end of life: Vesta, Dusk, and Holding On ~ Letting Go.  All of these plays (Holding On ~ Letting Go in abridged form) are licensed in clinical settings addressing end-of-life issues (medical and professional conferences, etc.) through Hospice Foundation of America; contact Lisa Veglahn at lveglahn@hospicefoundation.org for more information.

Q: You've written a number of plays on various subjects. What inspired you as a playwright to tackle issues of death and dying?
A: Writers generally only have one or two things they tend to write about. For me, from the beginning, the issues surrounding mortality and death have been a dominant subject of interest. The first play I did was about a man who was dying, although that wasn’t the focus of the play. I also spent a year working on an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which has strong themes about reflecting on one’s life, while facing mortality.
In 1991, I was asked to write a short play for a conference on aging; the character of Vesta came from that production.  And, not surprisingly, my personal experiences with death and loss have also informed my writing. My father died in 1987 when I was 40. Most everyone else in my family is in the medical field, and so their perspectives on the experience were very different. The issues we had to face as a family—especially those surrounding advance directives, decisions around artificial nutrition and hydration, etc.—were very hard on me at the time.
Q: What is it about theatre that seems to be a good format to explore some of these issues?
A: I like what playwright David Mamet says in Writing in Restaurants: “Our highest purpose in theatre is to represent culture’s need to address the question, ‘How can I live in a world in which I am doomed to die?’” For me, as a playwright, it’s the fundamental intimacy and the immediacy of theatre. Drama often hits you in the gut before it hits you in the brain. Also, once the lights go down and the play begins, you’re stuck—unless you are willing to publicly bolt from the theatre.  The impact can be powerful, and may cause even the most reluctant in the audience to reflect on how the story told on stage bears on their own life. It may even galvanize them to action. If the play is done right it is hard not to be drawn in. I’ve felt that myself as an audience member. It can be startling at times.
That’s the power that theatre has for me, and it’s well beyond the best film and television have to offer. To quote Mamet again: “The theatre is the place where we go to hear the truth.”
Q: Most organizations that produce your plays are hospices and other community organizations, and most of them hold post-play discussions after the performance. You've participated in some of the post-play discussions. Can you talk about what happened in some of those discussions, and what you learned?
A: Theatre is a shared, communal experience. With these particular plays, I have seen a willingness, almost a need, for people to tell their own stories. For instance, in Vesta, the audience members often identify with one of the three women—the aging Vesta, her adult daughter Carol, or the granddaughter.
The theatre provides a safe harbor, a climate where you can look at these issues honestly, without fear of judgment. I remember hearing of a production of Vesta, and in the audience was a couple with their children; there had been a death in their family that had never been fully discussed. They didn’t come expecting the play to “unlock” anything, but it did; the family stayed long after the play was over and had their first in-depth conversation about the experience. Theatre can have that kind of impact—it has a way of provoking discussion and illuminating issues. It can “prime the pump”—you experience something on stage that resonates with you, and all of a sudden the walls come down.
I’ve seen some great moderators in these post-play discussions who really knew what they were doing; if done right, they can ignite and guide a conversation. The catch is, the subject matter, even if it is handled well, is still taboo in our society. So, of course, the problem remains—you still need to get them in the door!
Q: What role can community hospices play in facilitating these productions?
A: I do think, in some ways, there is almost a moral imperative to offer these post-play discussions with readings or performances, some guidance to help the audience debrief in a supportive, knowledgeable way. Most producing organizations offer a short break after the reading or performance. Of the discussions I’ve seen, I’d say at least 2/3rds of the audience stay. This is where the local hospice or other organization can play such a significant role, by providing moderators to guide the conversation, discussion guides or panels, and offering additional resources. There are always going to be people in the audience who are drawn to the production because of a personal experience, and it’s important that hospices and other producing organizations be prepared to hear their stories and offer some guidance.
Q: Did you work with hospices or other end-of-life professionals when researching and writing the plays?
A: I’ve done field work and had professional guidance since the beginning of the journey. It started with some field work in 1991, going out with nurses on home visits. All of the families knew I was a playwright, and they were always welcoming. Each experience was so illuminating. I’ve  worked with numerous healthcare professionals who have devoted their lives to end-of-life care, including Jim Shaw of the Providence Center for Faith and Healing in Spokane, and the staff at Hospice of Spokane. I don’t think I could have written the plays without these experiences. I am such a believer in what hospices do. I’m pleased that these plays can  help get the word out about this incredible care. Someone suggested to me there’s a connection between hospice care and midwifery—each involves a very learned and knowing way of dealing with a profoundly human process.
Q: Some of the dying characters in your plays are more open to the reality that they are dying than their family members. In your experience, have you found that to be a common reality? Why do think that is?
A: I have seen a number of situations where the person who is dying seems to get it before their loved ones do, although the situations will vary. Often, denial and avoidance are part of the process, and may be at the heart of the conflicts that attend the end of life. Examining these conflicts and their sources is the stuff of theatre, and carries with it the possibility of understanding, and redemption, if you will. Often the audience is going to relate more to the loved ones who are responding to the end-of-life situation than to the person who is dying. But while the characters in my plays who are facing death talk a good game, they aren’t always at peace with it either. This to me reflects reality—there’s no clear map to this process. We do the best we can, with the support and guidance of those who know the terrain.