PCS Blog

The Last Five Years of Drew Harper

Posted by Alice Hodge | 05 May 2014

Recently, we sat down with The Last Five Years star Drew Harper to talk about his last five years (and then some) in New York City, living in Cairo just after the Arab Spring, studying queer theory at NYU and an Aunty Mame of a Godmother.

Hi Drew! Let's start by talking about your path in the arts. How did you end up where we are today?

There are lots of home videos of me putting on shows when I was a kid – shows I got my sister to do with me, and I used to rope all the neighborhood kids into doing, back in St. Louis Missouri where I grew up – Merideth Kaye Clark [Cathy] and I are both native Missourians! After elementary school my family moved to Vancouver, Washington, so I went to Mt. View High School, which had an incredible musical theater program at the time, run by two women Jeanette James and Margit Moe. I really owe so much of my life in musical theater to these two women. Margit had a career as a theatre actress for decades, including at OSF [Oregon Shakespeare Festival], so she had a lot of rich experience in the theater and really guided me through my high school years. And Jeanette is just an unparalleled music teacher. They both encouraged me to pursue a future in musical theater — even years later when I maintained I’d given it up for good.

When I was finished with high school, I got into NYU in the CAP21 musical theater program at Tisch [School of the Arts]. And that was my dream, but when I got there … well, it was a bit of a long and winding road to get there. I took a year off between high school and college, which put me on a lot of different paths in New York. I was a pastor’s son, raised in a conservative subculture, so my world kind of exploded when I moved to New York. I ended up meeting and being mentored by some amazing independent filmmakers and art-makers and queer subcultural performers. My friend Stephen Winter changed my life when he asked me to Associate Produce a short film he directed. His guidance really showed me a whole side of New York and of life that I never knew existed, and put me on a path in the world of behind-the-camera production that I had never anticipated.


Drew in New York City

Then the second year I was there, I went to school at CAP21 and didn’t have a great time. I felt frustrated with a lot of my experience there, also I think I had become very self-important after a year in New York. I was 19 and I thought I was hot shit because I kind of already had my scene and my digs and my crowd, so I didn’t put sincere effort into school in the way I should have. After my first year of school I dropped out of Tisch and did my second year at NYU studying whatever I was interested in (except for astronomy, which I was not so much ‘interested in’ as ‘stoned for’). I took a class called “Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in U.S. History,” taught by an incredible social theorist named Lisa Duggan, that blew up my whole cerebellum completely, and helped me to put a name to the many ideas I had been struggling with via my own life experience.

Then I dropped out of school altogether to write this screenplay, and I supposedly worked on that full time for a couple of years. Really I worked on it part-time and partied with my friends a lot. I was surrounded by artists in New York; exciting, intelligent creatives who were doing their art. But I definitely ended up fashioning an identity as more of a host to artists than an artist myself. Because I had this great place, people would come to our house and we would have amazing gatherings, so I liked to imagine at the time that it was quite a sophisticated Salon, which sometimes it was, and other times it was an iniquitous den of self-indulgent youth and wasted potentials. Inspiring people would come through all the time, and we would discuss important ideas and make art, but I personally was not anywhere as productive as I could have been.

The other crazy part of this time period was my Godmother, a woman whose role in my life would take up an entire interview on its own. Imagine this larger-than-life septuagenarian Auntie Mame-esqe character. My siblings and I call her “Gramma,” as do many other people in New York. She is warm and eccentric and generous beyond words, and it was her particular pleasure to rent apartments for me to inhabit in Manhattan, essentially so that she could come to New York and party [laughs]. She and I had a lot of great adventures during the years I lived there, and she got to know all my friends and she sort of became this bon vivant character in my circles, who’d drop in a couple months of the year, like a guest star on the tragicomic TV show that was my life. Or really more like a guest DJ at a rave. To this day, if we’re visiting New York and we’re in Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side, we’ll be walking down the street and someone will yell “Gramma!” and run over and hug her. So it was this very over-the-top life for five years.


Drew and his Godmother in Egypt on her 80th birthday

So that was New York for five years. At the end of that time, I went to Egypt. I had been to Mubarak-era Egypt in 2006 for a study abroad program. But when I went again in 2011, I had been working for a documentarian in Brooklyn who was following a group of heavy metal musicians and their involvement in Tahrir and the Revolution. I lived in Cairo for what was supposed to be three weeks and instead became three months. That trip shook me up profoundly, and I realized I had to get out of New York. So, I was 23 at that point. I applied to school at Evergreen State College, and during my last couple of months in New York after returning from Cairo, I did a project through Evergreen studying queer space in Manhattan. Then I came back to the Northwest. That was the summer of 2012.

I schooled at Evergreen for a little bit in Olympia before dropping out to come back home to start over from square one, to figure out how I was going to live as an adult. It was a cleansing period. I moved all my shit in my parent’s garage, I changed my relationship with mind-altering substances, and I worked bussing tables. I was very excited to be living in Portland, but I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do here. My mom kept giving me the gentle nudge to audition for theater. At this point I hadn’t done anything since I was 18, except for a couple friends’ readings or limited performances in New York. But Mom kept bugging me, so I went to the PCS general auditions and stood in a room in front of Brandon [Woolley] and Rose [Riordan] and sang a little song, and did a little monologue and they called me back for JAW, which was amazing. The JAW piece I got to do, Threesome, was written by a brilliant Egyptian playwright who lives in Seattle, Yussef El-Guindi, and deals with issues related to the 2011 Revolution. That experience was unbelievably rewarding. Then we did Fiddler here, then came Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Portland Playhouse, then Light in the Piazza [also at Portland Playhouse] and now this show, which is the hardest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done.


Drew as Scrooge in Portland Playhouse's A Christmas Carol

Tell me about your time in Cairo.

I was there the first time when I was 17 in the summer of 2006 on a scholarship funded by the U.S. State Department. We went to the Arab League and stayed in gated villas outside of the city. We visited NGO sponsored orphanages and went on guided tours followed by men with machine guns. We made presentations on American life and democracy. It was all very heavily structured and sheltered and controlled. The second time I went, September through December of 2011, was completely different.

I went with no plan. I had no idea where I would live and very little idea what I would do there. The Revolution was still happening. It is still happening now. It is a continual reality. During the time I was there the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections were held. There were a lot of protests. The first big military massacre happened that year. One night military tanks simply started rolling over peaceful protesters in an area of town called Maspiero. One weekend in November two American guys I knew, roommates of my best American friend in Cairo, were taken prisoner by the Egyptian military police and accused of throwing Molotov cocktails from a rooftop, and it was all over the news. My poor mother was sitting at home having Thanksgiving dinner and all of a sudden there was my face on the television being interviewed in connection with that incident. She must have choked on her cranberry sauce.

Instead of living in gated villas with a State Department-approved chaperone and hired driver, I lived with another American buddy in a poor, rough area where we were the only white foreigners in the neighborhood. We got harassed and leered at pretty heavily, until the one night I brought a plate full of baklava and hash cigarettes to the local boys whose uncles and fathers and older cousins ran the neighborhood. That opened a channel of friendship and mutual understanding, and things were different after that.  

It was dangerous and it was thrilling and it was the most spiritually and intellectually challenging experience I’ve ever had. I studied Arabic while I was there. I had been studying Arabic off and on since I was 16 or 17, but my Arabic deepened during that trip. I met young Egyptian artists, and people who were involved in the revolution that way. So there was, and is, all this artistic foment going on, and much of it is dangerous by its very nature and much of it had to be done in a subversive, kind of underground way. It was very important for me and was a turning point in my life.


Drew on a pyramid in Egypt

How did seeing that style of art, and that necessity of art, inform you as an artist?

I don’t think it settled into my consciousness until the last few months. It’s interesting because I’ve been lucky so far in Portland. I’m getting good work; I’ve been embraced by the Portland community very quickly (which has been amazing, everyone helping me with advice and love and guidance). I’ve been given a lot of big chances. In the midst of that, bubbling in my consciousness is my remembering and knowing what it’s like for my Egyptian friends to do art in a way that is risky and dangerous and yet feels absolutely necessary to their being, and to what they see as their mission in their community, in their country and in the world.

I also learned a lot about this through my final year in New York, when I studied queer space and its history there. I began to understand for the first time the history of the AIDS crisis, which is something that I think mainstream culture—both gay and straight—wants to rewrite or push to the margins. I learned a lot about ACT UP, the HIV/AIDS activist group. A lot of my friends who are artists and filmmakers were heavily involved in that struggle. Those studies really affected me when I was back from Egypt. And yet now, as a working artist, all of that means something different to me. Now, as someone who is trying to make it and have a career and beginning to understand how unbelievably difficult it is, how hard it is to survive and make it work, I think a lot about the people who did it and are doing it in much tougher situations. It gives me a lot of pause and makes me wonder, “Well, where is my place along that spectrum? Where is my calling? How is my art necessary for me? If my art is necessary for me, why? How do I do all that and continue to pay bills and be an adult?”


How do you think that informs your art, or your approach to your art or your creativity? Do you see a relationship between your studies in queer spaces and theory with your art?

I think any art that challenges people to think more complexly and compassionately about social norms they might take for granted is an art that I’m attracted to. I’ve also become really passionate about searching for opportunities, through art, to bridge the divide between the queer community I became a part of and the Christian community I grew up in. My father, who is a professor of History and Theology at Multnomah University here in town, has become a huge activist in this regard. I really want to find ways to work with him on this. We’re in the development phase for a book we’re writing together, but I feel a growing responsibility — as I continue down the path of learning the discipline of the artist — to seek out and generate creative ways to do this. I think it’s got to be a significant part of my personal mission.

In that vein I want to give a shout out to my darling Susannah Mars and the team of Quality of Life that’s playing at Artists Rep right now, because it's a great example of a show that takes two couples—a Christian couple and a couple that is also heterosexual but whose perspective on life and relationships could certainly be placed within the realm of “queer”—and highlights their mutually fallible and sacred humanity, rather than making either party into “strawmen” for a polemic or ideological point of view. I want to be a part of work like that.


Drew as Jamie in The Last Five Years; Photos by Patrick Weishampel

Let’s talk about The Last Five Years...

I’m thrilled! I have loved this show since I was 15 or 16 years old. My friend had a mixed CD in her car and I remember falling in love with the songs and the show. There is a lot of ambivalence and ambiguity  within the story as you listen to it. I had been steeped in the classic canon of musicals, so to hear this piece with swear words and frank talk about sex and relationships in a modern context was very exciting, especially for an evangelical youth group kid from the suburbs. When I found out PCS was doing The Last Five Years, I remember thinking "Oh God that would be my dream to play Jamie!"  So, the fact that I’m doing it at all is amazing, but then the fact that I’m doing it with this team, well it couldn’t be more incredible.


What is it like to work with Merideth Kaye Clark and the The Last Five Years creative team?

Nancy Keystone – there are not enough words to describe what a fun and wonderfully rich experience it is to be directed by her. Nancy is about telling the story and creating believable action on stage. It would be easy to direct this show as a cabaret review, but that’s not what this play could possibly be in Nancy’s hands. She’s someone I admire tremendously and she’s taught me so much about what it means to be an ethical artist. She’s changed me as a performer and as a person. I’ve had a little bit of an opportunity to hear about what her journey in the arts has been, and if I could have half of that of experience, I would be richly satisfied. 

Rick Lewis is one of my favorite people. He’s been a consistent mentor to me since I started work with him on Fiddler last year. He’s made such a difference in my relationship to music. He’s taught me so much about how to access my own power as a singer. Eric Little is a dear, dear friend and an unbelievable musician. He is going to be this town’s next rock star music director – watch out for him.

And then there’s Merideth Kaye Clark. Mer is not only a world-class talent, but for Christ’s sake, she has an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience! She’s brilliant, she’s grounded, she’s realistic, she is a no nonsense workhorse who knows how to make the most hilarious and shocking jokes, and she knows how to call me on my shit and generously but firmly encourage me towards greater focus. She’s divine. She has been an amazing guide to me this entire year, ever since we did Fiddler together. Doing this show with her is an honor.


Merideth Kaye Clark as Tzeitel and Drew as Motel in Fiddler on the Roof at PCS

What has been your approach to Jamie?

Jamie is a very difficult character to play – I think he needs to be more complex than he is on the page in order for the show to be truly transcendent, in order for his journey to be perceived as genuine and sympathetic. And in order for my Jamie to be at the level of where Merideth’s Cathy is, that’s a lot of work. Mer does it naturally; she brings so much depth and nuance and incredible humanity to her characters. It’s a real challenge to be up to that level every day.

To play Jamie, I’ve drawn from my friends, a lot of people I knew in New York. It’s been interesting as a personal journey because it’s about a guy experiencing life coming at him very quickly. It’s a cautionary tale, in a lot of ways. And he’s at the ages of 23 to 28. I just turned 25, so I’m right in the middle of that – looking behind me and looking ahead and thinking, "how can I learn from this person?" The coolest part is getting to fall in love with Merideth every day. [laughs]


What do you hope the audience takes away from this show?

I hope they take away a sense of forgiveness for being young and in love and ambitious and selfish. One of the things that I love about the show’s iconic use of time is that it demonstrates that love is eternal because moments are eternal; we get to hold on to those moments forever, even when we’ve moved past them and moved on in our life. Those special magic moments always exist, somewhere in the temporal continuum.


Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I would like to have the opportunity to work at a repertory company like OSF. [Oregon Shakespeare Festival] I want to work on the classics because that was such an important part of my youth. My parents are such bibliophiles and they gave me such incredible theater to read when I was growing up – Shakespeare, Jean Paul Sarte, Edward Albee. These were my evangelical parents giving me things like this to read when I was growing up! I’d like to go back to Egypt and work as an artist and reconnect with my friends. I’d like to continue building a family here in Portland, to continue to learn from the vast and varied tapestry of artists here, and to continue to be mentored. And at the end of five years, I’d like to have written and produced something myself. Hopefully a one-man show.


The Last Five Years runs April 26 — June 22

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