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In early 2020, now-retired Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Dave Harris about Exception to the Rule in anticipation of the planned 2020 production of the show. Harris edited his responses in early 2022.

TED SOD: Please tell us where you were born and educated. When did you realize you wanted to become a playwright? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

DAVE HARRIS: I was born in Los Angeles but raised in and around West Philly for most of my childhood up until I left for college. My life has a Fresh-Prince-in-reverse trajectory. My mom predicted me becoming a writer in third grade because I would write scary, twisted Stephen King adaptations for short stories. In hindsight, I maybe should not have been reading Stephen King at that age. But I was always writing and acting. In sixth grade, I left public school to attend The Haverford School, a stupidly wealthy, almost entirely white private school. But a school that believed it would save me from the hood. I had a teacher named Mrs. Reed who taught seventh grade theatre and made us write and submit plays to Philadelphia Young Playwrights. And so my first play was born, Nerds 101: a play about three single nerds who wanted girlfriends (lol ugh). I wrote four more plays throughout high school, never expecting it to be a career. I planned to go to college and be a scientist and make a lot of money and never be poor again. I made it to college (Yale), and thought that meant I was successful, until I realized everything I thought was true was a lie. The wealthy institutions of success were just as corrupt as the neighborhoods I grew up in. My family had worked their lives away trying to get me into a privileged space like this, and yet the success I was working for was not based in fulfillment, but in fear. And unlearning that fear meant I had to unlearn the definition of success that I had. And so I dropped my major, switched to Theatre, and committed to writing.

TS: What inspired you to write Exception to the Rule? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how?

DH: Exception to the Rule started as a metaphorical container for my journey from Philly to Yale and the trauma of education. Education is often structured to say, “I’m going to teach you this thing, and thus you will become better, smarter, faster, etc.” In the racialization of education, school becomes corrective. I will teach you to speak better by changing “ain’t” to “am not.” And if you do the correct thing enough, you’ll go to college and be successful and never have to suffer again. These are the rules, and they are usually set by oppressive bodies. For me and the private school I went to, I made the choice to buy into that system because it presented a path to escape. As I grew older, I realized how complicated the things were that I was seeking to escape from. Poverty. Trauma. Social isolation. These became what I associated with my race. These became internalized racism. But those aren’t necessarily the words you learn in high school. In high school, you’re too busy trying to get a girlfriend, or find a ride home, or learn about a party, or figure out what others have that you don’t. And so Exception to the Rule is about six teenagers figuring out how to deal with the normalized trauma of surviving high school while also confronting the fact that they might be trapped here forever. One of them might have a way out. But what is it that she wants out of?

TS: Will you tell us about the development process of your play? Was there much rewriting involved?

DH: I wrote the first draft of this play with Deb Margolin, one of the best theatre teachers I think there is (and someone who has probably taught a lot of your favorite theatre artists). The rewrites have largely been bringing the play closer and closer to what it’s actually about. The great thing is that Miranda [Haymon] and I have been with this play for almost two years. We started with it at the Roundabout Underground Reading Series and the play was programmed very quickly after that. We’ve workshopped. We’ve staged readings. We always find new things in the room, but also we know this play and have been living with these characters for so long. I can’t wait for other people to get to experience what we’ve been living in a full production.

TS: Was your play inspired in any way by the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club? Do you expect people to see connections between your play and that film?

DH: I’ve never seen The Breakfast Club, but if it gets you to see the play then by all means.

TS: The end of the play stylistically may be seen by some as magic realism—do you see it that way?

DH: I think that as you watch the play, you’ll learn the rules that these high schoolers are operating under. And you’ll start to see how absurd and arbitrary the rules of any society are. And the rules build and pile and stack. There are punishments. And there are rewards. And there are ways to survive. And the magic is always there. Except maybe it’s not magic. Maybe it’s just the fact that high school is scary.

TS: How have you been collaborating with director Miranda Haymon? What made you want to collaborate with them on this play?

DH: Miranda is a force. Miranda is hilarious, focused, incisive, one of my favorite people to collaborate with, and the perfect person to be in the Roundabout Underground with. We met each other two years ago, maybe longer, and have since worked together on three different plays. In a lot of ways, we have similar experiences with higher education and navigating institutions. A lot of our process requires personal interrogation, and I think part of the gift of this play and this process will be having a room for Black artists who have to unpack the education that brought them here and the benefits and dangers of that education.

TS: What other projects are you working on?

DH: I had a movie at Sundance called Summertime that’s like a musical, except the characters break out into poem instead of breaking out into song.  I have some more film projects that I can’t talk about, but would make you very excited if you knew what they were (sorry). I wish I were working on another collection of poetry at the moment, but not yet.

TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?

DH: The imaginations of others.

TS: What advice would you give someone who says they want to write for the theatre?

DH: Don’t be broke in New York. I think the best thing I ever did was move to a relatively inexpensive city after college, where I could have space to breathe and not be afraid of where my next meal would come from.

UPSTAGE GUIDE: What impact has the experience of the two year pause between the planned production and now had on Exception to the Rule for you?

DH: This play was originally going to be my New York debut two years ago, but due to COVID-related schedule shifts, this play is following two months after my first show Tambo & Bones at Playwrights Horizons. So now I’m curious to see how these plays will talk to each other. I think often about what it is to have a body of work, and the playwrights who most excite me are the ones whose formal ambitions shift in each work. And these two plays couldn’t be more formally distinct, even if they both revolve around ideas of escape and agency.

UG: Have the two years that have elapsed since the original production date changed how you feel about Exception to the Rule?

DH: I’ve always written plays that were primarily comedies, and now I feel even more what a relief that is.

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