By Brian Robin
H. Adam Harris Takes An Enjoyable Bite Out of Directing
There is a bounce to H. Adam Harris’ voice, one even more buoyant than his normal bounce his infectious, take-over-the-room charisma.
This extra bounce comes when you put the man in his happy place. Harris lives for these moments and he lives to bring audiences along for that passionate ride with him.
What’s putting that extra bounce in Harris’ voice? Where’s Harris’ happy place? Harris makes his SCR directorial debut helming SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production of Snow White by Greg Banks. The production runs Nov. 4-20 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.
It’s not Harris’ first directing role; he directed Redwood at Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis last winter. Nor is it his first Banks play. Harris played Baloo/Father Wolf in Jungle Book and Smaug/Kili in The Hobbit at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis. Both plays were written and directed by Banks, considered one of the premier children’s theatre playwrights in the world.
And Harris absolutely embraces the moment of directing a Greg Banks play at SCR, where he is also the Artistic/Audience Engagement Associate and a teacher in the Conservatory.
“I’ve never directed a Greg Banks play, so this is full circle for me,” Harris said. “This is sort of kismet to direct a piece and lead the process of executing what I knew as an actor. It’s wonderful to lead the process, where my job is to lead audiences on a journey that brings them the same level of joy and transformation I experienced in Greg Banks’ shows.”
And there is plenty of joy in Banks’ shows. Harris’ infectious personality and familiarity with the work make him a natural here. There are also plenty of demands on both director and actors. Banks is known for his adaptations of the classics—with an anything-but-classic twist. Both Jungle Book and The Hobbitwere five-actor plays, with actors bouncing from one character to the next.
Snow White features only two actors, who must be equal parts talented and versatile: Candace Nicholas-Lippman (Snow White) and Derek Manson (Dwarf Four) play all 14 roles. They have to change characters with seamless adroitness, which puts demands on Harris’ directing chops. His staging and blocking require Nicholas-Lippman and Manson to change their roles/outfits with unerring precision. They can’t just flip out of one outfit and cast it aside like tomorrow’s laundry. They have to leave it in a convenient place—when they have to return to it.
“A Greg Banks show requires a lot of rigor, not only in just the craft, but physically,” Harris said. “You have to build up stamina and endurance in order to tell these stories with a small number of people. … When I think about directing Snow White, I think about creating a playground for the actors to enjoy.
“… What we’ve been working on in the room over the past week is creating a connection between two performers. In a Greg Banks play like Jungle Book or The Hobbit, we had an ensemble. These people only have each other. I have to create a relationship or at least a possibility for a relationship between artists where they trust one another, depend on one another and can push and pull off one another to create a quality performance.”
Harris broke down his director’s portfolio in quarters. He said he spends a quarter of the work staging the play, a quarter of time building relationships between Nicholas-Lippman and Manson—along with his creative team—a quarter of the time working on elements like sound, music, sets and costumes, and his last quarter “making sure the room reflects the values I believe in as a director.”
Those values: a commanding vision of the work, collegiality, positivity and an anything’s-possible attitude are already present. During a recent photo shoot, Nicholas-Lippman and Manson exuded a natural charisma together that belied the fact they’ve only been in rehearsals for barely a week.
“The passion and the energy he is bringing into the room on this project is something that is completely infectious,” Manson said. “You know exactly the world that you’re in, you know exactly what you need to bring into the room as a professional and as a creative mind, and he knows how to nurture that and put you in the best mindset to do your best work.
“It’s brilliant to be in the room with him.”
Nicholas-Lippman makes her SCR debut in Snow White. She is feeding off Harris’ energy and having the time of her life.
“He is so passionate, so energetic. You can just tell how much he loves what he does,” she said. “He creates such a safe space for us as actors to really be able to play, to discover, to collaborate. He’s just very open as a director and he makes me feel like ‘OK, I can do this.’
“He challenges for sure, and that’s something that personally, in my journey as an artist, that’s something I really, really love. I want to be challenged I want to grow and become better artistically. He really challenges me in areas I didn’t think I was sure I could do. Can I do this? He’s like ‘You can. You can. As long as you believe you can do it, because I believe you can do it, so let’s do it.’”
That it took a “failure” of sorts for Harris to discover his directorial talent is ironic. He auditioned for a role in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley. Harris didn’t get the part, but he got one heck of a consolation prize.
“The director, Patricia McGregor, needed an assistant director and I had a friend there who said I’d be a great candidate for that slot,” Harris said. “I met with Patricia and got hired as the assistant director. It was the first time I was in a room led by a Black woman director and a director who led with compassion a sense of grace and a sense of caring for the artists in their journey. She led with vision.
“What I was struck by was seeing her leadership that wasn’t aggressive or in-your-face. Don’t get me wrong, it was clear what she wanted. That was exciting for me. She really trusted me and offered me a lot of feedback. We’d talk about every single thing happening in the rehearsal room. Sitting next to her, I learned a lot about what I was missing when I was sitting in the room when I’d watch plays directed by others.”
A quick study, Harris took his lessons from McGregor, now the artistic director at the New York Theatre Workshop, added them to his overflowing-with-positivity toolbox and devised a directing style “mindful of taking care of the artists as they execute their work.”
Seeing this come to fruition on Snow White adds that bounce to Harris’ normally bouncy voice. Bringing this classic with a twist to new audiences really does put Harris in his happy place, his element.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Harris said. “When I came to SCR, I came because I had a lot of respect for (Artistic Director) David Ivers and his vision. One of the things I share with David is we’re both artists and we both have a love for epic, imaginative and intimate shows.”
For his part, Ivers knew the right director for this Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production was sitting down the hall. It was one of his easiest personnel decisions of the season.
“He’s also the perfect guy for the job,” Ivers said. “He’s been on every side of the equation as it relates to Theatre for Young Audiences. He’s a teacher. He’s an educator who works with young people and works with people of all ages. He understands what it’s like to be an actor inside of an experience for children, providing gateway experiences for the theater and no one feels more deeply about the power of transformation of the theatre for young people on our staff than the Conservatory and H.
“For me, there was never a question about his artistry and his ability and it’s a fantastic thing that we have artists on our staff who are integrated into the season. Those are the most powerful points I can make about the decision to give him the space to be an artist here as much as he’s an administrator.”