Playwright Trish Harnetiaux on Tin Cat Shoes

Director Maggie L. Rogers interviews playwright Trish Harnetiaux about the making of Tin Cat Shoes, an absurd workplace comedy. Playing April 15 – May 2, 2022 at 12th Avenue Arts.

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Maggie L. Rogers: You write books, movies, podcasts, plays. What about Tin Cat Shoes (TCS) felt like a play to you? Why this medium of storytelling?

Trish Harnetiaux: I wrote the first draft of Tin Cat Shoes after the 2016 election when I was part of Ars Nova’s PlayGroup. It was always going to be a play. I read an article about a scout leader somewhere in New Jersey who was out with the troops on a hike in December and ended up being pulled into a cave by a bear that everyone assumed should be hibernating, but wasn’t (global warming). It fit into the narrative that was all around – that the world wasn’t right. This event inspired the middle of the three sections in the play and from there, I began to understand that the events would unfold over one long day that started in a familiar work environment (the shoe store) but unravel in an outrageous way, that the characters never question, each accepting what comes at them and adjusting accordingly. Instant acclimation can be terrifying, funny, and answer the question of wait, how did I get here?  

MLR: What was the impetus for writing TCS? What surprised you in the writing process?

TH: I accidentally answered most of this in the previous question… I was surprised when I discovered through writing the play, that their search for “help” actually just led them to a casino and provided a platform for suppressed character traits to be set free in that environment. Previously, they all did as they were supposed to do, worked as a team, attempted to find solutions as a group, and followed both the rules of the shoe store and the rules of society. The disintegration of normality rises to a new level when first they are lost in the wilderness, then are presented with the possibilities only a casino can bring. All leading to the question, when you’re no longer required to conform, what choices DO you make?  

MLR: Which character do you relate to the most? For best qualities AND worst qualities? 

TH: Impossible to answer. All of them capture the essence in one way or another of something I’m really interested in – whether it’s a day in the life of the new hire, the survival techniques a tight group of co-workers have, or the power dynamics of the “boss”. I’m honestly more interested in how they relate to each other, how character qualities unfold in different situations, especially when seemingly in a corporate container aimed at encouraging conformity. If I could change your questions slightly and apply it to the tonal shifts in each section and how they relate to the whole – like if you asked me which section I liked best? Well, actually I couldn’t answer that either. The play was designed to follow a built in system failure arc that is dependent on total trust and earnestness at the beginning, break down in the middle, then by the final part, it’s all unraveled in a way where, as the stakes become enormous, each one of them falls victim (or victor?) to their natural faults..but nothing satisfies and there’s the constant need for more and more and more…  

MLR: WET read this play in Spring of 2018 and we were obsessed with the study of acclimation to bananas circumstances. Now, two years post Donald, calendar year 3 in the COVID pandemic, and in the midst of this country actually attempting to confront racism, does the play feel different to you now? Did you think acclimation would look like this?

TH: Do we even know what we’re looking at? It’s all a soup right now and there are so many ideology shifts that are supposed to be happening – and I think are on some level – but how it relates to the whole is entirely unclear. So much of the work that needs to be done is at a foundational level, it’s easy to feel uninspired by acts of organizational tokenism that merely, and often lamely, attempt an optical band aid solution where what needs to happen is anarchy and a total restructure of process. Forgive me for sounding both grand and vague at the same time, but I will say that personally, I’m excited there seems to be movement on the individual level…and hopefully that will translate to greater change everywhere. If we don’t…just…forget to change…which is the easiest path to take. If we continue to hold people personally accountable for progress and promises, eventually I hope it will inspire and create actual change. Personally, this play feels even more important now, since we’re finally having collective conversations about the things that are broken and identifying where we have failed each other (and ourselves) in the past in the hope to change behavior… Though again, the work that needs to be done is so deep, it seems theoretical because we’re so often our worst enemy and hold ourselves, and progress, up. Not quite able to reconcile how to move forward while confronting the past. We need to keep at it.

MLR: One time I thought I could work at Jimmy John’s forever. Have you ever been wrapped up into the “we are a family” work culture? 
TH: Haha. I’m sharply divided by my life-long suspicion of authority and my want to have collective experiences with the people I’m around. I’m fascinated by how people experience and embrace work culture because there are so many traps everywhere, companies stealing your time and providing a false framework of comfort. I could never quite give in because it’s hard for me to dismiss the ulterior motives of forced team bonding like bowling night or happy hour or trust falls. That said, the closest I’ve come is being part of incredible teams that execute projects – be it a play or film or event. Being part of turning an idea into reality is incredibly seductive. Though probably mostly because there’s an end to it.  

MLR: How has being born and raised in Washington influenced your art making?

TH: My dad’s been the playwright in residence of the Spokane Civic Theatre for 35 years so I grew up watching his shows and being in shows and around that community which was a huge influence. I think coming from the west is something you don’t ever shake, even after spending half my life in Brooklyn. I’m in Washington so much – it’s my home and also my home-away-from-home since my actual home is in New York. Finally having a show in Seattle is an absolute dream and the fact that all you geniuses at WET are tackling this not so easy piece with precision and humor is a dream. Can’t wait to see it. I just wish Jimmy Woo’s Jade Pagoda or Ernie Steele’s (+ Ileen’s) were still open so we could have pink shots after the show.  

MLR: Would you let it ride on black 22?

TH: Always have, always will.