Amy E. Harmon
Where are you from?
An exceptionally small town in SW Michigan, with a one-year detour to Aberdeen, Scotland. College in Evanston, IL. Chicago after that.
What’s something people would never guess about you from looking at you?
I’m a life-long potential carrier for mad cow disease.
What made you decide to pursue theatre?
Mad cow disease.
Also: I’ve always loved books for the way they open the door to entirely different perspectives, lives, worlds… it’s possible to come away from each book with new information, a more robust sense of empathy, a wilder pick-bag of daydreams. At its best, theatre is like that too – with the added terror/wonder of collaborating with other people on the experience.
Also: I was supposed to be an academic. It was fun to put a spoke in people’s wheels.
What drew you to stage combat?
As an undergrad at NU – in I think spring 1994? – I was seriously disgruntled with college theatre and looking for an outlet. I picked a fencing class because a) it took place on the other end of campus from the theatre school and b) I figured once I wasn’t disgruntled anymore, maybe I could use some of the fencing moves onstage. I took the class; then one of my roommates, who was already a fencer, brought me to a couple team practices. It turned out that right about then women’s collegiate fencing was expanding from one weapon (foil) to two (foil and epee) and the team, like Mars, needed women. So, I joined on a whim and ended up looooooving it. I fenced varsity epee my junior and senior years. Once I’d graduated, though, it was too expensive a hobby to maintain on my own and I missed the workout and the team camaraderie. I started dabbling in stage combat as a reasonable substitute in about 1998, and took my first actual classes in about 1999/2000. (I also knew a lot of folks who’d taken stage combat in college or picked some up here and there, and many of them were interested in working together on fight-heavy shows. In order to play with them, I had to acquire their skill set – or else I got stuck being the rescuee every time, and who wants that?)
My first stage combat classes were super frustrating. As a fencer, I relied on a combination of basic (increasing as I went along, but definitely still basic) skills and a few dirty tricks. Plus, being left-handed was a huge advantage because most of my opponents didn’t know how to deal with me. Stage combat, ironically, was a more controlled discipline for me than fencing, and I had to start by learning that control; also, many of my initial instructors tried to “make me over as a righty” because they didn’t want to teach a lefty, and that didn’t help my control at all. Also, I made the mistake of starting with broadsword, which you don’t use at all the way you would an epee. The one thing that was always easy for me was footwork – we spent at least an hour per practice on footwork while I was fencing, and it’s in my body forever.
I actually dropped stage combat for about a year after my first couple classes, then tried it again and liked it better. I began liking it more and more as I went along, in part because I put my foot down and trained left-handed (actually, I think that augmented the experience for me, because not only was I learning moves and technique, but I was learning to adapt them on the fly so as not to inconvenience my partners), and in part because I started with some classes with light, point-driven weapons that allowed me to use my fencing skills much more than, say, a broadsword would.
What’s your favorite weapon?
I love smallsword – it’s such a formal, constrained style, so rooted in precision and pointwork. Channeling the kind of passion that would cause you to PULL a sword into the rigidity of smallsword technique is a glorious challenge – the poetic equivalent of focusing your overwhelming emotional outpouring into a sonnet form, I’d imagine – and gives you so much delicious tension to play with. And finding those moments in the story of the fight when you simply cannot control yourself, and break form, for better or for worse, is a joy.
What drew you to Babes With Blades?
I heard about BWBTC for quite some time before considering working with them, mostly through Stephanie Repin, who did her first show with the Babes in 1998. Stephanie knew I was dabbling in stage combat, and invited me to work out with the group in about 2001 – but I was coming off kind of a major depression at that point, and while I was getting better, it was just too many new people all at once for me to handle. I kept them on my radar, though, and started regularly attending workouts, and occasionally subbing in for gigs, in 2002. I was invited to join the company in 2003, and took part in the re-organization that transitioned us from a “benevolent dictatorship” under Dawn “Sam” Alden (Sammie’s words, not mine) to an ensemble in 2004-5. Holy moly have I been here a long time.
Why? Well, first, I love the team – and I love the way it changes as people come and go, but always STAYS a team. There’s always been the understanding that in order to do art, we have to also be able to do business. And there’s always been a real commitment to the belief that we don’t all have to be best friends, but we do all have to be able to work together. Both of these philosophies have informed all of the permutations of any Babes team I’ve been a part of. Then, I’m so proud of the work we do – the productions, sure, but particularly the more foundation-level stuff, like new play development. There are plays in the world, productions that happened, actors (female and male) who got a chance to play brand stinking new parts, because of the Babes and the people who believe in us. How amazing is that? Finally, I owe a huge part of who I am as an actor to the Babes. We’ve always worked to give women the chance to inhabit complex parts, epic parts, parts that explore the full range of emotional response, up to and including violence—that’s one of the reasons why we’re so active in new play development. And, lucky little badger that I am, I’ve been privileged to play some of those parts, which has been absolutely phenomenal, such a challenge, such a stretch. My theatrical toolkit is a zillion times better stocked for my association with the Babes.
Who is your role model (and why)?
I don’t really do role models – I’m all the time watching people and learning from them, but I don’t single particular people out. I’ve always collected quotes, though, and I love to read over those collections. They’re a time capsule of the advice that spoke to the many Amys I’ve been.
The story of my favorite quote ever: When I was maybe 10 or 11, my area high school was doing Oliver, and the call went out to the elementary and junior high schools that they were looking for kids to play orphans. I went home from school that day and said, “Mom, I want to audition for Oliver.” My mom knew how shy I was, so she said, “Amy, I’ll take you to auditions, but you’re going to have to stand up and sing and talk in front of a lot of people. You have to understand, if they can’t hear you, they won’t cast you. Can you be loud?” Well, it turned out I could. And “If they can’t hear you, they won’t cast you” is kind of still a personal philosophy….
2015’s Amy quote: “Which do you want: the pain of staying where you are, or the pain of growth?” –Judith Hanson Lasater
2016’s Amy quote:“The nearest way to glory – a shortcut, as it were – is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.” – Socrates, as quoted by Cicero
What women’s issue is most important to you?
It’s probably too free-form a feeling to really be an issue, but: it’s spine-deep in me that we should all begin on an even playing field, regardless of gender. My skills, my muscle, my work ethic, my connections, my background, pure random chance, all of the things that influence each of us every day; these factors will dictate what happens on that playing field… but I should walk on the field equal to everyone else out there. It is beyond me that this is even in question.
What is one small thing people can do to affect change in their community in regards to this issue?
Get their heads out of their asses? Sigh. I care too much to be rational, or even polite.