When second-year UW graduate student Nick O’Leary pitched a show for the UW School of Drama’s 2023-2024 ticketed season almost a year ago, he was looking for a play with a unique form and relationship between performers and audience, and he found that in A Thick Description of Harry Smith (Vol. 1). To explain the show, O’Leary quotes the notes of playwright Carlos Murillo, with whom the cast was able to work during the first week of rehearsals: “This is less of a play, and more of a performance.” The play—or, rather, performance—is part of Murillo’s trilogy of Javier Plays, three scripts that draw from the work of little-known Colombian-American playwright Javier C.
The show, which incorporates live music and a chaotic, omni-surprising set, is difficult to describe, says O’Leary. “This script has its own rules, and Carlos has not followed any kind of template.” To bring a semblance of unity to this inherently unstructured show, he took inspiration from the medium of collage. When watching, audience members get the sense that there is no real end, and new pieces are added on, complicating the image.
The show is a reflection of Harry Smith, the titular character and a real historical figure whose widespread artistic pursuits include putting together the Anthology of American Folk Music, animating films with catalog cutouts, collecting discarded paper airplanes, and everything in between that you couldn’t come up with if you tried. Despite the diversity of Smith’s work, these projects contain a common thread of “repurposing and reinventing,” as O’Leary says.
The show is also a reflection of America, the definition of which Javier C. pursued in his forgotten work. America is just as genre-defying as this play, just as difficult to distill into a concise definition. O’Leary sees A Thick Description and Harry Smith himself as quintessentially and necessarily American phenomena. “We are conjuring up, together, the spirit of Harry Smith and these other forgotten American visionaries,” he says, “to try to rediscover the magic of what it means to be American.”
O’Leary and his creative team drew conceptual and design inspiration from books on Harry Smith, particularly American Magus edited by Paola Igliori, which contains interviews from those who knew Smith. They looked at the “combines” of artist Robert Rauschenberg, which are hybrid paintings/3D collages made of found items. They also took notes from the construction of Slab City, California, an off-the-grid community of artists and outsiders that was built off of an abandoned military training camp over the course of decades. The unincorporated area features many communal and multipurpose spaces, including habitable art installations, a library, and an outdoor music venue. The set at the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse reflects these principles: a doorway made of beer cans, a repurposed metal structure wrapped in Christmas lights that frames the band as they play the folk music Smith loved, et cetera.
A Thick Description of Harry Smith (Vol. 1) is a celebration of live music, comedy, connection, and America. It’s a magic ritual, a biography, a collage. I believe, with all these contrasting yet undoubtedly true descriptions, that every audience will experience this show uniquely. The only way to know what you’ll get out of it is to experience it for yourself.