Jeremy O. Harris and Maia Novi Are Invading Downtown Theatre

Jeremy O. Harris and Maia Novi Are Invading Downtown Theatre

Jun 20, 2024

Rarely does a play have the viral buzz of a pop star’s album campaign, but Invasive Species, written by and starring by Maia Novi, has landed on our collective consciousness with the inescapable bang of a song of the summer. Produced (and smartly promoted) by Novi’s friend and Yale classmate, Slave Play super-playwright and multihyphenate Jeremy O. Harris, Invasive Species has become the buzzy to-do of the city’s creative class, whose many members have attended and posted to rave after seeing it in The Vineyard's Dimson Theater.

Similar to its frenetic internet presence, the play moves with an electric, live-wired quality. The true story of Novi’s time in a New Haven youth psych ward she was admitted to during her last term at Yale’s School of Drama, Invasive Species is at once vulnerable and confrontational. Directed with punch and purpose by Michael Breslin, also a Yale comrade of Novi and Harris, Invasive Species explores Novi’s twin impulse to perform both normality and American-ness.

Originally from Argentina, Novi’s character (also named Novi) has circled the globe on a wild quest to become an American movie star. The key to her success, she tells us, is mimicking the cool affect of Gwenyth Paltrow, whose voice she practices daily to alter an accent her teachers deem “unplaceable.” It’s just one of the many rituals and ceremonies Novi does to make her dreams manifest, but there’s a high price to being bitten by the acting bug, and an often higher price to the sisyphean task of making it in America. Supported by a chameleon-like cast (Raffaella Donatich, Sam Gonzalez, Alexandra Maurice, Julian Sanchez, Paloma Aisenberg, Tyler Cruz) who swing between Novi’s fellow patients, medical personnel, family members, Yale classmates, agent and almost-lover, the whole play unfurls like a fever dream with Novi in its trembling center. But also at its center is its undeniable heart, as felt by Novi’s timely story, which brings up essential questions of performance, identity, nationhood and sanity, ideas rendered fuzzy and fractured in Novi and Breslin’s chaotic theatrical machinations.

PAPER chatted with Novi and Harris as Invasive Species continued its buzzy run.Novi was hibernating in between shows, and Harris was in London, where he’s putting up his Slave Play to much aplomb and fanfare. Speaking to Novi from an ever-busy backstage, the two close friends chat here about theater-making, the internet, the toils of creativity and their unique shared history.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/Getty

Just to set the scene: Jeremy, where are you?

Jeremy O. Harris: I'm in London for Slave Play. We just ended rehearsal. I'm currently sitting with Claire from The Observer here who's doing an interview and a profile of our day. And then I'm going to go to meet with someone about a movie I'm doing, and then jump into something about another play that I’m producing.

Wonderful. You just wrote my first paragraph, thank you! So how did you guys initially connect and decide to work on this together?

Jeremy: I think there's no “initial” with our relationship outside of us meeting at Yale and us immediately falling for each other. I was a third-year and she was a first-year. She was probably one of the most exciting people in her year to me, because she was such a chaos agent and also felt like some mixture of Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert, while also just being kooky and silly. She’s a livewire or a free nerve, which is what I call a lot of my favorite actresses. She was one of the main performers in the center of my thesis play at Yale, and became inextricably integrated into my life. She married my best friend and dramaturg. She lived in my house during Covid, and —

Maia: Got married on his rooftop!

Jeremy: Yeah, so there’s no beginning or end. It's just like we're talking all the time. So when she's like, “Oh, I'm writing a play,” I'm like, “Oh, my god, amazing! Tell me when it's done. Let's put it up,” because that's what I say to all my friends.

Maia: I remember the first time Jeremy talked to me. I was in this horrible bookshop in New Haven, and Jeremy came up to me and said, “I heard that you said Autumn Sonata by Ingmar Bergman is your favorite movie. It’s one of my favorite movies too.” And that was the first exchange we had: not “Hi, what's your name?” With Jeremy, it's always been sort of a mind meld.

Jeremy: She’s one of the few people on this earth I would make a travel channel show where we go around watching theater, seeing movies, eating food together and just yelling maniacally at each other.

Maia: And I also think our babies would be hot.

Jeremy: We would have hot babies. I mean Invasive Species was one our first babies and it is really hot.

Jeremy: I just want to shout out The Tank right now, because every major incubator for new writers in New York City is gone. The Cherry Lane Theater got bought by A24. Who knows what they're gonna do with it. There was another amazing writers group that would meet weekly, that no longer exists. But The Tank is still existing and making sure that young writers and directors can have a place to practice their work. And that's really, really affirming.

Maia: Jeremy saw that production at The Tank. It was scrappy. We did it with no money. We hustled our way through, and he liked it.

Jeremy: I loved it.

Maia: And soon after we were like, “How do we do this? Should we take it to Fringe? It feels very London, very European in that it makes fun of Americans.” And we’ve been brainstorming since then.

Jeremy: And then I started texting all my friends about it after I saw it. I think that’s why people have been like, “How are so many people coming to this weird little play with people that no one knows about?” I think that I've done a good job of articulating to my community, both my digital friends and my IRL friends, that if I like something or am telling you to go to something, it’s because I truly, genuinely like it. And whether you like it or don't like it, you'll at least be seeing something different or something that's aligned with what vibe I’m on. I guess that's what you would call being an influencer [laughs]. I think that a lot of people really do trust my taste when it comes to theater, and it's because I really am careful about when I share things and how I share them. Once I saw the show and knew how good it was, I was telling everyone to go, and so I told Adam Rodner, Danielle Perelman, Eric Kuhn, Tre’ Scott and Ahmad Simmons. They immediately were like, “Should we work together and produce this?” They’ve helped immensely in making this happen.

Maia: Michael Breslin was someone who hadn't directed anything before. Michael read it when it was a dramatic essay. Michael was like, “I love this. It feels like something I've read before, but it feels very strange and unique.” And he was the one who said yes to doing the reading at La Mama and he directed the shit out of it at The Tank in 10 days. And then, obviously Eric and Adam saw it, and were moved by it. But Michael rode that boat when it was broken.

Jeremy: One of the first plays I produced out of school was Michael and Patrick [Foley]'s Circle Jerk Live. I think Michael is like one of the great visionaries of our time. I feel very lucky that I got to go to school with people that I'm fans of. I'm literally a Michael Breslin fan. I'm a Maia Novi fan. It's really cool to be like a fan that can also platform the work. Imagine being able to tell Lady Gaga, “You have your album and it has to come out right now, because I'll pay for it.” That's kind of what I've been doing with Michael, Patrick, Maia and all my friends. I've just been like, “I'm your biggest fan, and I need to see this play you told me about. So let me help you find the money so we can just do it.”

Maia: But also, Jeremy, you were an actor. You trained in acting. You'd auditioned for DePaul with a pop song.

Jeremy: It was “Love Game,” a Lady Gaga song. It went, “I wanna kiss you/ But if I do, then I might miss you, babe?” I could keep going.

Maia: But Michael is a good example of a directing dramaturg. My husband is a dramaturg that's now producing. Jeremy was initially trained as an actor and now writing. I think everyone should be doing the thing that people did not initially see them doing. Breaking those blocks of ice is interesting.

I was curious about the marketing around the play. The marketing has this very gonzo internet feel. Jeremy, you've done this before. What are the things that you've learned about how to get new audiences into the theater that you applied here?

Jeremy: Well, I feel really lucky that I get to do this in London, too, with Slave Play, because James Bierman, the producer here, is also gonzo and crazy. But I think the number one thing is aligning the work you're doing with the audience it’s for and meeting your audience with where they're at. This play is about 15 to 25 year olds, so making sure that people like [PAPER social media editor] Alaska or [PAPER family] Blizzy McGuire, or Quinta Brunson or Ayo Ediberi, are the people you're seeing talking about it first is a way to get an audience of people who look to them to your show. And also, I think it's about being unrelenting and brave, and not afraid to do something wrong.

For three months leading up to the show, no one knew what Invasive Species was except for the color red and bugs, but like also: that is Maia’s spirit and it gave the show an identity. And I think making marketing that works towards the identity of the piece is what actually captures young people because they don't want things that feel like formulated or made in the lab.

Maia: When we were making marketing for the initial run, the hats that people are wearing now with that red logo started as red Play-Doh, because in the psych word we would play with Play-Doh. Marketing is usually not as artistic as the piece itself, especially in theater. I personally think theater marketing is so ugly because it doesn't feel artistic. But we were like, What are the themes in the play? I was eating Jello at the psych ward; how can we create choreographic pieces with Jello? What's the texture of Jello in a video? I had never done that before and I would never do it differently, because people come to me and they're like, “What the fuck is this thing about?” And then people come to the theater and see it.

You can buy tickets to Invasive Species (showing through June 30) at The Vineyard's Dimson Theater here.

Photography: Julieta Cervantes