If you create it, inspiration will come: Q&A with writer and creator, Trish Harnetiaux

CALIFORNIA by Trish Harnetiaux / directed by Will Davis / produced by Clubbed Thumb for Summerworks 2022 / photo by Marcus Middleton

A playwright, filmmaker and experiential creator walk into a bar… No, it’s not three people, just the multi-hyphenate, multi-talented Trish Harnetiaux — and she probably knows the bartender, so the first round is on the house.

I first met Trish on a Zoom call as she balanced her laptop on a chair while backstage in a dark theater in Gowanus. That wasn’t all she was balancing. Between scenes during a theater workshop, Trish carved out time to virtually meet with four finalists for the Fashion Scholarship Fund, helping each of these budding young designers discover and share their life’s passion with a room full of strangers. While I would have been a frantic ball of nerves jumping from one version of myself to another, Trish was the calmest presence on the call.

Because she wasn’t shedding her playwright persona to reveal the experiential creator within. Trish is, as Michelle Yeoh would say, everything everywhere all at once. I chatted with Trish, who was just back from a much-deserved summer away from the city, about the intersection between theater and XP, how the perfect experience messes with our reality and why you can’t actually look for inspiration.

Samantha Stallard: Tell us a bit about your professional experience and background.

Trish Harnetiaux: Professionally, I’ve spent the last 15+ years immersed in the world of live events. The beginning was mostly splashy tentpole media events for magazines. Producing and running red carpets and doing PR, riding the tides of big budgets and slashed budgets, always evolving with technology and the rise of social media. Then I began to refocus. I stepped closer to content and started writing the scripts, working with talent and execs, diving into shaping the story, expanding to video, and understanding core messaging.

Having a bird’s-eye view of how events are actually made contributed enormously and translated easily into choosing the right word or image or theatrical cue to create important standout moments within a program. Understanding how the pieces fit together is crucial. 

Trish Harnetiaux

SS: How do you manage your roles as playwright, filmmaker and experiential creator? How do they complement one another?

TH: I moved to New York to be a writer. For a long time — until I understood (and fully appreciated) the creativity involved in what I’d call my “day job” (if, say, we’d met in a dark dive bar) — it never occurred to me I had to manage my creative life. It was the other way around. I thought I had to manage my “professional” life. It’s so funny how we define ourselves.

As I started to realize the many intersections between theater and the experiential world, I learned to take pride in these incredibly complex, major events I helped create. They were amazing! Who gets this opportunity? Storytelling and audience experience are a crucial communal factor between theater and experiential. Balancing the two professions is hard, but (knocks on wood) I have mad time-management skills, or rather, have learned how to carve up my time. That’s what makes it work. Everything I do is project oriented, so understanding not only how I work, but what a project needs, is crucial when it comes to successfully completing anything. And the concept of completion is everything.

Ideas are great and fun and exciting but, as we all know, talk to me when you’ve completed something. So much discovery is made in the process, whether it’s a creative project or a job; everything changes when you begin to actually make the thing and bring it to life. And if you’re smart and paying attention, it changes for the better.

SS: Where do you look for inspiration when approaching a new project?

TH: Trick question. I do believe that adage “You can’t look for inspiration.” It’s rigor and commitment and repetition and listening to yourself. If you write or create enough, even if it’s bad or chaotic, something emerges, if you’re really listening. Often, it’s building on the tiniest idea or instinct, and staying with that long enough to understand what’s underneath that’s worth exploring.

As Beckett says, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Though I’d like to add… “Eventually, succeed.”

Trish Harnetiaux

SS: Share some wisdom: What’s the best advice you’ve received, or the biggest lesson you’ve learned, when it comes to overcoming obstacles as a creative?

Dive in. Start. Sure, super cliché, but nothing comes from nothing. Even the wrong direction can turn right, but if you don’t jump on the bus with both feet? You’re still at the bus stop. Or under the bus. Hurt, ashamed, possibly dead.

SS: You recently worked with Fashion Scholarship Fund, helping the four scholarship finalists prepare for a moment of live personal storytelling. Describe that creative process, from ideation to their moment in the center of the room. How did you work to uncover and pull out such personal stories from each scholar?

This was such a special experience. FSF’s mission is inspiring, and the scholarship finalists are all brilliant — and different! Liberty & Co. CEO Erica Boeke had the great idea for them each to have a three-minute spotlight to share their story in their own words. A huge challenge for anyone, but the finalists were so game. We started with broad strokes, discussing their journeys, inspirations, challenges, and goals, and through that initial process an arc for each became clear.

Then, we’d work together to script it in their own voice, leaning into their personalities, adding specificity, and strengthening that arc. The real breakthrough happened when we had a group rehearsal and workshopped the pieces in front of each other. People, an audience, is often the missing component in presentation, and this allowed everyone to be nervous, to work on the technical aspects of public speaking, and to add some flair.

It was thrilling, scary, and transporting. Everyone stepped up. They understood the power their story held and were able to carry this power into the event where they performed like superstars. It was a true collaboration on every level, but it was their stories and performance that brought the magic. 

Trish Harnetiaux

SS: In your opinion, what qualities define the perfect experience?

TH: To me, the perfect experience involves the unexpected. Walking into something – be it an event, a play, a movie – thinking I’m in a recognizable environment, in control at all times of my emotional experience, and being led down a path I never saw coming. This can manifest in so many ways, but it’s usually because I’ve been shown something that defies the norm.

That messes with how we are programmed. We’re wired to think we always know what’s coming next when presented with a story, so when we’re given information in a new way, it’s actually moving. It disrupts our reality. And that is ironic since we never, ever know what will happen next in what the doctors call “real life.” There is no real life. There’s just an agreed-upon set of expectations – and the job of a creative is to rattle those expectations. In a good way.

Discover Trish’s work:

Trish Harnetiaux’s published plays can be found at Samuel French, Inc.

Watch the trailer for her 2021 Sundance Film Festival Short, You Wouldn’t Understand

Check out The MS Phoenix Rising, a six-part narrative podcast on Playwrights Horizons Soundstage.

Visit her website for more on her creative endeavors

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Experiential Is Everything

XP Land is for experiential creatives and experience-makers, brand leaders, and IP-owners, space stewards and venue visionaries — all those in the business of epic gatherings and live, immersive storytelling.