Jordan Dell Harris is a multidisciplinary artist, actor, painter, designer, and all-around craftsman. He has been intimately involved in The Story Theatre since first appearing in Season I's Leave Me Alone!, and more recently serving as the Scenic Designer of Season III's Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes.
I joined Jordan at his home in Rogers Park, filled with family relics and sprawling house plants, every inch a unique reflection of the same visual impulse that motivates his colorful paintings. An enviously large and well-tooled studio space occupies a spare bedroom. Antique furniture, overflowing bookshelves, and a quickly growing art collection furnish the sunny living room. There, Jordan and I spent the afternoon discussing the pleasures and challenges of keeping so many art disciplines in his creative crop-rotation.
As a multidisciplinary artist, when someone asks you, ‘Jordan, what do you do?,’ how do you answer that question?
JDH: If I don’t want to get into it, I would probably just say I’m an actor. But if it were someone really interested in knowing the answer, then it takes a while.
To put together a creative career that supports your life, you can’t do just one thing. It seems like the industry wants to pigeon-hole you somewhere, so I’ve always felt like, professionally, it would be easier if I focussed on one thing. But I've never wanted to. I want to do it all!
I’ve always been an actor first. And I think I’ve had to put most of my eggs in that basket to make that viable. But you just catch these random little jobs as you go. So right now in my life I feel like I’m an actor, I’m a scenic designer. I’m doing this big corporate project where I’m sort of an art director and that’s paying my bills right now. But I’m also a really good custom framer and that’s something I’ve enjoyed as craftsmanship. I also sew. So yeah, I think I’m a theatre practitioner and a visual artist and those things catch a lot of jobs. Well, not a lot of jobs. But over time I’m always surprised at the things people entrust me to make. And I’m always so grateful to have that opportunity.
If I had tried to guess what my life would be, I never would have gotten anywhere near this. I never could have dreamed up a life this beautiful for myself.
How much of your personal identity is tied up in the way you choose to answer the 'What do you do?' question?
Probably most of it.
Then is your identity constant, or is it in flux because you’re a multidisciplinary artist? And does that make it challenging to know yourself?
I identify as an artist first. Even ahead of being queer, or where I’m from. I don’t think being jerked around by my creative career confuses my identity. It excites me. Because you never know where it’s gonna go. If I had gotten all of the shows I really wanted, my life wouldn’t be anything like this. I believe—or I want to believe, or I’m trying to believe—that the projects that are meant for us become ours.
It sucks that there’s no stability or dependability or predictability sometimes, but those are also the things that make my life really exciting and different.
Being an artist is one of the first things I knew about myself. And I worked really hard not to lose that artist that was always there. I’m really grateful to have that certain nerve within me to make art and show people.
I think fundamentally what I want to do is use my time to make beautiful things, often in collaboration, and then invite people to enjoy them. Hopefully it can enrich their lives. I think that’s what we do in theatre, and that’s what I hope to do with my visual art.
Let’s talk about the bizarre intersection of passion and money. Can you describe the difference between working on a project purely for yourself and doing a project where there’s money involved? How does that complicate it for you?
I’ve been really lucky over the last few years to work at equity theatres and receive weekly pay, which is not as common in the storefront scene in Chicago. But thinking about being in my 20s, living in a house with other artist-roommates, each of us going to our day jobs, each of us on our feet all day, working. And then going straight to rehearsal and doing the thing we love until 11:00pm and then setting our alarms for 6 in the mornings to go back to the job. Looking back on that I have nothing but fond memories. But I think my brain loves to sanitize the hard times. And there was always so much joy, but Chicago theatre is a place where you can’t hope to make that much money. Especially not at first. People throw their hands up and they’re like, ‘that’s how it is!’ And I don’t know what the solution is.
There’s basically a complete inability to make a living as a Chicago theatre practitioner.
Unless you strike gold in your 20s.
And a few will. But as a general rule it’s not a path for making income.
Right. I think we can safely say that folks who move to Chicago to act are doing it out of passion. And most of us aren’t delusional enough to think that we’re gonna get rich, or even make enough money to not have to do something else.
So that being the case—what, then, is the reason? Why do you practice theatre?
Theatre has always been my favorite thing to do. It was my first love. No matter how much I empty my resources to do theatre, it will always fill me back up.
If there were no more professional theatre ever, I would still find a way to do theatre until I’m no longer able. There’s just nothing like it. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I think, and hope, I’m best at. It’s my community. It’s my favorite people on earth. It’s my favorite way to spend my time.
It makes me think of the musical Tick Tick Boom. There’s a song at the end that talks about this. Why do we put ourselves through this? I’m a smart guy. I could go get a job and have a salary and have my needs taken care of. But the lyric in that song is just, ‘what a way to spend a day.’ To play!
It’s almost like cheating life. I get to just play with my friends, and we get to go in a room and try dumb shit and sing songs and dance and have fake fights. I don’t know, it’s just like—what a way to spend a day!
So long as there is theatre on this earth, I will not be able to sit on the sidelines. It feels like instinct. It feels like I have to. And I want to.
As I progress through my career, it’s really incredible to look back. All the while I thought my career was in the future—it was coming down the pipeline. But now I look back and see that it was there all along. I wasn’t trying to become an actor. I wasn’t waiting for my big break. I was in the thick of it, and that was my career, and this is my career.
Creative people often have a hard time drawing a line between their career and the rest of their life. And I don’t think it’s possible. I can’t separate Jordan-the-person from Jordan-the-artist. And my art would be shittier if I tried.
I use all the parts of myself as an artist. And that is thrilling to me.
I can’t think of any other time in my life when I focus as intensely as I do during a play. The play starts and you can’t be somewhere else. You can’t be thinking about your problems. You’re there, you’re on a team. And you just got on a train that’s not gonna stop. It’s thrilling to do it on my best days. It’s thrilling to do it on my worst days. And I think Chicago is one of the best places in the world to do it.
As artists, we’re often focused on an imagined future career.
Maybe one like a role model of ours.
And it’s very easy to forget that the career is not a thing you’re reaching for. It’s the day to day happenings of what you’re actually doing.
Right. It’s not going to arrive in a box with a bow on it when you’re 40. It’s the shit we’re doing in the trenches all the time. It’s just the best we can manage any day and that becomes our career.
So what you’re saying you discovered is that the day to day, in the trenches activities—you love to do those things. And that’s why it’s worth it. Not because you’re reaching for something you’ve dreamt about, but because the way you’re spending the day is worth it.
Yeah! Having that blind faith in yourself. I’m not an aspiring actor. I’m a real one today. And even when we are unemployed, we are still the things we believe we are.
I think about some of my heroes in the theatre, who are my type, whose careers I could have a path similar to. People like Gavin Creel, for instance. A gay leading man on Broadway. And he’s been a hero of mine since I found out who he was in high school. For the first few years of my career—which I maybe didn’t realize was my career—I thought I would have to become like him to feel like I was successful. Or I would have to align myself with the same milestones he achieved. But the thing about a creative career is that no one’s is the same. No one’s. It’s not possible to recreate someone’s creative career because most opportunities are once in a lifetime, and sort of by chance. All we can do is take care of ourselves and meet the opportunities that come across our desks, or through our inboxes, with preparedness and gumption.
How do you maintain a state of readiness for when those unexpected opportunities do come up?
I have routines when I am my best self that, as I get older, I try to fill more and more of my days with. To become the best version of myself. But I don’t always achieve that, of course.
I journal every day. I try to remind myself what I’m grateful for and what I know I’m good at. And I remind myself that there are only really a certain number of things we can control, and just to focus on those things. Like, I can control whether I’ve learned the lines and I’m off book. I can control whether I look my best that day. I can control how kind I am in the room. But I can’t control if I get a callback. So I like to focus on things I can control.
And I do a lot of yoga. I should do more. The older I get, the more it’s absolutely undeniable that the mind, body, and spirit are just one thing.
I think it’s just about remembering to be proud of all the things you’ve done and all the things you’re doing. Try not to compare yourself to others too much. Surround yourself with people who love you, and who root for you, and who are excited when you succeed.
Probably the best way to be ready for opportunities is just to be someone who’s good to work with. Collaborate generously and openly.
And one final thing of how I try to stay sane through all of it is, like, remembering that even though it is so personal to me after I’ve learned the lines and envisioned myself in the role and believed that I can do it—when they don’t pick me, it’s not that personal. It could be because of my height, or what the fuck ever. You never know why you didn’t get it. So if you were proud of yourself after the audition, try to be proud of yourself when you didn’t get the callback. Nothing changed about what you did.
I try not to let theatres or directors or casting directors tell me how to feel about myself. After an audition, I decide how I feel. And that’s it.
Either I hear from them or I don’t. I try to not let my emotions rule too much about the way I audition and the way I move through this industry. Even though it’s damn near impossible. But I try.
I really feel you on the habits thing. How easy it is to let those fall apart. How weirdly difficult it is to know what’s good for you and have a complete inability to do that thing.
I journal every morning. And to write about a way I’m letting myself down—day after day—and to be able to see it, and acknowledge it, and write about it, and still not be able to find the solution. To be so self aware, so powerful, but sometimes so powerless.
As a painter, what is your goal? Not in terms of career aspirations, but the work itself. What are you trying to accomplish with your paintings?
Well, before I even get into that—my painting is for me. And it is something I can do by myself. I have to be chosen to do theatre. I have to compete, and win, to do theatre. But I can sit down any time and paint without anybody’s permission. Without anybody’s funding or overlording or micromanaging. So my painting has always been a very pure form of expression because it was always about reclaiming that pure impulse to create. Like, it hasn’t ever been my career. And I do sell my work, and I do work on commissions sometimes. But nine times out of ten when I sit down to paint it’s because I want to do that.
It’s for yourself.
Yeah, it’s just me being a little art freak and being like—I have the impulse to make this thing, and I want to finish it, and I want to see what it turns into, and I want to show it to my friends.
And in a way it’s also like non-verbal journaling. Even though there aren’t always words in my work, when I look at them, the time in which I created them comes flooding back to me. And I can remember who I was in that moment, what other things I was working on. It’s a little time capsule.
I feel about each of my paintings that they are moments in time, and I could never create them again because they almost will themselves into creation. I am just there as the vessel. In that way I get to be surprised by my work too.
When I get to the finish line it’s not what I thought it would be, and that’s exciting. It became a being of its own. It had ideas of its own that were different from mine.
You have a relationship with the practice, but also with the work itself.
It’s really just about exploring. And it’s also very meditative. We talked about how a lot of my work is based in the line. And just to do that motion, to make, to paint a line over and over. Like, one day last week I painted for 11 hours and basically all I did was paint lines. Lines, lines, lines. Make it straighter, make it crisper. You get in the zone, you get in the flow, and it allows you to sort of transcend where you are and think deeper. That’s where I hope to get to.
Painting can feel like work sometimes. It can feel like I’m forcing myself. But most of the time I just get into it and it’s this magical way to pass time that is also productive and enriching to me.
I asked earlier about readiness and personal practices. Do you feel like the meditative quality of painting is an act of self-care?
Yes! Yeah. I think the reasons why I paint as an adult—not the reason I wanted to paint as a kid—but the reasons I have continued to paint, and the reasons I commit my resources to being a painter in addition to being an actor, are mechanisms to protect myself from the rejection of acting. They are ways to create without fear of rejection. Even though, yeah, I’ll probably get rejected by a gallery one day. But it’ll be different. It won’t be the nonstop rejection of acting.
Many years ago there was an artistic director in Atlanta, and he ran this cooky-ass theatre. He was a real eccentric type. He asked me about my painting and my acting and about how they existed in relationship, which I hadn’t considered. I was feeling frustrated that I couldn’t paint as much as I wanted to, or that I couldn’t be as prolific as I wanted to be. And then that, mixed with the frustrations of an acting career. He was trying to help me find the relationship between the two and show me that they are not independent. They all flow from the same creative impulse in my brain. And he suggested that I think about it like crop rotation. In order to keep your field fertile you have to plant different kinds of things. You have to think about what the roots of those crops are doing to the soil.
If you have an acting job that’s keeping you from painting, and that frustrates you, just understand that your creative well was used up on acting. And that’s okay. I’ve always wanted to paint more, and I’ve always wanted to have more discipline. But I’m not a full-time painter. I can’t hold myself to the standards of my living, working, contemporary painter heroes who have devoted their whole lives to painting the way I have devoted my whole life to acting.
Crop rotation in a creative mind. The paths that veer off of our main route are not distractions. If we are using our brains creatively, we are enriching and exercising that impulse to create, and it’s all the same thing. It’s all the same creative engine.
When I get on stage and I’m singing and acting, it’s the same artist-child-within that is with me when I paint. I try to give myself grace as I move between disciplines, and between different media, and different ways of creating. And remember that they are all in conversation.
Even if they seem separate, I will be able to look back and see how the rejection of acting led me to nourish myself with creating as a painter. Acting will let you down. Acting will give you eight months off, and I need something to do in those eight months. And painting has been that for me.
That’s beautiful. The crop rotation idea is such a good reminder. To connect the line back to the identity question—for me, every time a crop rotation happens, my identity gets tied up in that specific crop and I forget about every other thing I’ve ever done. And it becomes a real crisis every time. So you’ve given me some good ideas to keep in mind.
Throwing yourself completely into something new doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned any of your old craftsmanship. You’re not going to forget how to be a photographer because you learned how to sew. In fact, they’ll probably each make you better at the other, somehow. Even if you can’t consciously put a finger on it.
Let’s talk a bit more about the difference between the theatre practice and the painting practice. Theatre is collaborative and performative, while painting is solitary and about the art-object. How do those things serve you in different ways?
At my core I’m a pretty mellow, slow-paced, even-keeled person. And that is how painting feels to me. That feels like where I would land naturally, on my own schedule, creating by myself. But there’s something about the electricity of collaboration and the surprise of working with other people, and the surprise of the best idea wins, and it might not be mine. The way I love theatre is almost indescribable. Just that spark of working in an ensemble and knowing that you’re creating something that you never could have done by yourself. Knowing the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts is so exciting.
The contrast between theatre and painting makes each one more exciting. Being totally alone in my studio, painting, and getting that energy out meditatively. And then, often in the same week, going to the theatre and being in some big show where at the end I’m sweating, I’m out of breath, we need some champagne.
They’re so different. And they both feel pretty vital to me at this point in my life. And I hope I will do both of them forever.
And then there’s that weird place in the middle when I design for the theatre where, like, I am painting. But that’s a very different, collaborative, high pressure, strict timeline, sort of visual art.
I feel really lucky to be able to create across such a wide spectrum, and feel my talents validated across that spectrum. And to feel that certain gay impulse that I can do anything I want to do, even if I don’t know how.
Do I know how to do this? Absolutely not. Will it be done in two hours? Somehow.
One final open ended question here. At this present moment in mid-May of 2023, what are the ideas that you’re excited about?
I just finished up a commission for a friend, to give to her husband on their wedding day—which is today, the day of this interview. And I really liked it! I had been wanting to explore some new ideas. A lot of my paintings depict little scenes that are kind of stagnant. It’s not an active scene. It’s kind of a still scene. And I’ve been wanting to see what happens if my characters are more active. This commission was to depict people playing music, which is pretty active. And it was fun and challenging. So I’ve been trying to find a way to make the characters in my universe more active.
I also recently applied for, and completed, my first mural application-proposition-competition-thing. I’ve always wanted to get into the public art sector, and paint bigger, and paint in public. But never taken the leap. It’s really inspiring to live in Rogers Park, in a neighborhood that prioritizes and invests in public art. So I’m trying to apply for those opportunities as I see them. A lot of my heroes are from that arena and we need more art on the streets. It doesn’t just belong behind the walls of expensive institutions.
And finally, I’m about to start a theatre show. I’m understudying for the first time in six years, so I’m thinking about that. It’s really hard to be an understudy and it's a really hard role. So what does it mean to be in this production when I’m on the sidelines most of the time? It’s a totally different kind of process. I’ve been thinking about how to prepare for the hard job of learning from a chair in the corner of the room and how to do that well. But I’m excited.
I haven’t had a theatre job in five months, and I am my best self when I’m on a schedule in a show. I take care of myself better. I have less time to paint, but I am definitely a better version of myself when I have a whole cast of people depending on me and I’m waking up every day and exercising and eating right. So that will be my summer this year. Understudying will leave me some time to go to the beach after we open. I’m looking forward to all of that and whatever comes next.
Well thank you very much, Jordan. I appreciate your time—this was sweet.
Thank you! I always appreciate your time.