Shoot For The Moon: Organizing David Harbour's '97 Visit

by Veselin Nanov | 5/22/18 2:25am

I have a cheat sheet that helped me trace David Harbour ’97’s theatrical journey through Dartmouth and back to the stage of Spaulding Auditorium last Sunday. The Dartmouth has catalogued the actor’s early ascent through the ranks of theater at the College. Harbour landed a lead in “The Beautiful People Die Twice” during the fall of 1993. Only a month or so later he performed in “Measure for Measure” as “the undisputed star of the show” Then, after a brief hiatus he returned to the Hopkins Center for the Arts, this time to co-direct Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in the spring of 1995 and in the winter term of 1996 to direct “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.” The write-up on the latter describes Harbour’s desire to use theater as a medium to bring up universal questions about love and revenge. After two more excellent performances, one in a play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and another one by English playwright Samuel Beckett, Harbour culminated his theater experience at Dartmouth by directing “Hamlet” in the spring of 1997. The production was dark and inventive.

There is only one more mention of David Harbour in the newspaper’s archives from the 90’s: his name is listed among the graduating class of 1997. The subsequent ups and downs of Harbour’s career were partially the subject of the talk he delivered at Spaulding a week or so ago. I will not focus on these here since they are accessible through a brief Google search. Instead, I will trace another, much more recent journey that led me to the idea of inviting Harbour to campus and the events that brought this idea to fruition.

I don’t have a subscription to any streaming service and generally don’t watch TV shows. By that, I mean to say I had followed through with watching only one season of one show by the beginning of last fall. Then, in September I arrived at Edinburgh for a foreign study program. One of the main distinctions between a term at Dartmouth and one at the University of Edinburgh is the amount of structured time one has. While the ten week quarters at Dartmouth feel like a marathon, a semester at Edinburgh is much more stretched out. Lecture time at the latter institution is also much shorter than at the former. In short, I had more free time on my hands than I had since the summer after senior year of high school. That gave me a lot of opportunities to travel and enjoy the cultural life in the Scottish capital.

By early December, though, I started having days when the nasty weather discouraged me from venturing into town while final papers seemed too far off. So, I idled away in my flat, mostly flipping through books and cooking. I was bored. Noticing that, one of my flatmates recommended that I should watch “Stranger Things” and kindly offered to give me access to his Netflix account. By the time I knew it, I was addicted. I finished the whole show in a week and like any die-hard fan I sifted through Google looking for information about Season 3. Then, I stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry on David Harbour. I was surprised to discover that he graduated from Dartmouth but even more surprised by the fact that the College had not done much to brag about him. It’s true that there was a recent profile in the Alumni Magazine. However, this publication is likely not a common read for current or prospective students. None of the Dartmouth students on my FSP were aware of the fact. Most of the people I reached out to on campus had no idea either. At that point, I thought to myself that it would be a great idea for someone to invite David Harbour to campus before the upcoming release of his new movie, a revamp of “Hellboy” that would inadvertently make his schedule even more packed. I left it at that, though, because I had to focus on writing the papers I had procrastinated doing for a couple of weeks.

I came back to campus in January and rushed Alpha Theta, one of the gender-inclusive Greek Houses on campus. Johanna Evans, the film programming and operations manager at the Hopkins Center, is a house advisor. When she introduced herself to the new members she also mentioned that she would love to hear ideas we might have to engage the membership with the arts at Dartmouth. I immediately thought that a collaboration of this kind would be a great way to diversify the Greek presence on campus, so I sifted through my memory for ideas. The prospect of inviting David Harbour seemed unrealistic, but I could not come up with anything better. It took me some time, though, to gather enough courage and voice this idea in front of the house. When I finally shared it, I was not surprised at the skepticism with which it was met. David Harbour was not a member of our house to begin with. He is also a film celebrity with a busy schedule. Why would he waste a weekend on us? Despite the wealth of doubt and criticism, I found merit in giving it a try. David Harbour is an alumnus after all, and a significant membership of our house has historically been involved in theater. Keira Byno ’19, the current social chair of Alpha Theta, jumped in to help and quickly became a driving force behind realizing the idea. Toward the end of this winter, we approached Evans with the idea to invite David Harbour to campus in the Spring. She agreed to reach out to the Alumni Office and send him an invitation on behalf of the Hopkins Center, but she also cautioned us that many other actors do not even reply to similar invitations. If they do, she noted, they often schedule a visit a few terms in advance. We did not hear any news until the start of Spring term.

We got a promising email from Evans at the start of the term. The next morning she seated us in her office. With a large smile on her face she announced that David Harbour received the invitation and would love to come back to campus. It would be a lie if I said I did not make sure all my friends who had been skeptical got the news. We felt lucky and thankful that Harbour would take the time to travel from Georgia, where he is shooting Season 3 of “Stranger Things,” to campus and meet with the Dartmouth community. Through the next couple of weeks the Hopkins Center finalized his schedule. The centerpiece of the visit would be a conversation between David Harbour and the Hop’s managing director and executive producer Joshua Price Kol ’93, a former classmate of his at Dartmouth, on stage in Spaulding Auditorium. The after-party would be hosted at Alpha Theta. There was still a lingering worry that the Hopkins Center would not be able to sell enough tickets, that David Harbour might not be as well known among students.

I realized that this worry was completely unnecessary when I saw the line of people trailing beyond the Courtyard Café all the way to the lobby. The auditorium was packed. There were Hanover locals, but there were also about 400 students who attended, according to Evans. Through the conversation, David Harbour was witty and down to earth. He acknowledged each member of the audience who asked him a question and spoke with humor and honesty. Afterwards, he took the time to sign some autographs in front of the Hop. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, actress Alison Sudol, who most recently starred in the Harry Potter spin-off film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The two of them joined students at Alpha Theta after the Spaulding event.

Students from the theater department and the Film Society along with the siblings of Alpha Theta and their guests munched on cookies as they awaited David Harbour’s arrival in anticipation. I had a brief moment to talk to him when he arrived. He mentioned that he had spent four months in my hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria earlier this year while he was shooting “Hellboy.” I was over the moon. Many of the other guests got the chance to take a snap with David Harbour and have their “Stranger Things” posters signed by him. After an hour or so, Harbour and Sudol left, and the house slowly emptied out. I noticed all the empty cookie trays and sharpies that lay around as I eased myself in one of the couches. I felt the pleasant tingle of satisfaction grow within me. I have no way to know how David Harbour felt when he received an ovation for his very first performance at Dartmouth or when the Duffer Brothers invited him to join the cast of “Stranger Things.”

Thanks to him, though, I was experiencing a little triumph of my own behind the scenes. Once again left to my own thoughts, I could not help but wonder why David Harbour agreed to come even though he had worked until 11 p.m. the previous day in Georgia, would have an early start on Monday, and had a cold. It certainly is nice to be invited back to your alma mater. And yet, David Harbour is a famous actor with probably a very busy schedule. Maybe he finds value in sharing his story with the young actors who aspire to follow a similar path on the journey through the theatrical profession. Maybe, just maybe, the lessons that Harbour has learned so far, rather than just the fame he has achieved, are what attracted so many students to Spaulding and the after party. After all, we all stand at the doorway of a journey through life. Sometimes, to throw back a glance at the past or look up to those whose achievements we value is just enough to nudge us to do what fulfills us in life rather than what simply provides us the most security.