Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 38: Annie Baker

Annie Baker

Hometown: Amherst, Massachusetts

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY

Q: You have two Off Broadway shows going up this coming season. Very exciting! Can you tell me a little about the plays and who is involved? I heard one of these at Ars Nova, didn't I?

A: So my play CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION (which we did read in the Ars Nova Play Group) is going up at Playwrights Horizons this October, and my play THE ALIENS is going up at the Rattlestick in the spring. Both plays will be directed by the mad genius Sam Gold. CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION is about five people doing Creative Drama exercises in a windowless room in Vermont, and my cast is incredible: Didi O’Connell, Reed Birney, Heidi Schreck, Peter Friedman, and Tracee Chimo. I wanted all of these people to be in the play very badly, and so far none of them have dropped out, thank god. THE ALIENS is about three dudes who are sitting outside a coffee shop in, big surprise, Vermont. It’s the first time I’ve ever written music into my play—two of the characters break into song every once in a while. I’ve always been interested in writing a naturalistic play with music, because where I grew up dudes sitting outside coffee shops really did just break into song every once in a while. The music in THE ALIENS is by Michael Chernus and Patch Darragh, who are allowing me to use these wonderful trippy songs they wrote ten years ago when they were out-of-work actors living in Greenpoint. Both plays are also explorations of my two long-time obsessions: silence and stillness. During one scene in CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION the stage is completely empty for like thirty seconds. THE ALIENS is only 71 pages long, but I’m hoping it’ll be like a two-hour play after we put the pauses in.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’m just starting work on two new plays. I haven’t totally figured them out yet, but in one the audience will be forced to hear a middle-aged man recite the same poem over and over again. The other takes place in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the audience will be forced to hear the elderly woman who runs the bed and breakfast tell the same boring story over and over again. I guess my third long-time obsession is repetition.
 
Q: Who are your heroes?

A: Chekhov. Chekhov. Chekhov. Chekhov.

Q: How did you come to start writing plays?

A: I started writing plays, sort of, in fifth grade, because of this weird perverse game my friends and I would play after school. It was called The Jewish Game. We all must have been super-confused about our Jewish identities, because the game involved simultaneously running away from the Pharaoh, hiding in the basement while Cossacks rode through town, and screaming and weeping while Nazis separated us into two lines. I grew up in a small town, so there were lots of barns and trees to crouch behind and lots of berries to ration while we were fleeing our various oppressors. I played Rifka, the slutty 17-year-old daughter who was always running off into the forest to make out with her burly bearded woodcutter boyfriend, Schmuel. So I would spend hours writing these passionate romantic scenes for Rifka and Schmuel. Then I would go stand by myself in the middle of a meadow and whisper both parts to myself while my best friend Molly, who played my Papa, would yell “RIFKA! RIFKA! GET BACK HERE! NIGHT IS FALLING!” from the edge of the forest.

Q: Tell me a story about your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A: See above.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I’m reading this amazing book by Susan Howe about Emily Dickinson, who also grew up in Amherst, and at one point Howe says that Dickinson “audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humiliation and hesitation.” And I think that describes the kind of theater that excites me. I really loved Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s NO DICE. I really loved Richard Maxwell’s THE END OF REALITY. I really loved Young Jean Lee's PULLMAN, WA. I really loved Caryl Churchill’s A NUMBER. And I really love seeing Chekhov performed. For years Brian Mertes and Melissa Kievman staged a Chekhov play at their house every summer and it was consistently some of the best theater I’ve ever seen. A million times better than those horrible, horrible, stodgy, expensive British productions of Chekhov.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Oh boy. It’s rough. Don’t give up. Don’t love everything you write, be hard on yourself, but don’t become so crippled by self-hatred that you can’t finish a draft. Apply to everything—every writers group in New York, every developmental festival in the country. If you’re interested in grad school and you like weird plays, go study with Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College. He is one of the smartest and most generous people on the planet. And maybe this is me being a curmudgeon, but I think way too many New York theater people just see plays and watch movies and TV and don't read novels or poetry or philosophy or try to learn about history. A lot of young playwrights are weirdly anti-intellectual. That pisses me off, man. And I think you can see that reflected in all of the boring paint-by-numbers theater out there. So I guess I also recommend reading lots of books that have nothing to do with theater/film/TV (which is not to say that I think plays should be written for an audience full of intellectuals; quite the opposite. That kind of play makes me want to die).

3 comments:

joshcon80 said...

I wonder what Annie meant by "anti intellectual". I ask, because I immediately bristled at that but then thought, "Wait a minute... I'm not anti-intellectual, am I?"

Her advice seems really smart to me. Also, her Rifka/Schmuel story is AMAZING.

Rob said...

She's got a great voice. She's using it. Beautifully.

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