Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York sees two of the playwright’s most recent works performed this fall, The Flick and John. She talks with Kan about her fondness for Chekhov’s plays, writing for certain actors, and the music of speech.
New York Live Arts presents
Circle Mirror Transformation—Annie Baker’s second play, which, together with her play The Aliens, won the 2010 Obie Award—begins with fifteen seconds of silence. The slowed-down, natural pacing of Baker’s plays, perhaps initially uncomfortable for the viewer, ultimately makes for a visceral and immediate experience.
What drew me to Baker’s work from the beginning was its lack of pretense. Her Vermont characters—drawn from her childhood environment in Amherst, Mass.—reminded me of people from my hometown in rural New Hampshire. I admired how truthfully she captured these characters without making caricatures of them. I see the same honesty and precision pervading her dialogue and story development. Baker is not afraid of speech that sounds awkward, if it’s authentic, and her plotlines don’t always get tied up in neat little bows. She resists being confined to any particular style or subject matter and her latest play, John, is testament to that, as it teeters between naturalism and surrealism.
Annie and I met to talk about her work, and ideas about theater in general, at a diner down the street from the Signature Theater, where John had just opened for previews the night before.
— Elianna Kan
Elianna Kan One thing I love about your plays is that the characters feel so familiar—they talk the way that people I know talk. It’s people from small towns who are hanging out in the back of coffee shops, working at movie theaters, or taking community theater classes. What makes you draw on them as your characters?
Annie Baker There’s very little conscious strategy behind the subject matter for my plays. There’s a lot of strategizing in the actual researching and writing of a play. But, in terms of what it’s about, and who the main characters are, and what the setting is, it really is something that just comes to me. It’s not like I’m saying, “I could write a play about this, or I could write a play about that. Which is the better play?” I can only hold one play in my mind at a time. Unlike some other playwrights, the characters in my plays are not based upon people I’ve met. They really do feel like products of my imagination, or different pieces of my consciousness in dialogue with each other. But that said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I grew up in a small town in New England and I’ve written a number of plays that take place there. This latest play takes place in Pennsylvania, in Gettysburg. But the couple in it is from New York, and that’s totally new for me—I’ve lived here for fifteen years, and it’s very slowly starting to creep in.
EK To become your world.
AB Yeah. Although I’m not really interested in writing one of those Upper West Side plays—not that I’ve ever lived on the Upper West Side. I don’t think we need more plays about artists in New York City. Although who knows. Now that I’ve said that I feel like I should write one to punish myself.
EK I remember reading an interview in which you describe how your plays come out of whatever your obsession is at that moment. If you had to articulate what obsession this new play John was born out of—
AB There was some point in my life when I said, “I’ll never write a relationship drama, a two-hander,” because I often hate those, it’s such a trope, and I often watch the play thinking, Why do I care? But then, as I investigated my own resistance to that, I thought, Oh, I should make myself write a play about a couple, precisely because for some reason I find it threatening. So I became interested in having a relationship drama, but within a totally different play, like they’re stuck in their own relationship two-hander within a larger play. I also really wanted to write a play for this actor, Georgia Engel, who plays the proprietor of the bed and breakfast. She was in my production of Uncle Vanya, I just fell in love with her. That’s, actually, what most leads me to my characters these days: an actor I really want to write a part for. Like, I wanted to write a play for Matt Maher, and that was one of the first impulses for The Flick.
EK What is it exactly that makes you want to create work for a particular actor?
AB Well, to use Matt and Georgia as examples, they’re both people who are effortlessly funny. They never have to push for laughs—just them at their most deadpan is incredibly hilarious because they both have a genius sense of comic timing. They also always sound like a real person talking. It never sounds stilted or written when they say words out loud. They’re also people who don’t remind me of anyone else I’ve ever met. They’re the kindest people I know. And they understand my writing. That, I’ve learned, is so important. I think my work is very easy for some actors to understand, and very hard for others.
EK I’m curious what else inspired John, because it’s very different from your previous work, more free-wheeling, maybe.
AB With John, I was interested in a play where multiple older people are watching people fifty years younger than them struggle in a way that’s very specific to one’s twenties and early thirties. I had also started to investigate the numinous in my work, and became interested in discussions of the holy and the occult. Do you know Bruno Schulz’s short stories?
EK Yes, sure. They’re so full of life. He writes shtetl life in a way that makes his characters both ordinary and extraordinary.
AB I was also reading E.T.A. Hoffmann, and watching that great Powell-Pressburger movie version of the opera Tales of Hoffmann. And then I came across this amazing essay that Rainer Maria Rilke has on dolls. I became really interested in the spiritual life of the inanimate object. I mean, I was very interested in that as a child but then I started trying to figure out what that interest really signified about my psychology. And somehow it all started coming together into a play.
I also wanted to investigate women’s relationships to dolls from their childhood, what those dolls embodied and expressed. The Rilke essay comes the closest to articulating what I experienced as a kid, but there was still something else I wanted to talk about. There’s something very specific about the women I talked to, me and most of my friends, and the relationships we had with our dolls when we were younger. We had this obsessive guilt surrounding them. That guilt is what I hadn’t heard anyone talk about and it became really interesting to me as a metaphor. And then there are twelve other things I was interested in researching that worked their way into the play.
EK I find that you create these tight spaces where people are forced into some kind of empathy, or intimacy, for and with people they might not have otherwise cared about. In The Flick, the central conflict revolves around the question of loyalty and betrayal among relative strangers. In Circle Mirror Transformation, a group of people who randomly find themselves in an acting class together quickly end up becoming very vulnerable with one another. Same with The Aliens.
AB I think that’s probably true of this play, too. Although, it hadn’t really occurred to me until you said it.
EK When did you first start paying attention to the way people speak?
AB I have been amused and moved by the grammar and music of the way people speak since I can remember. When I was seventeen I started secretly recording people and then transcribing everything, twenty pages of a so-called banal conversation, and then marveling at how beautiful it was when you just write down exactly what people say.
EK I have a big question with theater in general, and especially with young playwrights who could have chosen screenwriting or novel writing: What is it about theater that still resonates with you? Does it let you articulate or represent something in a way that’s perhaps more honest or more true to life than other artistic mediums?
AB You know, because theater is mostly not part of the larger cultural conversation, theater people then tend to overcompensate. When we apply for grants, we try to make theater sound really amazing in relation to other art forms. But ultimately that’s fruitless…. It would be like saying that painting is better than the movies. But, okay. What resonates about it for me? Everything I’m about to say might be obvious, but I do think there’s something special about the thing happening in front of you. Movies are an opportunity to travel back in time, which is exciting, but theater is an opportunity to experience time at the same rate as the actors in the story you’re watching. That’s just a really weird, crazy thing to experience.
EK It’s like putting a microscope on the present.
AB Yeah, and I’m especially interested in the restrictions of theater. In dealing with a single space. Of course, a play can take place in multiple locations. Some of my favorite plays do. But, so far, I’m really interested in trapping everybody in one space. When people have asked to make movie adaptations of my plays, I draw the line. Once I was like, Well, if you wanted to do one long shot, with no close-ups, then you can do it. And they were like, You can’t have a movie that’s one long shot. But, now that we’re talking about it, I actually am really interested in making a film that’s one long shot for two hours, with no close-ups or change in location.
EK It has to be the way it really would be if these people were in this room right now.
AB Well, actually, no, I’m not interested in trying to represent the world as it is—in this play John, especially, I’m making no attempt to adhere to reality at all. For me, letting the space lead the story, rather than the story lead the space, is really interesting. In terms of why I’m drawn to theater, there’s also something masochistic about it, because I am a perfectionist, and I do have such specific ideas about how things should be. Theater constantly teaches you that perfection is impossible. It always goes a different way than you plan; there’s always a night where something goes insanely wrong.
EK Or an audience member starts having a coughing fit or a seizure.
AB Yeah, and you can’t hear the most important line in the play. Or, conversely, sometimes the actors perform the play in a way that’s much better than you ever imagined it. So, the emotional roller coaster of it, it kills me. And then I’m like, Well, I must be doing it because it’s also attractive to me, and compelling—
Man interjects Excuse me. The Flick blew me away!
AB Oh, thank you, that’s so embarrassing that you heard me, like, holding court.
Man I mean it. I love your work, I’m a major fan. The Flick was astounding.
AB Oh, thank you! Did you see the old version, or the newer version?
Man The old one, at Playwrights. I’m so sorry to interrupt but, holy mother of God! Thank you.
AB Thank you! Nice meeting you. (pause)
EK Let’s talk about speech patterns in your plays, or more specifically, tell me about how you became fixated on the importance of silences between speeches. We always talk so much about dialogue in plays.
AB I know!
EK I remember, what was it, maybe it was Krapp’s Last Tape … there was some Beckett play I was seeing at BAM, that has a full minute of silence at the beginning. And, you could feel how uncomfortable everyone was. That was one of the most powerful moments that I’ve had in a theater in a long time. How did you tap into the fact that silence could be such a crux of what makes live performance have a certain magic?
AB You articulate a thought that I didn’t have when I started making the work. I guess I contemplated using a lot of silence in Circle Mirror Transformation. But I wasn’t conscious of experimenting with that, or trying to show people anything. I just knew how the play sounded in my head. Then, when we rehearsed it, I would really insist on longer pauses. But it wasn’t because I had some sort of aesthetic project involving silence. It was more like trying to replicate a musical score in my head. And I do think there’s a lot of silence in real life. But I’m not attempting to hold a mirror up to reality, it was just what was working for me musically. Circle Mirror Transformation was just me being like, Okay, what if I just write, not worrying about marketability or wondering if people will like this or pay attention to it? What if I write something that I, alone in a theater, would enjoy watching? That really helped me. And then I guess that ended up involving a lot of silence. I still didn’t think it was such a big deal, that it was a distinctive quality of my writing. And then it started getting written about as a thing I do, which was mystifying to me. But it was one of those things where you realize something about your work because people are telling it to you.
EK But in the stage directions to The Aliens, you specify the silences need to be at least five seconds long.
AB Well, that’s the only play I’ve ever done that with, because that play really was about the relationship between these two men who don’t have jobs and spend all day hanging out together. And, for me, that play—more than any of my plays—entailed a lot of stillness, and revolved around the music of these people talking, and singing. So, yeah, it was ultra-specific in my head. But, again, not as some kind of—
EK —project, or premeditated artist’s statement.
AB Yeah, but actually that’s what these dudes in my head are doing, these characters: they’re hanging out in silence together. The first preview of John was last night, and I really never think my plays are particularly silent, quiet, or slow. I mean, we’re still working on the pace—this is a very early preview. I’m always surprised by what happens when you get an audience: how much people laugh, and how many people get freaked out. I never think I’m writing something divisive or challenging. It’s a really sad statement about how conservative theater is today that I’m considered a challenging or divisive artist. That’s hilarious. Because I think I’m pretty accessible! There’s a story with characters that you can follow. And there are touching moments at the end, you know? I don’t feel like I’m a member of the avant-garde. What I can say is that I’m trying to make something unusual and surprising and not bound to convention. But not something anti-conventional either.
EK The first thing critics seem to mention when talking about your work is how people walked out when The Flick first opened at Playwrights Horizons. Like it was the biggest scandal.
AB That just means that the theater world is really lame. It’s so conservative, it’s crazy. And maybe that’s another thing that makes me interested in the medium. It’s not hard to challenge people in the theater, to do something that makes people feel a little uncomfortable, or think a little differently. Because what we’re used to seeing is so predictable.
EK And you’re just being true to what sounds authentic, or—
AB —interesting to me, to what would entertain me. I do have a slightly different metabolism. I really like long books with a lot of description. What I find entertaining might be different. But I’m always surprised by the reactions to my plays. Last night was our first preview. My friend came, and he said that there was a couple outside the theater in a horrible fight afterwards, because the man loved it and the woman hated it.
EK Can you remember the turning point when you started making work that you would enjoy seeing, regardless of what other people might think? What caused the shift?
AB It was actually a shift in my thinking, what you just described. When you’re in your twenties and broke, you just want to make it, you want to be recognized, you want to get ahead, and so you write trying to make something that you think people will like. And then it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I was writing the worst stuff. And I had coffee with my grad school mentor, Mac Wellman, and I told him I felt like a fraud and that I didn’t want to write stupid uptown comedies but I didn’t feel like I fit into a more expressionistic mode either, and he said to me: “Well, if you were just writing to amuse yourself, writing entirely for fun without worrying about whether anyone would like it, what would you write?” I said: “I’d write a play that was just my mom and her hippie friends sitting around and talking about spirituality for two hours.” And he said: “Do that! That sounds great!” I was truly taken aback like, Wait, I can do that?
EK Is your creative process any different when adapting someone else’s work, as in the case of Uncle Vanya? Did adapting Chekhov involve any reassessment of your relationship to theater?
AB Uncle Vanya is another example of wanting to make a project for an actor. The director Sam Gold and I really wanted Reed Birney to play Vanya. I think one of my secret weapons as a playwright is that I’m good at casting. Whenever I thought about Vanya, I’d have casting fantasies. I’d think, Oh, Maria Dizzia should play Yelena. I just had a lot of ideas about it, and I also found myself dissatisfied with all of the translations and adaptations of Chekhov I read, with Paul Schmidt being the exception. And then it was commissioned by Soho Rep. So me doing the adaptation was an opportunity to write something for these actors. There was also the pure pleasure of investigating the play. I studied Russian in high school, and it was a way to revisit the language and to go to Russia. I worked with a literal translator, but I also did a pass with my Russian dictionary, which was so fun. I don’t have fun writing my other plays. It’s usually a very painful, horrifying process.
EK That’s why I translate—because I can respond as a reader. Translating is freeing in a different way than writing.
AB You can play around, the material is already good so you just have to work on doing justice to it. I found it so pleasurable. I would really like to adapt Chekhov’s Ivanov, and I would like to spend five years on it.
EK Why do you love Chekhov so much?
AB Oh, I probably don’t have anything original to say about him. I love that his plots and characters are full of contradictions. I love that his plays are ultimately about inner conflict, not outer conflict. They’re plays about people in dialogue with themselves. Almost all the outer conflict between people is actually about competing narratives.
EK Absolutely. And he shows how vulnerable that makes people and how silly much of our conversations end up being, how we can never say what we actually mean. It’s the most honest theater, and yet it’s the easiest to fuck up by making it overly sentimental or slapstick. Chekhov productions often end up exemplifying theater’s worst tendencies toward being staid, artificial, or over-the-top.
AB In contemporary American theater, especially in the world of nonprofits and older subscriber audiences, there’s all this stress about making things clearer for the audience. If you have this plot thread, you have to tie it up later. One thing I learned poking around inside Vanya is how many things in that play are inconsistent; they don’t actually match up time-wise. There’s just some basic stuff, like, Wait, they’ve only been together this long, how is it possible that he’s that old—it doesn’t add up. It’s a very strange play that takes its pretty time in some sections and then speeds through others. It was a lesson in letting the play be its own weird animal.
EK And it can still speak to you and move you, whether or not it’s totally logically consistent.
AB He somehow manages to be timeless and simultaneously very much of his time. I had the most fun with the character Waffles, who has all these references to nineteenth-century Russian painters and writers. He name-drops a lot, and translators always take that out, they try to make it more general. I was like, No, that’s great, we don’t know what he’s talking about. The specificity of it is so awesome. Also, a lot of Chekhov’s grammar is smoothed over by other translators and adaptors. There’s one speech, I think it’s one of Astrov’s speeches, that’s one long run-on sentence in the original Russian, it’s just so many ellipses. Translated, it’s always rendered in perfect full sentences—I don’t know why you would do that. So, I really got excited by the idea of being super loyal to the original text. Initially I thought, Maybe I’ll do some crazy version of Uncle Vanya, where they’re not talking about getting their horses ready, they’re getting their car. But once I looked at the original text, I thought, No, this is totally strange and perfect and the problem is people just cleaning it up too much. We have to do the weird, specific, original, dirty Uncle Vanya.
EK And there are things about it that are timeless. Is it The Cherry Orchard where Varya is in love with Lopakhin? There’s that goodbye scene where she’s hoping that he’s finally going to propose to her before he leaves, and instead they talk about the weather.
EK There are times when the characters in your plays are not talking about anything; they’re projecting onto something else. And that’s so true to who we are, we just dance around the things we want to say.
AB Yes, I love the layers and layers of metaphor that you can hit when you investigate the way people express themselves. Going back to Chekhov, I have a fantasy of doing a movie out of The Steppe. It’s my crazy project. Because, speaking of silence, so much of that novella is just a little boy watching stuff go by in the countryside. I remember this whole section where they stop at an inn, in what would now be Ukraine. There are these Jewish innkeepers, and they’re kind of crazy, and Chekhov is playing with Jewish stereotypes in this really interesting way. Anyway, I was obsessed with that whole section, because people in my family were Jewish innkeepers in that part of the country around that time. So I have this whole fantasy about making a really long, really slow-moving movie out of The Steppe.
EK Do you write for the screen?
AB I do write for the screen. I primarily got into it to get health insurance and money. Now I only want to write movie scripts if I can make the movies myself. I was really bad at being a writer for hire. It wasn’t a good career for me. Right now I’m working on a movie that I’m attached to direct.
EK Is it strange for you that The Flick is also playing right now, at the same time as John?
AB Super weird! I write a new play every three years, so I’m usually in rehearsal only every three years. I’m still going to John every night. After a play opens, you stop going, and you just get these performance reports every night. It’ll be crazy when The Flick is playing downtown, and John is playing uptown. I’ll be out to dinner, or in bed at night, and be like, Oh my God, two plays are happening right now, and hundreds of people are watching it! It’s simultaneously my worst nightmare and a crazy fantasy.
EK Do you still feel very involved with The Flick, or does it have a life of its own now?
AB I was very involved in the second incarnation, but we launched it very quickly. It’s the same group of actors, and they’re super smart, and they didn’t require a lot.
EK Their chemistry is unbelievable.
AB They’re amazing with each other. We had to re-tech it for a new space, basically, and re-choreograph their trash cleanup. But because Sam and I have been working on John, now it’s just happening downtown. So it has a life of its own. Every night it’s different. The audience changes it, sometimes an actor skips a really important line, sometimes someone cries when they’re not supposed to cry, sometimes they don’t cry when they’re supposed to. It’s a different story every night, and that’s so infuriating and also really beautiful.
EK So, you truly are a masochist to be a perfectionist and get involved in a medium where you don’t have much control.
AB There’s a whole thing in theater where when the press comes you say, “It’s frozen, the show’s frozen now.” And it’s not—
EK —ever. But in the process of staging a production, even if it’s only fleeting, when do you know that the play “works”? What does that feel like?
AB Nope. I never feel that way. I’m way too self-critical. To me it always feels like it’s falling apart. I’m never like, Eureka! It works! But there are moments that thrill me. When I’m like, Oh, that little moment just then, that little moment between those two people, was magical. And that’s a real adrenaline rush.
BOMB’s theater interviews are sponsored by The Select Equity Group Foundation.
Elianna Kan is a freelance writer and translator. Most recently she taught literary translation in the creative writing department at Columbia University. Formerly senior editor of The American Reader, she has published interviews with The Paris Review, The American Reader, BOMB and forthcoming with The Believer.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby