Interview with Playwright Annie Baker
by Walter Bilderback
Walter Bilderback: My experience encountering each of your plays for the first time is that nothing much is happening to relatively ordinary people, and then sometime near the end I find myself thinking “Holy Cow! Something huge has happened without me noticing it.” You’ve said that dialogue and pace are overly-stressed in a lot of new plays. Can you talk a little about this?
Annie Baker: Oh good. That’s a huge compliment, Walter. Thank you. Yes, I feel like a lot of contemporary plays are trying to compete with film and TV, which is always a terrible idea. If you try to play their game, film and TV will beat you every time. The plays I’m talking about are fast-paced, “realistic,” take place in a zillion different locations, and have a lot of big sitcom-y laughs. I think Body Awareness is representative of my transition out of that kind of writing and into something else. I do think it has some film and TV residue on it, but it’s trying to shake it off.
WB: One of your current projects is an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov. His work shares many qualities with yours: do you feel a kinship with him?
AB: Well, I love his writing. I don’t know if I deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as him, though. He taught me a lot about offstage action, offstage characters, and how important it is to have dialogue that does not appear to forward the plot. His characters are spontaneous and strange and do things we wouldn’t expect them to do and yet they also never really change.
WB: How is adapting a play different for you than writing a new one? Do you think this will have any impact on your future work?
AB: It’s totally, totally different. It’s like the difference between, uh, swimming laps and cooking meat on a grill. I have no idea why those examples leapt into my mind but there you go. Adapting Uncle Vanya felt like an intellectual investigation, a puzzle, a philosophical inquiry. Writing a new play—when it’s going well—feels like meditating, dancing, sleep-walking.
WB: What other writers do you admire?
AB: Oh, so many. Novelists have influenced my plays just as much as other playwrights. Nabokov, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf. The playwright Mac Wellman was my mentor and he and his plays had a huge influence on me.
WB: You and director Anne Kauffmann are fans of each other, but I believe this makes the first time you’ve had a chance to work together. What do you think Anne can bring to this production?
AB: Oh man. I’m so excited to work with Annie. I can’t even tell you. I think she’s so so brilliant and everything I see by her has so much integrity. What do I think she can bring? Brilliant comic timing, intellectual rigor, good taste, subtle execution, lots of empathy. I’ve wanted to work with her for a really long time.
WB: You were recently named one of the first participants in Signature Theater Company’s Residency Five initiative. Can you tell us a little about this? Has it affected your life yet?
AB: Yes, the Signature Residency Five initiative is a strange and wonderful thing. They promise to put on three of your plays in five years at the brand-spanking-new Signature Theater Center on 42nd Street in NYC. Because I’m a slow writer, it’s a bit daunting, but I couldn’t say no. It’s an incredible opportunity and Jim Houghton is a fabulous artistic director and it gives me permission to take risks that I wouldn’t otherwise take.
WB: All of your plays so far have been set in the fictional small town of Shirley, VT. A lot has been made of that by critics, but in our correspondence you’ve discounted its importance.
AB: Yeah. I had no idea when I wrote a bunch of plays set in a small town in Vermont that it would turn into this huge marketing gimmick in the world of regional theater. That really bothers me. The POINT is that the town doesn’t take center stage, that it’s this quiet backdrop and that the more plays you see the more you get to know the town, but only if you’re interested and looking. Then all these theaters that produced my plays would include maps of the town (that I didn’t draw!) in the program along with street signs hanging in the lobby, etc. and I felt like it did all of my plays a huge disservice. The town is not the point. Also, it would confuse audiences. They’d raise their hands during talkbacks and say: “I thought I was gonna learn more about the town!” Oy. I will never write a Shirley play again. The town ceased to exist in my head once there were fake pictures of it on someone’s website.