Annie Baker discusses Circle Mirror Transformation with Playwrights Horizons Literary Manager Adam Greenfield

    Adam Greenfield: Okay, so usually when we interview playwrights, we audio record a live conversation and then transcribe it. But this time, at your request, we're conducting the interview via email, which I think is interesting. I wonder if you can talk a bit –- or rather, write a bit -– about what it's like to speak about your work. Is there something particularly discomforting about it?
    Annie Baker: Yes! I hate talking about my work. The first reason is the obvious one, and it applies to writing about my work, too: I think that the play should speak for itself. Reason number two is more embarrassing -— I'm just a really nervous person and I hate the sound of my own voice and I regret everything that I've said two seconds after I've said it. But my own self-consciousness aside, I have noticed that my favorite plays are the ones you can't accurately describe or explain in a few sentences. The plays that sound really great in a blurb—the plays where the author has some kind of fascinating journalistic angle or there's some kind of obvious "teaching point" or some kind of crazy plot twist? I usually don't like those plays.
    But yes —- if I have to describe my work, I like to do it in print. I think the fact that I hate 90 percent of what comes out of my mouth is a large part of why I am a playwright. The way human beings speak is so heartbreaking to me—we never sound the way we want to sound. We're always stopping ourselves in mid–sentence because we're so terrified of saying the wrong thing. Speaking is a kind of misery. And I guess I comfort myself by finding the rhythms and accidental poetry in everyone's inadequate attempts to articulate their thoughts. We're all sort of quietly suffering as we go about our days, trying and failing to communicate to other people what we want and what we believe.
    I know, it's enough to drive a person crazy. And yet, despite their failings, your characters do manage to find connection, even though it's in an oblique and accidental way. Which seems to me, not being a writer, so enormously difficult to craft. I know you sometimes record yourself speaking scenes that you write. What led you to start doing this, and how does it help?
    I record myself speaking the very early drafts and scenes of a new play, before anyone else has read it. I do this because it's so important to me that I capture the cadences of painful, ordinary speech, and it's hard to tell if it's believable when it's on the page. So even though I'm a pretty bad actor, I record myself reading all the parts and sitting through all the pauses, and then I listen to it a bunch of times. If I can hear the writer writing, like if there's thinly–disguised exposition or a nudge to the audience or some kind of obvious point made, I go back and change it. But listening to these recordings is the first step in the editing process for me.
    Did you have an early love of theater, as a kid? Does anything stand out in your memory, any early experience that you can pinpoint which made you want to create plays?
    I have always loved theater. I didn't see a lot of theater as a little kid, but I was always doing very strange performative things in my bedroom for my stuffed animals. Then my parents got divorced and my father moved to New York City, and one time when I visited him he took me to see a Richard Foreman play -- Permanent Brain Damage. I was thirteen and I had no idea what was going on but I thought it was amazing. People were hitting each other on the head with orange plastic hammers, and the whole thing took place behind a wall of plexiglass. Then theater just became my religion in high school. I was fanatical about it. It was the only thing that got me up in the morning. I was a dead–serious high school method actor, too, and I would only write in my diary "in character," as whomever I happened to be playing in the school play. Somewhere in my mother's garage is a notebook filled with Horatio's secret thoughts and the revelation that he is actually in love with Hamlet. I also journaled as a promiscuous Pentecostal snake handler from this Romulus Linney play, Holy Ghosts. I even kept a journal as Adelaide from Guys and Dolls! I wrote stuff like: "Why won't Nathan marry me? I feel unattractive."
    Tell me about the very first play you wrote, or the very first stab you took at sitting down with pen and paper. Do you remember where the initial impulse to write came from?
    I wrote my first play when I was sixteen. It was called Taking Orders, and I was thrilled with the double entendre in the title. It was about the power dynamics between a father and daughter who were sitting in an Indian restaurant and discussing whether or not the waiter was being creepy. I wrote it for the Student-Written Play Festival at my high school, and I obsessed over it for months before submitting it. Then the morning after I submitted it I woke up in a cold sweat and raced to the head of the festival and begged him to give the play back to me. Suddenly the idea of anyone reading it or performing it made me sick with fear. So no one ever read it. Writing all this is making me realize how little I've changed.
    I have a confession: it wasn't until our workshop of Circle Mirror Transformation last fall that I realized Shirley, Vermont, is a fictional town. I actually tried to find it on Wikipedia one day after rehearsal, thinking I'd find some charmingly quaint Chamber of Commerce web–site. And then, when no Shirley turned up, I realized how totally real this place has felt to me in reading your plays. Body Awareness, Nocturama, The Aliens, and Circle Mirror Transformation are all set in this town, and I think my belief in it was a testament to how real a place it is to you. Can you tell me about Shirley? If there was a Wikipedia entry about it, what might it say?
    Wow. Thank you. Here's the Wikipedia entry:
    "Shirley is a town in Windsor County, Vermont. The population was 14,023 in the 2000 census. Shirley is home to Shirley State College, and it hosts the annual Vermont Gourd Festival.
    Once a fishing place for the Abenaki tribe of the Northeast, Shirley was settled by the English in 1754 and named for Lord Henry Shirley, the man who was eventually responsible for one of the first acts of biological warfare in North America. In response to various Native American uprisings in the 1760s, Shirley approved a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians, whom he referred to as "an execrable race."
    Shirley has never moved to a mayor-council or council-manager form of government; instead, it has maintained the tradition of a town meeting and select board.
    In 1853, pure spring water was discovered near Shirley's Plum Brook, and for the next few decades the town was home to the Shirley Hydropathic Institute and became a curative health resort destination until 1882. Now the former Hydropathic Institute is home to the Shirley School, a small preparatory school for dyslexic students.
    Public nudity was legal in Shirley until 2008, and for years the town's Saturday Morning Farmer's Market was a destination point for nudists. But in 2008, by a narrow margin, the town banned nudity "on the main roads or within 300 feet of any school or place of public worship," and the face of the Farmer's Market (always held in the parking lot of the Unitarian Church) was forever changed.
    Notable historical residents have included Gilbert Rosebath, astronomer; Edwin Hunt Lessey, reed organ maker; and Elizabeth Collins, poet.
    In the 1980s and '90s Shirley became home to a small community of Cambodian refugees who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. The community is still thriving, and now all Shirley public school newsletters are distributed in English and in Khmer."
    Amazing. Okay, I have a lot of questions about that but it's probably best to leave it as is. What is it about Shirley that keeps you coming back? Did you grow up there?
    I think what keeps me coming back to Shirley is just the fact that I've thought about it so much, and so as a result I have a cast of like 600 characters in my mind. When I start writing a new play, it's very tempting to use some of those characters—characters that were mentioned in passing in other plays, or characters that I've just come up with for fun because I'm a crazy person.
    I didn't grow up in Shirley. I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, which shares some characteristics with Shirley, but Amherst is definitely a different beast. Shirley is a combination of Amherst with a bunch of Vermont towns that fascinate me. Vermont fascinates me, period. The remoteness and the self–congratulation and the embracing of diversity and the fear of diversity and the beauty and the good intentions and the old farmers and the old hippies and the new farmers and the new hippies—I love all of it.
    Steinbeck wrote about Salinas. Carver wrote about the Pacific Northwest. Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha. Will you continue to write about Shirley, or do you think you'll leave it someday?
    You know, I have no idea. I will probably continue to write about Shirley for the rest of my life, but hopefully not in such an exclusive and compulsive way. Hopefully if you check in with me five years from now I'll have branched out a little bit.
    Was it NYU's writing program that brought you to New York? What were your plays like when you started studying writing more seriously? Were the same things important to you then?
    NYU's writing program did bring me to New York, although I'd been dying to live here for years. My dad was here when I was a teenager, so I would visit him on the weekends and spend hours at this old artsy postcard shop on Prince Street. Just the fact that New York was a place where there was an ENTIRE SHOP downtown devoted to postcards with Chagall paintings and pictures of Francois Truffaut on them made my 17–year–old self want to move here. And all the postcards were filed in this very satisfying musty, old–school, card-catalogue-y way.
    My plays got much, much worse after I started studying writing seriously at NYU. Along with my fellow students, I became obsessed with Structure (Aristotelian and McKee–vian), which meant that we started writing plays that had clear PROTAGONISTS and QUESTS and TURNING POINTS and INSTIGATING EVENTS and THIRD ACT REVERSALS but not one believable or truthful line of dialogue.
    The whole time I had a feeling that my writing was getting a lot worse but I wasn't sure what to do about it. Then I finally found my way into a graduate class called "Risking Enchantment" with a professor—bless his heart—named Martin Epstein, and he had us read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and plays by Maria Irene Fornes and he would shout things like: "WHERE'S THE WEATHER IN YOUR PLAY?" and "THERE HAS TO BE A RITUAL AND THAT RITUAL HAS TO BE DISRUPTED" and all of that freed and helped me enormously. Screw turning points. Where's the weather?
    I also started taking a lot of classes at the NYU's College of the Arts and Sciences and ended up minoring in religion and taking a lot of history classes. Those classes also helped me a lot. Being a successful writer and being an intellectual suddenly didn't seem mutually exclusive anymore, and that was a huge relief.
    After NYU, you studied with Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College. What drew you to Mac? How did the Brooklyn program influence you?
    I wanted to study with Mac because I think he's unbelievably smart and talented, and so I knew I would trust him. And he had such an insidious and fantastic effect on my writing—he never told me what to do, but in his quiet, gleeful way he encouraged me to get a little bit stranger. He was like the anti–NYU. He also introduced me to texts and authors that became very important to me.
    I remember so clearly my first encounter with an Annie Baker play. When I was still at La Jolla Playhouse, I was in the middle of reading Body Awareness and a co-worker came into my office and demanded, "What are you grinning about?" I was so struck by how close I felt to these characters; it seemed like you were really writing from inside them. Body Awareness focuses on a family's confrontation with "Body Awareness Week" at Shirley State College, which is sort of a festival of political correctness. Can you tell me a bit about this play, and where it came from?
    Boy. It's kind of hard for me to remember. I started writing that play a while ago. It was during a pretty weird stage in my life—I started writing it after this very scary period of self–hatred and crippling depression, and it kind of cheered me up. It was my first Vermont play, and coming up with this imaginary town and its confused residents was not only a real comfort and escape but also an opportunity to forgive–or at least laugh at —myself for being such a flawed human being. The issues in that play that my characters were grappling with were also all issues that I'd watched my mother grapple with while I was growing up. And the single mother/daughter relationship is a very intense one. At some point during the rehearsals for that play I kind of realized that the play was about me and mother—if we were a lesbian couple. But luckily I wasn't aware of that while I was writing it.
    Your next play was Nocturama, which you began writing through Soho Rep's Writer/Director lab. What was the genesis of this one?
    Nocturama was a lot of fun to write, so of course it's the play that no one will ever produce. The Soho Rep lab was fantastic —- it was a group of very earnest and very strange and very smart people, and I had a lot of faith in their feedback. That play ALSO followed ANOTHER period of crippling self–hatred and depression, and I was had just become interested in how, even if you're a really well–intentioned depressed person, you can still really screw up the lives of everyone around you just through the things that being depressed can make you say. I was also interested in what we all mean when we say "depressed." I was also interested in historical house tours and depressed (or I should say melancholic) female 19th century poets (Emily Dickinson in particular), and at the peak of my own insane depression I was like attending three historical house tours a week and becoming obsessed with the (always female) historical house tour guides and their fanatical interest in the minutiae of dead people's lives.
    Every once in a while, I come across a description of your work as "satire," which, I have to say, I think is a bit off-the-mark. What do you think of when you hear the word "satire?" How does that word land on you?
    Okay, so I just looked up "satire" on the OED's website and it's defined as: "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices." And yeah, I guess that feels off–the-mark when applied to my work. I would definitely admit to writing some satirical MOMENTS into my plays, but I often regret them later. My goal is definitely not to "expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices." I'm more interested in obscuring and complicating the things we think of as "stupid." I think there's a lot of cruelty in everyday interactions, and I think it's because people decide that the person they're talking to is "stupid." So I'm interested in cruelty, I guess—if there's something I want to expose, it's cruelty, accidental and intentional. I'm also interested in when, at the strangest moments, people commit acts of nobility. By nobility I mean a kind of moral transcendence. What am I talking about? No, I don't think I write satire.
    What was the first thing you knew about Circle Mirror Transformation when you sat down to start writing it?
    I knew I wanted the audience to learn about the characters through formal theater exercises. I knew I wanted there to be excruciating silences. I knew I wanted a doomed class romance that left one character embarrassed and the other heartbroken. I knew I wanted the characters to deliver monologues as each other. I knew I wanted information about these people to come out in the strangest places, and I wanted us to know them all intimately by the end of the play, but without having heard any lines of dialogue like: "Hey, Marty. Remember when we fell in love 20 years ago in Eureka, California?" I also wanted to show how beautiful (and noble!) it is when people throw themselves earnestly and unselfconsciously into something, even if it's a therapeutic reenactment.
    Interesting that you knew right off the bat that you wanted to write "excruciating silences." The play manages to be simultaneously funny and painful precisely because of the faith that you and Sam Gold (director) have invested in silences, and in stillness. We're not used to seeing this onstage. Can you talk a bit about your interest (obsession?) with silence? When did this start to make its way into the theater you make?
    Silence and stillness are very exciting to me. I feel so over–stimulated and bored by a lot of the theater I see these days because of the breakneck speed at which it's performed. There's this obsession with "pace," and I think it's because we're terrified of boring audiences that are used to looking at the internet while watching TV while talking on their iPhone. Also, when it feels like nothing is taboo anymore—we can have sex and violence onstage and no one blinks an eye—I think the one thing left that really makes people uncomfortable is empty space and quiet.
    Did you take an acting class like this?
    I took a class kind of like this when I was nine at the South Amherst Public Library. We spent a lot of time trying to count to ten without interrupting each other. We also did scenes from Waiting for Godot. I also remember playing a shark in the final performance and wearing a zoot suit? My memories are pretty vague. Then as a teenager I took a tango class at Amherst's Bangs Community Center that was fraught with tension, and the instructor for the class was kind of the inspiration for Marty.
    How has the play changed since the first version you wrote?
    It's changed a lot. I had lots of fancy formal ideas when I started writing it that I ended up throwing out. There were also all these scenes that took place outside the classroom. Eventually I realized that the fun of the play is the fact that it's confined to this dull, windowless little space.
    What are some of the more eye-opening things you've learned about the play along the way? Any surprises, any unexpected challenges?
    I think the actors and I started off pretty wary of using improvisation as a rehearsal technique. But Sam had everyone play almost every theater game in the play, for real, in the rehearsal room, and seeing all the strange and beautiful stuff that the actors came up with was incredibly inspirational. Some of that material made its way into the play—and there's one scene (the scene where they actually PLAY the exercise "Circle Mirror Transformation") that's still improvised. It's different every night.
    What's up next for Annie Baker?
    My amazing director Sam Gold and I will be working on another play together in the spring. It's called The Aliens and it'll happen at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater downtown. It's the first play I've ever written that has music in it. It also will star one of the greatest stage actors of our time, Michael Chernus.

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