Capturing Silence: Annie Baker and the New Naturalism

    A playwright who hates the idea of talking may come as a surprise. (From Shaw to Wilde to Tennessee Williams, the history of theatre is largely the story of the eloquent.) But, tellingly, many of breakout writer Annie Baker's best reviews focus on her ability to see the ordinary and to render halting, imperfect everyday life in a revelatory light. Adam Feldman of TimeOut New York lauds how Baker "depicts major life changes in the most low-key and off-angle ways imaginable. The silences, and there are many, speak louder than most of the words."
    Annie Baker's characters evolve slowly, and, like all of us, they often wish they had said something less, something else, something better. To create them, the playwright cultivates listening as part of her technique. "I will record myself reading [my writing], and I will listen to it obsessively and rewrite according to how I respond to the recording of myself," Baker says. "It's just part of the writing. It's really humiliating, and I would never play these recordings for anybody. I'm not a good actor."
    The intense focus on the speech of real, ordinary people has led Annie Bakerís critical champions to see her as pushing to new frontiers in naturalism. Baker counts the quintessential realist Anton Chekov as her greatest influence, but one can as easily see the echoes of Chekovís contemporary and ally Emile Zola, the primary theorist of theatrical naturalism. (Zola famously said, "A play is a slice of life placed on the stage with art.")
    Baker is quick to point out that we all mean something different by the word naturalism. What one person finds 'natural,' another person finds 'affected,' and vice versa. Yet we learn much about how a playwright views the world from the slice of life they present onstage. For Baker, those lives are often silent ones as she focuses strongly on the space between her lines. A note at the beginning of Circle Mirror Transformation specifies the difference between what she means when she writes a short pause versus a pause, a silence versus a long silence.
    "Crazy stuff happens during silences at the theater," Baker believes, melding her observation of the world around her with a sophisticated view of the theatrical experience of an audience. "The audience suddenly becomes aware of itself, and a little weirded out and uncomfortable, and maybe someone coughs and whispers, but if the silence goes on long enough eventually people adjust to it and get kind of comfortable and zen and find their own way back into the reality of the play. And that moment - when an entire audience is relaxed and breathless together in a silence, when time slows down and then starts to speed up again - is very magical to me."

—by Charles Haugland


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