Welcome to Shirley, VT

    "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 ..." — Annie Baker, in an interview with Playwrights Horizons' Adam Greenfield"

    Emerging writers who generate the buzz that Annie Baker has this past year often do so by defying convention. Playwriting 101 dictates that the writer grab the audience's attention in the first ten pages and keep hold of it through a series of surprising, yet believable, turning points. Baker consciously rejects that action-driven style for a much more subtle one of naturalistic writing that requires the kind of patience and attention hard to find in our hyper-linked, attention-deficit culture. This counterintuitive approach to storytelling requires us as audience to take a different approach. And the best approach to an Annie Baker play is to wait for it.
    This fall, the Huntington, SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Company One will present Circle Mirror Transformation, Body Awareness, and The Aliens in concert. The plays share a common setting: Shirley, Vermont, a fictional town Baker has created. Although the plays tell completely independent stories, seeing them in proximity provides an unusual opportunity for Boston audiences to experience a writer in depth and to develop an appreciation for how a writer evolves.
    In Body Awareness, Baker's earliest and most traditional play, a male photographer who specializes in female nudes stays with a middle-aged lesbian couple and disrupts their lives for a while. In his first scene, the photographer asks: "But then one day the person says something really weird and you're like: Do I actually know you? Or are you this total stranger?" Traditionally, disruptive strangers automatically make the characters in a play re-examine their assumptions, and when the stranger leaves, the world of the play is either set right or irrevocably changed.
    Circle Mirror Transformation, chronicles the relationship between five people taking a creative drama class. Instead of using a traditional plot structure, the story uses group dynamics and unfolds while the audience watches the characters perform formal theatre exercises. It can seem confusing at first, even frustrating ó one of the funniest lines of the show acknowledges this awkwardness. But slowly, information about the characters comes out in unexpected and subtle ways, and by the end the audience is surprised to find they know the characters deeply.
    With The Aliens, Baker pushes the concept of stage silence to its limit ó as written, it is intended to be fully a third silent. We watch KJ and Jasper waste their lives sitting in the back lot of a coffee shop. Along the way, they inadvertently inspire and liberate an intelligent, awkward boy. The play is a paean to small-town burnout geniuses that anyone who has done time in a rural town will immediately recognize.
    Baker creates these characters and their world working solely with the awkward, interrupted speech of every day interactions and silence. Her characters are drawn both from close observation and a sweeping imagination. Charles Isherwood, writing in The New York Times declared, "Ms. Baker's means are simple, and her experimenting is less a matter of tricky games of design and structure than an imaginative consideration of how an evening of theatre can be made to echo the slow ineluctable pace of change in real life." The result is a deeply humane, completely different yet utterly recognizable kind of theatre.

—By Lisa Timmel

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