Photo courtesy Annie Baker
VICE fiction editor Amie Barrodale recently told me to read The Vermont Plays by Annie Baker. I had never heard of Annie Baker and, at first, I didn’t read it. Two weeks later, Amie brought up Annie Baker again. Had I read her? she asked. I hadn't. By then I was wondering why she was so insistent – she had not been this way with any other reading suggestion – and so I ordered a copy of The Vermont Plays, which contains four plays, and as soon as I began reading, I understood. I read the book in bed, from cover to cover, and during that time in my life, when I was suffering from grief and depression, this book was one of the bright spots, and it remains so in my memory of that dark period. I have yet to see one of the plays performed at a theatre, but I don’t consider that a bad thing, as it gives me something to look forward to. Like she says in this interview, Annie Baker believes that “every single person on this planet is a genius and an idiot” and “any given person you walk by on the street could be brilliant and also deluded and insane”. This comes across in all her work. I should mention that she wrote the brilliant, moving and award-winning play The Aliens and won the Pulitzer for The Flick. If you haven’t already, read Annie Baker. I insist.
VICE: When did you first know you wanted to be a playwright?
Annie Baker: I didn't know that you could be a professional playwright until I became a professional playwright. When I was a kid I wanted to be a novelist. For some reason I was really into Anne Tyler when I was, like, ten (why?) and I wanted to be Anne Tyler when I grew up. I wanted to be Anne Tyler and marry a nursery school teacher and have three children and live in a stone house. Then I got really into theatre in high school. I played Horatio in Hamlet and fell in love with that play and I also liked taping down my boobs every night and wearing an oversized peasant shirt and leggings. It occurred to me then that I might want to write plays. Again, I didn't know you could actually do it for a living. I wrote a play when I was 16 but was too scared to show it to anyone. I also wanted to write and direct movies and I didn't get very good grades so I decided to go to art school. I went to Tisch [at NYU]. I wrote one full-length play while I was there about a psychotic 11-year-old girl and I really liked writing it and started wanting to write more plays. But I couldn't afford to see much theatre and got really discouraged about my writing in general at Tisch and so I didn't start writing more plays until my mid 20s.
What was the first play you saw that strongly affected you?
Well, my high school did a production of Guys and Dolls when I was in the fifth grade, and I had that experience of just being totally swept up by something and the high-schoolers seeming like Olympian gods, and afterwards I learned all the songs and made up little dances in my bedroom. So that's sort of the honest more embarrassing answer. Then I saw a couple of productions in NYC in my 20s that really excited me and made me want to start writing plays again. Daniel Aukin's production of Maria Irene Fornes's Molly's Dream in 2003. The Big Dance Theater's production of Mac Wellman's Antigone in (I think) 2004. James MacDonald's production of Caryl Churchill's A Number at New York Theatre Workshop. That play just killed me. I cried and shook through the whole thing. I reacted to that piece more strongly than I'd ever reacted to a movie or novel. Then this Young Jean Lee play at PS 122, The Appeal. Young Jean was this crazy cool young woman writing and directing her work and she made me excited about trying to make some sort of life in the theater.
What do you think it was about A Number that got to you?
I'm still not quite sure. It's such a deceptively simple play. It requires so little – almost no set, two actors. And it's surprisingly Aristotelian in its structure. But it's so weird and slippery. You don't ever really know what's happening. Churchill's writing is unlike anyone else's. She doesn't tell you very much. There's basically no exposition. And yet there's something really generous and human and warm and funny. It was also the content of the play, I guess – it deals with parental mistakes and neglect in this way that I find totally devastating.
I feel drawn to the loser-genius characters that appear in some of your plays. Or, in other words, people with exceptional abilities who under-achieve. KJ in The Aliens is a gifted college dropout with mental illness. Jared in Body Awareness is an autodidact who (arguably) has Asperger’s and works at McDonald’s. Why are you drawn to using people like this as characters?
I have no idea! I haven't thought about that before. Hmm. I do believe that everyone is a genius. Or you could say it the other way: no one is a genius. Every single person on this planet is a genius and an idiot. So maybe those characters are a way of trying to explore all the different ways any given person you walk by on the street could be brilliant and also deluded and insane.
Have you read the story "Little Expressionless Animals" by David Foster Wallace that first appeared in the Paris Review? And if so, what do you think of it? In it there is a lesbian couple who reads the OED together. One of them is a Jeopardy! champion. She and her brother read encyclopedias as children. Her emotionally disturbed brother knows even more than she does but seems to be barely functional. This is one of my favorite stories by Wallace. It’s very different from Body Awareness, which I also like very much, and it interests me that there are so many parallel elements.
Auggh, this is freaking me out! I was super into DFW in high school and read everything he wrote. So I must have read that story when I was like 16 but the problem is I HAVE NO MEMORY OF IT. So maybe that did influence Body Awareness! His essay in Harper's on descriptivism and prescriptivism definitely did. Jesus. That's scary.
I am affected by how Jared resists being defined. He attempts to prove to them he doesn’t have Asperger’s. Like, he’s “going to get a girlfriend” and have “doggy-style sex” with her to prove to them he’s normal. Joyce wants to pose for Frank in part, I sense, because Phyllis finds the idea of it so threatening and thinks what Frank does – photographing women nude – is awful. So she too resists definition. In Body Awareness, in the description of the setting that precedes the scenes, you include “a bookshelf with a multi-volume set of the OED”. I am wondering, did you see this before you created the characters– them having this multi-volume set – or did you add it later? In other words, which came first, the dictionary or the characters’ resistance to being defined?
I'M NOT GONNA ANSWER THIS QUESTION BECAUSE I HATE BODY AWARENESS AND WROTE IT WHEN I WAS 25 AND DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT TOO MUCH.
Why do you hate it?
I just don't think it's a good play. I think it's pretty cheeseball. It uses what is now my least favourite device in theatre and film. I think of it as the "Michael Douglas at the end of the movie Traffic" device. A character is making a speech in front of an audience and then in the middle of the speech the character realises THAT EVERYTHING THEY'VE THOUGHT UP UNTIL THIS POINT IS TOTALLY WRONG, and s/he starts breaking down and saying things like "I'm sorry, I can't do this" and then in front of the audience begins to stumblingly articulate his/her new more enlightened vision which is also the vision of the author of the movie or play.
The setting for Circle Mirror Transformation is “A windowless dance studio in the town of Shirley, Vermont. There is a wall of mirrors. There is a big blue yoga ball.” With The Aliens, you have, “the desolate back patio of a coffee shop in Vermont. A recycling bin. A trash bin. A PLEASE USE THE FRONT ENTRANCE SIGN.” These images fascinate me. I am curious: With your writing in general, do you tend to start with an image or a problem/situation? How does it usually begin? Is there a pattern to the way in which it usually begins?
I start with setting. An idea for a kind of space onstage that might be something people haven't seen before. Often it's an "unlikely" place: a windowless room in a community centre, the rows of a movie theatre, the garbage area behind a coffee house. I start thinking about the theatrical possibilities inside that space and then usually the characters start coming to me after that. Plot is usually the last thing I think about, or, in some cases, the thing I never think about.
I told you already you remind me of Raymond Carver. "Cathedral" comes to mind. That is because in pretending to be blind the protagonist is for the first time really feeling what a cathedral is. He gets it in a way he hasn’t before. Carver has this ability to transform what we take for granted or think we know into something that is being truly experienced. You have this ability to have your characters express what seems common in a way that renders it fresh. For example, in Circle Mirror Transformation, in which characters are in an acting class and doing an exercise of pretending to be each other, Schulz pretending to be Theresa, and says near the end of the Theresa monologue, “I don’t want my parents to die.” Then there is “a long pause while he thinks deeply about this”. Then, “Yeah. Okay. That’s it.” I mean, most people don’t want their parents to die. Of course we don’t want the people we love to die. Yet when he says this I feel like I’m really experiencing it, in a way I never have before. My parents are going to die. Of course I already knew this. And yet. His saying it instead of registering as ordinary feels profound. Why? How do you do this? [I have theories about how you do it, but I want to hear yours.]
Wow. Wow. That is such a nice thing to say. No one has ever zeroed in on that moment in Circle Mirror Transformation before. Thank you thank you. Thank you. Um… er… let's see. I don't know how I do anything I do. I'm never sure what in god's name I'm up to. I just try not to be too profound and I find that often profundity comes from that.
Regarding, “I just try not to be too profound." Interesting. Does the profundity seem to want to rear its head when you don’t want it to, then? Is it an urge you’re suspicious of?
No, no! I like when profundity rears its head. I just don't like chasing after it.
I also recently interviewed the screenwriter Louis Mellis, and he said: “Regarding creating film scripts: The thing I adhere to is something Chekov (I think) said (and I paraphrase): "A guy walks into a casino, places twenty grand on black – loses – goes home and shoots himself. This is what we generally see. But, a guy walks into a casino, places twenty grand on black – wins – goes home and shoots himself… that's Drama!” What do you think about this?
Whoa. Well, Chekhov said a lot of stuff. You could basically find a Chekhov quote to justify any mode of writing. Uh… I don't know what I think about that. I'm interested in the loser who shoots himself AND the winner who shoots himself. I don't know. For me it's all about inner conflict. Ninety-five percent of the conflict in Chekhov plays is inner conflict and not anything actually happening between two people in the real world, and that's what I love most about him. And I think that's true for most of us: Most of the conflict in our lives is just the different voices in our head screaming at each other. I hate when teachers/producers/actors ask "WHAT DOES THIS CHARACTER WANT?" That's like my least favourite question. Any good character wants seven different contradictory things all at the same time.
Have you had some deeply frustrating experience with writing that led to a sort of aha moment that taught you something important about your writing? If so, I’d love to hear about it.
Well, I'm deeply frustrated all the time. All my plays usually follow a two-year-period of deep frustration and not-writing and there's usually an aha moment that surfaces gurgling from the pit of despair I've fallen into and unlocks the play for me after I've convinced myself that I will never write a play again.
But I had an aha moment, I guess in my late 20s, when I stopped thinking about What Kind of Play I Wanted to Write and What Kind of Writer I Wanted to Be. I just gave up. I accepted the fact that I'm a little stupid. That I don't know exactly what I want to say. That I don't know what kind of theatre I want to make. That I don't know how to classify it. I stopped thinking strategically. I stopped trying to prove to people that I was smart through my writing. I stopped trying to write stuff that I thought other people would like. And all that followed a long period of bad writing and deep, deep frustration with the fact that my talent couldn't live up to my taste. I mean, it still doesn't.
What do you do during the not-writing?
I read a lot. I always convince myself I have to read just ONE MORE BOOK before I can start writing. Then just ONE MORE. This goes on for years. I like spending time with people I love. I guess I spend a lot of time talking to people I love. I like going to movies. I like walking to my local pharmacy and spending 45 minutes picking out a new brand of shampoo and conditioner. I worry a lot. Not about my career. About my relationships with people.
I heard you are also writing for the screen.
I'm writing a movie that I'm attached to direct and that's really nice. I've written screenplays before for other people to direct, and I wasn't so good at that. It goes back to the thing about writing something that you hope someone else will like. If I'm writing for someone else, for anyone else's vision, I just sabotage the whole thing. It's not a choice. It just happens. I can't write anything decent if I'm beholden to anyone.
Do you believe in God?
Any advice for wannabe playwrights, writers, readers or for anyone in general?
Be a crazy person. Make weird demands. Write the kind of work that you would want to read and see. (That sounds obvious but I feel like we all fail to do that most of the time. I definitely do.) Have faith that the weird thing you really want to write that you think no one else will like might turn out to be the thing that everyone likes the most, to their and your surprise.
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