The entire playscript of The Aliens is available in the July/August 2010 issue of American Theatre.
STUART MILLER: It’s not often that a playwright goes so quickly from unheard of—and unproduced—to getting as much attention as you have. You’ve had three original Off-Broadway productions in two years—Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation, and The Aliens—and those plays are also being staged in other cities, including simultaneously at three theatres in Boston this coming fall. Has it been overwhelming?
ANNIE BAKER: I’ve been very lucky, and I learned an enormous amount from all three productions. I was writing plays in a vacuum before 2008, and the past two years have been a real education in what it actually takes to make a play. The moments in my plays that work on stage are totally different from the moments that work on the page. That said, I’m totally exhausted. When I’m in rehearsals I don’t sleep. Every night I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, my heart beating a thousand times a second while I obsess about a sound cue or a piece of blocking. So for the next year I’m just going to crawl into a hole and write and try to keep my blood pressure down.
You grew up in Amherst, Mass., moved to New York City for college and never left. How did Shirley, Vt., the fictional small town for all three plays, come to be?
I started taking notes on Shirley in 2004. I was going to write a really terrible play called Shirley the Town about three different families being haunted by the vengeful ghost of Lord Henry Shirley, the murderous 18th-century town founder, and I came up with a whole history. I knew about everyone who had ever lived there—the Native Americans and the Puritans and the 19th-century poets and the 20th-century farmers and hippies and professors and Cambodian refugees. There were so many potential characters and so many ghosts. That play never happened, thank God, but all my imaginary research stuck with me. In my notes for Shirley the Town I kept writing about this 55-year-old woman named Joyce who had a difficult son, and a year later Joyce turned out to be the protagonist of Body Awareness. I really wanted to write about a certain kind of big-haired, intelligent but compulsively masochistic baby-boomer woman. And a lot of those women seem to be named Joyce. Or Linda. Or Karen.
You had the same director, Sam Gold, for Circle Mirror and The Aliens. What role did Sam’s ideas or sensibility have in how you see the plays? Did he push or prod you to challenge yourself or rewrite certain parts?
We started working together on Circle Mirror Transformation when I only had 45 pages of what would end up being a 95-page play. So Sam’s opinions and theories were very important to me. I ran a ton of ideas by him. There are also a hundred pages of that play that never made it to the stage—just different theatre exercises that we eventually decided were unnecessary or a little too silly or a little too serious. The Aliens was pretty much finished before we started rehearsals. Sam is a really brave director. He’s not scared of alienating people and making them uncomfortable, but he also has a low tolerance for stuff that’s too self-congratulatory or just plain boring.
I insisted that at one point in Circle Mirror Transformation the stage remain empty for 30 seconds, and he never questioned that. But then he came up with this brilliant addition—while the actors exited, they would “accidentally” bump into this giant blue yoga ball that was sitting in the corner and send it rolling around the stage. So the 30-second silence in this empty room became an amazing silent yoga ball ballet. Some nights it would ricochet off the wall and ecstatically careen around the entire stage. Other nights it would rock gently back and forth in place. One night it rolled right up to the edge of the stage and sat there, teetering. It never fell off. It knew exactly what it was doing. It moved me every time. It was my favorite part of the play and I didn’t write it and there were no actors involved. Just an inanimate object dancing silently for the crowd.
You’ve said you’re obsessed with the ideas of silence and stillness. While Body Awareness has characters who can’t stop talking, your last two plays, especially The Aliens, have plenty of Pinter-esque pauses. You seem interested in how characters and audiences deal with these moments. Did you consciously explore that territory?
I have a hard time making the distinction between a conscious intellectual “effort” and the more touchy-feely, letting-the-characters-speak-through-me-and-dictate-the-action kind of writing. Or, more accurately, I struggle with that distinction every time I sit down to write, and when I go too far in either direction, my writing really suffers. Before I start writing a play I do a lot of note-taking and philosophizing, and probably somewhere in all those notes are big articulate ideas about silence and what exactly I want the audience to feel. But by the time I start actually writing dialogue, I put all of that intention and effort aside—I try to stop thinking about the end product or the “point” or the “theme” and I just get really mystical and cheesy and cry all the time and stare at the leaves outside my window and convince myself that they’re communicating something to me.
But maybe I’m avoiding the question. What am I exploring with silence in my plays? I did reach a point in 2007 when I was completely fed up with what we call “naturalism,” and I thought that maybe there was no point in even trying to write that way anymore. But the dream—the dream of what naturalism could be if we let it out of its creepy, pseudo-intellectual, watered-down, lame-o Off-Broadway cage—kept haunting me. Because the way people really talk is so strange. If you transcribe a conversation, it sounds nothing like the so-called naturalistic plays they put up at most big nonprofits. If anything, it sounds more like the writing of Mac Wellman and Richard Maxwell and Anne Washburn, people who are still considered pretty experimental and “downtown.”
So at some point in 2007 I decided that I was going to try to write the kind of naturalistic play that I wanted to see, a naturalistic play that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become defamiliarized and incredibly strange. Like standing really close to an Impressionist painting and just staring at the blobs of paint. What am I saying? In real life we’re silent and bored and inarticulate a lot of the time, and yet in most so-called naturalistic theatre it always feels to me like the writer and director are trying to pretend that life is high-paced and exciting and that everyone likes to talk about feelings and ideas in an intelligent way that relates back to a central theme. I’m way more interested in staring at the paint blobs. The paint blobs of silence.
The painter Francis Bacon said this great thing about painting that I find very relevant to playwriting: “You’re trying to make an image of appearance that is conditioned as little as possible by the accepted standards of what appearance is.”
Are those silences written in, or developed in rehearsal?
They’re all written in. Sam Gold has a really good ear and he’ll tell me if he thinks a silence is unnecessary or too long or too short. Often we’ll try it five different ways in rehearsals; taking the silence out, putting it back in, stretching it and then shortening it. It’s all about calibration. I think it drives the actors crazy.
Although The Aliens has a hopeful ending, your plays have become more minimalist and darker. Was that driven by anything in your own emotional landscape?
I don’t think of my plays as minimalist—more like zoomed-in portraits where you can see all the crazy pixels on people’s cheeks. Or maybe I should just stick with the paint-blob metaphor. But I actually feel like my plays are pretty messy and full of different story lines and conflicts. I haven’t been aware of them getting darker—maybe they have, though. I guess I’m a pretty sad person. But I hope that even though my plays are filled with sadness and sad characters, they’re also filled with, you know, love of humankind and the possibility for change and all that crap.
Do you ever worry about being too elliptical? Have you gone back in and fleshed out details?
I worry about not being elliptical enough. Once I’m in rehearsal, though, I’ll trust my director and my actors if they tell me that something is confusing or misleading and if I need to I’ll try to stick in some exposition or information somewhere. But putting information in for the sake of having that information makes me want to die a little. Audiences need way less exposition and backstory than we think they do.
In Body Awareness and Circle Mirror you show a flair for writing characters much older than yourself; in Circle Mirror and The Aliens we also see your knack for writing male characters. Do you consciously challenge yourself to do this? How do you tap into these voices?
I don’t consciously challenge myself to do that. In fact, maybe the hardest character for me to write would be a 29-year-old Jewish-Irish female playwright living in Brooklyn. I could never write that woman. I can’t stand that woman! But I have a lot of empathy toward pretty much every other type of person in existence.
Stuart Miller is a journalist based in Brooklyn.