A Signature Interview
Residency Five playwright Annie Baker has a way of building worlds. In her acclaimed “Vermont Plays” – Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation, and The Aliens – Baker peopled the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont with academics and poets, socially-awkward teenagers and amateur actors, lovers, friends, and family. The first play of her Signature residency, 2015’s John, brought a struggling couple to an exquisitely kitschy Bed and Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the proprietor slowly revealed herself to be more mysterious than she at first seemed. Throughout these plays, Baker has found the universal in the specific, creating recognizable portraits of individuals confronting the complex dilemma of being human.
At the same time, Baker’s work has been characterized by her inventive formal style. In plays like the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick or her 2012 Uncle Vanya adaptation, she has explored the ways our words so often fail us. In Baker’s plays, a yoga ball rolling across the floor or a grieving character repeating the word “ladder” 127 times can be as revelatory as a soliloquy.
Now, Baker returns to Signature with the second play of her residency, The Antipodes. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, this world premiere again creates a world remarkably – and perhaps deceptively – like our own. Before rehearsals began, she spoke with Literary Associate Nathaniel French about being a Signature resident, the role of artists in today’s America, and reading Moby Dick, Norse mythology, and books about octopi to prepare for the play.
This is an exciting spring at Signature, with world premieres by you, Will Eno, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, as well as a new production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus. Do you think that this larger theatrical conversation affects the way audiences view each play individually?
God, I hope so...I feel so lucky to be in the season with Will and Branden, and of course Suzan-Lori too. But yes, my sense is that Will and Branden and I all took some pretty scary risks with these new plays. And it’s really nice to know that none of the other playwrights in the building are playing it safe. Hopefully audiences will pick up on that and not get too freaked out.
How has being a Signature resident influenced your writing process and your thinking about a play?
It’s influenced my process a lot. I think I’ve spoken about this before, but ever since Jim [Houghton, Signature’s Founder] offered me the residency, I’ve felt a responsibility to push myself and make more adventurous, vulnerable work. No more excuses. In terms of this particular play, and with John too, I was writing a play for a particular space in the Signature Center. I requested the Linney space because I wanted to try writing a play for a thrust or alley staging. I’ve written all my other plays for a proscenium stage. So the intimacy of the Linney and the particularity of that space definitely influenced the writing of this play. I wanted to have the audience and the actors all huddled around something together. Being a Signature resident also meant I knew who my director and designers would be far ahead of time, before finishing the play even, and that added another exciting element to the process. But most of all, I’ve felt so supported and held by the Signature staff, and that support is what allows you to do things that scare you.
This has been a tumultuous year in American life. Has that influenced your thinking about the role of the theatre in our national conversation?
This past year and the election has made me think a lot about theatre, and my responsibilities as an artist, and, you know, the point of it all. I’ve had moments of losing all faith in what I do for a living. Eventually I realized that I don’t always have to have faith in what I’m doing, and that in fact the work itself can reflect that loss of faith. Honestly, I’m not sure theatre is part of the national conversation. Anyway, the national conversation itself has just exploded and shattered and is lying in shards everywhere so I think we’re all still figuring out what it means to be part of a national conversation in the first place. In November I felt like maybe I didn’t want to make theatre anymore. Now I want to make it more than ever. It’s hard to figure out. The play reflects some of this.
"I’ve had moments of losing all faith in what I do for a living. Eventually I realized that I don’t always have to have faith in what I’m doing, and that in fact the work itself can reflect that loss of faith."
Can you tell us a little about your background with Lila Neugebauer? Why was she a good fit to direct this project?
I met Lila when she was twenty-two and I was twenty-six. So we’ve been friends for nine, almost ten years, which is bonkers. We met in a somewhat romantic way in San Francisco and kept in touch ever since. She directed three productions of my plays and I saw and loved all three of them. We’ve been in dialogue for years about our work, and our frustrations with/love of contemporary theatre. It was very clear from the beginning for me that I was writing this play for Lila to direct. I sort of can’t imagine anyone else on the planet directing it. I don’t want to say too much about it, but the content of it feels related to conversations we’ve been having for years, and the form of it is slippery and complicated in a way that I feel only Lila could understand and orchestrate. She’s very special.
You’ve said before that a play’s setting is important to your approach to a piece. What can you tell us about working with Scenic Designer Laura Jellinek and Lila on this process?
It’s been a really fun and also fairly quick and decisive process. When Laura presented us with this particular concept for the set, I think it was immediately clear to the three of us that she’d hit upon the right thing. Recently the design process has become about much smaller things like the color and placement of an exit sign. Both of them are wildly smart and open people. I’ve always wanted to work with Laura, and between the three of us there’s a lot of history. We all know one another’s work very well.
We’ve put together an amazing cast for this play. What was the casting process like? How do you work with actors in the rehearsal room?
It is indeed an amazing cast. I can happily say I know all nine of them—none of them are strangers, and every single person is someone I’ve worked with before or have vowed to work with in the past. I consider them all friends. Three of them have actually been in productions of The Flick, and two of them were in a play I was developing a couple of years ago at Sundance. Lila has also worked closely with a number of them. I can’t believe how wonderful they are. I’ve also never worked with a cast this big, except for Uncle Vanya, but that, of course, felt very different. For me rehearsing is about always being present and accessible and rigorous while also giving the actors and director enough emotional space to do what they need to do. I trust all nine of these actors, and I think they’re all incredible people.
You’re known as a voracious reader. What are some of the things you’ve been reading lately?
This week I finally let myself stop reading stuff for the play, so I just started the second volume of Susan Sontag’s beautiful journals. But recently, and these were all related to the play: Moby Dick (which I’m still in the middle of), John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds, Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Snorri Sturluson’s The Prose Edda, books about medieval monsters, many books of Hindu mythology, books about octopi, Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, and then a lot of hilarious storytelling manuals.
You seem very interested in the ways that the same stories get told over and over, across cultures and centuries. Where does that interest come from?
Aren’t we all interested in that? Hm maybe not. I don’t know. I am interested in that. Or maybe actually I’m interested in the fact that they’re not actually the same stories. People say they are, but I think they’re not. I think the stories change, and they should change.
Is there anything you think it would be helpful for audience members to keep in mind heading into the play?
You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of anything to watch this play. An octopus would hopefully be able to watch and enjoy this play. If you feel confused, that’s okay.
You have one more play as part of your residency. Can you tell us anything about what you might be thinking about?
I think it will either be a play about being sick, or a play about monks, or maybe a play about both. But right now they’re two different plays.