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Exclusive: Q&A With Emerging Playwright, Annie Baker

For a young playwright whose pieces have been developed and performed at the Soho Rep, Atlantic Theater Company, and the Brick, Annie Baker is charmingly down to earth and humble. (Perhaps that’s a side effect of creating “quirk-free” work.) Her latest play, Circle Mirror Transformation is part of Playwrights Horizons’ upcoming 2009/2010 season, and Baker along with a panel of fellow writers, will be participating in a panel discussion moderated by Time Out New York’s David Cote on September 10th at the 92Y Tribeca.

To get a sneak peak of what the evening will be like, Flavorpill sat down for some Q&A with Baker, who debuted on New York’s Off-Broadway scene last year with her well-received full-length play Body Awareness. Like Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation is set in the fictitious small town of Shirley, Vermont. However, rather than serving as a sequel, Baker’s new play introduces five new characters and paints a subtly wrought, poignant picture of their lives, played out over a six week acting class at the local community center.

Flavorpill: When did you first know you wanted to be a playwright?

Annie Baker: At some point it became tragically clear that play writing was pretty much the only thing I could do sort of well. I’m kind of inept. I think I was about twenty-three when I realized this. Luckily, play writing is also one of the only things that I enjoy doing — there have been bad periods in my life when it is literally the only thing that has kept me from going totally berserk.

FP: Who is your favorite playwright, and who has influenced you?

AB: If I had to choose a favorite it would have to be Chekhov. Other big influences include: William Shakespeare, Mac Wellman, Caryl Churchill, Vladimir Nabokov, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Thomas Mann, Jane Austen, Fritz Perls, Eric Rohmer, and my mother. I realize only half of those people are playwrights.

FP: What is your creative process?

AB: I’m still trying to figure out my creative process. I’d like to say that it involves waking up at 6, taking a cold shower, going for a jog, and then writing until noon. But actually it involves waking up at 10:45, cursing myself for sleeping too late, not showering, sitting on the couch checking email, reading a book instead of writing, and then, eventually, at like 3 or 4 p.m., opening Microsoft Word and staring at my computer screen. Every night — and I mean every night — I tell myself that Tomorrow Is Going To Be Different.

But it never is.

Once I do miraculously start writing a play, it’s usually helpful when I can kind of taste the end of the play. If I know exactly what the ending is going to be, then my play gets obvious and boring. But when I feel that on some strange unconscious level I’m writing toward something, that’s good. I also take a lot of notes before I start writing a new play. I used to think this was a form of procrastination — and it is, sometimes — but it has actually proved to be very helpful. By the time I start writing a first draft I have about 30 pages of nonsensical-seeming fragments and I usually work off of those. Here are some examples from the notes for my new play:

“ayahuasca means ‘spirit vine’”

“FORMER TRAPEZE ARTIST”

“Vertical Time”

“a turkish woman who dated a prostitute”

“herabsinken means sinking down”

FP: Do you write for any particular audience?

AB: You know, this is a hard question, and I would like to say that I write for everyone. But I probably just write for depressed people who enjoy ambiguity and long silences.

FP: What is it about Shirley that keeps you coming back? How do your characters come about?

AB: I’m not sure. I have such an extensive map of this imaginary town in my head, and I’ve imagined so many of its residents, that when it’s time to write a new play I always remember the teenage girl who works in the bakery or the recently-divorced carpenter or the Cambodian refugee couple and I can’t help wanting to write a play for them. Most of my plays have sprung from characters that were mentioned in passing in my other plays. It’s kind of creepy.

FP: Do you find yourself making conscious decisions about how you treat your characters? If so, why do you make the choices that you do?

AB: I try not to laugh too derisively at any of my characters. I always try to show some side of them that will make the audience love them, and some side of them that will make the audience hate them. I want the audience to love all of my characters equally. I think I failed in a big way with my first play, Body Awareness, because people would read it and talk about how the character of Phyllis was such a bitch. That killed me. I love Phyllis. She’s also the character in the play that I most resemble, which is also pretty sad. But I think I wasn’t totally fair to her while writing it, and so she’s less lovable than the other characters. Luckily the woman who played her in the production was very lovable, so that helped. But I still feel bad about that. I’m sorry, Phyllis.

FP: What do you struggle with most as a playwright?

AB: The hardest thing about being a playwright, for me, has got to be the times when I’m asked to speak extemporaneously about my work. I’m really bad at talking. I think this is actually why I started writing plays in the first place. I’m interested in botched but well-intentioned communication, and in the simultaneous beauty and inadequacy of the English language.

FP: How did Circle Mirror Transformation come about? Did anything about it surprise you?

AB: Circle Mirror Transformation is about five people enrolled in a Creative Drama class in Shirley, Vermont. The play takes place over six weeks, the length of the class, and it never leaves the confines of this one windowless community center dance studio. At first I was resistant to writing anything about or involving theater, because the play-within-a-play thing has been done so many times. But then I just kept compulsively writing these weird scenes that took place inside this claustrophobic little dance studio, and then I realized that I’m really fascinated by the therapeutic role that the arts can take on in small towns. So the play is actually kind of about six weeks of group therapy with five people who would be too embarrassed to actually sign up for group therapy. There is no play-within-a-play in Circle Mirror Transformation. It’s just about blindfolded trust walks and free association and hula-hooping.

Circle Mirror Transformation has its world premiere September 24 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Click here to order tickets online.

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