Going Deeper

"I don't think it particularly matters what you believe coming into the play, I think it's about trying to help people understand why, and under what circumstances, somebody would hold to a particular belief."

Walking Shadow is partnering with Mixed Blood Theatre to produce the Minnesota premiere of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. This script was originally produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville for the 2014 Humana Festival and received its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2015. 

Hnath's other plays include A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Soho Rep, 2013); Red Speedo (Studio Theatre, 2013); nightnight (Humana Festival, 2013); Isaac’s Eye (Ensemble Studio Theatre, 2013); Death Tax (Humana Festival 2012; Royal Court Theatre, 2013). Hnath’s work is published by Dramatists Play Service and Overlook Press.

He has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011, and is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. He is the recipient of the 2016 Kesselring Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2015 Whiting Award, a Whitfield Cook Award and two Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Citations.

He is also a recipient of commissions from the EST/Sloan Project, Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons, New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, and the Royal Court Theatre.

In 2016, his play, Hillary and Clinton, will premiere in Chicago at Victory Gardens, and Red Speedo will have its New York premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.

Annie Baker’s first four published works - Nocturama (2006), Body Awareness (2008), Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), The Aliens (2010) - are collectively known as the “Vermont Plays,” and each is set in Shirley, Vermont, a city with a unique and sometimes troubling history.
Located in Windsor County, the city of Shirley was settled in an area once populated by the Abenaki, an Algonquian-speaking peoples who named the region Wabanahkik (“Dawn Land”). Abundant with ponds, streams and brooks, the area provided an excellent source for fishing. Claimed by the English in 1754, the city was named for Lord Henry Shirley, a colonist attributed for introducing one of the first acts of biological warfare in North America. Responding to various Abenaki uprisings in the 1760s, Shirley approved a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to the Native people.
In 1853, pure spring water was discovered near Shirley’s Plum Brook, and for nearly three decades the city was home to the Shirley Hydropathic Institute, becoming a curative health resort destination. The former institute is now home to the Shirley School, a small day school for dyslexic students.
The tradition of a town meeting form of government (where adults of voting age gather annually to approve budgets and enact laws), along with a board of selectmen to handle day to day operations, continues into the 21st century.
In the 1980s and 90s the city opened its arms to a small but thriving community of Cambodian refugees.
Public nudity was legal until 2008 when Shirley banned the practice “on the main roads or within 300 feet of any school or place of public worship.” The Saturday Morning Farmer’s Market at the Unitarian Church had once been a popular destination for local nudists
Home of Shirley State College and host of the annual Vermont Gourd Festival, Shirley’s population was just over 14,000 residents in the 2000 census. Notable historical residents have included Gilbert Rosebath, astronomer; Edwin Hunt Lessey, reed organ maker; and Elizabeth Collins, poet.
What is most unique about Shirley, however, is that it is a complete fiction. The city’s origin and its history was outlined by Annie Baker in a 2009 interview distributed by Playwrights Horizons in anticipation of the world premiere of Circle Mirror Transformation. Baker has never lived in Vermont. She grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and, after her parents’ divorce, divided her time between life in Amherst with her mom and visits with her father who had moved to New York City. This, of course, begs the question: why Vermont?
Vermont - the Green Mountain State and home to Bernie Sanders and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream -  is certainly one of the most progressive states in the nation. Ranked the 42nd best state for business by Forbes Magazine, Vermont actively resists corporate culture and mass consumerism.  The first Wal-Mart arrived in 1996 and there are only five in the state today. Montpelier is the only capital city in America without a McDonald’s franchise, and for over forty years the state has prohibited roadside advertisements. Farmers’ markets are plentiful, and green industries fuel the state’s economy.
As Baker has acknowledged, Vermont has a “bucolic, free-thinking culture. They have health care for everyone. Gay marriage was legalized aeons ago. It’s beautiful, hippyish and green.” Indeed, based on the number of communes, food co-ops per capita and the percentage of Facebook users who “like” the Grateful Dead, Phish, Bob Dylan, marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, Vermont is the best state in America to let your freak-flag fly.
It sounds more than ideal, but there are challenges. The most rural state and the second whitest state in America (Maine is number one), Vermont’s progressive credentials belie a lack of cultural diversity. Over the last 50 years, Vermont has attracted a professional class of well-educated, left-leaning, outdoors-loving, environmentally-minded white people, and one can argue Annie Baker’s plays implicitly examine the contradictions at work when liberal white people are forced to confront their privileges in a bubble of homogeneity.
More disconcerting, Vermont, according to an article in Slate, has the highest rate of illicit drug use in the country. Marijuana is the drug of choice, and the possession of an ounce or less was decriminalized in 2013. Hallucinogens are also popular with high school and college students.
The unfocused, directionless malaise that seems written onto the bodies of Annie Baker’s characters in The Aliens taps into something palpable about living in a state full of so many contradictory forces. The challenges these young men face reflect something close to an ontologically secular crisis of faith. Their belief in themselves and what the future holds is tentative and fragile. Perhaps that is why they hover at the margins of social discourse, outsiders or aliens hourly confronting, in Charles Bukowski’s words, the “frictions of distress.”

annie baker

Annie Baker has something urgent to say about the current state of the American theater. “I feel like there's an obsession with pace right now in theater, with things being very fast and very witty and very loud, and I think we're all so freaked out about theater keeping audiences interested because everybody's so freaked out about theater becoming irrelevant. So people are trying to make it more exciting by making it fast. I'm really interested in slowing it down and playing with silence and stillness.”

Often starting with an unusual location – a windowless community-center room, the rows of seats in an aging movie theater, or the garbage and recycling area behind an independent coffeehouse – Baker’s plays work to figure out the theatrical possibilities within such spaces. How might figures behave in such locations? What conflicts are apt to rise to the surface? How well do characters communicate with each other? How does stillness draw the audience’s focus? How do those all-too-human silences between individuals speak?

Baker, who grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and will celebrate her 35th birthday in April 2016, is indeed a dynamic and increasingly popular new American playwright. Her plays Circle Mirror Transformation (2009) and The Aliens (2010) shared the Obie Award for Best New American Play, and her next play, The Flick, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Although she studied theater at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Baker did not begin to seriously focus on playwriting as a career until her mid-twenties, finding inspiration in the contemplative, human comedies of Anton Chekhov as well as avant-garde playwrights Maria Irene Fornes, Young Jean Lee, Caryl Churchill, and Mac Wellman (her mentor at Brooklyn College where she received an MFA in playwriting in 2009). Still, it took her a little while to figure out how to best articulate her evolving dramatic vision.

Because her plays focus on “ordinary” people in utilitarian spaces, her work is often defined as naturalistic (some critics have labeled it the “new naturalism”), but Baker bristles at the categorization. “We need different terms,” she argues. “The old ones are outmoded. They were outmoded when Chekhov wrote The Seagull.”

Indeed, Baker’s work resists what many in the theater would define as realistic. She notes, “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 Wellman and Richard Maxwell and Anne Washburn, people who are still considered pretty experimental and ‘downtown.’”

So Baker began to write the kind of plays she wanted to see on stage, plays “that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become defamiliarized and incredibly strange.” Here is an approach to making theater that does not ask the audience to recognize what they see, but encourages the audience to acknowledge and embrace the complicated and astonishing nature of human existence.

As Adam Greenfield – Associate Artistic Director at Playwrights Horizons – has suggested, “Time in an Annie Baker play bends and warps as she gently insists that we pay attention to strange details that we may have otherwise, in a more tautly paced and logical work, overlooked. The silences that fill the room in her plays, it seems to me, are not the real-life pauses of contemporary speech, but moments in time stretched out past comfort so that we might begin to see far beyond what the normal pace of our lives allows. We become painfully aware of the great distances people must travel simply to communicate.”

Annie Baker notes that in the end “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.”

And to such ends, Baker’s plays – and The Aliens is such a wonderful example – are full of beautifully-realized yet messy characters grappling with existence, the pressures of time, the longing for connection and those inchoate and inexpressible impulses that drift in and around the boundaries of human interaction. Her characters often defy expectation and assumption. Indeed, for Baker the “distinction between ordinary and extraordinary is bogus. I want to erase the line between the two, between good-guy and bad-guy, because, in the course of one day, everybody commits beautiful acts of nobility and does something small and terrible. Every day we make someone feel wonderful. Every day we fall from grace.”

Essay written by The Aliens dramaturg Jeff Turner.


For Further Reading:

“If You are Going to Read Plays, Read Annie Baker’s” by April Ayers Lawson. Vice. June 5, 2014.

“Just Don’t Call It Ordinary” by Matt Trueman. Financial Times. June 14, 2013. 

“Just Saying: The Anti-Theatrical Theatre of Annie Baker” by Nathan Heller. The New Yorker. February 25, 2013.

“The American Voice: When We Talk About Realism” by Adam Greenfield. Playwrights Horizon. December 2012.

“Zooming In: An Interview With the Playwright” by Stuart Miller. American Theater. July/August 2010 (65).

“A Young Playwright’s Success” by Ellen Gamerman. Wall Street Journal. January 7, 2010. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704130904574644622461285560

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of William Shakespeare's most popular comedies. It's a play about love, compulsion, and magic. Midsummer is set in ancient Athens during the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Four lovers flee into the woods, where Oberon and Titania (the fairy King and Queen) argue over a mortal servant boy. Oberon sends his mischief-maker Puck loose with a flower which causes people to fall in love. When a crew of players rehearse near Titania's bower, she awakens and falls in love with Nick Bottom, a weaver-turned-actor-turned-donkey. Oberon obtains the mortal boy, sorts out the lovers, and puts everything as it should be -- followed by a royal wedding, and a royally botched play-within-a-play -- all upon a midsummer night.

But every Summer must have a Winter...

Ages since that summer night, the English woods have been besieged by iron-sided progress -- but ancient fairy magic still endures. When Gwen receives a gift from the otherworld, she must come to grips with the secret it brings. But while Oberon and Titania debate her fate, a band of amateur players try to rekindle their own holiday spirit in the shadow of the Great War. 

The idea for A Midwinter Night's Revel originally came to me in 2009 while I was working on S Gunter Klaus & The Story Before with Jon Ferguson. As I was doing research on the pagan folk origins of Santa Claus, I suddenly had this image of Oberon and Titania in the snow, against the backdrop of the First World War.

In December 2011, I traveled to England on a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to study traditional early Christmas performances and rituals, including Stonehenge at solstice, a parade in Brighton, mummers in Yorkshire, and Panto in London. I was particularly inspired by Mummers Plays -- seasonal British folk plays performed by troupes of amateur actors. These plays are typically staged as house-to-house visits and in local pubs, much as carolers do today.

Three years (and a lot of life changes) later, I've channeled those experiences into this play. Much like A Midsummer Night's Dream, this play deals with the immortal fairies Oberon, Titania, and Puck - along with their young Changeling Boy - and takes place over a couple days at the turning of the seasons. But in crafting this conceptual continuation of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, I also borrowed thematic elements from Shakespeare's late Romances (especially The Tempest) to tell a story love, acceptance, self-discovery and family appropriate for those who need some light at the darkest time of year. I hope you enjoy it.

- John Heimbuch, playwright

Walking Shadow loves working with new plays -- almost one third of our productions have been world premieres, and we're excited to find ways to begin working with other local writers.

If you're a playwright, what do you want to write next? Ideally your idea is one you've got an itch for already, that just needs the right opportunity to come out. Do you have a project currently in mind that you think would fit our mission?

Whether you're a new or established playwright, we encourage you to submit an idea or story kernel you're interested in developing as a full-length play. If you're selected, you'll receive an $800 writing stipend to develop the idea, feedback and support from Walking Shadow's artistic directors, and a public staged reading.

We will accept submissions from August 15 - 30, 2015. Start thinking about which of your current ideas you want to tell us about! Check out our mission statement and production history to get a feel for the work we do. We also recommendthis article from 2009 about what we look for in plays.

Submission guidelines:
    • submissions accepted August 15 - 30, 2015
    • open to playwrights living in Minnesota or western Wisconsin
    • include one previous full-length or Fringe-length play
    • provide a playwriting resume, with production history (if any)
    • present a short project pitch detailing a concept, story, or idea that you want to explore (no more than 200 words: boil it down to what's exciting)
    • if you have more than one idea brewing, submit up to three different pitches!

We welcome questions, and are excited to hear from local playwrights!


Who is this Nick Jones guy? The playwright of The Coward is a writer and performer working in theater, film and TV. He's best known presently for being a writer and co-producer for the Netflix series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. His many other plays include such subjects as medieval plastic surgery, perverted anarchists, and the tracksuit. (Yes, Mr. Jones is interested in offbeat comedy.)

Nick's theater pieces with puppets have received recognition from the Jim Henson Foundation. He also works with music, including an upcoming alt country rock musical about Grizzly Adams, and a series of albums from Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, billed as "the ultimate nautically-themed electro-accordion dance punk experience."

Not at all.
Ok, maybe a little...
But mostly no.
It's about a really big guy in Idaho, his best friend, his willful daughter and her mom, and a renegade Mormon kid. It's still a tragedy, but one of the funny ones. Modern, daring, and absolutely beautiful. And you don't need to read Moby Dick.
Although that giant tome of whaling might help you catch some resonant themes that echo between both pieces. But at over 600 pages, you'll have to start reading it soon! Instead, to help you look like the smart kid, here's a quick summary of relevant themes:

Death. Friendship. Religion. Defiance. The limits of knowledge. The deceptiveness of Fate and Free Will. Sexuality and sexual identity. Single minded purpose. 
In the sea, a whale cannot be viewed all at once. It is only seen in pieces. The head, the back, the fins, the tail. And it is this multiplicity of meanings and perceptions that Ishmael struggles with as he tries to understand the essence of a whale, beyond being simple beast. 
Is the Whale a scapegoat for our fears and rage at life? A manifestation of the worst elements of the world? Worthy of eradication? Capable of salvation? Or is it a mere creature, doing what it knows, when it's suddenly caught in the spin of a larger story?

There, you're set. And if you absolutely must give Moby Dick a quick skim, take a look at chapters 1 & 9. That'll get you pretty far. Plus... it's a pretty good read.

Thursday, November 13th is Give to the Max Day.

This year Walking Shadow has been presented with a generous matching offer of $12,000 - thanks to a group of donors led by Laura & ErikPeter Walker and David & Patricia Borchert. This means the first $12,000 of donations made on Thursday, November 13th through our online giving page will be matched dollar for dollar, increasing the impact of your tax-deductible gift.

Donations to Walking Shadow support our mission of staging intelligent, thought-provoking work in Minnesota and will help make our 2014-2015 season possible, including our productions of Gabriel, The Whale, and The Coward.

We're delighted to be part of a community where so much good work is being done. We hope you'll take some time on Thursday to support the many worthy non-profits that make Minnesota great.

Give to the Max Day is a Minnesota-wide non-profit giving campaign, sponsored by GiveMN. During this day, every donation you make gives the recipient organization a chance to win additional funds. Your gift makes a BIG difference!

Make your contribution here!

In June of 1940, the British government decided that Guernsey and the other Channel Islands were of no strategic importance. They pulled their troops from the region, saying the islands would probably be safer without the military to attract the Germans' notice. The islands then began to evacuate who they could, children first. 

Since the Germans didn't immediately realize the islands were demilitarized, they approached with caution, sending reconnaissance planes and even bombing the harbor of St. Peter Port (killing 34 civilians and destroying several suspicious trucks full of tomatoes). 

Receiving no return fire, the Germans had a single pilot make a test landing on Guernsey's deserted airfield. Shortly afterwards, a platoon of Luftwaffe soldiers arrived and took over the islands, giving the Germans a propaganda victory of winning British territory "without firing a single shot."


Gabriel by Moira Buffini
September 26 - October 11, 2014
Minneapolis Theatre Garage


Tickets and Information

The Three Musketeers

I first encountered The Three Musketeers via the Disney-produced movie version in 1993. As a fifteen year old boy, and part of their ideal viewing demographic, I was immediately captivated by its spirit of adventure, the bravura, the banter. Soon afterward, I read the novel and was delighted by the humor, and its use of history, the back and forth of its intrigue, and panache. For the next few years, I watched as many screen and stage adaptations as I could find. I read fencing manuals, studied stage combat, and even ran a long-standing roleplaying campaign (loosely) inspired by the books. And when I finished college, I stepped away from this obsession, and turned my attention elsewhere.

When I first suggested writing a new stage adaptation of The Three Musketeers in 2012, I was in the midst of an emotionally turbulent year of loss and change. I was excited to take on something playful, light-hearted, and adventurous -- perhaps as a way to reconnect with my younger, more optimistic self.

I bought a new copy of the book, and began reading it aloud to director Amy Rummenie. For the next several months, we were quite literally on the same page. We reveled in the thrilling moments and bogged down in the boring parts, we delighted in Dumas' humor and rolled our eyes at his overblown melodrama. I also found a lot more nuance than I noticed in my teen years. The spirit of adventure was still there, but beneath the bluster and bravura that so intrigued me when I was younger, I found characters filled with depression, desperation, uncertainty, and fear.

I also became aware of the immense challenge I faced in distilling this six hundred page novel into a relatively faithful two hour stage play for ten actors. The book was filled with complex political machinations and a carefully nuanced plot. It had hundreds of characters, a constantly shifting point of view, and some surprisingly unscrupulous heroes. What had I done!? I had no idea how to begin. I was terrified by the immensity of the task. But a musketeer cannot let himself be daunted by insurmountable odds. He must persevere. With panache.

Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, I worked my way through the book, cutting, shaping, honing, clarifying, and rewriting. I removed the boring bits, honed the melodrama, and tried to leave the original plot intact wherever possible. With the help of the director, cast, creative team, and some helpful readers, I've worked to craft a performance text that's truer to the book than any other adaptation I've seen or read, but not without a few delightful liberties of my own. I hope you enjoy our theatrical romp through this epic adventure.

All for one, and one for all!

The Three Musketeers show page

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