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