reasons to love new york

Playwright Annie Baker on the Limits of Dramatic Memoir, Her Odd Jobs in Reality TV, and Why She Finds Hollywood More Appealing Than Broadway

Annie Baker at the opening night party for John. Photo: Walter McBride/FilmMagic

You couldn’t write an argument for optimism about New York theater without invoking Annie Baker, who, at 34, is practically a metonym for the best of her Off Broadway generation: creators making a life, if not quite a living, by redefining what it means to be innovative (and successful) in the medium. Setting her earliest plays in fictional Shirley, Vermont, a liberal college town not unlike her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, she really broke through in 2009 with Circle Mirror Transformation, which was built around a series of goofy theater exercises, shared an Obie with another Baker show, The Aliens, and went on to become the country’s second most-produced play of 2010. With her inseparable director Sam Gold (who also directed the Tony-winning Fun Home), Baker then adapted Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya into an astonishingly intimate vernacular experience at the Soho Rep. In The Flick, three ushers get to know each other between moppings in an empty movie theater; the play won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and cemented Baker’s reputation for what a Times critic called “hypernaturalism” — demotic young speech and revelations doled out at the pace of life, with all the “like”s and awkward silences intact. But its three-plus hours of pregnant pauses also sparked angry walkouts from subscribers and a noisy conversation about what theater should be: a kitchen-sink analogue to TV? A spectacle worth the stratospheric price? Or a place of refuge, patience, attention, and, yes, challenge? This year, Baker kicked off a residency at the Signature Theater with a short run of John, a play that took her style in exciting new directions (clutter, mysticism), and began work on a screenplay for talent-spotting Über-producer Scott Rudin. She also recently moved from Park Slope to Brooklyn Heights, where we met for a talk at a Polish diner called Teresa’s.

How does writing a movie compare to writing a play?
It feels so different that I don’t even understand why they’re considered more similar than, like, painting and writing. I might as well be writing songs on guitar. I exaggerate, but the part about it that draws me to it is that I’ve always had a very obsessive sense of composition. One of the reasons that I set most of my plays in one location is because I love this thing that I played with in The Flick, this idea of the screen and the box. The part about moviemaking that really excites me is the directing side of it.

I heard that you’ve turned down some offers to adapt your plays.
I don’t let anyone make movies. Ugh, yeah, the idea of it. Partly it’s the single location, and also I write the dialogue in a long shot, and movies are close-ups. It’s a painting, and there’s a real precision, and I write the dialogue picturing them in this space knowing that everyone will be a certain distance from them. Translating that to film wouldn’t work at all. I would hate to be partially responsible for a really shitty movie. If someone would offer me enough money in the future when I need money for one of my plays … But what I could never imagine doing is adapting it myself.

And you’re going to direct the screenplay you’re writing?
I am writing a movie that, if I complete it to my satisfaction, I will direct it. But there’s no finished thing. First, it’s just really important to me that I write something really good.

You also wrote an HBO pilot that didn’t get made.
I’ve written a lot of screenplays before. My thesis was a screenplay, which I don’t recommend. I took a bunch of Hollywood gigs, and that’s how I supported myself from 2007 to 2010, and still somewhat today.

You were also a guest-wrangler for The Bachelor. Just like in UnREAL.
For like nine days, at the Roosevelt Hotel. I lived there, though, It was crazy. But I don’t know what UnREAL is.

It’s a series on Lifetime, written by a former Bachelor staffer, about a fictional Bachelor-type show and the horrible ethics of manipulating contestants.
Oh my God, yes, that’s crazy! That’s why I left. There was one morning when they told me to tell all the girls that they could sleep in, and then the cameras came into the room at five in the morning. Which, in the world of reality-television violations, is probably not that bad, but they were so upset that I had lied to them inadvertently. So I left. I loved them. To be put in charge of anybody, I immediately think of them as my children, and I felt very protective of them.

And you were a researcher for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, among other odd-jobs. What did you learn from that work?
I really enjoyed Millionaire, and I’m so thankful for all the jobs I had — they’re all incredibly important and give you material. And I really do feel a lack in my life. I’m not complaining, it’s a real privilege to be a professional writer. But you do realize, like, a year will go by, and I’ve mostly just interacted with theater people. And there was something about being in my 20s and going from job to job to job. For a while I was a nanny, and I was an editorial assistant at this publishing house that specialized in reprints from the 17th century. I was a waitress, I worked at St. Marks book store for a couple of years. The Flick is about the relationships you make with people in the workplace. I wouldn’t have written that play if I hadn’t had a ton of weird jobs.

How did you get your movie and TV work?
After Body Awareness was produced, I just got offered a couple of writing gigs. The thing I didn’t realize is you have to make sure you take something you’re good at, and so I took a couple of things that I shouldn’t have.

There really aren’t any younger playwrights, yourself included, who don’t need to supplement their income with stuff written for the camera.
Or teaching. It’s something I’m gonna have to figure out because, yes, you cannot make a living for longer than a couple of years as a playwright, even at the height of your career. So I have to find other kinds of work. That said, I think I did myself a disservice when I started writing movies by trying to dumb myself down and pander, and I ended up writing really bad movies. I think there are some people who are really good at writing good bad jokes, and make a ton of money doing that, but I’m actually incapable of it. I can either write stuff that I would like that hopefully other people would like, or I write the worst piece of shit ever. There’s no in-between where I could write a delicious, frothy romantic comedy. That would be an amazing skill to have. I tried!

Your latest original play, John, is no longer running, but based on the script, it feels like a departure.
It’s totally different from my other plays. I like it better. I feel like it’s more different from The Flick than The Flick is from the other ones. But I always hate the play I wrote before the last thing I wrote, and hate even more the play I wrote right before that play. As I started writing John, I got excited by playing with certain theatrical conventions that had been bothering me. Like the filler we all use in getting from one scene to the next: Even the most tasteful version of it feels a little lame, and I wanted to write a play where the transitions were actually an integral part of the play.

It also feints at being a kooky relationship play, but then veers wildly into the uncanny. Was that a conscious play on expectations?
No, although I realized at the beginning of rehearsals that it does feel like Christmastime in a bed-and-breakfast, and then a knock on the door. I did get excited by the idea that people are getting ready to chuckle at this batty bed-and-breakfast owner and feel superior to her — and then she actually turns out to be a wizard.

Are you writing a new play?
I’m in the taking-notes phase, which can last up to two years or more. I’ve built a very small container for it, but it might break out of that. I hope it will be really different. It’s a cliché thing to say, but I really want to reinvent myself every time. Every play has felt like a big leap, or else I wouldn’t write it, but then, in retrospect, I often wish I would have leapt further. It feels the best when the play I’m writing feels like a rejection of the last play I wrote.

So, if you’ve hated your previous plays, have you ever tried to rewrite any of them?
Remounting The Flick this summer [for a commercial run produced by Rudin] was so weird because I felt like another person, just three years later. I was trying to fiddle around in rehearsals and change stuff, and I was actually breaking the play, and they had to stop me. All my rewrites made it worse. There’s too much shame to actually get in there and make it better.

At least a couple of your plays feature a college kid mixing it up with two working-class townies with limited prospects. It seems like something out of your own youth in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Well, that’s not something I’m ever conscious about doing, but I think you’re right.

I was inferring a bit from your unusually personal interview with Marc Maron on his podcast, “WTF.”
Oh my God, I was so embarrassed by how much I revealed. I just don’t like talking about my family. He’s incredibly vulnerable, and I think when you make yourself that vulnerable and tell people weird stuff about yourself, they’ll tell you weird stuff about themselves. But I just don’t think you should talk about anyone in your family or your romantic life to the press.

Does your work draw on your personal life at all?
No. This is really the truth — I’ve never put direct autobiography in a play. I think my plays are these enormous agglomerations of everyone I know and everyone I’ve ever known. But I’m actually just really proud of the fact that I don’t think I’ve actually hurt anyone in the writing of a play. It’s important. And for me it’s actually impossible, because there’s a kind of humorous distance I need for my characters, and a kind of love. I can’t feel overly identified or overly angry with any of them. If there is something that’s the same through all the plays, it’s the same amount of love for every character, or a striving for that.

But in Body Awareness, a psychology professor raises the possibility that the son of her girlfriend has Asperger’s. Your brother, the writer Ben Nugent, published an article about being misdiagnosed with Asperger’s by your psychologist mother.
That play isn’t based on my family at all! I worked with some kids with Asperger’s when I was a camp counselor, and my mom did a lot of work with [kids with] Asperger’s. But that character is in no way based on my brother. I’d actually say that’s one of my least autobiographical plays because I held the characters at a kind of arm’s length, to the play’s detriment.

So what character has felt closest to you?
The character of Genevieve in John — the writing of her was very much about me, really, two years ago, trying very desperately to figure some stuff out. And so I have a kind of fondness — she’s like a 90-year-old blind woman, but she’s a metaphor, certain characters are metaphors for moments in my psychological development. I don’t want to get overly personal, but I do feel like every character in every play I write is in the middle of a psychological struggle that I’m in the middle of when I’m writing the play.

She is so much more composed than your younger characters, who speak with a famously natural inflection — what I’ve heard referred to as “the Annie Baker pause” …
Yeah, that’s weird, and I usually feel like when that happens, it’s misused. Or the long-play thing. There are lots of people who write longer plays than me. And a lot of the rehearsal process is cutting the “um”s and “ah”s, too. It’s not just like people kind of stumbling — there’s a music to it when I write it, and so a lot of rehearsal is cutting an “um,” putting an “um” back in, moving an “ah” from this line to this line. It’s so important to me that it comes from the person speaking. John has fewer “um”s and “ah”s than the other plays, and that’s partly because my characters are older.

Is it also because you wanted to break out of that pigeonhole?
I think I’ve actually gotten myself into trouble by being too self-hating. I mean, I do hate being called the person who has lots of silences. But reacting to that by trying to inorganically write with no pauses is a bad idea. The most important thing is to not have habits as a playwright, and so to be incredibly rigorous, and I don’t mean overly careful or overly self-conscious, but to — I mean, this is gonna sound like mumbo-jumbo, but to just make sure it’s coming from a very true, vulnerable, terrifying place inside of you that feels like it has some sort of spiritual vibrations.

The “long play” thing really blew up around The Flick, when some older members of Playwrights Horizons’ subscription audience walked out and complained. Artistic director Tim Sanford wrote members a semi-apologetic letter. Do you think he did the right thing?
Oh, I don’t want to talk about that. The most unfortunate thing about it was that everybody still talks about it. That summer I went on a trip to London, and they were like, “You’re the person who wrote the play and then the theater wrote the letter!” Tim is a great guy, and I don’t want to ever say anything — yeah, it was like a weird series of events.

Did anything good come out of it?
That’s a good question. I guess it maybe started some conversations about subscriber audiences and how beholden we are to them. Playwrights Horizons now has this really awesome thing, something I wish had been in place when we did The Flick, which is talkbacks, where the playwright invites scholars and other artists whom they really respect to do it with them. I think that would have really helped audiences during previews. As opposed to this weird thing that happens sometimes where, in early previews, when you’re still working things out and the audience is all over 70, you stick the playwright onstage and everyone screams at them.

They screamed at you?
Yeah. So maybe the Flick controversy started conversations about how to talk to subscriber audiences while also empowering the playwright to curate the audience experience. Museums are really good at this. There’s a lot of conversation — maybe too much — but artist notes and artist statements telling you what they think the artist is going for. That can be annoying in its own right, but I do feel like people who wouldn’t ordinarily like certain abstract art can get onboard.

You’ve brought up older theatergoers a couple of times. Do you think there’s a generational divide in appreciating your work?
I’m definitely not writing plays for young people! I really want old people, and it’s really important to me not to come off as ageist. At talkbacks, too, there’s always five people saying, “I hated it!” and then some tiny 98-year-old man being like, “I wasn’t bored for a minute.” I think my plays are as much for old people as for young people, and there are young people that hate my plays, too.

Is the problem the subscription model?
Well, we should have more government funding so we’re not so dependent on subscriptions for survival. But I think it’s actually slowly starting to change, and theaters are slowly realizing when a play like this really earns, sells out, and extends for a really long time, even though some subscribers were scared of it, other people will come buy tickets, and if subscribers are a little miffed, that’s okay. Subscribers are great, but only if you’re not making any aesthetic decisions based on their taste.

How deliberate is your aesthetic? It’s been hailed as a kind of extreme, slow naturalism — sort of the stage equivalent of what Karl Ove Knausgaard’s been doing in fiction.
I don’t intentionally think of my work as slow or “pausey.” I just tried to write something I would want to see, and I guess I am attracted to a certain kind of pace and level of detail. Some of my favorite things, if not slow-moving, at least play with the idea of how time moves and how we can speed it up and slow it down through narrative.

What stuff are you thinking of?
[Thomas Mann’s] The Magic Mountain is my favorite, favorite book, as big an influence as any piece of art I encountered, and I would just reread it every other year and get new ideas from it. There’s a chapter that’s just a guy reading a textbook. And then in other parts of that book, it’s like, “A few years passed.” Some of my favorite movies, like Andrei Rublev or the Chantal Akerman movies, they’re all about length and pace and deliberate zooming in on detail. So it might make sense that my work would end up being described that way, too, but it’s never like a conscious goal or a sort of project.

Have you ever been made to cut stuff down?
I’ve gotten great notes from people. But I will never cut anything just because someone told me to. I feel like I have a pretty good filter for good notes and bad notes. You can tell when a note is coming from a place of fear or conventional thinking — some sort of fear about alienating audience members.

So you don’t have that fear? Do you consider yourself something other than an entertainer?
I guess to me that term could mean so many things. It’s really important to me to not bore myself. I get really, really worried when I watch my plays and I’m bored, and I’m easily bored. So I guess it’s really important to me to be an entertainer for myself. [Laughs.] I actually think it’s incredibly presumptuous to be like, “I know what people will find entertaining: this thing!” How would I possibly know what people would find entertaining?

What does that mean for your prospects of going to Broadway? That’s usually what happens after a long run of critical success.
With The Flick, there were murmurs, and it fell through. At first I was against it, and then I was like, “We would close in a month, and it would be awesome!” There was something about the idea of The Flick in particular — I absolutely thought it would be a good Broadway show. If it happens in the right context, with the right piece, and it works aesthetically in that space, I would totally do it just for the experiment of it. But the thing I will never do in the theater is cast an actor I don’t want to cast, and the actors I want to cast are usually New York stage actors. But what happened to [Stephen Karam’s] The Humans was awesome. Those are great New York stage actors, and they’re transferring the whole cast to Broadway. So that can happen. I’m not philosophically against it. There are things about Broadway that bother me. I find the ticket prices sickening. But if I ever put something on Broadway, which I don’t know if I ever will and I don’t ultimately care, I think my plays would be a hard enough sell that you would have to sell a lot of cheap tickets in the balcony. But I don’t know, it’s definitely not a goal of mine.

You’ve also called yourself a control freak. Would you say you’re more involved in the staging and casting than most playwrights?
The weird thing about being a playwright is that we never get to assist each other like directors do, so you don’t get to see what other playwrights are like in rehearsal. Directors get free assistants during rehearsal, and it’s because people are so desperate to watch a director, and I feel like playwrights should watch a playwright at work.

And it would be nice to have an assistant, I’m sure.
Yeah, and someone can get me lunch. But what we all feel is that we just have no idea how someone is supposed to act in rehearsal. I’ve been told that I’m very involved, comparatively.

In a good or a bad way?
Both the good and the bad. I actually really believe in leaving the actors alone for a lot of rehearsal, and I learned that the hard way. When you’re a young playwright, you give an actor a bad note too early in the process, and you see it fuck people up. But I’ve been told that I’m more involved in the design process than the average playwright.

You teach playwriting at Hunter College. What do you try to drive home to your students?
The main thing I want them to take away, and I think it frustrates them sometimes, is that there isn’t one real right way to write a play, and that it’s their job to reinvent the art form every time they write a play, and that their tastes mean something, and they shouldn’t be writing from a place of anxiety. That when you write from a place of anxiety and fear and careerism, you write usually stupid stuff.

Have you done that?
Yeah. Sitting down and being like, “I’m gonna write a hit!” That’s so bad. I make them read this book by Lawrence Weschler about Robert Irwin, the artist. It’s my textbook, and it’s called Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Irwin has this quote, something like, When I turned 35, I stopped being motivated by ambition and became purely motivated by curiosity. And that is what I try to teach them.

*A version of this article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Annie Baker on Memoir, Reality TV, and Hollywood