Back story: Playwright Annie Baker

March 16, 2012

This content is sourced from Mercury News.

Annie Baker is not one to court the spotlight. The shy 30-year-old playwright seems to prefer expressing herself on the page to chatting about her work. She's a wordsmith, not a showboat, and her plays sing with the quiet pleasures of sharp observation and genuine feeling.

As one critic put it, "In a world that seems to crave all things fast and flashy, Annie Baker celebrates the joys of subtlety -- and even silence."

However, she's had to get used to the media glare ever since her play Circle Mirror Transformation drew raves and won an Obie Award after its 2009 debut off Broadway. She's since emerged as one of the hottest young artists in the American theater today. One of her plays, The Aliens, has even been staged in Moscow.

Right now, there's an unofficial Baker festival of sorts happening in the Bay Area. Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company just scored a hit with Body Awareness; the SF Playhouse is about to open The Aliens; and there's talk of someone staging her breakthrough piece, Circle Mirror Transformation. All three comedies take place in the fictional town of Shirley, Vt., a sleepy little college town where hippies, academics and dreamers rub elbows. Baker, who lives in Brooklyn, recently took a few minute for an email interview about her life and work -- and the mixed blessings of fame.

Q: Has all the attention impacted the way you work? Is it distracting or kind of wonderful?

A: Well, I'll tell you my immediate emotional response to this question. The phrase "one of the hottest young artists in American theater" gives me this awful sense of foreboding, like there's demon sitting on my shoulder, and I start to panic. It also makes me feel embarrassed and sad and like a fraud. Then underneath all of that is this secret current of devilish glee. Has this attention impacted the way I work? Yes, of course. I used to write in a void; I'd write assuming the play would never be produced. Writing was a ludicrous, quixotic act. It was a rebellion against my circumstances. Now it's my job. And so while it's harder to get to that sacred focused writing-without-ego place, I can still get there sometimes, and when it happens it still makes me happier than anything else. Also, seeing my plays performed has taught me so much. You really don't know what play-writing is until you've had a full production. So I think I'll keep getting better -- god, I hope -- and that's exciting.

Q: Why are pauses and silence so important to your work?

A: I'm in interested in silence onstage simply because it doesn't happen that often. Also, there's a lot of silence in real life, and that isn't represented in most so-called naturalistic theater.

Q: Do you think of this trio of plays as a Vermont trilogy? Or would you rather the audience consider each play on its own?

A: They're definitely not a trilogy, and in no way are they saying something collectively about Vermont or anything like that. It's actually more of a coincidence, the shared location. I have a fourth Vermont play, too, still unproduced, and now I think I'm done with the state.

Q: Do you like to watch new productions of your work or do you find yourself picking apart the choices you once made? Are you a chronic rewriter?

A: It depends on the play. I can't stand to watch certain plays of mine; I actively dislike them and can't believe people are paying money to watch them. But other plays -- like The Aliens -- I still think have a lot of value. I am a chronic tweaker (I take the "um" out, I put it back in, I take it out again). But once a play has opened in its world premiere, I'm done with it. About a year after it's been produced, it feels like a play written by a stranger.

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