Survival of the Fittest Stories: An Interview with Playwright Anne Washburn

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Survival of the Fittest Stories
An Interview with Playwright Anne Washburn
By Nirmala Nataraj

Anne Washburn.
Photo by Madeleine George.
Anne Washburn remembers her formative years as a Bay Area theater artist—in fact, one of her early creative homes was A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory program. “The culminating exercise was to imagine that a great plague had taken hold of the world, and the YC participants were all doctors who had to envision what they would do in the face of disaster,” says Washburn. “It seems appropriate that I’m coming full circle to do an apocalyptic play at A.C.T.”

   “Since all stories, no matter how fanciful, are in some way constructed from our experiences, real or imagined, all storytelling is a remaking of our past in order to create our future,” Washburn has written. Mr. Burns has accordingly been lauded as a celebration of the human instinct to tell stories—and a reminder of how deeply this instinct is tied to our endurance as a species.

   Mr. Burns, as well as the circuitous route that stories take when they are cranked through our culture’s unpredictable translation machine.
Washburn recently gave us some insight into the role of myth in

You’ve said that Mr. Burns emerged from an idea that had been knocking around in your head for years: you wanted to take a pop-culture narrative and see what it meant and how it changed after the fall of civilization.

I recently realized that the idea partially stemmed from September 11, 2001. I was in New York then. We were convinced that the city would come under some other attack, so we were thinking about things in a very drastic way. As I was pondering the end of civilization, I imagined that in the midst of a catastrophe, people would tell stories if they had any down time. I was interested in which stories would be told, how they would be told, what media makes the transition from the visual to the spoken, and how these stories mutate. We are used to telling stories about things we’ve seen and books we’ve read, and in the context of an apocalypse, people would be most interested in something everyone would have in common, so that’s where the idea of basing the play on a TV show came from.

The choice of The Simpsons seems appropriate. It’s an animated show set in a world that is always going to endure no matter what happens.

It is a good thing to have hit upon, consciously or not. Because the characters are eternal and because it’s a cartoon, you have such a wide range of stories to choose from. And the characters are archetypal. Bart Simpson is a trickster, similar to mythical characters like Coyote or Kokopelli. He always gets into trouble and always ends up surviving. His heart is in the right place, but he’s pure mayhem. And Homer is the idiot, the holy fool. Because the play takes place right after the apocalypse and The Simpsons is about a family, I thought the survivors would care more; the questions of what your bonds are, who your community is, become really relevant.

What do you think makes the “Cape Feare” episode so memorable?

When I tell people I wrote a play about it, many who are familiar with the show say, “I know that one. It’s my favorite!” It was a rule in The Simpsons that you could never have just one primary reference point, which is why the show always had multiple references in a single episode; if people didn’t understand a particular reference, they could swiftly find another one they did get. “Cape Feare” is a unique case. Although there are six million other references in the episode, “Cape Feare” follows the 1991 film Cape Fear almost from beginning to end. So people retain it because it contains an intact story. Although Cape Fear is not really an old story, it pivots on an extremely old fear: being powerless. It’s a nightmare a lot of people have—you call for help, nobody can help you, and the menacing thing is coming your way. There’s something very punitive and raw and awful about the 1962 film and 1991 remake, but the Simpsons episode is much scarier. Even though it’s a cartoon, the focus is on the child, and the child who is being targeted is someone nobody pays attention to. It makes the story even darker, which is also part of its appeal.

You grew up in the Bay Area. Do you have any early memories of disaster and apocalypse prompted by the location?

Growing up in the Bay Area with the threat of impending disaster probably influenced this work. If you grow up in earthquake country, even as a small child, you think about it all the time because the “big one” could happen at any moment. As an adult, you can assess the risks more, but as a kid, you can’t—there is a level of incredible insecurity that you just have to live with.

What are your thoughts about post-apocalyptic stories that are generated nowadays?

I enjoy post-apocalyptic literature and movies. Apocalypse is a preoccupation of our culture for obvious reasons; the topic has not been totally played out yet. It’s still gripping, because our culture is full of horrible tensions. In another sense, these stories are fun, like childhood games that begin with “Our parents are dead. We’re orphans. What next?” The narrative of being thrust into a world without any assistance fulfills our drive for adventure. There’s not much adventure in the world anymore, but in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s everywhere.

If you were one of the survivors of an apocalypse, what would you ensure existed in the society of the future?

I think that after an apocalypse, there’d be a lot of powerful but simplistic stories about what happened and why. For me, it would be really important to be brave and bold about piecing together the exactitude of our history, while making sure people understand there are a lot of alternative ways of viewing it. I’d want to find a way of maintaining this complexity of discussion at a time when people would be tempted to reach for simpler explanations.

For more about Mr. Burns, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Mr. Burns visit act-sf.org/burns.

Tom Stoppard and the Inspiration behind Indian Ink

Monday, January 26, 2015

By Shannon Stockwell

Tom Stoppard (photo by Amie Stamp)
Tomáš Straüssler was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, and he arrived in India as a refugee when he was four years old. He lived there from 1942 to 1946, and he learned English while attending a school in Darjeeling run by American Methodists. While in India, his mother met Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought the whole family back to his home in Derbyshire, England. His mother and Major Stoppard married, and Tomáš adopted the name he uses today.

Stoppard did not enjoy school and dropped out when he was 17, taking a job at the Western Daily Press, a newspaper in Bristol. He hoped to pursue a career in journalism, but while working as a critic, he fell in love with the theater. His first play, A Walk on the Water, introduced him to the agent Kenneth Ewing, who provided Stoppard with the inspiration for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The National Theatre in London produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic in 1967, and later that same year, the play moved to Broadway. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the production won the Tony Award for Best Play. Stoppard was just 27 years old.

Since the success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard continues to be an astoundingly prolific playwright with a flair for intellectual themes and witty dialogue. In 1972, shortly after the premiere of The Real Inspector Hound, he explained in an interview with Mel Gussow:

I suddenly worked this out: I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.

Stoppard began writing In the Native State as a radio play, which was commissioned by the BBC. “I had this tiny notion that I could write a conversation between a poet and a painter,” he remembered in a 1995 interview, again with Gussow. “While the poet was having her portrait painted, she would be writing a poem about having her portrait painted. There would be this circular situation. That’s all I had. And not necessarily in India.”

Although the seminal image for the play didn’t contain India, the country was always in Stoppard’s mind. “I had only been thinking about [India] in the general sense of using what I’ve got,” he said. “I’ve got India. It feels that one should be using it sometime sooner or later.”

In another interview, he said that he wanted to write about “the ethics of empire.” Whichever came first, the two ideas—empire and the circular relationship between painter and poet—coalesced in In the Native State, which aired in April 1991 and starred Felicity Kendal as Flora Crewe.

Next, Stoppard adapted the play for the stage, and Indian Ink premiered in London at the Aldwych Theatre in February 1995. Indian Ink is often called Stoppard’s most romantic play, its warmth a stark contrast to the intellectual debates that typically mark his work. He agrees with this sentiment: “One of the things that is nice about working on Indian Ink: there are no villains in it. It’s a very cozy play in many ways. . . . I really enjoy its lack of radical fierceness.”

For more about Indian Ink, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Indian Ink visit act-sf.org/ink.

Dreaming in Color

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Interview with Costume Designer Candice Donnelly
By Shannon Stockwell

From the many hues of rasa to the festival of colors known as Holi, Indian culture is marked by a love for vibrancy that is truly ancient. For a play set in India, especially one centered around poetry and art, the visual design vocabulary is of the utmost importance. A.C.T.’s production of Indian Ink is in the capable hands of costume designer Candice Donnelly, whose work has brought her to almost every corner of the world, from Broadway to Buenos Aires to Hong Kong. Previously at A.C.T., she has created costume designs for Elektra, Endgame and Play, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Circle, and Happy End. We spoke with Donnelly to find out what is behind her costume design and how she created the visual world of Indian Ink.

Costume rendering for Flora Crewe, 
by costume designer Candice Donnelly.
What appeals to you artistically about Indian Ink?
The play has an elusive quality regarding the essence of somebody who’s not here anymore, but the characters are trying to recapture that essence in many different ways. That’s probably why Flora’s dresses are so wispy, made of very light chiffons. They’re very dreamy. I didn’t do that intentionally, but I think I did it subconsciously.

The colors of the costumes are striking, which reminds me of the different colors of rasa discussed in the play. What was the process of choosing the color palette?
It had to do with rasa. It also had to do with the set, which is blue. I liked the idea of contrast and having Flora be part of that. India is a very colorful place. Even though Flora is not necessarily a part of India, in some ways she is, because she dies there. Her rasa ends up living there. Having Flora wear vibrant colors seemed right.

Are the costumes of the Indian characters equally as colorful?
They are. [Acclaimed fashion journalist and editor] Diana Vreeland once said, “Pink is the navy blue of India.” So I had to put that color in; the 1930s Rajah wears a hot pink Indian coat. I have been to India, and it’s very vivid in so many ways. You do see that hot pink a lot, and you see people wearing saris in that color, working in the fields. It’s endemic to the country, and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful. Indians are truly in love with color.

Costume rendering for Nirad Das, 
by costume designer Candice Donnelly. 
In addition to your trip to India, what other research did you do?
I found a lot of old black-and-white photos on someone’s Flickr account. They are from the 1930s and feature a combination of Brits and upper-class Indians. There’s a picture of a train station with all these people in turbans and fezzes. [. . .] Of course, in India now, you see people in modern clothes all the time. The women still wear saris, and the men wear traditional shirts and vests; sometimes they wear them with jeans.
I looked at a lot of fashion magazines from the era, like British Vogue. Even though Flora didn’t really have money, she was still of a certain class that traveled and hung around with fashionable, forward-thinking, well-educated people, so her clothes would have been at least a little bit sophisticated.

Have you worked on other Stoppard plays before?
I’ve done Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead twice.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is very different from Indian Ink, but did you notice any similarities?
There is something metaphysical about the style of writing that identifies it as Tom Stoppard’s. For example, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they know that they’re dying, and they’re going towards their death and can’t get out of it. From the title of the play, you know that. And then, of course, Flora Crewe is dead. I’m just thinking about it now. Stoppard might have some sort of preoccupation with the inevitability of going to the other side, and with what’s left behind.

I find Indian Ink a completely approachable Stoppard play. It’s a romantic story that unfolds as you’re watching it. I don’t feel as though you ever lose interest in it, because the story keeps evolving and it is tied up so beautifully.

For more about Indian Ink, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Indian Ink visit act-sf.org/ink.
 
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