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

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!
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