Intimacy and the Numinous: An Interview with John Playwright Annie Baker Part Two

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

By Michael Paller

Here is Part Two of our interview with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker, whose play John is currently running at The Strand Theater through April 23.

Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Can you say something about how John came about? I read that you got interested in reading “uncanny texts like Hoffmann and Bruno Schulz and German Expressionist films.” Does what you’re reading often find its way into what you’re writing? And where else did this play come from, if you can say?
John came out of years of reading and thinking, and yes, what I’m reading always finds its way into my work. Reading is part of writing for me. One book that was a huge influence on John was Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, which then led me to all these other texts by Bruno Schulz and E. T. A. Hoffmann and Daniel Schreber. Let’s see . . . what else influenced the play? William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, a lot of Kierkegaard and Rudolf Otto, an essay by Rilke on dolls, Jung’s autobiography, Freud’s essay on the uncanny, various trips to Gettysburg and the people I met there, and Georgia Engel herself. I worked with Georgia for the first time in 2012 on a production of Uncle Vanya, and I felt like the two of us understood each other completely. I started writing John for her, and I kind of built the whole play around her. Our work together and our mutual love and understanding was a big part of the process. And then of course, there’s the young couple in the play, and the madness of being in a relationship that needs to end. Certain relationships I had in my twenties made me feel like I was going totally bonkers. And while I’d always been resistant to writing a “relationship play,” I was intrigued by making the somewhat young and immature central relationship part of a larger, more expansive musing on madness, and intimacy, and the numinous.

One of the things the play seems to be about is the possibility, or the sense, that we are being watched all the time—or watched over, which can be either a sinister feeling or a comforting one, and by either some large, invisible force or by the small, inanimate objects that surround us. Do you have any sense about what, if anything, is out there concerning itself with us? Do you feel that sort of presence yourself? Is it comforting, or sinister?
Wow. Well, I love these questions. They’re big ones. I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering them in a public forum. They’re definitely questions I’ve thought about a lot and I was thinking about all of them while writing the play. I think the best way to know my thoughts on this subject is to read or see the play. Basically everything every character says, even when they’re disagreeing with each other, encapsulates how I feel about the matter. They’re all different sides of myself and my feelings surrounding the issue. Around the time I hit 30, someone very wise said to me something like: “Thinking you know what someone else is thinking is the definition of madness.” Or maybe they said: “Trying to figure out what other people are thinking will drive you mad.” And as simple as it sounds, it kind of blew my mind. I’d expended so much energy in my first 30 years trying to know and anticipate what other people were thinking and then convincing myself that I’d figured it out. There is also the danger, of course, of trying to figure out what God is thinking. And that’s a different brand of the same madness.

John, like others of your plays, takes place in a single location, the ground floor of a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg. You’ve said that you’re interested in “trapping people in one space.” Why? Is that an aesthetic impulse, a psychological one, or something else?
I think it’s both an aesthetic and a psychological impulse (or I can’t really un-entwine them). It’s just something that theater can do really, really well that film and television can’t: trap you in a box. The restriction of and the literal borders around the stage space have always been thrilling to me. And when I write it’s really helpful to me to say to myself: we only see what happens in this space. What happens outside of it is unknown. That said, because I’ve done it so much I think I should really challenge myself to have a lot of locations in one of the next plays I write. I don’t want the single space thing to become too habitual.

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about John, Baker, and the numinous? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 
 
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