Madness and Intimacy: An Interview with John Playwright Annie Baker Part One

By Michael Paller

As A.C.T. prepared for John, now running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, we caught up with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker over e-mail for a quick Q&A. Here is Part One.

You’ll be here for some rehearsal. Very often we’ll have a playwright here if the production’s the world premiere (as Ursula Rani Sarma was recently for A Thousand Splendid Suns), but rarely does a playwright choose to come once the play’s had a major production, especially in New York. We had John Guare here for Rich and Famous because he did some significant rewriting, Tom Stoppard for The Hard Problem, and Bruce Norris for Clybourne Park. But they’re exceptions. What brings you here for this production? 

Playwright Annie Baker. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.
I’m here because of Ken Rus Schmoll (the director) and Marsha Ginsberg (the set designer), and our cast, which includes the amazing Georgia Engel, who was part of the original cast in New York City. I’ve always wanted to work with Ken and Marsha, and the other three actors in the cast, too. So this is a rare opportunity for me—usually the production in New York is the only one you get with collaborators whose work you know well and deeply respect. But this time it’s all these people I love and admire in one of my favorite cities in the country in a really great space at a really great theater . . . you get the picture. Also, this play had basically no development process. I wrote it in solitude, we did one reading of the finished draft, and then suddenly we had three weeks of rehearsal process, which, because of the length of the play, basically meant we were on our feet blocking it from day two. I’ve always wanted a little more time with this play, and am excited to do what we call in theater “table work”—just sitting around for a few days musing about the text before we get on our feet. Talking to Ken about the play has been so pleasurable; he totally gets it, and I feel like his delicate, weird, hilarious sensibility is perfect for it.

You also teach. You could spend your time away from writing by reading or traveling. Why do you teach? Where are you teaching now? When you teach, do you have students read plays? Whose plays do you like to use and why? Do you use your own?
Well, if I only wrote plays and read I wouldn’t make enough money. When you’re a playwright you either have to teach or go to Hollywood. And while I do write movies and television occasionally, I’m pretty selective about the projects I take and I don’t want to have to be constantly hustling for a gig or writing stuff I think is evil. So teaching is a meaningful way to supplement my income. That said, I’ve taught before while being paid next to nothing, so clearly it’s something I’m drawn to that’s important to me. I do believe in helping the next generation of artists succeed and make interesting work. And I don’t want to be Unto Myself all the time. For me the writing process is all about looking inward, and teaching is a way to, without a deadline and without a looming production, just sit with a group of people and talk about what it means to make theater in these times. I’ve also found a wonderful gig at Hunter College—I teach with the playwrights Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Brighde Mullins, whom I adore—and we only let in five MFA Playwriting students a year. Picking those five people and mentoring them over the past couple of years has been a pretty special experience. To answer your third question, I do have them read plays but I have them read a lot of other stuff too. Books by painters and sculptors, essays, novels, etc. I never assign my own plays. That’s pretty much the most embarrassing thing I can imagine. I do talk about my process with them, and what I’m struggling with that particular week. I’m always just as lost as they are.

You’ve said that when you teach, one of the most important things is to make sure that your students are not being automatic about the choices they make about how to write. What do you mean by that?
Hmm, I don’t remember saying that. I’m sure I did. I guess I want my students to look at the choices they make as writers and make sure they’re not making them because that’s what they think a play is supposed to be, or that’s the kind of thing a play is supposed to have in it. I want them to be iconoclasts.

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 Annie Baker and the creation of our production of John? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

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