Annie Baker has something urgent to say about the current state of the American theater. “I feel like there's an obsession with pace right now in theater, with things being very fast and very witty and very loud, and I think we're all so freaked out about theater keeping audiences interested because everybody's so freaked out about theater becoming irrelevant. So people are trying to make it more exciting by making it fast. I'm really interested in slowing it down and playing with silence and stillness.”
Often starting with an unusual location – a windowless community-center room, the rows of seats in an aging movie theater, or the garbage and recycling area behind an independent coffeehouse – Baker’s plays work to figure out the theatrical possibilities within such spaces. How might figures behave in such locations? What conflicts are apt to rise to the surface? How well do characters communicate with each other? How does stillness draw the audience’s focus? How do those all-too-human silences between individuals speak?
Baker, who grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and will celebrate her 35th birthday in April 2016, is indeed a dynamic and increasingly popular new American playwright. Her plays Circle Mirror Transformation (2009) and The Aliens (2010) shared the Obie Award for Best New American Play, and her next play, The Flick, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Although she studied theater at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Baker did not begin to seriously focus on playwriting as a career until her mid-twenties, finding inspiration in the contemplative, human comedies of Anton Chekhov as well as avant-garde playwrights Maria Irene Fornes, Young Jean Lee, Caryl Churchill, and Mac Wellman (her mentor at Brooklyn College where she received an MFA in playwriting in 2009). Still, it took her a little while to figure out how to best articulate her evolving dramatic vision.
Because her plays focus on “ordinary” people in utilitarian spaces, her work is often defined as naturalistic (some critics have labeled it the “new naturalism”), but Baker bristles at the categorization. “We need different terms,” she argues. “The old ones are outmoded. They were outmoded when Chekhov wrote The Seagull.”
Indeed, Baker’s work resists what many in the theater would define as realistic. She notes, “I did reach a point in 2007 when I was completely fed up with what we call ‘naturalism,’ and I thought that maybe there was no point in even trying to write that way anymore. But the dream—the dream of what naturalism could be if we let it out of its creepy, pseudo-intellectual, watered-down, lame-o, Off-Broadway cage—kept haunting me. Because the way people really talk is so strange. If you transcribe a conversation, it sounds nothing like the so-called naturalistic plays they put up at most big nonprofits. If anything, it sounds more like the writing of Wellman and Richard Maxwell and Anne Washburn, people who are still considered pretty experimental and ‘downtown.’”
So Baker began to write the kind of plays she wanted to see on stage, plays “that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become defamiliarized and incredibly strange.” Here is an approach to making theater that does not ask the audience to recognize what they see, but encourages the audience to acknowledge and embrace the complicated and astonishing nature of human existence.
As Adam Greenfield – Associate Artistic Director at Playwrights Horizons – has suggested, “Time in an Annie Baker play bends and warps as she gently insists that we pay attention to strange details that we may have otherwise, in a more tautly paced and logical work, overlooked. The silences that fill the room in her plays, it seems to me, are not the real-life pauses of contemporary speech, but moments in time stretched out past comfort so that we might begin to see far beyond what the normal pace of our lives allows. We become painfully aware of the great distances people must travel simply to communicate.”
Annie Baker notes that in the end “it's all about inner conflict. Ninety-five percent of the conflict in Chekhov plays is inner conflict and not anything actually happening between two people in the real world, and that's what I love most about him. And I think that's true for most of us: most of the conflict in our lives is just the different voices in our head screaming at each other.”
And to such ends, Baker’s plays – and The Aliens is such a wonderful example – are full of beautifully-realized yet messy characters grappling with existence, the pressures of time, the longing for connection and those inchoate and inexpressible impulses that drift in and around the boundaries of human interaction. Her characters often defy expectation and assumption. Indeed, for Baker the “distinction between ordinary and extraordinary is bogus. I want to erase the line between the two, between good-guy and bad-guy, because, in the course of one day, everybody commits beautiful acts of nobility and does something small and terrible. Every day we make someone feel wonderful. Every day we fall from grace.”
Essay written by The Aliens dramaturg Jeff Turner.
For Further Reading:
“If You are Going to Read Plays, Read Annie Baker’s” by April Ayers Lawson. Vice. June 5, 2014.
“Just Don’t Call It Ordinary” by Matt Trueman. Financial Times. June 14, 2013.
“Just Saying: The Anti-Theatrical Theatre of Annie Baker” by Nathan Heller. The New Yorker. February 25, 2013.
“The American Voice: When We Talk About Realism” by Adam Greenfield. Playwrights Horizon. December 2012.
“Zooming In: An Interview With the Playwright” by Stuart Miller. American Theater. July/August 2010 (65).
“A Young Playwright’s Success” by Ellen Gamerman. Wall Street Journal. January 7, 2010. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704130904574644622461285560
A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of William Shakespeare's most popular comedies. It's a play about love, compulsion, and magic. Midsummer is set in ancient Athens during the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Four lovers flee into the woods, where Oberon and Titania (the fairy King and Queen) argue over a mortal servant boy. Oberon sends his mischief-maker Puck loose with a flower which causes people to fall in love. When a crew of players rehearse near Titania's bower, she awakens and falls in love with Nick Bottom, a weaver-turned-actor-turned-donkey. Oberon obtains the mortal boy, sorts out the lovers, and puts everything as it should be -- followed by a royal wedding, and a royally botched play-within-a-play -- all upon a midsummer night.
But every Summer must have a Winter...
Ages since that summer night, the English woods have been besieged by iron-sided progress -- but ancient fairy magic still endures. When Gwen receives a gift from the otherworld, she must come to grips with the secret it brings. But while Oberon and Titania debate her fate, a band of amateur players try to rekindle their own holiday spirit in the shadow of the Great War.
The idea for A Midwinter Night's Revel originally came to me in 2009 while I was working on S Gunter Klaus & The Story Before with Jon Ferguson. As I was doing research on the pagan folk origins of Santa Claus, I suddenly had this image of Oberon and Titania in the snow, against the backdrop of the First World War.
In December 2011, I traveled to England on a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to study traditional early Christmas performances and rituals, including Stonehenge at solstice, a parade in Brighton, mummers in Yorkshire, and Panto in London. I was particularly inspired by Mummers Plays -- seasonal British folk plays performed by troupes of amateur actors. These plays are typically staged as house-to-house visits and in local pubs, much as carolers do today.
Three years (and a lot of life changes) later, I've channeled those experiences into this play. Much like A Midsummer Night's Dream, this play deals with the immortal fairies Oberon, Titania, and Puck - along with their young Changeling Boy - and takes place over a couple days at the turning of the seasons. But in crafting this conceptual continuation of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, I also borrowed thematic elements from Shakespeare's late Romances (especially The Tempest) to tell a story love, acceptance, self-discovery and family appropriate for those who need some light at the darkest time of year. I hope you enjoy it.
- John Heimbuch, playwright
Walking Shadow loves working with new plays -- almost one third of our productions have been world premieres, and we're excited to find ways to begin working with other local writers.
If you're a playwright, what do you want to write next? Ideally your idea is one you've got an itch for already, that just needs the right opportunity to come out. Do you have a project currently in mind that you think would fit our mission?
Whether you're a new or established playwright, we encourage you to submit an idea or story kernel you're interested in developing as a full-length play. If you're selected, you'll receive an $800 writing stipend to develop the idea, feedback and support from Walking Shadow's artistic directors, and a public staged reading.
We will accept submissions from August 15 - 30, 2015. Start thinking about which of your current ideas you want to tell us about! Check out our mission statement and production history to get a feel for the work we do. We also recommendthis article from 2009 about what we look for in plays.
- submissions accepted August 15 - 30, 2015
- open to playwrights living in Minnesota or western Wisconsin
- include one previous full-length or Fringe-length play
- provide a playwriting resume, with production history (if any)
- present a short project pitch detailing a concept, story, or idea that you want to explore (no more than 200 words: boil it down to what's exciting)
- if you have more than one idea brewing, submit up to three different pitches!
We welcome questions, and are excited to hear from local playwrights!
Who is this Nick Jones guy? The playwright of The Coward is a writer and performer working in theater, film and TV. He's best known presently for being a writer and co-producer for the Netflix series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. His many other plays include such subjects as medieval plastic surgery, perverted anarchists, and the tracksuit. (Yes, Mr. Jones is interested in offbeat comedy.)
Nick's theater pieces with puppets have received recognition from the Jim Henson Foundation. He also works with music, including an upcoming alt country rock musical about Grizzly Adams, and a series of albums from Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, billed as "the ultimate nautically-themed electro-accordion dance punk experience."
Death. Friendship. Religion. Defiance. The limits of knowledge. The deceptiveness of Fate and Free Will. Sexuality and sexual identity. Single minded purpose.
There, you're set. And if you absolutely must give Moby Dick a quick skim, take a look at chapters 1 & 9. That'll get you pretty far. Plus... it's a pretty good read.
Thursday, November 13th is Give to the Max Day.
This year Walking Shadow has been presented with a generous matching offer of $12,000 - thanks to a group of donors led by Laura & ErikPeter Walker and David & Patricia Borchert. This means the first $12,000 of donations made on Thursday, November 13th through our online giving page will be matched dollar for dollar, increasing the impact of your tax-deductible gift.
Donations to Walking Shadow support our mission of staging intelligent, thought-provoking work in Minnesota and will help make our 2014-2015 season possible, including our productions of Gabriel, The Whale, and The Coward.
We're delighted to be part of a community where so much good work is being done. We hope you'll take some time on Thursday to support the many worthy non-profits that make Minnesota great.
Give to the Max Day is a Minnesota-wide non-profit giving campaign, sponsored by GiveMN. During this day, every donation you make gives the recipient organization a chance to win additional funds. Your gift makes a BIG difference!
In June of 1940, the British government decided that Guernsey and the other Channel Islands were of no strategic importance. They pulled their troops from the region, saying the islands would probably be safer without the military to attract the Germans' notice. The islands then began to evacuate who they could, children first.
Since the Germans didn't immediately realize the islands were demilitarized, they approached with caution, sending reconnaissance planes and even bombing the harbor of St. Peter Port (killing 34 civilians and destroying several suspicious trucks full of tomatoes).
Receiving no return fire, the Germans had a single pilot make a test landing on Guernsey's deserted airfield. Shortly afterwards, a platoon of Luftwaffe soldiers arrived and took over the islands, giving the Germans a propaganda victory of winning British territory "without firing a single shot."
Gabriel by Moira Buffini
September 26 - October 11, 2014
Minneapolis Theatre Garage
I first encountered The Three Musketeers via the Disney-produced movie version in 1993. As a fifteen year old boy, and part of their ideal viewing demographic, I was immediately captivated by its spirit of adventure, the bravura, the banter. Soon afterward, I read the novel and was delighted by the humor, and its use of history, the back and forth of its intrigue, and panache. For the next few years, I watched as many screen and stage adaptations as I could find. I read fencing manuals, studied stage combat, and even ran a long-standing roleplaying campaign (loosely) inspired by the books. And when I finished college, I stepped away from this obsession, and turned my attention elsewhere.
When I first suggested writing a new stage adaptation of The Three Musketeers in 2012, I was in the midst of an emotionally turbulent year of loss and change. I was excited to take on something playful, light-hearted, and adventurous -- perhaps as a way to reconnect with my younger, more optimistic self.
I bought a new copy of the book, and began reading it aloud to director Amy Rummenie. For the next several months, we were quite literally on the same page. We reveled in the thrilling moments and bogged down in the boring parts, we delighted in Dumas' humor and rolled our eyes at his overblown melodrama. I also found a lot more nuance than I noticed in my teen years. The spirit of adventure was still there, but beneath the bluster and bravura that so intrigued me when I was younger, I found characters filled with depression, desperation, uncertainty, and fear.
I also became aware of the immense challenge I faced in distilling this six hundred page novel into a relatively faithful two hour stage play for ten actors. The book was filled with complex political machinations and a carefully nuanced plot. It had hundreds of characters, a constantly shifting point of view, and some surprisingly unscrupulous heroes. What had I done!? I had no idea how to begin. I was terrified by the immensity of the task. But a musketeer cannot let himself be daunted by insurmountable odds. He must persevere. With panache.
Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, I worked my way through the book, cutting, shaping, honing, clarifying, and rewriting. I removed the boring bits, honed the melodrama, and tried to leave the original plot intact wherever possible. With the help of the director, cast, creative team, and some helpful readers, I've worked to craft a performance text that's truer to the book than any other adaptation I've seen or read, but not without a few delightful liberties of my own. I hope you enjoy our theatrical romp through this epic adventure.
All for one, and one for all!
Charlie Bethel is an actor/writer with five critically acclaimed solo shows to his credit: The Odyssey, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Seven Poor Travellers, and Tom Thumb, or, The Tragedy of Tragedies. He has also worked as a stage manager, producer, electrician, milliner, director, and properties and set dressing artist.
He has performed for Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Trinity Rep, Utah Shakespearean Festival, North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Econo-Art Theater Company, Red Bones, Next Theater Company, Apple Tree, The Jungle Theater, The Guthrie Theater, The Childrens Theatre Company, Hey City Stage, Minnesota Opera, Opera Memphis, Southwest Shakespeare Company, Walking Shadow Theatre Company, Chopping Block, Key City Public Theatre, Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, Cape May Stage and CalibanCo, to name a few.
In addition to the theater work, Charlie has worked as a creative consultant for the Diamond-Star/Mitsubishi Motors Company (Normal, IL), as a writer for Red Farm Films (Seattle), and as a filthy joke generator for the Innovisions Greeting Card Company (Chicago). He's also, naturally, been a barista at Starbucks, a beggar in Daley Plaza, a cleaner of baby poo, an angry sonneteer, and a propagandist for the Shedd Aquarium.
His solo performances have been presented all over the US: from The Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences (Charleston, WV), to Cincinnati Playhouse, and a couple of Fringe Festivals, to Joseph Campbell's Centenary Celebration at the Esalen Institute (Big Sur, CA), to the Mythic Journeys Conference in Atlanta. Charlie's solo work delights audiences large and small, educated and not, well-heeled and plain spun.
Charlie is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and he comes from a long line of talkers. Recently he was featured on the History Channel's series, Clash of the Gods as a commentator on, you guessed it, Beowulf.
Elizabeth Tudor was born to King Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn. Two years later, Anne Boleyn was declared guilty of infidelity and executed, and Elizabeth deemed illegitimate. After Henry's death, the English throne passed briefly to Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey before reaching Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's half-sister. Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic, became renowned as “Bloody Mary” for her violent persecution of Protestants. She imprisoned Elizabeth in the Tower of London on the suspicion that she was supporting Protestant rebels, and Elizabeth remained there until her half sister's death.
Elizabeth assumed the throne, outlawed Catholicism, and declared herself supreme head of the Church of England. Under the guidance of William Cecil, Baron Burleigh, she used diplomacy, intrigue, and spectacle to secure her reign and defend herself from the ever-growing threat of Catholic rebellion.
Mary Stuart was six days old when she became Queen of Scotland. She spent her childhood in France, and married King Francis II, becoming Queen of France until his death in 1560. Widowed, Mary returned to Scotland and married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – but the marriage was unhappy and Darnley was found murdered in his garden.
A month later, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, who was believed to be her husband's murderer. This unpopular decision prompted a public uprising, and Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne. She fled south to ask protection from her cousin Queen Elizabeth – but because many English Catholics considered Mary to be the legitimate sovereign of England, Elizabeth had her arrested.
But since Mary Stuart had done nothing illegal on English soil, Elizabeth couldn’t charge her with any crime. Now, after more than a decade of Mary's confinement, England has finally found the means to rid itself of this troublesome Queen...
1533 Elizabeth Tudor born, becomes Queen of Scotland
1542 Mary Stuart born
1558 Elizabeth Tudor becomes Queen of England
1568 Mary Stuart flees from Scotland to England and is imprisoned
1587 the events of this play occur
1800 Friedrich Schiller, a German Romantic playwright, writes Maria Stuart
2005 Peter Oswald creates this adaptation of Schiller’s play