Going Deeper

leidner author umbrellaWalking Shadow first discovered author Mark Leidner's book of poetry "Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me" in a Tiny Free Library in Minneapolis. We began to follow his work, and when he released his most recent chapbook, 21 Extremely Bad Breakups, director Amy Rummenie contacted him about staging it in our 2017-2018 season. 

Walking Shadow Co-Artistic Director John Heimbuch interviewed Mark Leidner about his writing process on Friday, February 9 -- one week before opening night of 21 Extremely Bad Breakups.

 

John Heimbuch - Hello there!

Mark Leidner - Hey, John. How’re you?

John Heimbuch - Good, thanks! Was just giving Amy some feedback on last night's rehearsal.

Mark Leidner - How'd it go?

John Heimbuch - Very well. Lots of really lovely and sincere moments. Some good comedy.

Mark Leidner – Cool. I can't wait to see it.

John Heimbuch - So, basically I want to ask some questions, have a conversation, and keep it kinda informal but friendly.

Mark Leidner - Sounds good.

John Heimbuch - I wonder if you can talk a bit about how you developed the idea for “21 Extremely Bad Breakups”?

Mark Leidner - When I wrote it, I was struggling with story structure, so as an experiment I tried to use the list as a structure, which to me is the simplest structure there is, and just describe one breakup after another with no consideration for plot, characterization, or even meaning. To further relax the pressure of writing something "good," I let the characters, situations, and style of writing be “flagrantly unrealistic," “flagrantly stupid,” or even “flagrantly meaningless.” Such relaxations of qualitative considerations kind of opened the floodgates, and what emerged was unexpected to me. 

John Heimbuch - Neat! It's a really fun piece of writing, with these super wacky elements and moments of real poignancy that appear almost by surprise. 

It's also punctuated by translations other writers' poems. How did those fit into the piece for you

Mark Leidner - As the list structure became more ornate, I found myself wanting to watch certain characters, themes, or images grow and change in an open-ended way. So I started recapitulating characters and ideas from previous vignettes in later vignettes. A film I saw around the time I was writing this, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence by the Swedish director Roy Andersson, does this to beautiful, hilarious, and terrifying effect, and watching it felt like license to proceed in this manner.

That said, I still felt “21EBB” lacked pathos—and that led me to try to develop the narrator as a character, whose emotions could be explored indirectly through what the narrator chose to say about any vignette or about him/herself. At the time I was also reading Chaucer and growing interested in intertextuality—stories within stories, frame narratives, etc.

At some point I learned that by allowing the speaker to comment on poetry, kind of like a pretentious lecturer, I could reveal nuances in the narrator's emotional state, add tonal coloring between vignettes, and get to think about some stuffy old poems I might not have otherwise.

It was also fun to put grand old poems into contact with the absurdity of the vignettes. One of my favorite movies, Grand Piano, makes a similar juxtaposition with classical music in an preposterous thriller plot. Sometimes people only get to experience poems in such austere contexts that it’s like air too oxygenated to breathe. Bringing poems into contact with less esteemed contexts—futile relationship drama, sci-fi thriller, etc—feels like a way to revivify them. 

John Heimbuch - That's cool! Your poetry also dabbles in some genre-based themes, and elements of absurdity. I'm thinking about of your pieces in “Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me.” I'm also a big fan of non-linearity and intertextuality. I think the layers of this piece were part of what drew us to it.

Mark Leidner - Intertextuality is a great way to make narrative feel expansive when you have limited resources. Writing a great story takes a long time and a lot of luck, at least for me. But writing two mediocre stories doesn't take nearly as much time or luck, and if you can put one within the other, or put them both in conversation along some meaningful vector, the extra thematic complexity, irony, or tension can make the whole into an even richer experience than a single "good" non-intertextual story at a fraction of the cost in time. 

John Heimbuch - That's a really great insight. There's also a certain freedom, it seems, that comes from embracing implausibility and unreality. I wonder if you can talk more about what embracing the ludicrous has done for your writing?

Mark Leidner - Embracing the ludicrous was inceptional in my writing because writing seemed ludicrous on the face. The first time I wrote something, I was probably trying to be heartfelt, but it felt utterly ludicrous to do so because I did not think there was much value in the act of writing—even though I read and loved books my whole life. I was probably just a product of my culture, which did not value writing as an activity for young people, though it did value reading.

In terms of its benefits, writing in a self-consciously ludicrous mode certainly reduces the fear of failure, since the writing already feels predestined to fail.

Secondly, the ludicrous gives me, at least, somewhere to go. If I start in a ludicrous place, I feel a formal tension that demands resolution. After writing a “ludicrous” first line, for example, I might think, “Well, where the hell can this possibly go?” A “good” or beautiful first line, by contrast, usually makes me think, “This has nowhere to go because it’s already there.”

The ludicrous is also therapeutic. The part of me that is at the oases already—the part that is content and accepting of reality—doesn't need to go on a journey. The part of me that is lost in the desert—the sense of desperation, of futility, of heartbreak, of terror—needs a way to the water. So the journey from the ludicrous to whatever its opposite is is always a journey that part of me wants or needs to go on.  

John Heimbuch - I think "write it badly" is some of the best advice I've ever gotten.

Mark Leidner - It is often very good advice, but even if you do it once or twice, it’s hard to keep it up, because it paradoxically creates “successful” writing, which only makes it harder to follow later on.

John Heimbuch - Was that something you figured out on your own, or was that from a particular teacher?

Mark Leidner - The seed was always there, but it was definitely watered and fertilized by a long line of great teachers and friends. I would name them, but it would double the length of the interview.  

John Heimbuch - Totally.You've written poetry, fiction, and screenplays. Have you ever written work for the stage?

Mark Leidner - I've tried a little but haven't finished anything yet. Also, getting a play produced is an alien process to me, so it’d be hard to know what to do with it if I wrote one.

I have been going to the theatre more in the past few years—mostly as a way to learn more about acting and dramatic structure for film—and I have come to realize theater, even if I don’t love the play, is my favorite form of entertainment because the humanity of the performers is so raw, and the narrative mechanism is like a beautiful fusion of language and body in front of your eyes. I’d love one day to write something specifically for the stage. 

John Heimbuch - Anything you're particularly excited about seeing in this adaptation? (Spoiler warning!)

Mark Leidner - I'm most excited to see how Amy Rummenie, the director and playwright who adapted the story, structures the story for performance. And how the actors bring that structure to life. I was shocked when she told me she wanted to adapt “21EBB” because it has so many threads, so many absurd situations, and so much poetry. But then I watched some of the recorded work that Walking Shadow has done and realized that taking those kinds of risks were what the theater company was all about. Other than overall form, I’m probably most curious about the scene in which the aliens are trying to decide if they should break up while an asteroid they’re supposed to be looking out for is about to hit Earth.

John Heimbuch - Amy has a really talented ensemble of actors with lots of experience in physical theater and comedy. I think it's going to be a delight.
It's no surprise to any of us that she's a huge fan of your writing. She originally found your first book in a Tiny Free Library, and has been following you ever since. I take it you were surprised when she asked about adapting it?

Mark Leidner - I’m still surprised! It's not often that a stranger encounters your work in such a seemingly serendipitous manner and then reaches out to ask to do something interesting with it. It means a lot to me. 

John Heimbuch - I'm so glad to hear it! This story has such a heartfelt way of exploring the way people connect to one another, lose that connection, and then seek connection again. Absurd as they are, how did you find yourself drawing on personal experiences when writing these breakup stories?

Mark Leidner - One commonality among most of the characters in “21EBB” is that they overthink things. Overthinking comes from the urge to control what cannot be controlled. It’s a natural but problematic facet of consciousness that me and everyone I’ve ever met have struggled with our whole lives.

In writing this story, then, I was very comfortable turning this overthinking up to 11—giving characters even more desperation to control outcomes in situations which are even further beyond their control than usual—and letting that wreak havoc on them, exposing themselves to themselves, and then watching the narrator try, somewhat in vain, to control our interpretation of that. I am fascinated with the balance between the urge to control and the necessity of letting go—in relationships, in writing, in life—and that's perhaps the most personal part of the piece for me. 

John Heimbuch - That makes a lot of sense. And yet in practice it's such a difficult thing to do!

Mark Leidner - Almost impossible, but worth the effort, even if it fails. 

John Heimbuch -  What projects are you working on right now?

Mark Leidner - "Under the Sea" is a book of short stories coming out in June from Tyrant Books. “21EBB” is in that collection, along with 7 other stories.

Last year, I also wrote and helped produce a sci-fi thriller about virtual reality called Empathy, Inc., which is in the final cut and is currently being sent to festivals and producers. It’s directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, produced by Josh Itzkowitz, and stars Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, and Jay Klaitz.

I'm also finishing up a romantic comedy that is, for the moment, a short novel. The challenge was sort of the opposite of “21EBB”—tell a relationship story with a happy ending, using only the most formulaic conventions possible. Another form of "writing it badly," in a way, which was just as liberating.

John Heimbuch - Awesome. Well, thanks so much for this, and for letting us stage your book! I look forward to hearing what you think.

Mark Leidner - Thank you, John. All of this was fun to think about. Can't wait to meet you, Amy, and David and see the show. 

--

A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Georgia, Mark Leidner is the author of two produced full-length screenplays, Jammed (2011) and Empathy, Inc. (forthcoming, 2018). He is also the author of two poetry books, Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press, 2011). A book of short stories, Under the Sea, forthcoming from Tyrant Books in June 2018, includes "21 Extremely Bad Breakups," which won the 2015 Newfound Prose Prize.

Savannah headshot smallWalking Shadow first met Hatchet Lady playwright Savannah Reich through our 2015 Script Pitch Program, where we put out a call for 100-word proposals, and Savannah Reich's idea was selected by Walking Shadow's company members from a pool of 116 submissions. The quirky concept behind Hatchet Lady and the pointed cleverness of Savannah's writing caught our attention immediately.

Savannah Reich sat down with Hatchet Lady Assistant Director Sarah Lovell for an interview on Sunday, November 12.

 

Sarah Lovell: You're currently living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, But your hometown is Minneapolis, correct?

Savannah Reich: That’s right! Powderhorn Park born and raised.

Sarah Lovell: As someone who has recently moved up here, I’m astounded by how big the arts are in Minneapolis. Were you immediately drawn to theater and writing as a child?

Savannah Reich: Yes! It's a great theater town. My folks originally moved up there to work for the Guthrie as technicians. Another Minneapolis stereotype is that everyone is still friends with the people that they went to kindergarten with, and there is certainly some truth to that; a lot of the people who I made plays with in high school are now very cool working artists around town.

Now that I've lived some other places, I'm coming to appreciate more and more what a great theater scene Minneapolis has. It's very experimental for the Midwest, and people are truly committed to supporting each other and pushing their personal practices forward. There is a midwestern DIY work ethic that I think serves everybody well.

Sarah Lovell: Wow! So you really did grow up in the theater scene, with your parents working for the Guthrie. I’m sure that fueled your inspiration to begin writing.

Would you say that your first passion was to write for the stage? Or do you have other aspirations you’re working on?

Savannah Reich: I have been writing plays since I first started writing. Never really went very heavily into anything else. I would say that for me, writing is more of a way to approach theater making, rather than the end in itself, if that makes sense? In grad school we used to talk about this continuum of artists from a prose writer or poet over to a performance artist, and say that playwrights are somewhere in the middle.

I produce my own work often, I direct and perform and do a bunch of other things as a theater maker. So for me, the finished product is the production rather than the script. I think that is probably true of most playwrights. I do a lot of self producing because I like to be in the rehearsal room, rather than turning the play over to a director and actors. Rehearsal is the fun part! But in recent years I have had the opportunity to have my plays produced by other companies more often, which has been a really exciting and new collaborative relationship for me.

Sarah Lovell: It’s probably a little nerve-racking to give your play over to a theater to produce, I assume there has to be trust and faith in the company to respect your work. On the other hand, I think the opportunity to have your plays performed around the country is amazing. I have to admit though, the rehearsal process is the best part. Do you ever find yourself changing and redoing the script by what the actors or director try and play around with on stage?

Savannah Reich: Absolutely. I think it's crucial for a playwright to be in the rehearsal room for the first production of a show, because something that makes sense in your head might not actually work at all in practice. I also love creating changes based on opportunities rather than problems, like if I know an actor has a particular skill or impulse. I often think about how to write plays that invite a lot of collaboration from the actors and director, plays that leave room for each production to be quite different from the last.

Hatchet Lady was produced once before, by the Runaways Lab Theater in Chicago, and I was in the rehearsal room for that process. The director, Olivia Lilley, and I were very collaborative and made a lot of changes together. John [Heimbuch, the current director] and I talked about how it's actually good for me not to be in the rehearsal room for this production, because now I have already answered a lot of the questions left open in the script for myself, and it's important to give the current cast room to make those discoveries and choices together for the first time.

Sarah Lovell: It’ll certainly give you a sense of surprise as well, to be technically seeing the show for the first time.

One of the biggest themes in Hatchet Lady is feminism. Now feminism is in no way a new idea, but with our current political and social climate, it seems to be a hot topic. How influenced were you by the election cycle, and everything it brought with it, while writing this play?

Savannah Reich: I actually wrote this play in 2016, so it is a pre-Trump era play. But I certainly was influenced by the current political climate, or at least the ways in which the theater community is becoming increasingly politicized. I am seeing more and more plays that are radical in their themes, that take the writer or performers' identities and historical oppression into account, which is, I think we can all agree, a great thing.

There is a weird thing to being a female playwright at this moment in time, especially as someone who is pretty politicized as a human. I am seeing a lot of calls for plays by women, plays with a lot of female parts, theater groups created specifically to produce plays by women. Politically, I am very enthusiastic about this, but I have to admit that it makes me squirm in certain ways as well.

For one thing, I am a person of great privilege. I am an educated white American woman. I am angry about the ways that women have been and continue to be oppressed but I feel that the conversation needs to intersect with conversations on class and race in order to have any meaning for me.

There is this desire to produce plays by highly privileged female playwrights like myself and then pat ourselves on the back for being part of the revolution. Which just seems silly to me. In my life and value system, art is the one thing that requires no outside value, that doesn't have to stand for anything else or have any function. Art belongs to itself; its value is inherent.

That isn't to say I don't like political art, but I don't think political art's value should be measured in it's political efficacy. It is measured in artistic value.

So I think when I first began Hatchet Lady I felt like, I'm a feminist, I'm an artist, I should write a feminist play. And I knew that a lot of theater companies would be more interested in reading this kind of play than some of my other plays.

So when Walking Shadow put out a call for proposals, I sent in a one page description of this wild feminist musical about Carry Nation, and I said I was going to make her into a modern radical feminist hero, and I was going to connect it all to radical protest movements and the idea of property damage as a protest tactic.

But then when I sat down to write, that isn't what came out at all... I couldn't make myself do it. The play I ended up with is infinitely more twisted in on itself, more individual and strange, than the one I meant to write. And it's themes are much more personal than political, in the end.

I suppose female rage is both personal and political for me, though.

I remember this moment of being really stuck in the writing, and staying up really late with this draft that I was stuck on, and then being like, oh, I'm allowed to make it about my feelings...

John said an awesome thing to me the other day, which was "If you had written the play you were trying to write, we probably wouldn't have been as interested in producing it".

Sarah Lovell: I think you could say female rage comes from different angles, so the fact that this play portrays your feelings makes it so much more personal and in depth. It’s been a lot of fun to work with and watch the actors find themselves in their characters and within the play. We can all connect with the feminism aspect in this play, but we can all also connect with the frustration of life and trying to figure out what it is that we’re supposed to be doing.

Savannah Reich: Reading this back over, I hope it doesn't sound like I am saying that I think theaters shouldn't try to produce more plays by women; I definitely think they should. A lot of theaters have started to talk about it less and just do it more, which I think is amazing. Producing a season of all women without calling it "The Season of Women" and just saying, "Here are some great plays." I love when that happens.

Sarah Lovell: I think that’s when it really becomes equal. Sort of how Frances doesn’t understand why we have to label anything, that things just are what they are.

Savannah Reich: Yes. I feel worried about saying the wrong thing, because I want to throw all my support behind theaters trying to change the 20% statistic status quo. But to think of myself as a "feminist playwright" is definitely weird from inside the writing process. I hear this from a lot of writers of color as well. Of course I want to write about these things, because this has been my experience... but I feel weird about the way its received. But I also want theaters to continue to support women and people of color in general. But is my work feminist enough to be feminist art? What if it's art by a woman that isn't particularly feminist? Is that possible? I go to this confusing place whenever I try to think about it.

Sarah Lovell: Hatchet Lady is an extremely rock n’ roll heavy show, was adding music an idea from the beginning, or did it come later?

Savannah Reich: Yeah, I think this play was always a musical! It just seemed like a musical right from the start. Carry Nation is so punk. She smashed up storefronts to make a political statement! Punk! She was really wild and unafraid and she didn't seem to care who liked her or approved of what she was doing or show she was doing it, which I perceive as the true heart of punk ideals. Not always punk practice, but punk ideals.

There have been multiple punk and hardcore bands named "Carry Nation", by the way, so I'm not the only one who thinks this.

I thought of working with Luc right away, because I am obsessed with his music obviously, and I know from working with him before that the way he approaches songwriting is really thoughtful and theatrical. He has such a feel for the dramatic arc within a song.

Sarah Lovell: Carry Nation is absolutely punk rock, and the music seems to stem from the riot grrrl movement, which is incredibly fun, and in your face, much like Carry Nation—though I’m not sure about fun, but absolutely in your face. I think Luc and “The Hatchetations” have captured the feeling and themes surrounding the play perfectly within the music.

Savannah Reich: I am so excited to see the band. What a bunch of awesome musicians. Also, can we talk about how Maren Ward is in this play? I just feel very excited about that.

Sarah Lovell: Of course! Maren Ward is a beautiful force of nature, who is extremely captivating. Have you worked with Maren previously?

Savannah Reich: Yes! So Maren, as the co-artistic director of Bedlam Theater, was one of my first artistic heroes and mentors, and she is one of a handful of Bedlam people who taught me that theater belongs to us and can be anything we want it to be, and that we can make choices about the way we live our lives and make our art that are inherently politicized and rooted in our value system.

I started hanging around the Bedlam when I was a teenager, and they would have punk shows there and do these wild, messed up plays, and it really gave me the belief that I could be an artist ins exactly the way I wanted to be.

Sarah Lovell: This circles back to you being able to work with the people you knew while growing up. You must be incredibly excited to have her playing the lead character in your show then?

Savannah Reich: So excited. She is such an incredible performer, but I am particularly excited to see her as Carry, who sort of represents the idea of coming into your own as an artist and having the courage to speak your experience exactly as it is, even if it is weird and twisty and doesn't always make sense. She is the perfect person to play the Patron Saint of Making A Mess.

Sarah Lovell: It’s great to hear that she was a huge influence and now gets to be part of Hatchet Lady. Honestly though, everyone in this production is fantastic. They all bring so much to the show. It’s such fun.

Well Savannah, we’re extremely excited for you to see our production. Care to leave us with what you’re currently working on?

Savannah Reich: I'm on a writing retreat working on a new play right now! It's so far kind of about birds and the movie "Titanic" and destiny vs Free Will. We'll see where it goes.

 

Savannah Reich's works have been produced by Bedlam Theater, Box Wine Theater, All Terrain Theater (San Francisco), Anam Cara Theater (Asheville, NC), and Der Vorfuhreffekt (Philadelphia, PA). She also produces work with her company, Eternal Cult, and tours it to warehouses, art galleries, bars and basements across the country. 

 

"I don't think it particularly matters what you believe coming into the play, I think it's about trying to help people understand why, and under what circumstances, somebody would hold to a particular belief."

Walking Shadow is partnering with Mixed Blood Theatre to produce the Minnesota premiere of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. This script was originally produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville for the 2014 Humana Festival and received its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2015. 

Hnath's other plays include A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Soho Rep, 2013); Red Speedo (Studio Theatre, 2013); nightnight (Humana Festival, 2013); Isaac’s Eye (Ensemble Studio Theatre, 2013); Death Tax (Humana Festival 2012; Royal Court Theatre, 2013). Hnath’s work is published by Dramatists Play Service and Overlook Press.

He has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2011, and is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. He is the recipient of the 2016 Kesselring Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2015 Whiting Award, a Whitfield Cook Award and two Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Citations.

He is also a recipient of commissions from the EST/Sloan Project, Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons, New York University’s Graduate Acting Program, and the Royal Court Theatre.

In 2016, his play, Hillary and Clinton, will premiere in Chicago at Victory Gardens, and Red Speedo will have its New York premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.

Annie Baker’s first four published works - Nocturama (2006), Body Awareness (2008), Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), The Aliens (2010) - are collectively known as the “Vermont Plays,” and each is set in Shirley, Vermont, a city with a unique and sometimes troubling history.
 
Located in Windsor County, the city of Shirley was settled in an area once populated by the Abenaki, an Algonquian-speaking peoples who named the region Wabanahkik (“Dawn Land”). Abundant with ponds, streams and brooks, the area provided an excellent source for fishing. Claimed by the English in 1754, the city was named for Lord Henry Shirley, a colonist attributed for introducing one of the first acts of biological warfare in North America. Responding to various Abenaki uprisings in the 1760s, Shirley approved a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to the Native people.
 
In 1853, pure spring water was discovered near Shirley’s Plum Brook, and for nearly three decades the city was home to the Shirley Hydropathic Institute, becoming a curative health resort destination. The former institute is now home to the Shirley School, a small day school for dyslexic students.
 
The tradition of a town meeting form of government (where adults of voting age gather annually to approve budgets and enact laws), along with a board of selectmen to handle day to day operations, continues into the 21st century.
 
In the 1980s and 90s the city opened its arms to a small but thriving community of Cambodian refugees.
 
Public nudity was legal until 2008 when Shirley banned the practice “on the main roads or within 300 feet of any school or place of public worship.” The Saturday Morning Farmer’s Market at the Unitarian Church had once been a popular destination for local nudists
 
Home of Shirley State College and host of the annual Vermont Gourd Festival, Shirley’s population was just over 14,000 residents in the 2000 census. Notable historical residents have included Gilbert Rosebath, astronomer; Edwin Hunt Lessey, reed organ maker; and Elizabeth Collins, poet.
 
What is most unique about Shirley, however, is that it is a complete fiction. The city’s origin and its history was outlined by Annie Baker in a 2009 interview distributed by Playwrights Horizons in anticipation of the world premiere of Circle Mirror Transformation. Baker has never lived in Vermont. She grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and, after her parents’ divorce, divided her time between life in Amherst with her mom and visits with her father who had moved to New York City. This, of course, begs the question: why Vermont?
 
Vermont - the Green Mountain State and home to Bernie Sanders and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream -  is certainly one of the most progressive states in the nation. Ranked the 42nd best state for business by Forbes Magazine, Vermont actively resists corporate culture and mass consumerism.  The first Wal-Mart arrived in 1996 and there are only five in the state today. Montpelier is the only capital city in America without a McDonald’s franchise, and for over forty years the state has prohibited roadside advertisements. Farmers’ markets are plentiful, and green industries fuel the state’s economy.
 
As Baker has acknowledged, Vermont has a “bucolic, free-thinking culture. They have health care for everyone. Gay marriage was legalized aeons ago. It’s beautiful, hippyish and green.” Indeed, based on the number of communes, food co-ops per capita and the percentage of Facebook users who “like” the Grateful Dead, Phish, Bob Dylan, marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, Vermont is the best state in America to let your freak-flag fly.
 
It sounds more than ideal, but there are challenges. The most rural state and the second whitest state in America (Maine is number one), Vermont’s progressive credentials belie a lack of cultural diversity. Over the last 50 years, Vermont has attracted a professional class of well-educated, left-leaning, outdoors-loving, environmentally-minded white people, and one can argue Annie Baker’s plays implicitly examine the contradictions at work when liberal white people are forced to confront their privileges in a bubble of homogeneity.
 
More disconcerting, Vermont, according to an article in Slate, has the highest rate of illicit drug use in the country. Marijuana is the drug of choice, and the possession of an ounce or less was decriminalized in 2013. Hallucinogens are also popular with high school and college students.
 
The unfocused, directionless malaise that seems written onto the bodies of Annie Baker’s characters in The Aliens taps into something palpable about living in a state full of so many contradictory forces. The challenges these young men face reflect something close to an ontologically secular crisis of faith. Their belief in themselves and what the future holds is tentative and fragile. Perhaps that is why they hover at the margins of social discourse, outsiders or aliens hourly confronting, in Charles Bukowski’s words, the “frictions of distress.”

annie baker

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.
http://www.vice.com/read/if-youre-going-to-read-plays-read-annie-bakers-plays

“Just Don’t Call It Ordinary” by Matt Trueman. Financial Times. June 14, 2013. 
http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/f2e65c14-d1e1-11e2-9336-00144feab7de.html

“Just Saying: The Anti-Theatrical Theatre of Annie Baker” by Nathan Heller. The New Yorker. February 25, 2013.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/just-saying

“The American Voice: When We Talk About Realism” by Adam Greenfield. Playwrights Horizon. December 2012.
http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/trailers/american-voice-when-we-talk-about-realism/

“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.

Submission guidelines:
    • 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."

Not at all.
Ok, maybe a little...
But mostly no.
 
It's about a really big guy in Idaho, his best friend, his willful daughter and her mom, and a renegade Mormon kid. It's still a tragedy, but one of the funny ones. Modern, daring, and absolutely beautiful. And you don't need to read Moby Dick.
 
Although that giant tome of whaling might help you catch some resonant themes that echo between both pieces. But at over 600 pages, you'll have to start reading it soon! Instead, to help you look like the smart kid, here's a quick summary of relevant themes:

Death. Friendship. Religion. Defiance. The limits of knowledge. The deceptiveness of Fate and Free Will. Sexuality and sexual identity. Single minded purpose. 
 
In the sea, a whale cannot be viewed all at once. It is only seen in pieces. The head, the back, the fins, the tail. And it is this multiplicity of meanings and perceptions that Ishmael struggles with as he tries to understand the essence of a whale, beyond being simple beast. 
 
Is the Whale a scapegoat for our fears and rage at life? A manifestation of the worst elements of the world? Worthy of eradication? Capable of salvation? Or is it a mere creature, doing what it knows, when it's suddenly caught in the spin of a larger story?

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!

Make your contribution here!

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