Playwright Annie Baker won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “The Flick,” which this month makes its Off Broadway return in a commercial production backed by Scott Rudin. Her newest play, “John,” premieres Off Broadway this summer.
You’re teaching playwriting at NYU now, and in the fall you’ll teach at Hunter College. Do you enjoy it?
It’s very meaningful. Just writing and rehearsing your own work can feel really solipsistic. It’s also just nice to remember what you believe in. I have a really hard time talking about my work and articulating my ideas about theater, even though I actually have a lot. Teaching really makes me do that, and makes me revisit texts that are important to me and think about them again.
What’s the most important thing that you try to teach your students?
When you teach, I feel like you become more aware of what the conventions of the time are. Both film and TV conventions and conventions of contemporary New York theater, and also what other teachers are telling students about how to write a play. What I try to do as a teacher, and what I try to do for myself, is dismantle all of that and not have a specific way to write a play. I actually feel like the most important thing is to make sure that you’re not being automatic about your choices. And that’s really hard.
What do you say when people ask you to characterize your own work?
I balk. I don’t know, and I actually feel like if I knew, it would be a bad sign. I feel like the times in my life where I’m a little more sure about what I’m doing, or a litte more confident in my aesthetic, then it’s usually not going well.
Do you write fast or slow?
Very slow, but not painstakingly every day. I have really long dry spells and then short bursts of writing more. It’s not slow like a page a day. It’s slow like I don’t write for six months, and then I write 10 pages, and then a week goes by and I write ten more.
What inspired “The Flick”?
Watching ushers clean up after movies, and becoming aware of them and of the theater of that, the theater act following the movie. That was really exciting to me. And watching a bunch of independent small town theaters make the shift from film to digital and what that meant for the viewing experience, what that meant for the theater, and what that meant for the daily life of the ushers and projectionists. I read a lot of film theory while I was beginning to write the play, and then there was a point where I had to stop because I was trying to do too much. Every plot point was weighed down with a kind of symbolism.
When it first premiered at Playwrights Horizons, “The Flick” stirred a minor controversy for its length and its use of silences. Were you surprised by the reaction?
I wasn’t truly bothered by any of it. I really am my worst critic. My illusions about my work are never shattered. I don’t think of “The Flick” as a controversial play. I actually think it’s pretty accessible. If anything, I felt it was a little too mainstream. Part of me thought, “You think it’s too long? It should be two hours longer! I chickened out!”
Has winning the Pulitzer changed your life?
I don’t think so? People aren’t banging down my door any more or less than before. The amazing thing about that prize is I think it pays off for the rest of your life. I have had a fear my entire adult life of ending in the gutter on the side of the road, from years of just not having had enough money. And being a writer, you never know how much you’re gonna have next year. Now I think that even when I’m 75 and crazy and wandering the streets, maybe some college somewhere will let me teach writing because I won a Pulitzer.
So many playwrights make a living by writing for TV. Does that appeal to you?
I’m not particularly interested in television as a medium. That’s nothing against it, but that kind of longform storytelling, churning out material quickly for longform results, is exactly what I’m less interested in. I am interested in spending a lot of time on something crystalline with a beginning and an ending that is determined by me. And I don’t watch a lot of TV. It’s just not something I’m drawn to.
Your work can seem deceptively loose, but it’s actually really rigorous. How do you get actors on board with it?
I think when actors are new to my work, it can feel really restrictive. The precision of the words and the stage directions can feel a bit confining. But then what I hear usually is that there’s an enormous amount of freedom. But it comes after intense, almost balletic choreography.
How do you and director (and frequent collaborator) Sam Gold work together?
We’re both really into precision. But I think the ideal rehearsal room for both of us is one where there’s an incredible amount of rigor and precision but also a real sense of lightness and fun and respect for the actors. I really love actors. I genuinely feel so appreciative and thankful for them. I always want to hear what they have to say.
What can you tell me about “John,” your new play?
It’s a bit slippery in terms of what it’s about, so I’m trying to be a little cagey. What I can tell you is it takes place at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Georgia Engel plays the woman who runs the bed and breakfast, and a couple comes to stay there. But it’s a little creepy and magical. I got really interested in reading uncanny texts like Hoffman stories and Bruno Schulz and German Expressionist films. I also started reading a lot of firsthand accounts of madness. The play’s a little bonkers.