Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
May 11th, 2017
In 2015, Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 opened on the West End starring Nicole Kidman. At the time, the American, New York-born and raised playwright, had yet to have a major New York City production. In 2017 she will have two: Roundabout will producer her play The Last Match and Manhattan Theatre Club will produce Actually. Before the MTC production, Actually will have a co-premiere; it is currently at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. under the direction of Tyne Rafaeli and this summer it will run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Actually, through a series of monologues, tells two perspectives of a campus sexual assault hearing. We recently sat down with Anna to discuss her writing process, the challenges of perspective, and more.
For Actually, what was your jumping off point in writing it?
I started writing it at The Lark. They have a thing called a winter writer’s retreat, which is where you write a play in a week. So it’s very fast and you can’t be too critical of yourself because you just have to write so many pages. But I did go into it thinking I wanted to write a two-hander, which I’d never done before, and at the time, I was really immersed in discussion around my husband’s new job. He works at a college overseeing many of these sexual misconduct cases. He’s a lawyer, and he was in the midst of rewriting their policy. This was shortly after new federal guidelines came out about how those cases should be handled. There was a lot of angst and discussion in our house about that policy and about the problem on campuses. So the play came out of this feeling that many of these cases are very muddy and hard to piece apart. Of course, there are some that are absolutely black and white, but I was interested in the ones that weren’t, and in trying to come up with a situation that would make the audience or the reader question themselves and their own unconscious bias, and think about how difficult it is, given all the baggage we’re all carrying, to figure out what went into a moment between two people.
Is writing a draft that quickly different for you?
Yes. I don’t usually write that quickly. It was a great exercise and I did finish most of the draft, but then I put it down for two years. I wasn’t sure what I had and I had other projects that were more pressing. When I returned to it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was more material there than I thought that was usable.
Did you find that when you went back to it you had to change your rewriting process?
I think in some ways every play is a different rewriting process. I would say with this play, because it’s largely a monologue play, so much of it is about figuring out what absolutely needs to be there. And also because it’s a play in which I’m really trying to balance the perspectives of these two people, it’s a process of making sure that audience sympathy isn’t tipping more towards one person than the other. Or if it does, it tips back, so it’s a constant vacillation between two characters.
Did you find that that was hard to do on the page and that it really came later once you had actors?
Yes. And it’s still hard to do even with actors. I think it’s going to require having an audience to figure that out. But certainly each step in the process has been helpful in that regard. Suddenly having people in the room to talk to about it is critical. And then having a room full of people is going to be terrifying and very instructive.
When you were writing a play that has so many long monologues and talking directly to the audience, how, as a writer, do you figure out how people listen to make sure that the information that you need them to hear is heard?
I think it’s trial and error and your own internal gauge about rhythm, how long one person can go on for until the other person has to jump in. We need a rhythm shift at a certain point. A lot of the process of this play was figuring out where to break stories up and how to break them up and what they should be juxtaposed next to. In many cases these two people are telling different stories at the same time. So I wanted to think about what would be most interesting in juxtaposition that would then reflect on the other story in a thematic or more oblique way. But it’s really sort of trial and error and hearing it out loud a lot. I think I have a pretty good sense of when an audience dips out and so, if there’s anyone in the room listening, I’m pretty attuned to that. It’s always helpful to have a few more bodies there to take the temperature of the room at every point.
When you were writing it, was content dictating form?
Yes, in the sense that this is a play about two people’s stories. There is a kind of simplicity to the form. It really is these two stories that are woven together that can’t be separated now, because these two people came together in this way on this night. Their stories are woven together forevermore. I think because it was going to be a play about perspectives, I wanted to get into their heads. It didn’t feel like a play that would work in more traditional dialogues or scenes. I wanted the audience to know what these people were really thinking. And I’m interested in that in general, as a theatrical experience: getting in the heads of people who are having an experience that we’re not a part of. I have a play about a tennis match and it’s about what the tennis players are thinking as they’re playing this match. In this case it’s what these people are thinking as they’re sitting in a hearing. So it’s getting inside the heads of people we are usually just observing.
Novels and film tend to have more interiority that way. Did you find that other forms affected how you went about writing the play?
In some ways, I always am thinking about novels when I’m writing plays. And also poetry. There’s a way in which I’m trying to figure out ways to, as you say, create interiority that remains dramatic, but is borrowing from first person narrative in fiction. I don’t think that there are any dramatic rules that can’t be broken as long as the writer is paying really close attention to how long the audience can sit in a certain kind of moment. So in that way, I feel like I am trying to understand what makes narration in a novel dramatic and apply it to the stage as well.
As a generalization, plays are third person. Other forms have many other options. Are you interested in playing with perspective in that way?
I love to play with breaking the fourth wall, and hopefully surprising the audience with a perspective that they didn’t see coming because they were seeing one version of a character and then suddenly they’re telling us about another version of themselves. I think we are all many versions of ourselves, so I don’t think there’s necessarily a most truthful version, but maybe the composite is sort of truthful. Maybe that is ultimately what I’m trying to find: that truthful composite of all of the sides of ourselves.
Did you do research for Actually?
Yes and no. I have a pretty good source in my husband since he’s surrounded by this topic all the time. I watched The Hunting Ground, which is a documentary about sexual assault on campus. I just recently read a book by Laura Kipnis called Unwanted Advances, which in some ways illustrates the other side of the coin. In it, she cites male students who are not, in her mind, getting a fair shake. There’s a lot of debate around this standard of proof on college campuses now, which is the preponderance of the evidence. So yes, I’ve done some research, but you can’t read a newspaper or a magazine without encountering one of these stories every week. It’s hard not to do research; we’re kind of surrounded by it right now.
When you were creating the characters, how much did you think about, particularly with the female character, what type of personality you gave her? Because conforming to gender roles makes a big difference in terms of the subject matter.
I wanted her to be unique and funny and slightly odd and lovable, and someone who we would believe and understand has not felt very confident—or is confident about some things, but is certainly not confident about who she is in relation to men. I think I wanted her to feel relatable and real and deeply insecure in some ways. Although, as we’ve been rehearsing the play, one thing we’ve discovered is that the female character, Amber, is kind of insecure on the surface but does have some wells of confidence underneath that. Whereas the other character, Tom, is very confident on the surface and we think pretty insecure not too far beneath that. They’re in some ways inverses of each other.
With this subject matter, how they present themselves makes a big difference in terms of how what they’re saying is heard, especially in regards to femininity or masculinity. The whole, “Well, she was wearing a short skirt so…” thing.
The play is definitely playing with those ideas about appearance. Our physical appearance and what we present to the world, and then what might be going on underneath that. The play is also playing with this attempt to show all of that to the audience and let them be the judge of both of these people and determine for themselves what role each played in the lead-up to this encounter.
Then you also have the racial and ethnic dynamics in the play. How did you work that into it?
When I first started writing it, I really did just start hearing these two characters, and it was only after writing a first draft that I really thought about, what am I trying to say? Or how much onus is on the play to support the choice to have it be a white woman and a black man. I will say I have found it really fascinating to watch the play in readings. I think because these are both characters who are in marginalized, victimized categories of people, that it’s really hard for the audience to decide who to sympathize with. I think if each of them was with another person, it would be much easier to decide where one’s sympathies should go. But I found it really interesting that it seems like there’s this vacillation because they’re both from traditionally victimized groups.
One of the things that I found interesting about the play was that for both characters their definition of what constitutes rape isn’t so defined. And now there’s the idea of positive consent, which didn’t even exist a few years ago.
There’s a new line in the play that I put in last week. One of the professors on the panel who are adjudicating the hearing asks the woman something like if she’s sure there was a lack of affirmative consent. That’s one way in which I’m sort of teasing out the absurdity of even the semantics around it. That it’s just such a complicated and thorny issue now, and I do think the play is exploring the really murky areas around consent. I feel like in so many of the cases that I read about, there was consent up to a certain point, and then it’s usually the woman who feels like there was not consent beyond a point. It’s really tricky, I think, to figure out what really happened and how we should define consent. It seems like, in the play, both “consent” and “rape” are words that are used in some ways because there’s not another word in our vocabulary for what these people are trying to say, and those are the closest words. But they’re not necessarily the most accurate words. There’s probably a German word for what we’re trying to say in all cases, but English hasn’t gotten there yet.
How do you think the process for developing new work can be better?
I think the more production commitments playwrights get ahead of time, the better. There’s nothing more motivating than writing a play knowing it has a slot or likely will have a slot in a season that’s not too far off. I think that there are more and more of these residencies and theatres that are adopting that model, which I think is great. I think the more artists who have artistic homes, the better the plays that will emerge. I hope that model continues to proliferate.
I know you have a background in poetry. Do you feel that affects your use of language in plays?
I hope so. I hope so in part because I don’t really write much poetry anymore, so the way I make myself feel better about that is feeling like it’s made its way into my plays in some way. I think I have some plays that are more overtly poetic than others. Actually is not a particularly poetic play, but I do feel like I’m really drawn to plays that are really focused or obsessed with their own language and in moving an audience through a kind of lyrical space. I love that and I aspire to it.
In 2015, there were a few articles on the fact that you had a very big production in London before having a big New York production, and why that was. For you, what’s it like having a spotlight on your career in that particular way?
I feel like there’s no expected path in this career. I never would have predicted that Photograph 51 would get to London in that way, but you have to be grateful for the spotlight whenever it happens to appear, because it will go away fast. It may never return. So I was really stunned that that happened, and there are probably a lot of careers that if you look at them, the chronology of events might seem a little backwards. I do think that it was huge that Michael Grandage and Nicole Kidman took a leap with that play, and it has certainly opened other doors to me. And who knows where things will go from here? But I think a career in theatre is very much luck-based and about who reads your work when. I think Photograph 51 was in the zeitgeist that I never would have predicted when I wrote it, and so that was really lucky.
Did you feel pressure to capitalize on that moment?
I think so. I mean I still do. I think that while people are eager to read your work, you really do want to try to produce good work for them to read. I think I’ve been lucky because I had a few plays that I’d started working on that were nearing completion around when that production happened in London. Even in that season, I had a few other plays that were being produced that now are getting bigger productions. There’s always pressure to capitalize on any small amount of success and, at the same time, you can’t really think about that or you won’t be able to write. I think you have to shut off certain parts of your brain when you’re writing, and ideally shut off those parts of your brain always, because I think there’s only so much you can do to help your own career. I think it has a lot to do with what people are looking for and who sees your work.
Did you have any moments of thinking, “If I was a male playwright who had a big production in London starring Nicole Kidman, would that play go to Broadway right away?” Does another play go to Broadway very quickly after that? Is it different?
I didn’t really have that thought, which is not to say that I haven’t had moments of wondering in my career whether things would be different if I weren’t a woman. I think it’s almost impossible not to wonder sometimes because there’s so much talk about the imbalance in the numbers. But I don’t feel like I have experienced much blatant sexism, and it’s sort of impossible to know if my career would be different if I was a man. So I try not to dwell on it. And that play still may make it to Broadway. I don’t think the fact that it hasn’t gotten there yet has anything to do with my gender. I think it had to do with scheduling and people’s very busy careers.
Do you feel like work by women is talked about differently than work by men?
I do feel like I notice in descriptions of plays that women’s plays are often referred to as quiet or small, and that similar plays by men might be described as bigger plays even if they’re covering similar territory. I don’t know if a woman had written The Humans that it would have gotten as big a berth. I hope so. But I think that sometimes when women write family stories it doesn’t feel like those plays get seen as being big, important plays.
Do you feel like when you’re in the rehearsal room and you have a note for the director that the way you give that note is maybe looked at more carefully than if you were a man?
I have largely worked with female directors and so I haven’t felt marginalized in most of the processes or most of the rehearsal rooms I’ve been in. I think the more apt thing might be that I think I sometimes censor myself, and that might be gendered. It has to do with not wanting to step on the director’s toes. Not being sure when I should insert myself in the process. But I think any director I’ve ever worked with would agree that I am pretty vocal outside of the rehearsal room. And I am unable to restrain myself when it comes to giving notes or talking about the play during previews or what changes still need to be made. I’m not a shrinking flower when it comes to speaking up in those moments.
How do you think gender equality for women in the theatre can be improved?
Going back to my earlier answer about what could be better about the play development system, theatres making themselves artistic homes for more playwrights and certainly for more female playwrights. I feel like—and maybe this is just a reflection of my own sense of the opportunities I’ve been given—there has been a bigger effort in the last two or three years to include plays by women in every season. I know literary managers who say they only seek out plays by women. That’s in part because plays by men come to them in other ways, or they’re on Broadway and so they know them. But they will solicit only plays by women or read only plays by women and people of color. So I do feel like there’s a positive trend, and that theatres should be celebrated for moving in the right direction.