An Interview with Anne Washburn
Written by Victoria Myers
July 6th, 2015
Anne Washburn’s 10 out of 12, currently playing at Soho Rep, takes the audience inside the world of tech—those special rehearsals where all the technical elements like lights and sound are added into a play. It not only offers a behind-the-scenes look at a theatrical process, but also at the dynamics within this hermetic world, which is why we thought now would be the perfect time to talk to Anne about her work. Prior to 10 out of 12, her play Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play was nominated for a Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Play (and, yes, if you missed it, it involves the retelling of an episode of The Simpsons). Other plays include A Devil at Noon, The Internationalist, and The Ladies. She was a founding member of 13P and an associate artist of The Civilians and New Georges. We got to talk to her about her work—from what inspires her to how she develops it—and about different facets of the theatre. Not surprisingly, she had many fascinating things to say about all these subjects, and much like in her plays, there were some surprises in store.
It seems like 10 out of 12 would have been a difficult play to structure. When you were putting it together how did you decide how to structure it?
This piece started with little observations from tech rehearsals. I’d take notes [during tech rehearsals], but I have a poor memory, so I could only get a couple of lines at a time. So I had all of these bits and pieces, and I sort of narrowed it down to four texts when I started. Then, for a while, the huge structural question was about time: was I going to make it a ten-hour piece or was I going to make it a two-hour piece? And a ten-hour piece would be a sort of documentary type thing, and I decided I wanted to make it a very essentialized thing.
When you’re doing something that doesn’t follow a traditional structure and that takes place in a very specific world, do you think about dropping in hints for the audience that tells them, “This is the play you’re going to be seeing tonight?”
Yes. I did. Originally, it was quite oblique, and then I did go through with an eye towards leading people through an experience—not necessarily in a way that was fully articulated for them, but at least so they had some sense of going through a process that had some sense of purpose. So there were a lot of little tweaks to shape it or make it a little clearer to people who haven’t been in a tech. I wanted it to be accessible to both worlds of people.
This seems like a play that would really need actors as part of the process. How much were actors part of the development process? You’ve worked that way before, yes?
In different ways. For Mr. Burns I knew that I wanted to begin with a group of people remembering an episode of The Simpsons and I wanted that language to start with, and once I had that chunk, that determined what happened in the course of the play. With this, there’s that interpolation throughout and little bit of found text throughout, so it’s much more a patchwork in that way. The joke of this play is that we wouldn’t really understand what the play was until we teched it, which was kind of true. Everyone involved in this—the director, the actors, and the designers—really knew it was going to be unusual in that way. For instance, we had the sound crew with us in all of the rehearsals. Everything the audience hears on the headsets [audience members are given headsets as they enter the theater] is pre-recorded, and four of the characters who are in the house—the designers—are pre-recorded. So when you have actors talking to them, they’re talking to sound cues. Rehearsal was a lot like tech since we had to work that out as we were going through. It was an odd process. So by the time we hit tech, we had kind of worked out a lot of the sonic world, except that the rehearsal space we were working in only had one large speaker in a corner and so we didn’t know what the values of the thing were. We didn’t know how long we could keep the audiences attention with two guys talking in the back. With us in the room, you couldn’t focus on it, and it wasn’t until we were in the Soho Rep space that we knew what had to be seen and what could just be heard. We had some things that were only heard, but once we saw them in the space we made them live because we felt it was too hard to focus on and too hard to follow. Then there were things like the lights changing and the director wandering around and we didn’t know what the quality of that was until we had the lights. So it was complex to put together in that way. With a little bit of give and take, there were fewer surprises than we thought there would be.
What was it like having to freeze some of those pre-recorded scenes earlier than normal?
You could have a lot of this play pre-recorded, and the sound team was sort of all for that because we were having a lot of trouble establishing sound values so things were audible but not too loud. It would be simpler to just get a perfect take. But that’s so not fun for the actors. And in terms of how the actors’ energy holds the evening together, if you take that away from them, it’s not going to be the same for the audience because when the actors do show up they’re going to be showing up cold. We tried to have as much as possible live transmitted. It was a weird rehearsal process. We did three run-throughs in three days at the table, then we went to a recording studio and we recorded everything that would be recorded in the play, then we continued to work on the play, and then we went back to the recording studio so we could tweak.
How much did you think about how you gendered all of the roles in the play? Like that of the director, playwright, and so on?
A fair amount. The four techs that I narrowed it down to, for various reasons, all had male directors. So I’d worked with four male directors, which ended up meaning, in my head, that it was going to be a male director. Because of that, I made it a female playwright. Normally, because I am a female playwright writing about theatre, I would have swapped the gender of the playwright because otherwise people think that playwright is going to be speaking for me, which is boring. But I made her a woman when I normally would have made her a man because there was a male director, male lead actor, and realistically only so many of the designers are going to be women. I didn’t want it to be an all male creative team. So that was a decision about gender. I made the difficult actor a man partly because I wanted the thing between him and the director to be mano-a-mano and I didn’t want there to be any question of romantic tension or gender tension. I wanted it to be more person-to-person tension or role-to-role tension.
It was interesting to watch, especially since the same behavior can be read differently in a man and a woman.
I guess I did give it a lot of thought. I wanted it to be a male lead actor. Oddly, theatre can be a reversal of a lot of society. When a woman is very emotional and losing control in the theatre, we call that a diva and we kind of have a lot of respect for it. Whereas when male actors lose control, we don’t. We see it as an expression of weakness. I guess because to be an actor is to be able to have great access to your emotions and that’s traditionally a female role and there’s still discomfort about men accessing their emotions. I contemplated switching genders in every single way and it would be different in every single way.
Going back to structure, there are a few of these “rules of playwriting” for structure. What do you think about those rules?
I think they’re fascinating. I think they’re probably super useful. I think they are not inevitable. Ultimately, people will watch whatever is interesting. Every now and then I go into situations where people talk about rules and I think they’re awesome. I feel like, in terms of teaching structure and learning structure… I feel like there’s a tradition of teaching structure in the theatre that came out of how people taught plays in the 60s and 70s, that came out of a society where you didn’t watch TV all the time, especially if you were literate and cultured. And in our society, we’ve watched so much TV, we’ve seen so many movies. I feel like we have a kind of intrinsic structural notion and we don’t have to bang it out in the same way. I guess when I write plays, I try and make something that I would like to see or experience, so it doesn’t necessarily follow a traditional structure. And life isn’t structured and we follow it with intense interest.
What’s your process like was a writer? Where do you come into a story?
Really different places per project. I usually do have some sort of found material. Like with this play I had all of these notes from tech, so I knew what the world was. And for Mr. Burns, I created a found piece of text to move into it with. Usually there will be something that I see or that I hear that I’ll write down, and that will lead to some other place. But I don’t know the whole thing. I don’t know who the characters are or what’s going to happen. For me, the more you know, the harder it is to write the thing. Usually there’s just some question that I find interesting or some bit of a world that’s interesting or something where I feel like, “I won’t know what this is unless I write it.”
Do you see any themes in your work?
Nothing apart from the themes in everyone’s work: life is complex and how do we get through it as gracefully as we can, so what’s it like to watch people who are stumbling?
Are there other areas of culture that affect your work?
Yes, but not in any type of comprehensive way. There’s often music in some form or another in my plays, but it’s not like I’m a great participant in the music culture at all. And there are pieces of art that I’m still trying to work out. I’m sure there’s some sort of structural equivalent, but I don’t know. I go to museums and I go to art shows, but I’m not richly involved in the whole thing. I also feel like it only takes a little bit of something to spark a whole thing. Those things always seem like they have a lot of potency to them and they end up sparking things and going into things.
You’re a member of The Civilians and they do a lot of verbatim theatre work. What got you interested in that kind of work?
I’m an associate artist and I have been from the very beginning. Steve Cosson was directing a play of mine at what was like Soho Rep summer camp, and one of my first plays in New York was The Ladies with Annie Kauffman, and that was with The Civilians. And Mr. Burns was from The Civilians. It’s a theatre I adore, but I’m not in any kind of intimate way involved with them. I guess I feel like in verbatim work, the yearning to change people’s perception is much stronger. There’s something about trying to show them something to move them in a direction. It tends to be inevitably political. With The Civilians, some of their work is political and some of it isn’t, but even work that isn’t political like Gone Missing or Pretty Filthy that’s not political in the same way as other pieces, is, in a way, since it humanizes a group of people that usually aren’t thought of that way. Maybe there’s something about verbatim theatre work that isn’t about characters that we follow in that same way, or structures that we follow the same way. Maybe it’s meant to be less hypnotic. Maybe we’re supposed to be less seduced by characters, so we take in the world, and in adjusting our own view we become a little bit more engaged. I think that’s what’s interesting to me.
You can learn a lot about people by the way they speak.
Totally. When you’re dealing with the actual texture of human speech in the wild, it’s fascinating. I feel like the whole process of art is that you’re continually showing people a way of looking at the world, and people are continually getting jaded to that way of looking at it. You have to look deeper or look farther. It’s always the surface texture of how you describe reality that always has to change. There’s no one way to do it. So that’s also the pleasure of verbatim theatre. It’s a little like human specimens in the wild. Aliens could take a look at it and find helpful.
We wanted to ask you about the term “downtown playwright” because it seems like kind of an antiquated term.
I think there is such a thing as a downtown playwright and I don’t think I am one, much to my regret. To me, the term “downtown playwright” applies to people who have to direct their own work; work that cannot be understood unless they take the reins of it. And then, apart from that, I think there are a lot of playwrights now—and some get called downtown playwrights and some don’t—that are equally influenced by traditional theatre and by performance and have been trying to bring the beauty and richness of both worlds together. So I think sometimes if you’re on that spectrum, you’re labeled downtown. But I don’t think it’s totally antiquated because I think there is still a downtown—I don’t know how much longer it can go on because of real estate—but there is a specific world of a large, dedicated community that come to the task as much from the world of art or film as they do from theatre. And there is this kind of richness.
You were a part of 13P, which was a really interesting model of producing. What’s the number one thing you think can be taken away from that and used to help get more new work produced?
The thing which I found really surprising and really inspiring was the degree to which, just by grouping together, we became much stronger. We were much, much stronger as a group than any of us were as individuals. Especially at the beginning. Any situation where you can come up with a group goal is good. For 13P we had this sassy logo, which was, “We don’t develop plays, we do them,” and that was the only unifying thing. I always thought people could easily organize around an aesthetic or directors working with playwrights. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just has to be something that isn’t being done often enough to your pleasure, and you pull together a group of people. It really is just collective action. And, since that time, Madeleine George and I have worked on a number of group processes. We have something called The Writers Army where writers get together and we rent a rehearsal room for a week and just write. And there are rules about the amount of time you have to spend in the room and things like that. But that was inspired by the idea that if people get together, there are many more solutions than if they are apart.
What are others ways you think new work can be better developed?
I’m always torn when people who are graduating college have that question of, “Should I go to New York? Or go someplace else?” And you always want to give them two pieces of advice. It’s great to be in New York because you see tons of really ambitious and talented people whacking their heads against the wall of these problems and they’re creating these beautiful pieces of work and it’s good to see that. But a thing that is increasingly impossible to do in New York, which is the most important thing to do, is to put up productions of plays for a low budget. I think when you’re writing, you need to get your plays up any old way with your friends and see what they are. I feel like an incredibly positive trend in new play development has been larger theatres having smaller spaces with cheaper ticket prices. That’s awesome. Especially since so many of the cheaper spaces to rent are slowly being taken off the market in New York. It’s so expensive to produce a new play and it’s so much pressure to produce a new play that I think writers need to not count on institutionalized theatres. They need to get their own work up and see what it is and do it in a way that’s not so high budget and not so high pressure. And, not only develop their voice as a writer, but strengthen their abilities as a collaborator so they’re in a position to take advantage of a larger production.
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
The Wuggly Ump by Edward Gorey. It’s this totally compelling book about these Victorian children who are playing in the grass but they know the Wuggly Ump is coming towards them. The Wuggly Ump was this horrendous beast. And they come inside the house, but he’s right outside the door and somehow he gets them in the end. It’s wonderfully scary and very menacing. When we visited my grandparents in Pasadena, my mother’s youngest brother was still at home—he was a teenager—and the moment we’d arrive at the house we’d play the Wuggle Ump game, which was basically just a chase game. He’d be hiding somewhere in the house, and at some point he’d lunge out at us and we’d run screaming. So for me it was kind of story combined with live action and adventure.
Were you one of those kids who was like, “I want to be like that person,” or, “I want to have that person’s life”?
I wasn’t so much. I loved the idea of being a beatnik intellectual and wearing a black turtleneck and having tragic love affairs and dying quite early. That sort of life seemed very attractive, but there was no one person.
What are your top five most influential plays?
1. 2 Samuel 11 by David Greenspan
2. The Myopia by David Greenspan
3. Lydie Breeze by John Guare
4. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill
5. Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés
What do you feel like was the definitive moment in your career?
There have been a bunch of them. After grad school, I joined the Soho Rep writer/director lab. It was the second year they’d done it and no one knew about it, and I got to do it for three years. Now it’s this huge, immensely popular thing and you can only do it once. At the time, it had just started and that’s how I met Steve Cosson. That’s where I met Annie Kauffman. I met a lot of people who were up and working and terrific to be in the room with. It was a lot of people who were articulating and working towards a kind of aesthetic, which was not a mainstream theatre aesthetic at the time. And you could do whatever kind of work you liked and you’d be supported, and that was hugely, hugely important and I don’t know what would have happened had it not been for that. 13P was also huge, and that was just because I’d gone to grad school and met Madeleine George the first day, so that was just kind of a twist that ended up happening. So I think those were the two huge things.
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
I don’t. But I have noticed in the last couple of years that there are increasingly situations where I look around and think, “Well, someone has to be the grownup in this situation and it might as well be me.” I think I owe it to the various people who have stepped up and pretended to be grownups to me, so now I will fake it in this situation, which I think is what actual grownups do so maybe I am… No, I’m not.
Do you feel like work by female playwrights is talked about differently than work by male writers?
I would assume it is. I don’t notice it, but I would assume it is.
The second part of that question was if you found it especially true when people are talking about non-traditional work?
I don’t know. Probably. There’s gender bias, which is innate; there’s a way that men get a different type of attention. Then there’s gender bias that is cultural, which is much more annoying. And I guess I sort of assume that people come at my work differently because I’m a woman, and maybe to a degree it gets less credit than if it were by a man, but I can’t separate that out from all of the other things about my work which might make it less appealing to someone. There are plenty of male playwrights who do great non-traditional work and who get tons of flack and don’t get produced particularly, so I don’t feel like all the male experimental writers get produced everywhere and the female experimental writers don’t.
One thing that has come up a lot in our interviews is the word choices used to describe work by women vs. work by men. Women’s work gests described as “quirky” and “whimsical” and men get more substantial words like “groundbreaking.”
Absolutely. People are going to minimalize women, and just instinctually, not even to be mean. I love that story Sarah Ruhl tells where a male artistic director was saying to her that her plays didn’t have protagonists and she looked at the plays he was talking about and they did have protagonists only they were women. The men in the plays didn’t have complete journeys, and he was just following the men.
Lisa Kron brought that up with us when discussing Fun Home and that, early on, people were assuming Bruce should be the protagonist and not Alison.
That’s so interesting. I think it’s totally there. Anecdotal evidence from the field is there. And I think Julia Jordan’s work really laid it out in a lovely and calm way. I’ve been reading a lot of these interviews and something that comes up a lot is women and confidence, and that women aren’t as confident as men and it’s a huge problem, and it is a problem. But I do kind of want to make a case for lack of confidence. There are all kinds of non-confidences, and a side of that is feeling like other people are important, and to be entertaining many options. I feel like if you aren’t confident, you have to fight much, much harder to be heard and articulate your case because people aren’t going to want to listen to it, but I think that effort can make your argument stronger and more interesting. I also think men charge out of the gate much more confident. There’s that whole thing that women are more confident when they hit their 30s and men are very confident until they hit their 30s. I feel like men who have been very confident and successful, when they hit real barriers they don’t know what to do with it and they’re very puzzled by it. And I feel, as a woman who is not particularly confident in many situations, I have a lot of resilience in my lack of confidence and other people’s lack of confidence in me. I’ve seen it many times and I’ve continued through with it, and there are ways that can be a real strength. I think when you’re not confident, you understand the world in a much more complex way, which I think is valuable for playwriting. I think you have more resilience. I’m not saying women should embrace their non-confidence, but I think sometimes they should embrace part of it. Sometimes when you take a longer route, you have more stories when you get to the end.
It also probably goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning in terms of how we read the same traits in men and women. And sometimes we apply blanket terms when there’s a lot of grey.
There’s a lot of grey. But there are times when I’ve thought, “Oh this is probably a good time to project confidence,” but I’m aware of the amount of energy it takes to do that, and I’m like, “I could be using this energy for other things.” It’s how we prioritize how we experience life. Maybe confidence isn’t the most important activity to engage in?
Something else that’s come up a lot is that there’s less room for women and failure.
Yes, I think that’s totally true. We totally see it in Hollywood where men make horrendous movies and then they’re invited to make another horrendous movie. I mean that’s a different world. But yes.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
The hugest thing you could do to correct gender disparity in the theatre would be to establish more granting programs to fund childcare for writers and directors. I think that would be enormous.