Chapter Two

Anne Washburn2017

MG:
Have you ever written a character that was yourself? Have you ever written a character that was your mother? Have you ever written a play that you were afraid of someone close to you seeing?
 
AW:
I think in general, to greater or lesser degrees, all of my characters are myself as well as other people. Lots of them are at least somewhat my parents, friends, exes, colleagues, strangers…like that. I know that the character I identify with the least at the beginning of the rehearsal process always seems to me most like myself at the end. 
 
MG:
What's the funniest thing that has ever happened in a rehearsal? 
 
AW:
This is a great question but I can’t think of anything…there’s always something  but it’s usually so about context…what’s the funniest thing that has ever happened in a rehearsal you’ve attended?
 
MG:
Actually the first thing that comes to mind happened in performance. It was the second performance of a two-hundred person pageant adaptation of The Winter's Tale for Shakespeare in the Park, created by the indefatigable duo Lear deBessonet and Todd Almond. The two hundred people had been culled from all over the five boroughs, in association with our Public Works program, and included ensemble members ages 4 to 88 years old, a ballet company, professional actors and musicians, nonprofessionals who were doing their first play ever, and a special cameo appearance by Sesame Street. 
Needless to say, this is its own amazing type of organized chaos and extravaganza, and every night of the run, something completely unintended would happen. This night, as Sesame Street was singing their song, there was an odd commotion around the ensemble kids onstage, who were supposed to sit on a platform and watch Sesame Street's song. There was whispering and snickering and it was completely and adorably upstaging Big Bird. Next thing we know, the incredibly introverted ASM [Assistant Stage Manager] walks onstage in his black clothes and headset, walking slowly as if that would draw less attention to himself and not interrupting the number. He walks over to the kids on the platform and grabs one by the hand and starts leading this little 5-year old girl off the stage. On the side of the stage, all 1800 people in the audience can see the intruder's mother pantomiming her disbelief that her child had run up onstage to be part of the show. It was HILARIOUS. And Big Bird never skipped a beat. 
AW: 
The incredibly introverted ASM in the ninja suit edging slowly across the stage to abduct a rogue 5 year old…few things could be better…
 
MG:
What's the most productive thing that a director can do in rehearsal of one of your plays?
 
AW:
Trust the play. And question it. And trust it. 
 
MG:
What do you tell your students about aesthetics? What are the plays you always turn to and teach?
 
AW:
I teach all kinds of plays. I’ve found that if I start them off with Sarah Ruhl’s Euridyce, Melissa Gibson’s This, Annie Baker’s The Aliens and David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette I tend to gain their trust.  And I usually teach with David Savran’s two interview books In Their Own Words and The Playwrights Voice. They’re very thoughtful in-depth interviews with a robust line-up of playwrights; it’s a bit like bringing other teachers with other trains of thought into the room. Writers are always heartened to find out how different everyone’s process is and delighted to find congruencies with their own and the interviews allow us to have very far flung and grand and practical discussions about the making of art and the life of an artist.    
 
MG:
Are you able to make a living as a playwright? 
 
AW:
Generally no. My income toggles between productions, teaching, and the occasional super helpful grant. 
 
MG:
You helped ignite 13p (13 Playwrights Inc), a playwrights’ collective dedicated to producing one play by each member and then imploding once the mission was accomplished. That's how we first met - it was at some coffee shop in Brooklyn with Rob Handel and Madeleine George talking about this crazy idea for a theater company. And I was hooked. [Full disclosure: I was the Producer of 13p till its end in 2012 - for more info on what we did, please visit www.13p.org]
Should/can playwrights still take matters into their own hands and become agents for their own work? 
 
AW:
Yes, absolutely they should. I think there are many versions of 13P that are needed. Some productive versions, off the top of my head, could be: writers with a particular aesthetic uniting to both produce and discuss that aesthetic. I think there’s far too little discussion of aesthetic intention, right now, with the result that there’s more confusion and frustration than there need be. I think you could super productively bring together a few playwrights directors and designers to work together over a number of productions to really explore what it does to the work when you establish and deepen long term collaborative ties. There’s huge work to be done in thinking about audience, in creating audiences from the ground up through really selecting and cultivating audience members, seeing audiences as foundational to the theater event rather than incidental. 
 
There are some successful groups which have sprung from the 13P model but I think some potential 13Ps have foundered because 13P was actually more complex of an undertaking than it appeared and we had unusual advantages – Rob Handel had a ton of real-world fund raising and grant writing experience, and was willing to throw himself into it fully -- we had a very talented young producer who decided she would make us her “grad school”; Madeleine George was very heavily involved in making it all go. It wasn’t just a group of giddy playwrights all cheerfully doing their bit and pitching in as best they could.
 
Having said that, I think there are playwright-driven models which can stop short of full production but which can still be very useful.  I think you take something which irritates you personally, find other playwrights who it also irritates, and find a way to address it together. 
 
MG:
Are MFA programs a good or bad thing? Was it helpful to you? 
 
AW:
I rather wish that they weren’t a good thing; they can be expensive, and some programs bring in students for whom they don’t have a genuine passion, because they have a certain number of slots to fill and an amount of tuition to raise. And I can’t help but feel mistrustful of the way the very fact of their existence implies that playwriting is a rational profession. 
 
Having said that, mine was immensely helpful to me. I was lucky in the students I met there and very lucky in the faculty and visiting writers who taught while I was there. I had been temping for years and it meant the world to me to concentrate on actually writing and to be surrounded by people who were writing and whose work excited and challenged me. I moved to New York and entered the NYU program intending to learn how to write screenplays and to go to LA and write screenplays and I didn’t care if they were made – I just wanted to make a living writing, instead of temping. But I was in New York, seeing work that was so exciting to me, and I was in class reading work that was exciting to me, and being taught by heroes. So I re-converted, and stayed in New York, and wrote plays, and continued to temp for years after that. 
 
The thing I always tell people about MFA programs is: for gods sake never, never go straight from undergrad, give yourself a few years, at least, in the wild, doing anything -- ideally I think forming theater companies with friends in far flung cities which are less expensive than New York and doing as many productions as you can but really, anything else at all. It’s awful to graduate from college and to feel that everything is unknown and to have difficulty writing on your own but you just have to put up with that and work through it and establish a bit of your own identity as a writer -- with yourself if with no one else. I also tell them never to go into major debt for a writing program. Some good programs are expensive and you may as well apply to them but, unless you have a stash of cash of your own, or really do intend to go into film or TV, don’t go unless they can give you real assistance. 
 
Something MFA programs, and the real proliferation of them over the last 20 – 30 years has done I think, I think they have nurtured idiosyncratic non-institutional visions. It’s a very exciting time to be a playwright because there are so many genuinely original voices making complex and deep explorations of what it means to make theater, and to write and speak in American English. The conversation is a very rich one but the pace of thought is such that I wonder if we aren’t starting to outstrip the audiences – if increasingly work is being made which is exciting and challenging but which leaves swaths of the normal American play audience slightly behind. One answer is to dial the work back but the more interesting answer I think is to reach out to audiences more extensively and to draw them into the conversation. 
 
"The Small." Actor: Maria Dizzia, photo by: Carl Skutch
 
"The Small," by Thedore Roethke
 
"The Small." Actor: Matthew Maher, photo by: Carl Skutch
 
“We use language, hugely, the way a magician uses his hands, to obfuscate, to distract from a maneuver we hope will never be detected.” - AW
"10 out of 12." Actor: Sue Jean Kim, photo by: Gibson Frazier
 
"10 out of 12." Actors: Nina Hellman, Gibson Frazier, Sue Jean Kim. photo by: Joel Cote
 
"10 out of 12." Actor: Gibson Frazier, photo by: Sue Jean Kim
 
"10 out of 12." Actor: Thomas J Ryan, photo by: Gibson Frazier

* Maria Goyanes is the Associate Producer of The Public Theater in NYC where she is responsible for producing a full season of plays and musicals at the five-theater venue at Astor Place and at The Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park. In addition, Maria was the Executive Producer of the Obie-winning 13p (13 Playwrights, Inc) which imploded in 2012 after completing its mission to do 13 plays. 

She is honored to have been a part of the Herb Alpert Award panel this year. She hails from NYC, where she hangs out with artists, indulges her coffee addiction, and thinks about going to yoga.