Anne Washburn Artist Interview
This interview contains spoilers about the plot and content of Antlia Pneumatica.
Tim Sanford: Antlia Pneumatica was a commission from Playwrights Horizons. You’ve also said you wrote it on a silent retreat that Erik Ehn invited you to. Had you been on a silent retreat before?
Anne Washburn: I’ve been doing silent playwriting retreats with Erik Ehn since he started them in 2008.
I help to run them as well so I’ve been involved with, maybe 10? I’ve only fully participated in four I think. For years Madeleine George and Gary Winter and I have volunteer administered these sporadic playwriting master classes at The Flea. Erik taught an impressive class there and then came to us wanting to know if we were interested in organizing a weekend silent playwriting retreat. We thought that sounded very badass so we made the arrangements to put one together at NACL, a theater and lab space upstate. The retreat started Friday night, we were silent all day Saturday, and it ended Sunday morning. His dictum for the weekend was that we would write 40 pages. And I thought, “Well that’s insane because I don’t write 40 pages in a day.”
That seems humongous…
Right? It’s nuts. I don’t do that. I write three pages, or I write five, seven pages if I’m really, really jamming. A few times I’ve done those 24-hour 10-minute play festivals and have written 10 pages overnight but with great suffering and unhappiness. So I thought, “Well I’m not going to write forty pages but what the hell, I will try because why not I’m here. I will just make my fingers go for that period of time.” It’s also important to say that it’s not just that he sets you off and says, “Well, write 40 pages.” He also has these highly structured hour long segments of writing exercises he does with you which I think in some sort of weird technological way or techno-mental way actually do unjam something. Doing these retreats with him you write much more than you normally do. I think he’s messing with your brain, the right and left sides or something.
And that was where I wrote The Small. Or the first 40 pages of The Small.
[Which I saw in the summer of 2010, it was a Clubbed Thumb Summerworks show. I loved it and we gave you a commission after seeing that.] So you wrote 40 pages of The Small... When you came out did you finish it? Or did you tackle it again later?
I don’t know that I even read it when I had finished it. I glanced at it but when something is that hot off of your own presses you can’t even see it, really. It felt like a big blur. I was just proud that I had written 40 pages of anything in a day; I thought that was achievement enough. I figured the pages would basically be garbage but that there must be something salvageable in there. I put them aside for at least a month.
So you turned off any sort of normal sensor that writes a sentence and looks back at it and redoes it. You would just sort of go.
Absolutely, you just have to go. The other crucial part of the retreat I should mention is you don’t have an idea of what you’re going to write when you go in. You’re meant to come in with a totally blank slate — it’s terrifying. You’re given a couple of potential prompts you can use or not use; randomly selected envelopes with poems in them end up being very important; I began writing The Small by looking at Theodore Roethke’s “The Small.” And from those few prompts and whatever initial spark you muster you drag out entire play from somewhere inside of you.
How long have you been sitting on the Playwrights commission? We gave you it before Mr. Burns, I think. After The Small.
This retreat was in 2011. The commission meeting with you and Adam was right after The Small so I think, summer of 2010? And I actually had a specific idea for your commission though we didn’t talk about it at the meeting.
And that’s off-limits when you go to the silent retreat.
And that’s off-limits so I threw that idea aside but I did give myself a little prompt that it would be helpful if the play I wrote would work for Playwrights Horizons. Which actually nearly tripped me up during the process. I did have a few days of thinking “Am I writing something because I’m writing it for a specific place?” I couldn’t quite really move on it until I was able to think: “No it’s not, it’s not right for Playwrights Horizons. It’s not going to fulfill my commission and I’ll still have that on my back when I get off of this retreat.” And then I just proceeded merrily with that assumption. And came out with something. And again, I put it aside and didn’t look at it again for, actually about a year that time.
Can you tell me now, in retrospect, why you thought, “Oh this isn’t a Playwrights Horizons play?”
I think that it may have been the ant song.
(Tim Laughs.) We do musicals!
I don’t know. I think it was a thing that I was saying to myself to make myself brave. I don’t like writing for anybody’s expectations. Some playwrights need it. They need to know a play is wanted. To write a play I actually need to know that it is not wanted.
Maybe the more important question is why, when you were done, you thought it might be a Playwrights Horizons play?
Because it had a narrative that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And characters who were recognizable and speaking in, um…
English. English, throughout. That’s part of it. I mean: what is a Playwrights Horizons play? I think you do plays which have a narrative foundation though they are also tweaking the edges of that. You tend to work with writers who rather love language. Do you know? I mean Melissa Gibson, Adam Bock, Annie Baker... most everyone you do pretty much. But beginnings and middles and ends and generally a recognizable American location I think. Which this play had.
Your silent retreat was in Texas. How do you think that informed the content and form of this play?
The setting is very much the ranch we stayed in. I tweaked details; the Blue Hole is not actually as challenging as I make it out to be. But there is a Blue Hole. There is a river. With pecan trees. There is a little pecan orchard which is moving upward only very slowly. The family who donated the ranch to us for the retreat did come to see the play — they’re based in New York and are big theater lovers — and I knew they were in the theater but didn’t know where. When we came to the discussion of the pecan orchard there were fits of giggles from one particular area of the audience. It’s a beautiful spot. I grew up in Northern California so that kind of demi-arid landscape is very appealing to me and I was kind of in love with the place itself and drinking it in. And there’s something about removing all social contact with the people around you — you don’t realize how much of your time and energy goes towards social negotiation until it’s gone — you’re missing all this input you’re used to having so your brain sort of suctions in the world around you with a greater intensity than usual.
Offstage sounds and conversations are also prominently featured in the play. Do you think the silent retreat contributed to this?
I think when there is no conversation, the ear becomes more attuned to other sounds. And thirsty for them.
The storyline, as you pointed out, is accessible, with a twist. Did that just spring up naturally?
I knew there was a reunion. And a dead person.
How did you know that?
One of the prompts you can use to start you, the first night after you’ve gone into silence but before you start writing, Erik will lay out — in this case on a ping pong table on the back porch — a series of envelopes with poems inside. You pick an envelope at random. And you’re meant to go to bed that night thinking about it and see where it takes you. And in this case the poem I picked — I can remember very little about it — usually the first thing I do is I re-type the poem, I must have done that, but can’t find that [computer] file —
It’s more fun that you can’t remember anything about it. Like Adrian, the poem has slipped away.
I do remember that I didn’t love the poem, which gave me an extra freedom with it. I can’t remember if the poem actually featured a dead person or if that was something I decided to infer from it. I do remember that I knew when I started that the play would be about a dead person walking among the living. And I was curious how that would work out for everyone.
Were you thinking of him as a ghost basically?
He was a character who would seem to be alive, who would move like a live person, but who was functionally dead. Technically a ghost but, he doesn’t really function like a normal ghost.
Have you ever written a ghost story before? Do you have an interest them?
I love ghost stories. I’ve really only written one play with ghosts.
Which play is that?
A play called Apparition, which is leavened with ghost stories. And demons. But mainly ghosts.
What kinds of ghost stories did you like?
Oh, I love all those Victorian ghost stories which are very delightful. Any ghost story really, probably, as long as it’s kind of allusive. I love it as a genre. I will say though that this play doesn’t actually feel to me like a ghost story. Rules are important in ghost stories and this play doesn’t really follow those rules. Adrian is not a normal ghost. He drinks. He has a scene in daylight — although that’s offstage. To me he is not so much a ghost as he is a dead person who doesn’t quite know he’s dead.
And isn’t the point of ghost stories finally to scare you or spook you? This one feels like it has a larger purpose. It’s seems set up to head towards the star field scene, which feels prophetic in a way to me. And then he’s gone.
You may find him troubling as a figure, but you’re not meant to be out and out frightened by him.
But still one of the pleasures of the play is figuring out that he’s a ghost and putting together the clues the play leaves us. What do you think the earliest someone might put it together?
One person said he was suspicious when Adrian turned down the fried chicken and guacamole because who turns down fried chicken and guacamole?
For me, the first red flag is when Ula says, “Don’s dead.” So we question how Adrian learned that Sean was dead. We start to wonder, “Where are we that there are all these, you know...”
Free-floating dead people.
Death is there. And what I start to put together later is like maybe Don and Adrian are in the world of the dead and maybe they’re talking to Sean or something. So there are plenty of clues. But what I’m wondering is, the process of creation you were describing before is one of giving over to the subconscious. But there also seems to be such abundant craft in the way these clues build and play off each other.
The Don part was a surprise; I remember that being a surprise when I wrote it. Because I wrote it so quickly… I think a lot of what looks like craft — I mean one obviously can craft things, and needs to often — I think a lot of what looks like cunning craft is exactly when you’re least consciously crafting. The subconscious is super smart and much smarter than the conscious brain. And so to a certain extent it is a little bit about just keeping out of the way. Because whatever part of you has been thinking about this, and whatever way it’s been thinking about it, for however long it’s been thinking about it, has been doing a much deeper job than you’re going to do.
Okay, so I’ve heard a lot of playwrights talk about the moment of launching the actual writing process and what has preceded it. Now, for some people, there’s a conscious rumination of image, character, action: something.
Right? And some take notes for months and months before launching in. Other people just sort of think about it, walk around with it. You have belonged to many writers groups and been a teacher; you must have witnessed all different kinds of that play preparation.
Yeah, I mean I feel like a lot of it is like actor prep, you know what I mean? Actors have systems not because a system produces great acting, but if you have a system you can relax and just let the great acting occur. But you need a system. You need a structure to operate from. I’ve written plays in different ways. Sometimes they start with months or years of notetaking and thought around an idea and sometimes it begins much more tangentially or suddenly. Burns was something where I didn’t think about the play, but I thought about the initial premise for a long while. But I was careful not to think about the play itself. If I think too much about the play before I start to write it then I’ll be bored with it before I begin. Writing plays is hard and the only way I can motivate myself to do it all the way through is curiosity — I want to know what happens.
I guess my follow-up question regarding this play is that you went into the retreat without preconceptions, but did you then discover a play within you that was waiting to be written that you hadn’t even recognized as something you were going to want to write?
I think so. I feel like the thing about these retreats, or any situation where you start writing suddenly, is that you often write a play you didn’t know you wanted to write. I suppose it came from being in my 40s which is an interesting period since you have more than 20 years of adulthood behind you, and certainly about 20 years more, hopefully, much more, ahead of you. You have enough of time behind you that you can actually look on it. You can see the degree to which you have changed, which is in some ways very much, and the degree which you have not changed at all. You are really very much the same person with the same thoughts and feelings. And then in other ways you’re completely different. And how much of your life at this point is habit, your life, your relationships, and how much of it is fully and freshly engaged? So I assume I had been ruminating around all of this because it seems to be a preoccupation of the play.
So when you finished the retreat and you had your 70 pages or so, you put it aside for awhile. How long was it before you looked at it again and seriously said, “Okay let’s make another pass at this?”
About a year… I think I looked at it not long after and thought ‘no’ then looked at it a year later and sent it off to Ken.
Is there anything that’s in the play now that came from the second draft?
And third and fourth. Tons of it. There’s a lot which comes straight from the first draft but it was a fairly ragged first draft.
You said somewhere that you learned about Antlia Pneumatica from a constellation book you bought going into the process.
In my capacity as a retreat administrator I had purchased a constellation guide because I had been to the ranch earlier in the year to scout it out and I knew that we would have this enormous night sky and that people were going to gravitate toward it. And many of them were going to be like me and not know what they were looking at and I thought maybe they’ll start brooding about it and we don’t have internet on the retreat, so I bought the book.
So the book had, like, constellation Apocrypha?
No no, it’s a real constellation. I was leafing through the book on the plane ride over and found Antlia Pneumatica. “That’s a weird looking constellation.” And I read that, yes, this French scientist just sort of went to town on creating completely obscure and impossible to see constellations.
So like this guy just invented a whole bunch of constellations based on recent 18th century technology?
I think he just figured, you know, it’s not like every star belonged to a constellation. All of the dots were not connected. Why not go in?
Anyway so you found out about it…
I just thought it was hilarious. And I thought, I don’t know why I thought this, but I thought, “Oh that would be great in a play!” I thought someday I would find a use for it. I assumed it would be years later. I even had a moment of horrible playwright selfishness and considered not putting the book out because I thought surely everyone else would find the constellation and incorporate it into their play right away. But then I did very nobly… (Laughs.) … leave the constellation book out and think, “I’ll just take my chances.” And nobody else did.
The star scene is really the scene where the play landed for me, that I began to understand two things: how the play works. It’s such a different play from Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns has this pageant built into it. It’s about the apocalypse: big, big topic. And this play is very intimate. It has all these spooky sounds and playful offstage dialogue. And I realized, “Oh, this is a Sharp show.” And that released me. “Oh it needs to be intimate and spooky and atmospheric.” And the other point was really how that scene landed on me. You know, I’m not 40, I’m even older, so looking back at oneself is something I do constantly. And a great deal of emotion is laden into that experience for me. That’s when I realized we had to do it.
I love the Sharp, it’s one of my favorite theaters in town, but I was initially concerned about doing the play in there — I was happy about the intimacy of it and the degree to which we could really control the sound, but I was worried about capturing a feeling of spaciousness there. That’s where [Set Designer] Rachel Hauck and [Light Designer] Tyler Micoleau did such gorgeous gorgeous work.
Would you talk about the father? What is his relationship to this place? They didn’t grow up here, right?
I always assume the ranch was something the family bought when he started to make real rock star money, that they got it to get away, and that though it wasn’t part of their earliest childhood it would have been an important part of their experience, growing up.
What do you think we can infer about the relationship between the mother and the father in this play? Most of the interactions are between mother and kids and the father and kids, right?
I think there’s a clue to the relationship between the father and the mother in the epitaph he chooses for her. I also feel like a certain amount of the resentment the women have toward their mother is partly that she may have been to a degree irresponsible... but also that she may have really absorbed more of their father’s attention than they wanted to have absorbed. That’s my loose feeling about it.
Talk about the choice to include Nina’s kids as offstage voices.
Kids can be great on stage but I felt like, in this play, they would be distracting.
But also, clearly, partly, because you were drawn to offstage scenes for some reason.
I think ghosts are things you partly perceive and the offstage is a thing you only partly perceive so it seemed helpful in that way. If we don’t see something with our own eyes it feels only partly real and it seemed helpful to the play to have a lot of it not quite verifiable. And a tricky thing about live theater is you can’t wink in and out of existence. That is the huge lovely thing about film, that you can wink in and out of existence. But you can do that with listening. Anything can happen, anything can vanish, the heard world is an intriguingly unstable one.
You’ve talked about listening to a lot of radio theater as a kid, with your brother. What radio theater shows did you used to listen to?
When we were growing up there was a local AM station which broadcast a few hours of programming in the evening and we’d listen to that, whatever they programmed — I remember Lum & Abner was running for a long time, Dimension X, some Fibber McGee & Molly, lots of mystery shows. And then following the old broadcasts there was a contemporary radio program called Mystery Theater narrated by E. G. Marshall. It was actually crazily ambitious: all these hour long shows with a standing repertory of actors — Amanda Plummer was in it I remember —and stories which I remember as perambulating around actual mystery and psychological mystery and just general suspense.
I also had box sets of old broadcasts. Sherlock Holmes with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson and then an American version with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The Green Hornet, The Shadow, The George Burns Show, I particularly loved Jack Benny.
I heard you say something wonderful once about how offstage functions in theater.
Oh… I think one of the beauties of the theater is that you have an onstage, which is not the case with film or TV in which you see what you’re going to see. In the theater you see only what is on the stage and there’s always an offstage. And anything in the world can take place in the offstage, you know? Anything can be described as having had happened, and you will believe it. If someone comes from offstage and says, “I just saw a 16-headed hydra destroy Cleveland, Ohio.” You know, you believe and you see it. So it’s this area of enormous capacity. I mean, both in terms of what can be described as having happened. And also just the sense of anything can come onstage at any moment, that anticipation of who will come next into the space. Who will leave this space and what will happen to them when they leave?
Mr. Burns certainly had a lot of monstrous happenings offstage. A lot of what happens offstage here is much more ineffable.
It’s more like eavesdroping I think.
Yes, I think my kneejerk reaction to the Nina/Adrian offstage scene was I wanted to see it. But what I came to realize is that it can be more mysterious and dream-like if we only hear it.
I think in that scene they have an intimacy with each other which really comes from being with each other in the dark, speaking with each other in the dark, and I wanted the audience to share that.
The kids scenes offstage are funny and odd, and also very important thematically. They talk a lot about ants, which is a way to talk about mortality and community. But I just have to ask, is there a connection between the ants and Antlia?
Oh, I mean, probably? One is very small, and one is very large.
Then there’s the ant song. The first music in the play is courtesy of the kids, we hear dueling Beatles songs. Then later, after Nina inadvertently kills an ant, Casey sings an ant dirge. And it feels like the earlier singing opened the door to this song. And the ant song grows as we hear it. Everyone joins in. Was that always how you conceived it?
Yes, that it becomes much larger later on.
Do you feel the ant song leads us to the song at the end of the play?
Indirectly, maybe. The ant song and the epitaphs and the eulogies I think.
The lyrics are very — it’s poetical. But when I listen to it I think, “Is this a song for Adrian? Or Sean? Or both? Or for mom? Or for every dead person?” There are lyrics that especially evoke Adrian, like the last line…
“Surging toward the light and ruin.”
How did that song come together?
I mainly wrote it when Ken and I were doing a workshop of the play at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. We were doing a workshop during the day and then I was teaching a class at night and we did a lot of in-class writing and I wrote the song during that time. And then couldn’t find the notebook for ages and thought I’d lost it.
Earlier in the play when they talk about the eulogies, they say there should be music, maybe the dad’s? ... No. But then Nina says she wants to channel her mother, like what would she do. And she’s talking about for the service, right?
No, she’s talking about Casey. Casey’s having a meltdown because of the flowers.
But she describes something that feels very ritualistic.
Oh oh yes, for the service. But it’s for Casey. Casey’s idea of the ceremony is that she’ll have a basket of flowers she’ll fling, having I guess only seen weddings.
And that’s not gonna work so Casey’s gonna freak out. So instead of just chastising her, she finds a creative way of adapting. But that’s for Casey, not for...
But not for everyone else. Most of them are saying stories from their past, right?
Which is what functionally secular people do, right? Every time I go to a memorial, the memorial services I’ve mostly seen in non-religious settings have been stories of the life of the deceased. Which is often wonderful, and helpful, but maybe not as effective, ultimately, as perhaps setting fruit on fire while wearing floaty flammable things.
And talk to me about Len’s final monologue. Len was talking about the bachelors before with Casey, right?
Well I think it’s the same story. When he was talking to Casey he was really talking about that story, but with a different point of interest, which was what was the food, and how did people conduct themselves around food? And when he tells us the story this time he tells us the ghost part of it.
Right. I guess it’s a sort of a way to affirm that this is a ghost story without having to resort to the recourse of having everyone react to the revelation that Adrian’s a ghost...
I think we tell stories about events we don’t totally feel comfortable with or understand. You know? And I think they are not a hundred percent certain that this person they’ve spent the entire weekend with is a ghost. I mean how could they come to that conclusion with any haste. I think the story is them starting to circle around it.
It’s a way to affirm without, like, saying it outright.
It is a way to affirm it without saying it outright.
I’m gonna cheat and ask you a personal question. Do you believe in ghosts?
Oh... It’s actually a very long answer and I have to add the caveat that Adrian, for me, is not a realistic ghost and this play is not a realistic ghost story but, yes I do. I think it’s irrational not to.