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Interview

Tim Sanford and Anne Washburn on Mr. Burns

Tim Sanford: So you grew up in Berkeley, right?  What did your parents do?

Anne Washburn: My dad’s a painter and my mother worked for a non-profit housing agency.

What was your first exposure to theater? 

My first memories of theater were in kindergarten, watching the older grades—second and third graders—do actual plays and thinking that that was extraordinarily impressive. First of all they were very sophisticated people, these second and third graders.  But also the event of the thing was super fun. So, I was one of those kids who loved it pretty instantly.

Did you participate in theater in high school? 

Absolutely.  The man who ran the theater program, Mr. Tucheck, had come from Germany after World War II and had been at this high school for years and years and refused to ever do a play a second time once he had directed it. So over the course of these years and years and years they had gone through most every play you can do with a bunch of kids, so we were down to odd Dorothy Parker plays and third rate Noel Coward and I adored all of it, I always thought it was really fun to do. Mr. Tucheck brought what I thought of as a lovely old world atmosphere of jadedness and weary expertise to the whole enterprise.

Did your high school do musicals?

No, they didn’t really. My last year they did do Guys and Dolls, but for some reason I wasn’t really interested in that.

Musicals are great for high schools to do because the music allows you to forgive the age issues of casting.

Oh aha, that’s interesting.  I think when it came to musicals… I wasn’t crazy about music where you could hear the words for any prolonged period.  In most pop, rock, you can’t really tell what they’re saying, you get surges of information...

When I was a teenager it was almost like a religious ritual to open up the album cover and read the lyrics as you play it for the first time. 

You had to read the lyrics to understand it.

Usually.

In a musical the whole point is that the very first time you hear the song you understand everything they are saying.  Whereas with a rock song you’re caught by the music and hear enough of the lyrics to be drawn in, and by the time you get to the core of it and understand all the words you’ve spent so much time with it that it’s very deep inside you.  The process of deciphering it creates an intimacy with it.  

Were you a writer in high school?

I always thought of myself as a writer.  I wrote poetry, really.  Although I was never quite satisfied with it.  I tried writing short stories and that didn’t seem to do it.  I didn’t think of theater as a literary form so much.  I didn’t really know anything written after the 50s and really wasn’t aware of new plays and new playwriting.

When did you start thinking of yourself as a playwright?

When I went to Reed. I actually wasn’t going to do theater again, because I loved doing it but didn’t think I was so spectacular an actress, and it just didn’t seem like a serious thing to do.  But one of the seniors, Bret Fetzer, had written a play  for his thesis, this crazy weird version of the Oresteia called The Three Policemen and I auditioned for it thinking, “I’ll just do one more play before I give it up.”

And it turned you?

It totally turned me.   And I wrote a little parody of his play for a late night theater thing which went over very well.  And just writing that little tiny piece clicked in my brain that I could write plays. When I was a kid we had limited TV, which we usually used up on “Gilligan’s Island”or “Star Trek” re-runs before dinner.  But we could listen to the radio.  And a local radio station broadcast old radio programs, from 8 to 10 and my brother and I would listen to them while we drew or worked on whatever strange projects kids work on.  There was a lot of “Lum & Abner,” “Inner Sanctum,” some “Burns and Allen,” anything, really.  I think of theater as ultimately an aural form, rather than a visual one, and I think that time taught me to hear stories in that way, so when I tried to write a play text I immediately felt that this was the form my brain was geared for. So I became a theater major and wrote my own plays as part of the major and did one as my thesis. 

And what was that play?

It was called Bloode with an ‘e,’ and it was based on the theory that the gothic and the revenge tragedy have a lot of similarities, especially in the way that the heroine moves through them, so I smooshed them together into this elaborate narrative.  It was very long. I was supposed to do a reading, on those black cubes, but I thought there were far too many stabbings and hauntings and crazy gothic revenge tragedy shenanigans that were crucial for understanding the piece and would be too much of a strain to just hear described, so I ended up basically staging it – I had the actors memorize long speeches, there was fake blood, very cheap plastic knives with retractable blades, the whole thing.  The department was startled when they saw it.  You couldn’t just do a creative thesis; you also had to do an analytical thesis.  After the play was done, the semester was almost over and I quickly wrote this very short barely acceptable thesis and in doing so ended up discovering the dramaturgical problem at the core of the play—which had dogged me when I was writing it without knowing why—which is that the gothic heroine and the revenge tragedy heroine actually have quite an important difference.  The gothic heroine lives, because when she comes to a moment of seeing something horrifying that would destroy her innocence, she passes out and comes to later on. And because she escapes knowledge, she lives. And the revenge tragedy heroine sees the thing and is permanently besmirched by it, and so must die.  So then I understood why it had been so hard to end the play.  It was funny. 

That’s probably the last time you did a dramaturgical analysis of your own work.

Definitely. 

So what did you do after college?

I went to Seattle.  I was temping and was with friends who had a kind of theater company, but I was having a really hard time writing. There were a number of years where I just stalled out.  Maybe one and a half, two, it felt like forever.  It’s funny now to talk with students I taught last year, who have been graduated for a year, and who are only beginning to recover.  You don’t even know how intrinsic that structure is to you (school) until it’s removed.  So, I applied to grad school, didn’t get in, thank God, was temping a ton and really frustrated.  It seemed crazy to keep writing plays, or to keep wanting to write plays, since I wasn’t really writing at the time.  It really seemed like a stupid thing to do. On the other hand I couldn’t help but notice that I was unwilling to commit myself to getting a real job.  I wasn’t willing to divert from that path. 

So let’s cut to the happy ending. When did you embrace writing again?

I wrote a half-hour radio play while I was temping.  About a temp.  And I got together with a friend from college who was trying to be a director who was also dissatisfied with her life in the theater.   And we formulated this weird scheme that we would go back to Portland where it was cheaper and we would produce radio plays and sell them to the BBC.  So I wrote a second radio play and we moved to Portland and somehow hooked up with a zine shop in north east Portland called the Rexall Rose, it used to be a Rexall drug store.  They had a little back room with a stage as big as this couch which could seat 20, 40 if you really packed it.  It was run by a cool lesbian couple and they would let us produce there for half the price of the box.  I did this for a few years:  the radio plays and other people’s plays.  I directed Amy Freed’s Claustrophilia, which I had seen in San Francisco and loved, and which she was nice enough to let us do for cheap; she said:  “just don’t tell my agent.”  It was very popular.  And then of course, at the moment where I actually thought it might be great to stay in Portland and have this theater company—because it was kind of a fun scene and at this point I had a lot of ideas for things I wanted to do—I got into grad school at NYU. The theory of going to NYU was that you learned screenwriting as well as playwriting.  I didn’t think you could do a life in the theater.  So my theory was that I would go there, learn how to write screen plays—because at this point the idea of writing for TV hadn’t caught on as much—I would go to Hollywood, do screenplays, and not have to temp for a living. I just wanted to be able to write. And not temp.  And screen plays sounded elegant. And I got to NYU and it was kind of crazy.  I was a graduate assistant so I stayed for three years instead of two and I had this insane slew of great teachers.  I had Tony Kushner I had David Greenspan, I had Mac Wellman, Irene Fornes,  Migdalia Cruz, Martin Epstein, Len Jenkin, Lynn Alverez, Elana Greenfield.  And then I had these great classmates: Madeleine George was there, Rinne Groff, a really good batch of talented people… and it was all very stimulating and I was writing plays I was excited by and reading plays I was excited by and was out poking around New York and seeing work I was so excited by so at the end of it I skipped out of going to LA and stayed in New York and temped for years more.  

What were your first plays out of NYU that you would stand by?

I think the first play I’m copping to is The Communist Dracula Pageant.  I wrote it my final year at NYU, when I was in the grad program there.  Steve Cosson directed it for the Soho Rep Summer Camp in 2001, just as the Civilians was forming, so that was how I became involved with that whole group of people.  

Before it went up I had begun working with Anne Kauffman on The Ladies, which eventually became a Civilians project—I met both Anne and Steve through the Soho Rep writer/director lab which had just started up.  

My first play up in a multi-week public run was Apparition in 2003 which Linsay Firman directed at a Chashama space—a former strip club with a fur covered bathroom on 42nd St—where the Condé Nast building is now.  I handled the lobby decor.  It was great fun.  

Can I make an observation? We talked earlier about parody and source material and how you are drawn by love or hate to investigate something.  And you’re clearly often drawn to fairly dark terrain as your Gothic Revenge thesis play indicated.  The Communist Dracula Pageant is about the Ceausescus and The Ladies is about four lady dictators, like Eva Peron and Madame Mao.  Apparition is a ghost story.  And certainly Mr. Burns has a very dark premise.  Your work likes to dance on that edge doesn’t it?

The Ladies came about from an idea suggested by Anne Kauffman, but, yes.  

 So what happened after Apparition?

A few months after that, in 2004, The Ladies went up down the block, at another Chashama space, a former shoe store, now also underneath the Condé  Nast building.  And just a month or two after that The Internationalist was the first 13P production.  

I forgot it was the first one.  How did you hook up with 13P?

13P came about from a conversation Rob Handel and Madeleine George had on the lawn while they were at the O’Neill in the summer of 2003.  I knew Madeleine from grad school and when they came back to the city and began starting it up I was drawn into the mix.   

Then The Internationalist was done again at The Vineyard.  Again directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.  That actually brings up an unusual aspect of your bio that several of your plays have had a couple of incarnations, even in a relatively early stage of your career.

They have.  It’s been valuable to see the same play, or more or less the same play, in a different circumstance, often with different collaborators.  Apparition went up again at The Connolly, directed by Les Waters, in 2005.  And Anne Kauffman and I worked on The Communist Dracula Pageant at ART in 2008. 

I think that also points out that you have a rather steady team of regular collaborators, don’t you?

I’ve been really really lucky to find people I really love to work with.   

Did I leave anything out?

There’s I Have Loved Strangers—about the Book of Jeremiah, and The Weather Underground—which was written for a new play project at Williamstown in the summer of 2005; Clubbed Thumb produced it in their Summerworks the next year directed by Johanna McKeon.  In 2010 Aaron Posner directed a very close adaptation of Euripides’ Orestes, which went up at the Folger in DC, and Two River Theater Company in NJ.  That summer I worked with Les Waters on The Small for Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks. 

That’s when we gave you a commission, isn’t it?  I loved that play.

That’s one of my favorite productions ever.  This crazy dream team of actors, director, designers.  And one of the very last shows up at the Ohio.  

And didn’t you say Orestes was an influence on Mr. Burns?  I think you’re the only person besides my grad school classics professor who also loves that play.  It’s my favorite Euripides.

I think Orestes and Stephen King’s The Stand in equal measure influenced me.   Orestes is mayhem.  It’s one of the last tragedies before the form apparently turned into something else we don’t have examples of.  It’s this mad and almost corrupt mash-up of the tragic and the comic and the ironic and the thriller-y, and has a more sophisticated command of tonal shift and just pure bravura entertainment than any contemporary play or performance text I know.  

The Stand is a vast book I really adore.  I first read it when I was 16 and have re-read it a number of times since; the first half—where civilization falls apart and the few people to remain struggle to negotiate this new landscape—is especially fun and the first act, especially, is very influenced by it.  

Going back to I Have Loved Strangers for a moment, I love that you built a play around an Old Testament prophet.  I think I read somewhere that you said growing up in Berkeley, there were a fair share of street prophets on corners that had an impact on you.

This was in the 70s.  It felt like every single person in Berkeley was bristling with burning conviction, including the mad and the homeless.  Governor Reagan had closed down the mental institutions and the streets were full of Vietnam vets who couldn’t readjust, schizophrenics, ex-professors who had burnt out on acid and now shambled around muttering.  My folks live close to downtown and so that was an almost daily part of my childhood.  Some of these people had a lot to say and I always wondered if they might not be right.   At any rate, I thought the fact that they were unappealing messengers didn’t necessarily mean they were wrong.  

I think there’s a certain political undercurrent in a lot of your work.  It’s not obvious, it sometimes feels a bit surreal as it does in The Internationalist.  To what degree does Mr. Burns work as a cautionary tale?

I think the initial impulse for Mr. Burns came from thinking about the apocalypse, what would life be after the apocalypse, and part of that was wondering about the ways in which infrastructure choices would end up rebounding on us in a really nasty way. 

See, you’re lucky because the apocalypse I grew up with was a nuclear wasteland of bombs extinguishing life.

In the 80s there was a second wave of cold war nuclear hysteria.  Reagan and Thatcher.  Do you remember that Gone with the Wind poster with Reagan and Thatcher? 

No I don’t.

Oh you should google it.  It’s wonderful. It’s modeled on the Gone with the Wind poster of the Scarlett O’Hara/Rhett Butler embrace but it’s Thatcher and Reagan, with a big nuclear cloud in the background. And I had that. I was an anti-nuclear kid.  I had the “no nukes no cows” buttons. There were two buttons:  one a cow with a little thought bubble: “no nukes!”  And the other was a nuclear reactor with a little thought bubble: “no cows!”

(Laughs) I never saw that.

They were great.  I wish I still had them.  The cool kids invited me to come protest the local nuclear reactor, Diablo Canyon, which was notoriously built on a fault line.  We were going to link hands in front of the plant, and maybe get arrested which was both a thrilling and a very worrisome idea. I was 12. My parents, who were kind of square, forbade me to do it.  I had one of those moments where I realized that I could act on my convictions, sneak out of the house, get arrested, and then deal with the consequences, or, I could stay at home and sulk and be secretly sort of relieved, and I chose the latter which is a writerly sort of choice I think.

But Burns is not obviously a cautionary tale.  We even had someone ask you in a talkback where you stood on the issue.  And I think it’s because you so successfully create a certain amount of mystery about what exactly has happened.  They talk fairly specifically about the grid going down and how that impacts the reactors in the first act.  But your focus is much more on setting up the story about our need for our culture and our narratives.  And in the second act, they seem even more intent on their rehearsal.  How conscious were you of adding in details about the world outside?

Mostly I just let them seep in.  The first draft was more elliptical than this draft but not wildly so.  There were a few moments where I did need to go back in and prod the characters into discussing something it might not have occurred to them to bring up.  

I think part of what impresses me about it is the way it dances on the dark edge of the terrain of the piece.  We talked about this before with regards to your earlier work.  But we also see this tension here in the argument between Susannah and Quincy when Susannah wants to inject some realism and “meaning” into the show and Quincy says—

“Meaning is everywhere we get meaning for free whether we like it or not, meaningless entertainment on the other hand is really hard.”  

And your work certainly has a healthy fun streak running through it.  I read once in a conversation you had with Ken Urban and a couple of other playwrights in PAJ that you said one of the things that separates American writing from some of the Europeans is the “giddy American love of pleasure.”  And to some degree, one can especially see that difference in the American avant-garde.  I hope it’s ok to lump you in that category.  You’ve had a lot of work done in the downtown scene.  And you’re at the forefront of a lot of formal experimentation.

I would love to be lumped in that category because that’s where a lot of my best and most formative theater experiences have been.  But I think a real Downtown playwright is someone who really, of necessity, directs the work, because all aspects of it are newly thought.  Young Jean Lee, Sibyl Kempson, Julia Jarcho, Rich Maxwell.  I identify a lot with experimental work but I also have a total fondness for meticulous realism and I think my own plays fall somewhere between those camps.  

Sometimes I do have a formal idea in mind that I want to pursue, but formal experimentation is not the goal, it’s generally just a starting point, or something which happens along the way.  I do think when you tinker with form you startle people a little in a way that opens them up to the experience a bit more.  You can talk about different parts of the brain or different parts of the heart with different formal aspects. In the old days when people were really serious about poetry and every poet knew the 30 forms they would use and this form was appropriate for this emotion and this form was appropriate for that and if you crossed over there was horror but maybe also excitement because maybe there is something more in common with those emotional states than you had thought.  And by formally engaging with that it made you think differently. I feel like we are always trying to categorize our experience to make it bearable. And also to enrich our understanding of it, the more we name things the more we can open them, but at the same time we are always trying to disorganize those forms so that we don’t get too stratified and limited in the way that we experience things. I feel like that’s the constant tension. And so formal experimentation is a way of ideally jostling.  Although it’s also not just tearing things apart it’s organizing them anew.

You’ve talked about how The Simpsons was a fortunate choice for the play because the characters are such strong archetypes and that it’s a show that deals with its entire community, not to mention that it’s the longest running primetime show on TV and so many people know it and enjoy remembering it.  But it also seems that the choice of the “Cape Feare” episode, which you and the cast almost landed on by chance down in the bank vault when you first enlisted the Civilians to help launch the project, was also a felicitous choice.  Would you talk about some of the particulars of that episode that really work for the purposes of your play?

It’s chilling to think that that was chance because now it seems essential.  Both the Cape Fears are deeply scary movies about a relentless predator who isn’t constrained by civilized behavior.  The “Cape Feare” episode is a very funny one, and Sideshow Bob is a cranky clown, but the underlying tension remains: someone wants to kill you, for reasons of his own, and nothing can stop him, society can’t protect you; no one will rescue you, even though you’re just a child. It’s a primal fear, and one which would be pretty consuming, I think, after an apocalypse; too consuming to take on directly; the episode doesn’t just divert you from your fears, it actually takes them on in a way which is so circumspect as to be manageable.  

And then, even before we had the “Cape Feare” episode I knew I wanted the third act to be a big musical event; the fact that “Cape Feare” ends with Sideshow Bob performing all of HMS Pinafore (with Bart, his captive, joining in, bizarrely) seems oddly perfect.  

When it came time to adapt the transcripts into a play, to what degree did you have the actors in your head as you wrote it?

I wrote it with their voices in my head the whole time; I also wrote it by dodging around their actual personalities.  Because Matt’s actual words dominate a lot of the first act the character of Matt has a lot in common with Matt, in terms of cadence, but is actually, though more subtly, a rather different person.  Real Gibson is a very even-keeled fellow, rather than a persnickety fussbudget.  The character of Quincy, in the second act, is a prickly person because Real Quincy is only a delight.  I also wanted to set them up so that their third act characters would play against their earlier personas—Sam is solid, reassuring, protective and then in the third act he’s a homicidal maniac.  

The books of lists of people’s names they all carry with them in the first act is an interesting touch.  Would you talk a little about that?

I don’t think I thought about this directly when I was writing that scene but I was in New York on 9/11, and was fascinated by the group-mind which followed the event.  After the first three days, during which no one thought about anything else, or spoke of anything else, there was an etiquette which evolved, spontaneously, and which everyone followed, perfectly, about how much we all spoke of the event, how much we talked about our own lives; the proportions were constantly evolving but as I remember it, it was a few weeks before people started to deviate from it.  People were desperate to seize on an order, and a way of doing things.  I think I was also thinking of the fliers which went up, with the names and photos of the missing—for the first day or so they seemed like a practical idea, and they proliferated like mad.  After the first day they continued to go up, but they felt like an increasingly desperate gesture, and like memorials, rather than a real way to find someone.

In the second act, we see they’ve formed a theater troupe that tries to recreate Simpsons episodes.  But interestingly, you give as much stage time to faux commercials they concoct as part of their show as you do to Simpsons scenes.

I think commercials are interesting anyway; we sort of hate them, because they interrupt the narrative we’re trying to follow, but at the same time they make us yearn for it even more.  And a clump of commercials will be incredibly varied in tone and entertainment value and the part of our lives they’re trying to reach.  It seemed like a natural model to reach for both if you’re trying to replicate a viewing experience everyone remembers, and if you’re trying to make sure you capture the attention of a varied audience—it’s a natural structure for a kind of grab ‘em vaudeville ethos.  I thought of the first commercial as Old Reality Porn, basically, and the second was modeled on the greatest hits collections they sell late at night.

I also thought that in the second act, people would really require, for the Simpsons episode, as much exactitude as possible.  That the idea of being able to bring the old culture back to life would be incredibly comforting and of much greater value for the audiences, than any kind of original story.  But that the commercials, because the expectations for them are more free form, might end up being a place where, covertly, inadvertently, people start to talk about the fears and hopes of their current life.

How did you pick which songs would be referenced in “Chart Hits?”

I asked the actors to send me songs they felt had been part of the general soundtrack from the last ten years.  Later Michael [Friedman] and I interpolated a few others we felt would help round out the emotional through line of it. 

One of the most upsetting moments in the play is the end of the second act when our troupe is ambushed and several characters are killed.   Do you have thoughts on how this event works in the larger context?

I’m sorry, I don’t.   It wasn’t so much a choice.  That’s just the way it was written.  

I did always know the third act would be this big extravagant thing.

But you knew it would be 75 years after that?

Yeah, pretty much. I wanted it to be at a point when almost everyone who had any sensible memory of the before-time of civilization as we know it would have died, but when everyone alive would have known someone quite closely who had been through that time and would have told them the stories.  Even the youngest kids would probably have had grandparents who would not have died until recently, who would have been 10 when it happened and could tell realistic stories of that time.  So no one who had experienced it directly was still alive. But the sense of direct transmission of stories is really vivid. 

And the memories about The Simpsons would become even more remote.  By the time of the third act, they’ve been reduced to their archetypes or something.  It’s all become like the grist for a Greek tragedy or something.

Or something, yeah.

How did you and Michael Friedman approach the creation of this act?

I wrote it.  And then he wrote music for it.  And we did a bunch of workshops of it; acts 1 and 2 are more or less as originally written but it took forever to get act 3 into shape because I’ve never written a musical, or music drama, or whatever it is before and it’s a much more complex process, to work out how the words need to tell the story in relationship to the music and the movement.  We put songs in, took them out, did a lot of cutting, adding, rearranging. Steve would weigh in.  Michael and I would have brief fierce arguments about sticking points after which one or the other of us would come up with a good solution.

One of the things I love is that we see the specters of our story-tellers in the story almost as much as the Simpsons themselves.  Like “feets don’t fail me now” or the songs they chose for “Chart Hits.”  Like that Yeats poem: “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”  Maybe that’s one of the reasons for gun battle to close the second act.  In a way to know the story ended there for some of them makes the fact that we see and hear echoes of them 75 years later more impactful.

It’s probably only now that they’re able to make their own stories, much in the way that it took people a long time to talk about the Holocaust. You know, the people who really went through all that wouldn’t try to make art out of what they had seen or experienced.  In fact they probably couldn’t; it’s too horrifying, it’s too comprehensive, everyone is still too touched by it to speak about it directly.  It would probably be their kids who would first take some of these old stories, these cartoon tellings which might have fallen out of use, and pick them up again to start talking about that time.  Maybe 100 years after that they’ll start to do realistic plays in which they imagine people who speak as you and I do and not in verse and not through song, describing people coping with the events immediately after the apocalypse.  I’m not sure which way of telling the story I’d prefer.