Annie Baker on Circle Mirror Transformation
I write this from the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where I am beginning (or trying to begin) a new play. MacDowell is amazing – they put you in the middle of the woods and give you a cabin all to yourself with a fireplace and a big window and a square grand piano that’s been converted into a desk. They bring lunch to your door in a picnic basket. There are chickens running around (that might be my favorite part). And then there is the whole day in front of you, with nothing to do but write and nothing surrounding you but trees. And crippling self-doubt.
I spend a lot of time here lying on the floor and questioning what I have chosen to do with my life. I take fitful naps. I read Nabokov short stories (“she thought of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness”) and then I weep performatively for the chickens’ benefit. I also stare at these wooden tablets on the walls that have all the names and signatures of the people who have written or composed music in this cabin before me. They call these tablets “tombstones.” There are some pretty cool signatures from people I admire, like Suzan-Lori Parks and John Jesurun. A bunch of my heroes – Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin – wrote in some of the other studios too. But there are 17 tombstones on my wall, going all the way back to 1930, and 25 faded signatures per tombstone, which means… oh god, I’m terrible at math and I don’t have a pen and the chickens refuse to tell me what 17 times 25 is. Anyway, there are hundreds of people up there, and I’ve heard of eight of them. There are probably a few people that I should know about – some cool composer from the 1940s still talked about in composer circles – but I can guess that most of these artists didn’t end up being “known” in the way that they’d hoped when they first set foot in this cabin.
And so I picture my own name fading as the seasons pass, until 50 years from now some other emerging female playwright sees my signature and her young heart stirs with pity because SHE HAS NO IDEA WHO I AM.
Which brings me, kind of, to Circle Mirror Transformation. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and I was raised by a single mother who worked full-time. My mother was very supportive of my writing, but I never got the sense that becoming a writer, let alone a well-known writer, was an achievable goal. After all, I’d never met any of these strange, mythical creatures called professional writers. They probably had tusks or winged feet. Or rich parents. But I pursued writing and theater anyway, for no reason other than it was the only thing that made me happy. And the only way to pursue it was through local classes taught by local people with dubious qualifications, with a motley crew of fellow students ranging from janitors to housewives to retirees. We improvised scenes in the back of the library. We tangoed in the basement of the community center. We read our “free writes” out loud in our teacher’s living room. And when I look back on all this, years later, my instinct is often to laugh at my former self and my fellow students and the earnestness with which we approached our artistic endeavors.
It’s the same instinct that makes me waste time at MacDowell worrying that I won’t be as “known” as I want to be. It’s the hungry, recognition-seeking side of myself and, when I write from it, I write badly. So two years ago, as a kind of personal test, I forced myself to write a portrait – not a satire – of a Creative Drama class in a small New England town and I made myself set the entire thing within the confines of a windowless dance studio. I wanted to explore how theater can actually happen to a group of people, not just through improvisation and movement exercises (which are, admittedly, pretty hilarious, whether they happen at Juilliard or in a basement in Vermont), but through the sound of sneakers skidding on the floor, the awkward silences during a bathroom break, the pain of an inappropriate crush. Some of the weird stuff I witnessed in those classes was a lot more theatrical – intentionally or not – than the plays I’ve seen (and written) in New York. And so I’m happy, and honored, to show that strange little world to an audience, and to celebrate all the people who make art together and don’t stop to worry about whether or not their names will be remembered.
– Annie Baker, July 2009
Originally written for the Playwrights Horizons’ subscriber bulletin before the world premiere production in September 2009.