The Shock of Silence

Why playwright Annie Baker embraces naturalism

In the world of live theater, it is possible for anything and everything imaginable to happen right before your eyes. People can fly, or animals can stand up and start a conversation; events delightful and horrifying dance across the stage and into the collective imagination of the audience. Telling an impossible story comes naturally in the theater. Showing reality on stage is infinitely harder.

True reality is tricky. In a play, the circumstances and language of the characters are all carefully crafted and the events that happen are planned and rehearsed. That’s about as far from the unpredictable and messy lives people actually lead as you can get. Some stories are better served by wild theatrics and some are better told the more recognizable and “real” they attempt to be.

Realism became a movement in theater in the late 19th century. Its goal was to break the traditions of theatrical archetypes and rigid and formulaic constructs of plot and create a world where the characters’ behavior was more organic. Naturalism came along shortly after and attempted to take that concept one step further, using prose rather than poetic language, embracing a secular world view with no interference from the divine and focusing only on contemporary ideas and stories about ordinary people.

Most of the stories experienced today in film and television, and even theater, show a version of reality, but don’t truly mirror the way people talk and behave in everyday life. These stories would have us believe that people are armed with an arsenal of witty comebacks and are preternaturally articulate in awkward situations. It is a fantasized version of what reality is. And playwright Annie Baker rejected it.

“I did reach a point in 2007 when I was completely fed up with what we call ‘naturalism,’ and I thought that maybe there was no point in even trying to write that way anymore,” she told American Theatre magazine in August 2010. “The way people really talk is so strange. If you transcribe a conversation, it sounds nothing like the so-called naturalistic plays they put up at most big nonprofits.”

“I decided that I was going to try to write the kind of naturalistic play I wanted to see,” she continued. “A naturalistic play that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become de-familiarized and incredibly strange. Like standing really close to an Impressionist painting and just staring at the blobs of paint. In real life, we’re silent and bored and inarticulate a lot of the time, and yet, in most so-called naturalistic theater, it always feels to me like the writer and director are trying to pretend that life is high-paced and exciting and that everyone likes to talk about feelings and ideas in an intelligent way that relates back to a central theme. I’m way more interested in staring at the paint blobs. The blobs of silence.”

To a certain degree, a writer attempting to recreate the stilted, silence-filled dialogue that we regularly experience is fighting an uphill battle; the very nature of writing the words down strips away some of the spontaneity and struggle of speaking.

“The way humans speak is so heartbreaking to me – we never sound the way we want to sound. We’re always stopping ourselves mid-sentence because we’re so terrified of saying the wrong thing,” she said in an interview with the New York company Playwrights Horizons before the premiere production of Circle Mirror Transformation in September 2009. She went on to describe one technique for finding the hypernatural style that she has become known for: “I record myself speaking the very early drafts and scenes of a new play, before anyone else has read it. I do this because it’s so important to me that I capture the cadences of painful, ordinary speech and it’s hard to tell if it’s believable on the page. So even though I’m a pretty bad actor, I record myself reading all the parts and sitting through all the pauses, and then listen to it a bunch of times.”

The pauses are one of the defining trademarks of naturalism and of Annie Baker’s work in particular. Silence allows the characters to think before they act; everything becomes much more deliberate. It also gives an audience the time and space to take in the story and participate in the moment the characters are living through.

“Crazy stuff happens during silences at the theater,” Baker told interviewer Charles Haugland in 2009. “The audience suddenly becomes aware of itself and a little weirded out and uncomfortable, and maybe someone coughs and whispers, but if the silence goes on long enough eventually people adjust to it and get kind of comfortable and zen and find their own way back into the reality of the play.”

She elaborated on this idea of slowing things down even further in the Playwrights Horizons interview, “There’s this obsession with ‘pace,’ and I think it’s because we’re terrified of boring audiences that are used to looking at the internet while watching TV while talking on their iPhone. Also, when it feels like nothing is taboo anymore – we can have sex and violence onstage and no one blinks an eye – I think the one thing left that really makes people uncomfortable is empty space and quiet.”

And that may be the most shocking thing about her work, that she allows silence in her plays, the same way we experience moments of silence in everyday life. Those moments are at once natural and theatrical when an audience allows them to happen and lets the story naturally fill the space.