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Annie Baker

Annie Baker: ‘I’m stunned I have a career’

Cult playwright Annie Baker is back at the National Theatre with her creepy, ambitious epic ‘John’

By Andrzej Lukowski
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US playwright Annie Baker has won a loyal following with her wry, glacially paced dramas about smalltown America. Her ode to independent cinemas ‘The Flick’ sold out at the National Theatre almost straight away back in 2016. Her latest, ‘John’, about a disintegrating Brooklyn couple who stay at a creepy Gettysburg B&B, opens at the NT Dorfman next week.

‘John’ is a pretty unusual mix of concepts. What was the idea behind it?

‘I just went back and looked at the 66 pages of notes I have for the play. They start with an interest in the tourism industry in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the eerie world of American bed and breakfasts. Then those transition into notes on William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: first-hand accounts of madness in the nineteenth century, and then a lot of people writing about the power that dolls and inanimate objects hold over us. I’d say all of that relates to the theme of religious dread and responsibility, and how people in secular culture become obsessed with the supernatural as a way of stimulating an old-school kind of religious dread. I also wanted to upend the genre of the relationship drama. So I wanted to write a play about a young couple breaking up that also related to ideas about selfhood and autonomy and American history and God.’

Does the risk of any of that being lost in translation worry you?

‘The play takes place in Gettysburg and there’s a lot of Civil War history in it, which I do think will land differently than it did in the States. What I’m hoping, though, is that the more hyper-specific and up-to-its-own-thing the work is, the more likely it is that the right people will respond to it. Generality is the thing I fear most.’

Your plays are deliberately slow and packed with pauses and silences – what are you trying to say with them?  

‘I’m really not trying to say anything with them, I swear! I’m just following my instincts entirely when it comes to pace.’

You only really work with a couple of directors – are you very protective of your work?

‘I feel like only a handful of directors understand my work. A lot of it has to do with having a certain sense of humour, and a love of composition and meticulous design choices. I also find that most directors push actors to perform in ways that I find showy and unfunny. James Macdonald [director of ‘John’] does the opposite: he helps people scale way back and find the nuance, which is also where I think the humour lies. He and I laugh at the same moments.’

Is it okay to describe you as a cult playwright? You have a huge following but have never exactly gone ‘mainstream’ in terms of casting or venues. Is that a reasonable way of summing up your career?

‘I’m still stunned I have a career at all. I hope this doesn’t sound haughty, but when it comes to theatre I will never sacrifice the integrity of the work. I will never cast a movie star to sell tickets, I will never cut something down to please a commercial audience and I will never work with a director in London or New York who I don’t know and love. There are lots of other principles that I violate on a daily basis, but for some reason theatre is sacred to me.’

‘John’ is at the National Theatre, Dorman. Until Mar 3.

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