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American theatre: Annie Baker is a master of loaded silences

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MOST playwrights are judged by their words—the swordplay of dialogue that animates their work. For Annie Baker, the drama is in her silences. Long stretches of charged silence fill her plays, lighting up the spaces between sentences. They make awkward moments ever so slightly more awkward; quiet moments more noisily quiet. Her plays, which have just earned her a MacArthur “genius” grant, acknowledge that the text of an exchange is often less important than its subtext. It takes a keen ear to hear what is left unsaid.

At 36, Ms Baker has come of age at a time when words themselves are often mistrusted, when the gap between what we say and what we feel seems to yawn, at times unbearably. In an era of irony, language is an unreliable source of meaning. Ms Baker’s humane and often unremarkable characters, most of whom live in the small, made-up town of Shirley, Vermont, do not grant audiences the gift of vicarious eloquence. They can’t be relied on to deliver a well-turned observation or a well-timed quip. Instead, they stumble and stammer their way forward, punctuating themselves with amiable space-holders like “um” or “so”. They phrase statements like questions, their sentences nervously petering out on high notes. They trip over their words.

Your correspondent remembers enjoying “Body Awareness”, Ms Baker’s first play, in 2008, but the playwright asserted her unique style with “Circle, Mirror, Transformation”, which premiered off-Broadway the following year. Set during a series of weekend drama classes at a Vermont community centre, the play follows a handful of students—aged 16 to 56—as they clumsily try to lose themselves in theatre exercises. The most moving scene involves two students, an older married man and a younger woman, as they try to express their feelings in a dialogue limited to the words “goulash” (for her) and “Ak Mak” (for him). Somehow, they bend these nonsensical syllables into an exchange that sounds plaintive, even romantic. (“…they seemed very connected,” observes a fellow student.) Ms Baker’s talent for recognising the undercurrent of emotion in even the smallest moments meant that a play that is basically a mosaic of amusing vignettes yielded five fully-realised characters, complete with their unspoken aches and inappropriate yearnings.

The stage directions for the script of “The Aliens” (pictured above), this writer’s favourite work of Ms Baker’s, state that “at least a third of this play is silent”. In a play about two charismatic 30-something, Bukowski-reading, degree-shirking misfits and the guileless teenager they briefly befriend, Ms Baker explicitly notes that a “pause” should be at least two full seconds, and a “silence” at least five. The result is a spare, subtle and fairly thrilling coming-of-age story in which viewers are able to feel, palpably, the awkward tension on stage, and are given the space to intuit the feelings roiling beneath the surface. It is rare, sadly, for a playwright to have that kind of faith in her audience.

Given Ms Baker’s penchant for pregnant pauses and flustered speech, one might think to compare her to Harold Pinter—but her characters are more earnest than Pinter’s, and more endearing. Her work instead evokes the compassionate, closely observed plays of Anton Chekhov, albeit with more hemming and hawing. (It is a connection she acknowledged by crafting her own adaptation of “Uncle Vanya”, which she staged in a moving production directed by Sam Gold, a frequent collaborator, in 2012.) For Ms Baker, as with Chekhov, the drama isn’t in plot but in character—the way we pine, the things we wish we hadn’t said, the mistakes we’ve made, the small pleasures we seek to make everything more bearable. As with Chekhov, Ms Baker foregoes loud noise for a quiet ache.

Playwriting is not a lucrative business, and teaching can be tedious, so it makes sense that many of the best craftsmen are lured to Hollywood on the promise of better pay. (Ms Baker’s own experience in these writers’ rooms apparently spawned her most recent play, “The Antipodes”, a less impressive work that premiered earlier this year.) The MacArthur grant, which translates to $625,000, can be a mixed blessing, given the unwieldy burden of being anointed a “genius”. But there is good reason to hope that this investment in Ms Baker’s future work will keep her in New York, and keep her writing for the stage. 

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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