Big Break: Annie Baker's Body Awarenessby Alexis Clements
“New writers become better writers and more producible writers if you produce them.” So says Christian Parker, the Associate Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theater Company (ATC) and one of the primary forces behind its Atlantic Stage 2 program. Stage 2’s mission is to develop new plays, but unlike so many programs that claim to have a similar focus, they seem to be putting their money and their stage where their mouth is, particularly with their newest production—Annie Baker’s Body Awareness.
Annie Baker is every bit the emerging writer. Body Awareness is her first professional full-length production and it was the first full-length piece she wrote after leaving NYU’s undergraduate program in Dramatic Writing. She is currently a member of the Ensemble Studio Theater’s Youngblood Playwrights Group, which has served a revolving cast of career-minded under-30 writers for 14 years. She only recently got an agent and is still in the process of gaining a foothold in the New York theater world, though this production will surely give her an enormous leg up.
Body Awareness received its first reading through the Youngblood group in an informal bar-room setting, and a second reading with the Atlantic in the spring of last year. Baker credits the Youngblood group with giving her the confidence, experience and access to actors and directors that are essential to hacking it in this city. “It’s so important for writers to find writing groups,” Baker noted in a phone conversation. She also noted the importance of open applications for such groups, allowing unknown writers to find a way in (groups like the Youngbloods, the Public’s Emerging Writers Group, Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship program). Also important is the lack of a fee for participation, a distinct and important difference from tuition-based workshops or MFA programs, which don’t serve those who cannot afford to pay for access to their peers.
An emphasis on spoken language is one of the many aspects of Body Awareness that resonates with the work of one of the ATC’s famous founders, David Mamet. Set in a small town in Vermont and featuring a tight cast of only 4 players, the story follows a middle-aged lesbian couple through a rough patch as they try to counsel their 21-year old son, Jared, who they believe has long suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome and who is also grappling with serious self-image problems. At the same time, Phyllis, the younger woman in the couple who is a professor at the local college, is leading the school’s ‘Body Awareness’ week program, exposing her uncertain but very vocal stance on the objectification of women. Throw into that mix a visiting male artist whose work focuses on nude photographs of females of all ages, and you’ve got all the conflict you need for a full-length play, with more than a few hints of an Oleanna-esque debate on sexual politics.
When I asked both Parker and Baker about these similarities, both noted that they’re unconscious. Nevertheless, the work seems to fit well into ATC’s history as well as its acting tradition. Its acting school fosters a focus on text. Criticized by some as diminishing the role of the actor, the ATC method, dubbed the Practical Aesthetics Technique, emphasizes the primacy of language over action and gesture with a strong focus on the intentions of the playwright. Parker refuted criticism of the program, saying “It’s about allowing the words of the play to do the work for you rather than feeling that you have to color the language of the play as an actor and illustrate it for an audience.” Parker went on to note, “It’s not surprising that [this technique] would be an acting style that would come from a writer.”
Baker is not the only new talent appearing in Body Awareness. The actor Jonathan Clem, who is making his Off-Broadway debut in the piece, is fresh out of the ATC’s Acting School and will be playing the role of the troubled son, Jared. The director of the piece, Karen Kohlhass is a founding member of the company and has directed many ATC shows, including a couple by Mamet.
Though ATC has long been involved in developing new work, the Stage 2 program didn’t officially begin until 2006, when they opened their new space on 16th Street. Prior to 2006, ATC had a variety of development programs in place, primarily providing readings of plays, but the theater didn’t feel they were meeting the needs of either writers or the company. “We couldn’t serve many writers well, so we decided to serve fewer better,” Parker said. They shifted their focus to giving more rehearsal time and longer runs to the plays they were producing, and their commissioning program claims to have supported six writers this season. And, according to Parker, their interests don’t stop with the success of the ATC production: “Being able to position a play so that it can get the 2nd and 3rd productions in the regions or be licensed in colleges is really important. We do think primarily about our own audience and wanting our productions to be great, but we’re also aware that doing a good job has reverberations for the playwright.”
I also asked about the Hollywood connection, given Time Warner’s support for the program and also the number of writers that ATC has supported through readings, commissions or productions who also write for television, including a few who write for HBO, such as Kate Robin and Rolin Jones (HBO is owned by Time Warner). Parker assured me that there is no intentional connection and that there are no strings attached (unlike some situations where theater projects are supported on the condition that the funder takes a cut if a play is optioned by a movie studio). But the large number of playwrights writing for television and film is as much a symptom of the increasing difficulty to eke out a living as a theater writer as it is the result of commercial imperatives.
However it can be acheived, finding practical and sustainable ways of supporting new work by new writers has to be a good thing for the theater. The infrastructure of ATC, with its very successful mainstage and acting school, gives it a distinct advantage over smaller theaters in terms of the profile to attract major funders and maintain a steady source of income. But it’s often the larger theaters that are most resistant to putting on new work. As Parker noted: “We do live in a time where a lot of theaters are shying away from producing newer work because they fear that the critical community is not necessarily biased towards this thing, and therefore they won’t be able to sell it. And that’s sort of the bottom-line, unfortunately.”
Body Awareness runs May 28 to June 22 at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St. For further info, visit: atlantictheater.org