The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue
Theater In Dialogue

Laurel Haines and her Anxiety, soon on display at the Flea

I was a fan of the Flea Theater as an audience member, but I became a big fan after my recent experience there with my play American Sexy. A lot of American theaters are nervous about producing new work, and while this can be a reasonable fear, it tends to create this dusty landscape for playwrights, with once-timely plays being produced five or 10 years after they’re written. Like having an orgasm days after intercourse, when you’re back in your work clothes and on the train to someplace else. Not the case at the Flea. They seem to possess an ability to follow their instincts, as they’re having them, and in the process create a theater space that is buzzing with life and energy.

So I was thrilled to hear they were following up my show with my long-time friend and colleague Laurel Haines’s newest play. I’ve experienced Laurel’s work as a kind of comedic panic attack. So the title of her play had me right away.

Future Anxiety is something like an epic-futuristic-very-now Noah’s Ark sort of comedy. In the play, bizarre weather pummels the globe, chocolate and strawberries are extinct, and China calls in its debt, taking humans in lieu of cash. When Karl builds a homemade spaceship to escape the planet, everyone wants to get on board.

Here’s a little taster:

It’s the future, and America is sending its citizens to China to work off the national debt. Comrade Li is a novice foreman in charge of a group of Americans. This is her first day on the job.

(China. Comrade Li speaks to a group of Americans.)
I speak to you in English. Stupid Americans don’t know Chinese. Why? You think you never have to learn? Surprise! You will not be here long. Just a few dozen years. Maybe when you done you can get life extension with all the money you save doing this job. Oh, but I forget. You make NO money doing this job. You here because you spend. Spend, spend, spending Americans. You see TV—you buy TV. You see house—you buy house. Always borrowing. Your country the same too. Spend, spend, borrow, borrow. Now there is no more borrowing! Time to give back! But U.S. has nothing to give back. So they give us you. Worthless, lazy Americans. You see speedboat, you buy speedboat. You see unicycle, you buy unicycle. You never learn how to ride unicycle! Unicycle stays in garage, gathers dust, next to speedboat! Why you cry? Not your fault? Doctor bills? No! You lazy Americans and that’s why you here. Now you learn to work. O.K. We going to rebuild Hong Kong. Everybody say Hong Kong wiped out by triple tsunami. No way to recover. We show them. We bring back Hong Kong stone by stone. Or should I say—YOU bring back Hong Kong stone by stone. It is good, this arrangement. No Chinese would do this work. You do it for us.

Trista Baldwin: So, you say plastic bags got you started on this play?

Laurel Haines: Yes, well, plastic bags, plastic forks, pretty much any plastic we throw away on a regular basis. Like takeout containers. We’re conditioned to just throw this stuff out and not think about it. But every now and then a horrible fact will come out—like that there’s a giant vortex of trash in the Pacific Ocean that’s the size of Texas—and I would think “Huh. That’s awful. We ought to do something about that.” And then I would go and order more takeout. But it would leave this pocket of dread inside me. So I was interested in that—the way we push away uncomfortable facts that just don’t fit into our lifestyle. Another upsetting fact that inspired the play is the debt we owe China. This just keeps ballooning and I thought, why aren’t more people freaking out about this? This is huge. And it will affect future generations in scary ways. So those are the characters in the play—people in the future, dealing with the worst possible outcomes of the messes we’re making today. Like Karl, who’s building a spaceship to get off the planet.

Oh yes, and my other pet fascination is with cryonics. (I visited the Alcor Labs in Phoenix when I was in grad school, just for fun.) So in the play there are people from the 20th century waking up in the future. They’re expecting everything to be shiny and bright—like the Jetsons—and they get something completely different.

Baldwin: Future Anxiety is marked by your sharp sense of humor, which I so enjoy. How else is this play a “Laurel Haines” play?

Haines: Some of the characters are kind of demented, which is something I write a lot. And I can’t seem to stop writing about people coming out of comas—in this play the people are coming out of cryonic suspension, but it’s similar.

Baldwin: The script has a large cast. Has that been a barrier to the script getting produced before, or has it been an asset?

Haines: It’s a barrier—even though it can be done with 10 people with actors doubling, that’s still too many for most theaters. When I wrote it, I didn’t think about these things—I just wanted to create a panoramic vision. I’ve since been schooled that writing fewer than five characters is the “smart” thing for a playwright to do. But I hope it will have a life in non-Equity and college theaters, which can do large casts.

Baldwin: How did your production at the Flea come to pass?

Haines: I sent the script to them last year, and Arthur Kopit—who saw the reading at the Lark—put in a good word for me. It all happened quickly—I got an email from Jim Simpson in January and we started rehearsals less than two months later. As you know, this is really unusual!

Baldwin: It is unusual! My experience with American Sexy at the Flea was similarly fast and furious. Jim Simpson heard about the script from Bay Area Playwright Foundation blog, did a read-through, and essentially decided on producing it right out of that. This is one of the things that I am impressed with about the Flea. They just do it. And the place is buzzing. There is always something going on. Of course, that has a lot to do with their program of having young actors in residence (The Bats). I was impressed with that program while doing Sexy. The actors really put a lot of sweat into it! How is it going with the Bats on Future Anxiety?

Haines: They are seriously talented. And it’s cool that many of them have worked together before, so they have that familiarity with each other. The rehearsal schedule is intense, and they are working hard.

Baldwin: Do you like attending rehearsal?

Haines: I do, because rehearsal makes it really obvious what needs to be rewritten, and then you can rewrite and hear it again and keep doing that until it works. Or doesn’t, in which case I usually cut it. And it’s the social part of being a playwright; I like being around actors and watching them do their thing.

Baldwin: I love revising in rehearsal. I enjoy rehearsals more than performances. What about you, do you like watching performances?

Haines: Not the first one—I usually sit there as if I’m about to be shot. But if the show goes well, I like coming back.

Baldwin: As a writer, what do you want most from a theater company that’s producing your work?

Haines: I want them to be awesome. But seriously, I want them to be so good that I have to write to their level. Like if something doesn’t sound right in rehearsal, I want it to be because of me, not them.

Baldwin: As an audience member, what do you like to see on stage? What kind of theater are you drawn to?

Haines: I am drawn to anything that makes me laugh. And I like stuff that’s really out there, yet still connects with an audience. I recently saw Taylor Mac’s show, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth, and I love to see that kind of work—it’s free and fun and wild and, ultimately, very moving. Another show I loved this season was Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey by Wakka Wakka. Those people have incredible imaginations.

Baldwin: As do you. I am excited to return to the Flea as an audience to your Anxiety.

Future Anxiety written by Laurel Haines, directed by Jim Simpson will run April 15 – May 26 at the Flea theater (41 White Street, Manhattan). For more info and tix ($25), visit:


Trista Baldwin

TRISTA BALDWIN is a playwright and co-founder of Workhaus Collective, which just wrapped up a decade of new work with its 25th production. Her own plays include Eye of the Lamb, American Sexy, Sand, Patty Red Pants and Chicks With Dicks: Bad Girls on Bikes Doing Bad Things.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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