Annie Baker’s lingering, low-key, naturalistic dramas have launched a critical arms race in America. There have been comparisons to Chekhov, several major awards and even attempts to christen a genre: New Naturalism – a label, incidentally, that’s been attached to every game-changing naturalist since Strindberg.
The superlatives are absolutely deserved. The 31-year-old’s plays are a joy to read, let alone see performed. Her work is, first and foremost, about people – a surprisingly rare thing in contemporary play-writing. Her characters never stand as ciphers, nor does she judge them. She simply lets them go about their day-to-day business, be it sipping magic mushroom tea in a coffee-shop backyard (The Aliens), cleaning a cinema between films (The Flick) or taking part in a community drama class as in Circle Mirror Transformation.
The last gets its UK premiere next month, with Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton cast in the Royal Court’s off-site production. Every scene shows a different drama game: counting collectively, talking gibberish, miming childhood bedrooms. There’s little more than that – yet the play can be ridiculous and tender, uplifting and dispiriting in the space of a few minutes. Hardly anything of note happens, but by the end, five lives have been utterly transformed; some for the better, some for the worse.
“I’m someone who spots extremely theatrical moments in everyday life that usually go unnoticed,” Baker says. What the play absolutely isn’t, she declares, is a “theatrical in-joke. I didn’t want a farcical play within a play. I wanted to write about another phenomenon: theatre that happens without an audience; people in a windowless room doing movement and voice exercises.”
Such classes are a familiar part of small-town America and Baker, who was raised “by hippies in an incredibly politically correct, we-all-love-each-other, world-peace household” in Massachusetts, was “always very moved by the art that took place in these classes because it was 90 per cent therapeutic”.
Circle Mirror Transformation has evolved significantly, but its roots lie in Gestalt therapy groups, which encourage impulse and personal responsibility. “There’s something really beautiful about that,” Baker muses, refolding herself so that her legs tuck under the armrest of her chair. “But it’s also completely destructive and absurd.”
You can definitely see the wallflower in Baker. She has a meek and floaty presence and a bookish-boho-chic look to match – perfect casting for an unconventional indie romcom, perhaps – but when she speaks, she does so with a quick-fire authority.
For starters, she’s not a fan of the New Naturalism tag. “We need different terms,” she says. “The old ones are outmoded. They were outmoded when Chekhov wrote The Seagull.”
Suddenly, she swerves off on a tangent. “I think avant-garde plays probably represent real life much more accurately than realistic plays. Although ... , ” she doubles back on herself without pausing for breath, “those distinctions are so 19th-century and iffy anyway. I want to straddle that line. People do it in visual art all the time. Like, you can paint a figure and have it be a figure and incredibly strange. If you get really close to something, it looks really weird and when you step back it looks like a lily pond. All these ideas. I’m interested in exploring ... ”
She stops. It looks odd in print – scattergun and meandering – but this is how we talk in reality and Baker’s characters do just the same. Her writing is attuned to the about-turns, malapropisms and verbal tics of everyday speech and she demands pauses, some lasting two or three minutes. The distinction between stage time and real time is obliterated.
It’s about a fascination with the way we use and abuse language. As a teenager, Baker would record strangers’ conversations and transcribe them precisely – a technique she still uses today when teaching. It took a while before she realised that “you could make a career out of being a creepy, obsessive observer”.
“One of the things I love about dialogue writing is the incorrectness of it: grammatical incorrectness, an incorrect expression of how you feel,” she says. “It’s why I didn’t become a novelist. There are all these questions: are you conscious of what you want to express? If you are, will you express it in the moment? Can language even express reality?”
There are traces of her therapist mother, but also of the 17-year-old high school student who was so into method acting that she wrote her diary in character. She follows Austrian satirist Karl Krauss in – as she puts it – “insisting on the dangers of being imprecise with language and particularly the lazy, pat shorthand of mass media, which can bring down a culture and spark wars.”
Along with embracing human failure, Baker also recognises our complexity, be it psychological or sociological. “I do feel like the world is an incredibly bizarre place,” she says, “and I get frustrated when theatre tries to make it make sense. Sometimes people go to the theatre expecting articulated ideas, a lesson and dots for them to connect. The play is telling you what to think and I’m just not interested in that.”
That has led – much to Baker’s irritation – to her plays being written off as apolitical. “It’s the thing that makes me most mad. I’m thinking about politics the whole time: everything the characters are saying; why they’re in that room; their class differences. I just don’t try to communicate my ideology to the audience.”
To give an example, her regular setting, the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont, has a quasi-political rationale. “Even though the country’s so big, there’s a sense anybody could go anywhere. Part of becoming an adult is deciding where to live. There are 50 states and 50 identities.” Vermont, she explains, has a particularly “bucolic, free-thinking culture. They have healthcare for everyone. Gay marriage was legalised aeons ago. It’s beautiful, hippyish and green.”
And while her characters don’t represent social strata or political positions, they are nevertheless products of their socio-economic context. They behave as we do: inconsistently, tactically, misguidedly. Just don’t call them ordinary.
“The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary is bogus,” Baker bursts out. “I want to erase the line between the two, between good-guy and bad-guy, because, in the course of one day, everybody commits beautiful acts of nobility and does something small and terrible. Every day we make someone feel wonderful. Every day we fall from grace.”
‘Circle Mirror Transformation’, Rose Lipman Building, London, July 5-August 3. www.royalcourttheatre.com