Annie Baker is quiet, but her ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ is making noise

In a world that seems to crave all things fast and flashy, Annie Baker celebrates the joys of subtlety — and even silence. The 29-year-old writer has become one of the hottest young voices in American theater thanks to three poignant and funny plays inspired by life’s small moments and precisely rendered.

Baker’s less-is-more approach is epitomized by “Circle Mirror Transformation,” which opened at South Coast Repertory this weekend. The elliptical comedy observes a “creative drama” class at a community center in fictional Shirley, Vt.

“I know,” says Baker with a sigh over tea at a Silver Lake cafe. “Acting class in small town. It sounds insufferable.” She smiles and shrugs, her soft blond-brown hair bobbing. “Most plays I’m pleased with are embarrassing like that. It was a bad idea, but I had to try it.”

It’s lucky she did. “Circle Mirror,” which debuted at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2009 and is now a regional favorite, has won raves for what the Washington Post calls a “comically insightful merging of brittle epiphanies and adult education.” Along with Baker’s “The Aliens,” which opened at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York in April, it shared the 2010 Obie for best new American play. (The productions also earned an Obie for Sam Gold, who is directing at South Coast.) The New York Times dubbed Baker “one of the most promising new stage talents to emerge in the past decade.”


The author is grateful for her unexpected success, but finds the attention unnerving. “I’m a very private person,” she says. “I don’t enjoy hearing the sound of my voice. The most important things for me are impossible to articulate extemporaneously. Writing is my primary way of expressing myself.” Indeed, for a while, Baker gave interviews mainly by e-mail. “Then I realized I was making things difficult for other people.”

So here she is, sitting at a sidewalk table, chatting with a reporter on a sunny December afternoon. Baker was in California for rehearsals of SCR’s West Coast premiere production. Before that, she had visited Boston for a festival of her " Shirley, Vt., plays” — “Circle Mirror,” “The Aliens” and “Body Awareness,” which opened at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 2008. All three are set in a New England college town she imagined with such care it keeps getting mistaken for a real place.

Not coincidentally, Baker grew up in a college town: Amherst, Mass. Writing was an interest “from the moment I could read.” Theater became “a religion” when she was in high school. She acted in student productions and wrote plays — “but I was too self-hating to allow them to be performed.” After graduating from New York University, where she studied dramatic writing, Baker was discouraged. “I was 22 and stopped writing plays, and I didn’t start again until I was 25. I was writing badly. In college, I attempted to write these more conventional plays, but the theater I loved was downtown experimental theater. I didn’t feel like I could do that either. It didn’t occur to me to do my own thing.”

Her spirits revived once she joined Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Youngblood playwrights group and started to study with playwright Mac Wellman while pursuing an MFA at Brooklyn College. “He encouraged us to write the strangest, most original work.”

Baker made her professional debut with “Body Awareness,” in which a male photographer of female nudes visits Shirley’s college and stays with a lesbian psychology professor, her companion and her companion’s son, who may have Asperger’s syndrome. “I don’t like that play,” says Baker, who may be her own toughest critic. “It serves its themes to you on a plate. I try not to do that anymore.”

Her most recent piece, “The Aliens,” is a drama-comedy of long pauses and deceptively little action in which two thirtysomething slackers and a teenage kid hang out behind a coffeehouse. She also has written “Nocturama,” which reflects a fascination with historical house tours. It’s never been produced, she says, although people now are showing interest.

Like many of her works, says Baker, “Circle Mirror” grew out of research, contemplation and “fragments of ideas.” She wanted to watch amateurs learn to act. In a windowless room in a community center. While delivering monologues as each other — one of many drama training and therapy techniques she uses to reveal fraught glimpses of characters’ lives. (The play’s title comes from one exercise.)

Early on, Baker struggled with the script to the point she considered tossing it. She showed it to Gold, a friend from Brooklyn, where she lives with actor Michael Chernus. Gold also is a hot figure in American theater, known for his meticulous and creative handling of meticulous and creative material such as Baker’s. “In a typically self-effacing way, Annie said, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’” Gold recalls. “But I fell in love with it right away.”

Gold’s contributions were vital to developing the piece, says Baker, including his decision to have the cast play the theater games for real. “I was incredibly moved by the vulnerability the exercises required,” she says. “That’s one reason it was important to work on the play with actors in the room.”

Another is that Baker’s writing needs to be performed — “I don’t think my plays really work on the page” — but with a tricky balance of precision and spontaneity that helps imbue everyday language and gestures with deeper meaning. (It’s no wonder she loves Chekhov.) Her characters have trouble expressing themselves — a common malady, insists Baker, who listens to what people really say and leave unsaid. “When I was 18, I hid a recorder under the table during conversations. It was revelatory.” When she writes, she records herself reading lines and then refines, hoping to eliminate the “authorial hand.”

“I’m very interested in silence,” she says. “And, more importantly, in what happens when people aren’t talking on stage. I’m interested in letting actors play and do things between the lines. And in slowing everything down. There’s a moment in ‘Circle Mirror’ where the stage is empty for 30 seconds. It’s one of my favorite parts.”

Performers must get used to having so much quiet time. “An actor’s instinct is to make every moment full and alive,” says Gold. “It’s scary to be out there and not have anything to say.... They must have the bravery to be able to think thoughts on stage and not have to do a big song and dance.”

Gold says Baker herself is brave for “not relying on the old tricks,” instead engaging audiences with “a smart, revealing eye” and “an uncanny ability to get inside the head of so many characters.” In “Circle Mirror,” we meet Marty, who is leading her first adult creative drama class; Schultz, a recently divorced carpenter; Theresa, a former New York actress; Lauren, a sullen 16-year-old; and Marty’s husband, James, a professor who may be there, says Gold, as “a peace offering” to his wife. They are a needy bunch, appealingly so if a cast has the right chemistry. “That’s the only way the play works,” Baker says.

As the new year opens, Baker is writing a pilot for HBO, a play set in a movie theater and an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that will be directed by Gold. She plans to keep exploring life’s nuances in her own ways.

“I’m not being modest when I say I really didn’t believe ‘Circle Mirror’ would find an audience,” she says. “Of all my plays, I thought it would be the least successful. It’s an elliptical fragment play with a lot of offstage action and silence. While I find that exciting, I wasn’t sure anyone else would. But I honestly think if you write what you want to write, people respond to it.”