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Unspoken Genius

Playwright Annie Baker uses artful words and powerful silences to redefine live theater.


For Annie Baker, the spaces in between words can say even more than the words themselves.

A playwright living in New York City, Baker is the creator of numerous works that have earned widespread recognition for their unique approach to language and communication. “Long stretches of charged silence fill her plays, lighting up the spaces between sentences,” described The Economist in a 2017 article. “They make awkward moments ever so slightly more awkward; quiet moments more noisily quiet.”

Case in point, Baker’s play, “The Aliens,” is described in its script as being silent for at least one-third of the performance time. Actors are directed to intentionally extend the quiet spaces between their lines for maximum, uncomfortable effect.

Baker’s unique approach to theater came via an indirect artistic journey. She originally aspired to be a novelist, “but my love of the beautiful sentence made it sort of impossible because my command of grammar and sentence structure is not great,” she told The Guardian in 2016. “I faltered. I constantly faltered.”

It was during her studies of dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and playwriting at Brooklyn College that Baker discovered the feeling of freedom in writing for theater.

“Starting to write dialogue was incredibly freeing...” she told The Guardian. “I feel like people don’t know what they’re saying—and don’t know why they’re saying what they’re saying. That fascinates me and that’s my experience of the world. So playwriting was actually a way for me to celebrate my complete inability to write a sentence and speak a sentence.”

Baker’s offbeat explorations came to fruition in 2008 with her Off-Broadway debut, the one-act play, “Body Awareness.” Set in the fictional college town of Shirley, Vermont, the play applies Baker’s signature lingual approach to heated situations. Intellectual and emotional sparks fly when people with very different perspectives and strong emotions collide.

Baker’s style of writing has been described as highly realistic, sincere and immediate, yet challenging to viewers who are asked, through the characters and stories depicted on stage, to re-examine aspects of their own lives. In “Body Awareness,” the manifestations of that style were not only captivating and thought-provoking, but hilarious.

“My goal for the play is to not judge anyone, to get at that point where everyone is equally right and equally wrong,” Baker told The New York Times in 2008, “so the humor comes from that.”

Baker’s 2013 production, “The Flick,” is built on similar themes of loneliness, connection and the awkwardness of truly authentic conversations. Set in a decaying Massachusetts movie theater, the play follows the interactions of three employees as they clean floors and maintain equipment. “Their tiny battles and not-so-tiny heartbreaks play out in the empty aisles, becoming more gripping than the lackluster, second-run movies on screen,” describes Playwrights Horizon. “With keen insight and a finely-tuned comic eye, ‘The Flick’ is a hilarious and heart-rending cry for authenticity in a fast-changing world.”

“The Flick” gained widespread recognition, winning Baker the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among other accolades. Three years later, she was awarded the highly coveted MacArthur Fellowship, often called the “genius grant.”

“We’re lucky to be living in the era of Annie Baker,” wrote The New Yorker in response to “The Flick,” “a playwright who listens to people so carefully, who re-creates human speech with such amusement and care, that her characters feel startlingly familiar—so familiar, in fact, that you might wonder at first why they’re the subjects of a play.”

Currently, Baker teaches playwriting at New York institutions, including Barnard College, New York University, Hunter College, and Stony Brook University. Beyond the Pulitzer and MacArthur honors, she has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and multiple Obie Awards and Drama Desk nominations. She has seen her work produced in over 150 theaters in the United States and staged in over a dozen countries around the world.

Regardless of the stage or city, the artist’s vision shines through. “Baker’s extraordinary skill as an artist is to see the world accurately and to love it as it is, just as her characters love birds, a Red Sox cap, ‘Honeymoon in Vegas,’ or Vienna Fingers,” wrote The New Yorker. “She sees them in their everyday wonder, without romanticizing, without criticizing, and shows us how to love them, too.”

 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.