On the eve of The Twilight Zone's first preview, Almeida Associate Director Robert Icke talked to playwright Anne Washburn about adapting the cult TV show for the stage, the writer/director relationship and the meeting point between a new play and an adaptation.
Anne Washburn: Let me take a bite first. If this makes it on the podcast you're in trouble.
Robert Icke: I don't edit them, so it's not up to me.
AW: That is good. I have had minced meat pie - because this is so confusing, because as a small child, or even adolescent we're like ‘where's the meat?’ in a mincemeat pie.
RI: Yeah, I’ve had that conversation loads. I've got no idea why mincemeat is called minced meat.
AW: Because originally it had meat in it.
RI: Oh really is that why?
AW: Yeah, but of course you would take your rancid-ish meat…
RI: Yeah, and then spice the hell out of it.
AW: You put all the spice in the thing.
RI: Should I start?
AW: Go for it, yeah.
RI: Okay. Well, we've already started, I'm going to just start by saying hi, I'm Rob, and I'm here with Almeida legend and my personal hero Anne E. Washburn, who has just had her first mince pie in quite a few years which was a good experience, right?
AW: It was delightful.
RI: Good. And you've also just had the dress rehearsal of The Twilight Zone, and you're speaking to me at 10 past 5 on the day of the first preview, which is in 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is a really great time to get some good material. How are you feeling?
AW: Very relaxed.
RI: And so just for the ignorant listeners who don't know their Washburn/Almeida history, this is the first time you've been back with us since 2014, which was in Rupert Goold and I's first year here at the Almeida for Mr Burns.
RI: Which was the first time you've had a big London job since The Internationalist before that at the Gate [Theatre], is that right?
AW: Yeah, it was my second show in London, and the first one I'd been involved in from the beginning.
RI: Right, because they'd just produced The Internationalist and you came to see it.
AW: I came up for previews, I came up for I think five days before it opened, and this was the first time I'd been involved with something from the beginning to the end.
RI: Had you been to London as a sort of theatre aficionado before you were a theatre pro?
AW: No, barely. The first time I went to London was in 2004 just for a couple of days, and I had never been before, and I thought it was amazing. And then I came for a couple of days around the Gate production, but this was the first time I had ever been here for any proper period of time.
RI: And was it what you expected?
AW: Oh, no, it's too big a city to be what you expect, right?
RI: Yeah, okay.
AW: Well I had only been in it for a little bit. The first time I came to London was in the summer of 2004, and I was for various weird reasons in Berlin for a couple of months, which sounds exotic. A friend was house sitting here in a massive Georgian mansion which had be reconverted to a kind of incredibly modern Georgian mansion on the inside in Kensington, for various weird reasons this is where she was negotiating the delivery of art, and speaking to people in Italian on the phone. And so I came out to visit her for a couple of days, and there was a heat wave, it was in what we call the 90s, I don't know what that is in centigrade. Anyway, it was incredibly hot.
RI: 30s, probably late 20s.
AW: It was incredibly hot, and it was the most amazing city that I had ever been in, because it was everything that London was, and really hot, which I loved. We at night would go back to this Georgian mansion, and sit in this sort of water garden in the back and smoke cigarettes. And it was sort of like paradise, and the only thing about it that was terrible was that the dollar at that point was 2.5, the pound was 2.5 to the dollar.
AW: So we couldn't, you couldn't go anywhere on the subway, or buy food of the simplest kind without feeling like you were just being punished by the London universe. Like it was impossible to eat, or do anything. But apart from that it was so fantastic, it was such a fantastic city.
RI: And did you see theatre?
AW: We did see theatre. The very first thing I saw in London was Katie Mitchell's Iphigenia in Aulis.
RI: Wow. That's a pretty good start, designed by my collaborator Hildegard [Bechtler] who designs for a lot of my things.
AW: Oh, yeah?
RI: Yeah, which was one of Katie's, I think first... That was in the period where Nick Hytner had Katie as an associate at the National and it was the beginning of a period in which Katie was just going to make show after incredible show in that theatre. Including an amazing Women of Troy, and a brilliant Three Sisters. A series of big title, really amazing shows. Did you like it?
AW: I thought it was ravishing, but I thought the translation was shit.
RI: I think you're allowed to say that, you're allowed to say you like the production, and not like the particular text.
AW: All right.
RI: I mean this is a conversation we were going to have anyway, wasn't it?
RI: Maybe we'll do this at the end, because first I have to talk to you about The Twilight Zone, and how that's been, and how you're feeling about it at this particularly sensitive moment in the process.
AW: At this particular moment in the process there are... I actually don't get nervous around dress and first preview because there's always so much to be done that you're just really focusing on that. It's almost pleasing the amount of work which needs to be done. I mean at any point when you're in dress rehearsal it seems like this mountain. But on a morning when you kind of happen to feel like mountaineering I guess.
I have a hard time watching any show of mine, a very hard time watching any show of mine if I'm no longer in a position to give notes on it. Once a show has opened it's hard to see. As long as you can kind of get in there, and keep thinking about it, and keep working toward it, it's stressful as anything. But it's also on some level great fun, because you're, I don't know, you're sort of sticking your arm in up to the elbow in so many elements at the same time. It's always a real puzzle, and it's always a real quiz. It doesn't matter how well any show is doing once you get into previews there's always more to do than you ever possibly can do. Which I suppose is why we make theatre, although it seems idiotic when you're right in the middle of it.
RI: I'm interested in the way you talk about that I think is something kind of unusual, or sort of relatively unusual about you for writers, at least over here the prevailing culture is that the writers think about the text. And one of the things I'm always mindful of when you send us a new play, or there's a play on that I come and see when I'm over, is that your work really does think about all the different elements. Like the last act of Mr Burns is not a text so much as a sort of blueprint for a performance. And I think for a lot of playwrights they’re delivering a thing that can exist on the page. And it strikes me about thinking about 10 out of 12 which hasn't been here yet, or Antlia [Pneumatica] you're really interested in, and then the lights go out, and there's some recording sound, or you hear a voice very close, or you just hear the noise of this being poured, or equally that the gesture of Mr Burns in the third act is, I suppose, a visual and musical, as well as being narrative.
AW: I think that in coming up in theatre or whatever I think that… I've been always really drawn to two things at the same time. One is play text, and the other is performance, and what that is. Some of the pieces of theatre I love the best are pieces of theatre which really exist as text. That's really there, they have other dimensions when you stage them, but they're charged amazing pieces of written work, of text, of dramatic text which is its own separate universe, obviously.
RI: Well, what's in your head as you say that, what titles are flashing up?
AW: Oh, I’m thinking of Shakespeare, and I'm thinking of David Greenspan and I'm thinking of, and I guess nothing more concrete than that.
RI: Okay. The first thing's dramatic text, what's the second thing?
AW: But the second thing is really being influenced by performance, and by theatre pieces which are really influenced by performance. Like the Wooster Group is a really obvious example of that, although I'm thinking really more of early Wooster Group when they were really kind of crazier concatenations of influences that you couldn't really see through the stew of a thing they made from it.
But they were… or if you think of Robert Wilson. These are all sort of old classic versions, and there are people who are working in that newer vein, but those guys really came out of a world in which it was in New York, and it was very much about visual artists mixing with musicians mixing with theatre people. It was all the things coming together at once. And I think of the work which comes from that… and I'm more interested in theatre which is influenced by art, than I am by art which is influenced by theatre. I find that art which is influenced by theatre to me it frustrates a desire I have for narrative on some level. Even if it's very obscure, and very hidden, I kind of want to feel a very complete structure pulsing underneath it somewhere. Even if I can't really quite touch it or taste it. So that's a huge…
And I sort of feel like those works which are more performative in some ways are more about, they're more about, not our sensory narrative, they're sort of about the disorganised way we experience life. So a text, a play text in many ways is about how do we make sense of life, how do we make sense of all of these, and saying things we're surrounded with every day. And I feel like performance is more about exploding the fact that we don't understand it. And so I think...
RI: One's a diagnosis, and one's a visible symptom.
AW: Yeah. So that's an incredibly long winded way of saying that I think there are many different kinds of theatre you can make, and they all have their different strengths, and thing. But I am drawn to the kind of power you have in the theatre and this really limited space to explore these kind of more lush, sensory involving, overwhelming ideally, ways of looking at life, or whatever that is.
RI: And do you think… We've had in London The Internationalist a long time ago, and then Mr Burns not long ago, and now Twilight Zone. But it strikes me having picked up some of the Washburn’s in New York and read some other Washburn’s on the page, they're not very comparable to each other, other than in sort of the broadest brush strokes. You're not Monet painting the water lilies again and again and again. The canon so far is... I mean there are definitely sort of veins of interest and things that come across, so I'd say there's an absolute interest in culture and the role of culture in stories, and the role of stories. And I think there's a high art/low art fascination, in that you're fascinated by Greeks but you're also fascinated by cartoons, and sort of jokes… the big stuff and the little stuff. Do you know what I mean? You're not only writing plays about grand political issues, or whatever. But it strikes me that the journey from something like The Internationalist to Mr Burns I can only generalise in big brush strokes. I can't say ‘you're really interested in that character that keeps recurring’, or ‘it's like a consolation of plays that happened in New Jersey all around the same sort of time period’ or whatever. Is that conscious? Talk to me about how… how do the ideas arrive?
AW: No, it's not conscious.
RI: But would you reject an idea if you felt it was similar to something you'd already done?
AW: Oh, that's a good question. I guess I feel like there are ideas I keep working on over and over again. To me it feels that way. They come in all different ways from all different places which is... I mean Mr Burns was an idea I had brooded about for a long time before I actually started to write it. Antlia Pneumatica, which is the play you saw in New York, was a play which I wrote in a silent playwriting retreat on a ranch in Texas where the whole goal of it - apart from working in silence with other playwrights for a week - was that you were meant to come with no idea of what you would write, and then you had to write a play out of nowhere in eight days. Do you know what I mean?
RI: Did you write that in eight days?
AW: Yeah, the first draft.
AW: The first draft. And then I wrote more drafts after that. But there was a pretty complete version of it done in eight days.
RI: Is that personal best?
AW: No, that would be the play I wrote in a similar condition over two days. When we first started doing these retreats and they were much smaller. But that's a much shorter play.
RI: Okay. Which play is that?
AW: It's called The Small.
RI: That's the vampire play?
AW: No, it's a play about a health food store which sort of goes wrong out in the California desert. I've written a couple of plays on these retreat things, and one of them ended up being about Philip K. Dick. I think because I had just recently been reading a book about Philip K. Dick, and I didn't mean to then write a play about Philip K. Dick, but that was the last thing in kind of… constellated with, with many years of thinking about Philip K. Dick. So that's a way in which a play gets written.
Often I think if I… The Internationalist was written because I at the time was working as a document manager in a big international re-insurance company and I went on a business trip, and none of the things which happened in the play happened to me. With the exception of a scene in the middle of it which I, where there was sort of a confusion among language with my office colleagues, and then I went back and I wrote that down, and then the scene came from that. There's a lot of overheard work, overheard material in my plays, there's a lot of sort of found material in my plays.
Some plays have been written from someone else's suggestion. The Communist Dracula Pagent came from working briefly with a director years and years ago in New York who was really interested in the idea of exploring the Romanian Revolution, and so I sort of took that topic and ran with it. The Ladies which is about famous first ladies came from working with director Anne Kauffman, and it was her idea, and she hooked up and said, ‘Oh, do you want to work on this together?’ Again, a really long winded way of saying they come from all different ways. Often I think it's... I enjoy the process of having to struggle how to make sense of an idea without feeling certain that I can. Do you know what I mean? So if I an idea comes from left field, or comes from someone else, in a way it's more of a puzzling struggle, which apparently I enjoy.
RI: Do you remember what the… say on something like Mr Burns, what was the first clue in that treasure hunt that you found, if you like? What bit of the idea came first? Because presumably it didn't come fully formed.
AW: No, it was really just from thinking oh, ‘the world has kind of come to an end’, or ‘chaos just descended upon the United States’...
RI: Which was when? Which was 2000 and...?
AW: I don't remember. It was after nine...
RI: After 9/11.
AW: I talk about it just being a 9/11 play, which I think is true. Because there was a period of a couple of years when if you were in New York at the time it really really felt as though of course we will be attacked again and much more comprehensively. Like it really felt oddly stupid to stay in the city. So there was this sort of low level anxiety that ‘oh I'm pretty sure we're about to be wiped out.’ So I think probably to discharge that anxiety I would… you know a thing that I would muse about on the subway is ‘oh okay civilisation has fallen into an extremis, and what would camp fire stories, of course people would be gathering around camp fires, and what would the stories be?’ What stories do we know how to tell to each other? It used to be that people had a kind of repertoire of stories that they could exchange, and I feel like the quickest story you would exchange would be TV, just because everyone would know it, and it would be very welcomed for that reason. And then from there somehow very quickly was the idea that it would be three acts, and the second act would be seven years after the first act, and would be a story being told by a group of people. And that the third act would be many years in the future.
And I was thinking about the Greek theatre just because I have a lot of envy for Greek playwrights, and the situation where everyone is telling the same stories over and over and over again, and the audience comes knowing what the story is going to be. So the focus is basically on how the story will be told, which is just a much more sort of, it's just a much higher level of attention, you know that those audience would have been focusing on how the story is told, than they would've been focusing on the way in which this story is told, and how does this reflect on our current situation. It just seems much more, not that isn't amazing to go to the theatre and not know what's going to happen next, and have, like suspense is such an amazing basic human pleasure. But there's a real way in which you're sort of gobbling it, you're like bring on the next thing, bring on the next thing, let me get to the end I need to know what happens. So you lose a lot of detail.
RI: That's fascinating. I think that's really true, and I think that, in a strange way… do you know what I've been angry for about five years now about a review we got here - shortly before I stopped reading them - in which the should be nameless theatre critic said that he was worried that our theatre was becoming a place of adaptations, when it should instead prefer the original story. And I was like well that's Greek drama and all of Shakespeare that you've just manged to wipe out. And I think you're right there's a sort of weird fetishisation, is that a word? Fetishing, fetishisaton of new narrative, and we want to consume it, and then as you say on to the next one. It strikes me that the two most fertile periods - the Greeks and Shakespeare - in European theatre, Elizabethan ones and then classical Athens, has exactly the opposite relationship. Nearly all of Shakespeare's plays are nicked from something quite famous, so either a history that people would've been vaguely familiar with, or in some cases - like King Lear – it’s a rewrite of a play called King Leir which the company had in their repertoire, and he's literally taking the bits he likes, adding in other stuff, and then changing the ending.
AW: I mean you say this, and I technically I agree with you because what I said led into this, but I do kind of have this moment of kickback of what an enormous pity it would be if we only told adaptations because I feel like a new text is how the culture knows what it's thinking, in a way. It might be that adaptations are how the culture knows what it's feeling, you know, because you've already thought the thoughts in an adaptation, but it's the way that you come at it that teases out.
RI: I suppose it depends what we... I think this particular sort of meeting point between adaptation and new play has gotten sketchier and sketchier, as far as quite what we all mean when we say it in the last five years. But actually I remember us having a lot of conversations around the time on... Well just not long after Mr Burns when I was working on Oresteia and one of the things I found out that I was really astonished by was that he just changes it - he just changes the story. And so it's somewhere between a new play and an adaptation. It's a sort of adaptation of the Homer, because you know that Orestes is the hero, and you know he avenges his father, and you know about Agamemnon and Iphigenia because that stuffs all in Homer for you. What you don't know is how Orestes avenges his father i.e. by killing his mother. And you don't really know about her because she doesn't have any agency, so it's the old -
AW: Wait he made up the killing of Clytaemestra?
RI: It's sort of there, in Homer it says… I think it says something like Orestes went back to his house, and avenged his father, and then a bit later you find out that Clytaemestra is dead, but you don't get told how. And of course what Aeschylus does is land that event right at the centre of the middle of three plays, draws the narrative backwards to the start of the first play, and then forward to the end of the trial. And that is the central event, and that is the thing that is just not… Homer just jumps over that, because he wants Orestes to be a hero. Everyone says in the Odyssey to Telemachus ‘just be like Orestes’, ‘Orestes is great,’ ‘Orestes avenged his father’, you know. And then after Oresteia people don't talk about Orestes like that anymore. It's sort of...
AW: Well, we don't know how they were talking about him before the point Aeschylus writes about him. Because it's so connect the dot-y.
RI: That's right. And then those guys who write in the margins, we have some of those guys who leave little comments, and say things like ‘I quite agree’, or ‘this is exciting’, or whatever. Sort of the tweeters of Attic Greece. It is fascinating though, because do you feel... Because on something like Mr Burns, it is in one sense an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation, in that it's the telling of the story of the story of that episode of Cape Feare, which is an episode of The Simpsons, which adapts a film called Cape Fear, which adapts another film called Cape Fear, which adapts a novel that I don't think even read when we were doing Mr Burns. It's like the story structure in the same way that Aeschylus’ is old. Protagonist, antagonist, some sort of huge threat, a bit on a boat - the basic ingredients are the same. But of course what you make out of them in the same way that what Aeschylus makes out of his is so completely unrecognisable as the original thing that it feels like, it's like an original evening. Even if it's narrative rhythm is, on some deep level, familiar.
AW: Right, it's the re-combobulating of stories... [pause]
RI: Anne Washburn is thinking if you're listening at home.
AW: No, I'm trying to work out, I guess I'm trying to work out how to get back also to this idea of adaptation, and adaptation as original… but what an original play is in the context of yes we have a past where we have the Greeks which we are not influenced by, curiously, we just admire that that's not an influence on us, which I always think is so curious that we get the Greeks through the Romans. Who did crazy, crazy terrible things to them first before they gave them to us.
RI: That's right.
AW: And then the Elizabethans, and of course the huge thing being censorship. And then this whole question of how it's harder to make great theatre in a time where you don't have censorship in the same way. But -
RI: You think it's harder to - I'm not going to let that go past quickly - it's harder to make great theatre in a time without censorship?
AW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RI: So you'd like to be censored?
AW: Secretly, of course. Wouldn't we all love to make theatre in conditions of struggle, and coversion, and the significance then we would gain, attain complete cultural significance if we were heavily censored, and monitored. What artist doesn't secretly long for all of that?
RI: I think your President might be about to deliver it. I think your President will be well on the way to that.
AW: There's no question.
RI: If there's any Russians listening to this given that we're speaking to an American...
AW: Please let's all take down the internet now. But it also raises the question of… this is, this is a new form, we haven't really explored. We're creating new forms of theatre all the time, in this weird terrible time without censorship and with original stories. And constantly rethinking what it is to do political theatre, and non-political theatre, and what the form is. It's all moving in directions it's never been in before, it's not really a great point.
RI: No, I think it is a great point, because I think it's also the layers upon layers of something that might be early Wooster Group or Robert Wilson. I'm fascinated to connect that to Mr Burns, which of course it does, but in some ways it also connects in if I think about Antlia Pneumatica, there's like the genesis of the family play in there in a strange way. They are a family thrown together, and things happen, and an outsider comes in, and that's… A bit of me thinks well that's the Miller inheritance which is the inheritance from Aeschylus. One of the reasons I personally have come to think that in the last sort of 120 years, the major players are American and not English. There's Beckett, but other than Beckett I'm not sure there are real giants in the English side of the English speaking theatre in the same way, we'll find out. But of course one of the things that is fascinating about that strange question of forms is that... it’s funny I was in Germany recently, and they are obviously crazy about the sort of theatre they make on a spectrum with our theatre on it, and they just adapt freely. They just change the text all over the place, apart from Schiller and Büchner, who they perform in the original German, not in modernised version of the German, but they do it in old German.
AW: They then chop them up, and add bits of movies to them.
RI: They do chop them up a little bit, but they still speak it. And of course we do the same here, we don't modernise Shakespeare. A bit of me wonders how far away are we from As You Like It adapted by Anne Washburn.
AW: There's a project like that in the United States, I haven't seen, I don't know if any of those plays have yet been completed, or been performed. I'm really curious to see… They've deployed a bunch of playwright boffins into the Shakespeare lab who are in one way or another adapting…
RI: But I think you guys get to do Shakespeare, it's over here you couldn't do your own Shakespeare, or they'd be real kickback. I want to see you guys do Williams and Miller, do you know what I mean? Kind of like your big texts and say ‘okay Anne I want you to rewrite [A] Streetcar [Named Desire] for me.
AW: Can't do it legally.
RI: And adapt it. That's true, that's true.
AW: Yes, it's a really interesting question what you can legally tackle, and what you can't. So we can do anything we like to Shakespeare.
AW: Whose estate cannot protest and you could too, you just don't, you choose not to. What's the point now? It's like 80 years and they just bumped it back again, where could we even start?
RI: I think it is 70 years after their death, I think here it is 70 or 75 years after the death.
AW: But I think they might have ratchet it back even further to protect Disney - this is all about protecting Disney in the States - they just keep shifting the copyright laws back, so that Disney can keep hold of its stock. So what is that 19... I should know. 1920s, 30s?
RI: I feel like, yeah.
AW: 1930s, I think it's 30s. But we don't have any major, major… we have kind of fabulous melodrama up to that point, but all of our major drama does start after that point, so there actually is a way in which yes our modern canon is not touchable.
AW: For better or worse.
RI: Yeah, I think that's fair. Well it's interesting isn't it, because I think one of the things that's happened recently is that those plays have been set upon by avant-garde European directors. You know, Ivo [van Hove] doing Crucible, and View from the Bridge, and [Simon] McBurney did All My Sons didn’t he on Broadway. And, there’s at least another one example… Williams of course, Benedict Andrews has just done his second Tennessee Williams over here; did [A] Streetcar [Named Desire], came over to you guys, and he's just done Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It's like… I do wonder if that's the first permissible step that the directors get to have a go first, because we don’t change the text, so it's all legal as long as the estate doesn't… And then the next step is that the playwrights, once that law runs out of juice, it's over to the playwrights.
AW: Oh, wow, that's an interesting, interesting question. It also just becomes ultimately a question of allocation of resources, right? Financial and mental. Do you… in an ideal theatre culture everything is being done all at once. As a playwright I kind of think people should really be focusing on the creation of new work and the supporting of new work, and the new voice and the new discussion. Rather than rethinking, or re-seeing the older text - although that of course should happen as well at the same time, and then those resources should be cross managed. To what extent can you bring in… this is the whole question we haven't, the discussion we haven't had, which is to what extent you can have a really really strong director's vision, and a really really strong playwrighting vision coexisting at the same time. How… is the ‘total theatre’ a possible thing, is it actually a desirable thing, or can all guns not be firing at once in a way which is coherent?
RI: It's fascinating, isn't it, because it's sort of… I find I don't really like, I get bored at the two extremes. So I get bored when it's a sort of very literal, usually naturalistic, writer's theatre. Occasionally it's magic, a lot of the time I find it a bit square, and a bit like… Of all the fun fireworks you can set off in a theatre the only one they've set off is naturalistic drama. Which is the sort of, the writing/no direction end. But I get equally bored at the yes it's Woyzeck, but really it's these people rolling around in purple paint, and sort of spitting water at each other. I get bored there too.
AW: Right, right.
RI: And so for me I've always felt like the ‘total theatre’ is the aim, which is that you want it to be exciting in as many different ways at once.
AW: I guess I wouldn't say that writers, that real writer’s theatre is, there's no direction going on. I think it's just a question of is the director taking on the playwright vision, or is the director taking on their own vision? Is the director a creative artist, or is the director a...
RI: An interpreter.
AW: An interpretive artist. Is the director the prophet, or is the director the priest? I would say that the playwright is the prophet, and the director is the priest.
RI: I think it depends on what you’re doing.
AW: Often. Depending on the kind of theatre, it depends on what you're doing, it depends on the thing.
RI: Exactly. I think now I wouldn't be attracted to doing a new play unless I felt like there was a job to be done, if you know what I mean. If I felt like all you needed was to follow a simple set of stage directions I feel like I wouldn't be attracted to joining that process.
AW: I feel totally, and utterly sympathetic with that, although I will say on the other hand to follow a simple set of stage directions is really the most complicated thing anyone can do.
AW: No, really.
RI: Is it? Is it? A lot of the time with those sort of shows I think the actors don't need me for that. The actors can do that, they're smart people, there's a smart writer there to tell them if they get confused, they'll be fine. If you've got in your head exactly what the physical environment should be, and there is an exact... Whereas Mr Burns in some way is a fascinating case study in this. Because I feel like the first and second acts in some ways are much more conventional as a kind of prophet/priest director/writer relationship, in the way you describe. The third act is where it gets interesting.
RI: Because, particularly the way we collaborated on it, very early I said I think we need to commission a big musical score that has [Igor] Stravinsky as well as Britney Spears in it. And visually I want to see whether we can light it with real candles. I feel like that that process was, on the third act, somewhere in the middle even though it was absolutely responding to the thing you'd written. But in some cases it was going, I really want to try to do this without electric instruments because that seems to be the logical, and organic end point of what you've done. And actually I don't believe that a piano and a guitar would've survived. But I like the idea of them playing a plastic bin, because that isn't gonna actually… That's not going anywhere in whatever it was 200 years post-apocalypse.
I suppose one of the funny things about that is that a lot of people – I mean Mr Burns, I think of all the shows we've done here since we've been here, is in the top three most talked about and most referred to when we interview young writers, and directors, people come to talk to us. It's an incredibly...
RI: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And Rupert would say the same thing. It's a show that's had a long legacy, and it's interesting because sometimes it's discussed in a kind of director’s theatrey way as if I made up the last act. You'd written two acts of the play, and then I went crazy for 40 minutes at the end. And of course that's not at all the genesis of that.
AW: No, but it was a real act of collaboration. Yeah, that goes back to the whole question of to what extent is the play a blueprint, and to what extent is the play its own literary creature. And yes, the degree to which a play requires collaboration or enormous effort on the part of other people is often the degree to which you can get the really interesting people to come work on it.
RI: It's funny because I sometimes feel - back to Greek drama, which is obviously a shared love of ours - one of the things I really feel about translations of Greek, and it's a theory I tested on Oresteia to see whether I was right and I think I am, having now tried it out, is whenever the text tries to do the ‘high’ - i.e. the ritual, the religious - it just becomes camp.
AW: But you took the chorus out.
RI: I did take the chorus out.
AW: And that's what the chorus does.
RI: But the chorus...
AW: That's text wise what the chorus can do.
RI: Did. I would say. Past tense.
AW: I would say still can do, I would say still can do. All hail to your Oresteia truly, but -
RI: I challenge you to show me that.
AW: But I would not say - awesome though it undoubtedly was, I only read the text, I didn't get to see it. I would say there's an element which is still absolutely vital and possible, and it's textual, but it's blueprint textual because its text which must be sung, and danced also I think.
RI: I would argue that I did do the chorus sometimes in Aeschylus, I didn't do all of it, but some of it I did do because, for example, the very famous moment that I think class after class of classic students have taken the piss out of, is the bit where she’s killing Agamemnon, the chorus effectively have a discussion that goes ‘what was that? What’s going on in there? There’s screaming inside that door. “Clytemnestra!” he’s shouting, “stop it.” I wonder who he means?’ And they do this sort of incredibly inane set of questions while there's a murder happening just through the door.
AW: It's so great, but also you're parroting a bad translation.
RI: No, I'm not at all, because of course what they're doing is what the Jaws music does in Jaws. They're going ‘oh my god, what's going on? What's going on? What's going on?’ They're ramping tension.
AW: Right, right.
RI: And so what I did was rather than have the actors do that I popped in the Beach Boys God Only Knows, which musically, dramatically, rhythmically ramped the tension. And the point at which I start it is the same point as it kicks in in the Aeschylus. Only I don't use a formal chorus because my argument would be, we don't know what that is anymore. It's a footnote, it needs to be a footnote, because we don't understand.
AW: But that's a section… that's a very, I don't remember that part of the Aeschylus intimately. Yeah, you do have those, in that play, you do have those wonderful moments where that horrifying section around Cassandra when she's screaming her guts out, and they're saying ‘oh gosh you seem to be… something seems to be going on, and you seem to be a little red in the face, and God if I know what you're saying…’ When she's telling the absolute truth.
RI: It's extraordinary at that point.
AW: But the section that you described, you're right, it's a ramping up of suspense, it is a thing you could deal with in other ways. But there are these more complicated sections where the chorus is at odds with itself, or comes to one conclusion, comes to another conclusion, and is dealing suddenly with much larger issues…
RI: I agree.
AW: Which I think can be done, I think absolutely can be done.
RI: I agree, but that's… what I'm talking about specifically I suppose is when the ritual end of the chorus’ job… When the sort of ‘house band’ end comes into play, I'm being really specific, that's the thing I've never seen in the theatre, I’ve never seen that work.
AW: I thought you did a really beautiful job in Mr Burns with bringing in that kind of pleasure.
RI: But that's where I think production can. I think… I think with fire and water, and scenic tricks and music - which is obviously another thing very important to your work is that music kind of comes in and out of Anne Washburn plays a lot, and lots of Anne Washburn plays end sections or end with communal singing.
AW: Yeah, I have a song in my heart.
RI: A merry song. I think there's sort of, one of the reasons I think Greek translations done by poets tend to not function dramatically, and just be sort of inert, is because they're trying to do the high church.
AW: But again I disagree. I think that's because the scansion of poetry... That's the wrong word. It's because of the rhythmic dynamic of poetry, is very different to the rhythmic dynamic of stage utterance. You know, speech, or song, or what not. It's got to be chewy in a different way. So I think that you can have poetry, or a poetic translation of a Greek play, which is kind of amazing on the page and functional on the stage because you're able to listen to it, and take it in, and enjoy it in a, you know, parsing the literary value of it sort of way. But I don't think that it can… It's not going to be a delivery system for the play.
RI: Right, for the drama.
AW: For the drama. And I guess I would say that sense of ‘oh it's high churchy and it's sort of inert’, just comes from the fact that it's not really reaching into the resources that the play truly offers too, alongside of proper singing and dancing.
RI: Sure. I think that's true.
AW: I guess one question I always think is really interesting with the Greek chorus is that the Greek choruses were… I mean they look complex and obscure to us now, looking at them on the page and in translation, but I believe they actually were sort of complex and obscure back in the day. I don't know that everyone followed them completely. That was then the last thing I read about that - I don't know if it was decisive, or I don't know if anyone actually knows - was that I think that the experience they may have had of it may have been a little bit similar to the experience we'll have listening to a pop song we don't know intimately. We'll get the chorus for sure, the first time, and you get sort of scatter shot bits of the language, and certainly you get the sensation, the rhythm, you get some sense of the issues of the song. But you won't really properly know what it's about. I have some songs in my head that I first heard long enough ago that I never want to look at the lyrics of, because I'm sure that the construct I have in my head is much more exciting, and I don't want to be disabused.
So they may have had that function as well, which I don't know if that's been fully explored, you know areas which are half interpretable.
RI: Yeah, half familiar. I think that's fascinating, because it's like that's also... Well as you prove in Mr Burns, there's something very exciting about going, ‘oh my God that’s Ricky Martin’, or ‘that's that episode of The Simpsons only slightly wrong’. You know it’s sort of familiar, but now in a new context, fresh.
AW: But this is where it’s… when talking about Mr Burns and Greek drama in the same sentence, a thing I think you have to hasten to add, which is that the third act of Mr Burns is in no way comparable to a Greek drama. Which I'm going to say is not because I don't have it in me to write a Greek drama. I'm going to say it's merely because of the inhabitants of that time wouldn't have gotten it together to make a Greek drama. Although, it's really probably because I can't write a Greek drama. But sort of the feeling of writing it, in terms of literary value, it’s melodrama, really. And it is, it’s melodrama, the third act. It's not deathless high art. It's not Greek drama.
RI: So is the whole load of the New Testament. That is a… Melodrama is a sort of, a function of a lot of holy texts. You know, they’re not -
AW: Okay - putting that fascinating argument to the side for a moment, because I don't even know what you're saying, it sounds really interesting. But Mr Burns is a fairly easy delivery system for all those things, do you know what I mean. Because it's not super complex. So throwing a lot of complex music and sound effects and light and thing, you can still pretty much make your way through it. So I feel like this whole question of the chorus, and the complex chorus is not yet fully dealt with. But what is it about melodrama in the New Testament?
RI: Because it's like, I suppose all I mean is it’s not - you wouldn't look at the story of Jesus' crucifixion and the disappearing body and the sort of the walking on water… Like it's not Raymond Carver in terms of psychologically observed naturalistic detail. It's big gesture, in a kind of Victorian sense – like ‘the body has vanished!’ The whole event of the crucifixion is practically - that's why the Victorian's loved it so much, because it's a weepy isn't it. It's kind of, it's got loads of blood, it's got an act of horrendous violence, and he's totally victimised, and then he magically comes back to life. In one sense that's a melodrama plot, but it's also not.
AW: But you could also say it's the plot of all of the early stories, all of the myths, all of the legends.
RI: But I think they all have an element of melodrama.
AW: The death and the resurrection is an ancient story because it's such a goodie.
RI: Yeah. And it's got big events in it, and people like big events. It's funny I just thought that we're kind of, in some weird way, I would think I would put you towards the more three dimensional edge of... we have this awful term, do you have ‘theatre maker’ over there?
AW: We do. Yeah.
RI: I hate it. It makes me think of bread maker. As in like you put in lights, sound, a sprinkling of tech, some actors, and in the morning the whole house smells like theatre. But I think you're… on the discrepancy between the page and the stage and a writer who, that sort of, the Pinter model of going ‘I have finished it. I have finished every full stop. I will now hand the tablet down, and you will interpret.’ You're much closer to thinking about a stage ‘event’, the sort of work you've produced and the sort of… There’s a lot of blueprint as well as a lot of literary text and I sort of realised that I'm on the other side of you in a strange way, as a whatever mixture of writer/director I am. Do you know what I mean? But certainly, I find them really weird things to disconnect. It's strange to me that our culture has so decisively disconnected the idea of a writer from a director.
AW: It's efficient.
RI: It is yeah, I suppose it is. But it's also become a kind of a boundary, like a sort of not-that-porous boundary since... I mean not only relatively recently, since the Victorians again.
AW: I think because doing… well because doing both is hard.
RI: Yeah. Have you ever been tempted to do both? Have you done both?
AW: I mean I used to. I directed in college. Like the undergrad I went to, that was... I mean I also wrote plays in college, but we for some reason they had... They gave us a lot of directing to do, which that was great, because I was terrified of directing. I would never have directed if I hadn't been made to do it.
AW: Yeah, as part of getting my degree. And then I directed for a number of years afterward, and stopped sometime in grad school. I think I directed a couple of my things and then stopped, and had directed a bunch of other people's plays elsewhere. But…
RI: Is there a bit of you sometimes there must be that thinks, ‘oh just let me do that’?
AW: No I mean I used to, but I was never a comfortable director. I sort of felt like when I directed a thing, it was directed to my satisfaction. Like I could make it be what I needed it to be, and I often thought it was pretty good as an end result. But getting there was a hard hard process for everyone. I'm really not a natural director. In the rehearsal room I just kind of get a little dreamy and disconnected, and I'm sort of thinking about the text, like I really am a playwright. But there was a period of time when I did kind of think like ‘oh yeah I could do that.’ Yeah, this other person is doing it, but I can do that thing. But then something about, I guess the years passing and the people I've started out with. My friends, the directors, who we were all just little kitten and puppy directors and playwrights together, now they've been doing it for so long that they've really acquired... in the same way I'm a... I don't know if I'm a better writer than I was at that time, but they're certainly better directors that they used to be.
So I kind of see how they go about it and their train of thought, and oh yeah I no longer… It would take years to... I just haven't been doing it, you know. I can direct in a really crude rudimentary way. I do like to think if no one else would do my plays at all, I do have this like ‘oh yes I can go off to…’, there's a town in Oregon called Boring, which I used to drive through on my way back and forth from like...
RI: Brilliant, Boring Oregon.
AW: Called Boring, Oregon. I would drive back and forth where I was going to school in my hometown, which is in Berkeley, California, it's a 12 hour drive. Much of it through - which I would invariably do in the middle of the night, because I liked driving at night, at that time, or something. But as I was passing through Boring, Oregon, you know if it comes down to it I'm going to come here and rent a storefront and make my own theatre.
RI: The Boring Theatre Company.
AW: I'm still kind of tempted! I sort of would really love to do that.
RI: We've got to finish up, but before we do, I want to ask you the question that I reckon the people listening to this will want to know, which is what's your writing process? Like when? How? On what? Is it regular?
AW: I mean there's kind of a routine, but it's not daily. It’s more project based, which… this maybe an egregious act of justifying my writerly weaknesses. But I do often feel as a novelist, if you're writing a novel you really have to, it's got to be pretty much a daily thing, you've got to keep in the rhythm of the thing. And I think there is something about writing plays in spurts, or charged periods of efforts. But it really, it honestly… it horribly horribly depends on what the deadline is for the play, so that if I need to write a play in a week, I write a play in a week. I've written a play in three weeks. I've written a play in three weeks I’m really I'm very fond of. If I don't have a completely definite deadline, or one I don't take completely seriously, it can take years and years and years.
RI: Do you write by hand?
AW: No, I used to. I used to start by hand and move to the computer.
RI: Now it's just computer?
AW: Now it's just all the computer. Which is kind of degraded. I think writing by hand is… I try to make notes by hand, like the more somatic you can be about the thing, the better. The more you can be messing around with your body. I think long walks are - which I don't always do - but a long rhythmic walk somewhere in there is great. And apart from that I don't know... I try to write in the morning. But I like being put under hideous pressure. I like being put in situations where you have to just write from morning until night, until you're completely numb and feel horrible, and never want to write again. And then you have to get up and you think there's no way that you can possibly write because you're so tired. I like these situations in retrospect, very much.
RI: There's an interesting puritanical Jesuit streak in there. There’s a sort of ‘punish me, make me do it, sensor me!’
AW: If I don't want to die at some point during this process, it's just not worth doing.
RI: And how are you feeling about first preview?
AW: I'm looking forward to taking many notes, I think. I am excited about it. It's a really lovely cast, and I love my director, and the thing is in various ways ravishing, and I'm very very curious to see what it will be with an audience, and I have a million thoughts about it still, and a million ways I'm still thinking about it. So it's an occupation rather than an event, do you know what I mean? The first preview.
RI: Yeah. Great at that point I should say, Anne Washburn it is an honour and a pleasure to have you back at the Almeida.
AW: It is an honour and a pleasure to be back at the Almeida.
RI: Hopefully the second time of many, many, many. Thanks for taking the time on the day of the first preview of The Twilight Zone.
AW: My pleasure.