Q&A: Anne Washburn

The playwright talks apocalypse, Greek theater, The Simpsons and her acclaimed Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which has a regional premiere at Stage West this week.

published Sunday, August 2, 2015

Photo: Buddy Myers
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at Stage West


Fort Worth — What do H.M.S. Pinafore, Bart Simpson and Stephen King’s The Stand have in common?

D’oh—they all come together in playwright Anne Washburn’s wild, wacky—and challenging—Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, making its regional premiere at Stage West.

With a score by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Fortress of Solitude), Mr. Burns comes highly recommended—especially for a show that starts off in the shock-and-awful aftermath of a very recent nuclear disaster. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it “downright brilliant” and asked “When was the last time you met a new play that was so smart it made your head spin?” Time magazine called the play “both scary and sweet, funny but dead serious” and The Village Voice said “from hell, Mr. Burns sends us to heaven.”

Mr. Burns begins with a ragtag bunch of survivors around a campfire, trying to piece together memories of one episode of The Simpsons—“Cape Feare”—in which Bart is stalked by a murderous Sideshow Bob. (It’s a riff on two film versions of the Cape Fear story.) But that’s just the start: the major arc of the play uses The Simpsons and our obsession with pop-culture details to muse about the role storytelling itself plays in keeping us going—as individuals and communities—in all kinds of times, both good and very, very bad.

Oh, and did we mention Mr. Burns is funny—and that the last part is all-singing, all the time? Expect the unexpected: masks, villains, heroes, and myths being born before our very eyes.

With Garret Storms directing, Mr. Burns is the closing show of Stage West’s memorable 2014-2015 season. Mr. Burns opened in 2012 with a production at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., then moved with original director Steve Cosson for an off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons in 2013. Since then, it’s had runs at the Almeida in London, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and in Chicago and Las Vegas.

The Stage West cast includes Jessica Cavanagh, Paul Taylor, Mikaela Krantz, Amy Mills, Ian Ferguson, Henry Greenberg, Kelsey Leigh Ervi and Caroline Dubberly, with musical direction by Aimee Hurst Bozarth. Previews begin Thursday and opening night is Saturday.

Photo: Courtesy
Anne Washburn

Anne Washburn’s professional career started with an “investigative theater” group called The Civilians. She’s written a play (Apparition) that is performed in near-darkness, and another (The Internationalist) for which she crafted an invented language. She’s won numerous awards and fellowships, and is currently working on projects for Classic Stage Company, Yale Rep and MTC.

Washburn lives in Brooklyn—of course—where the coffee shops must be thoroughly sick of the overflow crowd of novelists and playwrights taking up tables day after day. (TJ is just jealous.)


TheaterJones: Come the apocalypse, which character from The Simpsons would you want to be?

Anne Washburn: Oh, I hope I would be Groundskeeper Willie. He’s a tough one; I’m sure he makes it through!


You spoke a couple of years ago about what kind of theater we might want and need in a post-apocalyptic world. Talk about that in terms of the play, and also—why did you pick The Simpsons as the vehicle?

The first act of Mr. Burns takes place right after everything falls apart, when I think people would just be trying to entertain, to distract each other from what happened, which nobody wants to talk about. And telling friends about TV episodes is our society’s version of campfire stories, because these are the stories everyone knows. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of The Simpsons, you kind of know who the characters are and what it’s like.

I don’t remember why I chose that show—it was a little random. I had thought about Friends and Seinfeld, which are shows about friends rather than family—and decided that right after a disaster where people had lost almost everyone they knew, a story about family would become something important and intriguing.


Then in the second part, it becomes more of a show, a bit vaudevillian in style, perhaps?

Now it’s seven years later, and we’re not following the same set of characters—we’re following a story all the way through to the end. Right after, when everything is horrible, you’d just want comfort and entertainment. Now, it’s about making money and how you survive. This [show] is something fun and interesting you can give people, so they will give you the nails they’ve been hoarding, or the side of bacon they have.


Without giving too much away, talk about the last part of the play, which is 75 years or so into the “post-electric” era. And the theater has taken on a more formalized, mythic feel, sort of like the ancient Greek plays, right?

The “Cape Feare” episode is hilarious, of course, but it has a dark heart. The original story from [either movie version of Cape Fear] is scary enough, but The Simpsons makes it even scarier. In the films, it’s a man defending his family from something horrible; but in The Simpsons it’s about a child being threatened by someone scary—and no one will believe him, not his parents, not the figures of authority.

So the story is very much about being untethered in the world. It’s funny in the telling, but there is a seriousness there. I think people would want to know somehow that the grim stuff is underneath. I don’t believe there are any stories that are completely fluffy, which don’t have real human concerns beneath them. And 75 years later, this [kind of theater] might be the way they talk and think about what everyone went through—but in a mythic, cartoonish way.


Is it a way of making themselves feel braver about the world as it is for them?

I think it’s a way of talking about the suffering and pain, and about our loss of control over the world. If this happened, it’s not like we’d just go back to the Dark Ages.  We would have nuclear and chemical things and a lot of technology lying around. But if we had lost everything that controlled them, that reality would dominate the landscape. People would be thinking about their fears, including the fact that with nuclear contamination, you can’t see it or feel it. So you personify the fear; there’s a reason why Mr. Burns becomes the villain [over time] instead of Sideshow Bob. 


Were you surprised by the mega-response to Mr. Burns? Ben Brantley all but tap-danced on his New York Times review, he was so excited by the play, and it’s been much discussed; you’ve been on panels where the play was being deeply analyzed by critics, language experts, and so on.  

Yes, I was surprised. I didn’t expect people to feel so strongly about it. And the response was outsized in both ways. Wherever it’s been done, some people have a very strong positive response and some have a very strong negative response. I didn’t think it would have such a life—I expected that I and my friends would put it up in a small way in New York, have fun, and that would be it.


It must hit something we’re already thinking about, then?

Yes, I think so. It’s a scary time in many ways—and there are so many post-apocalyptic stories. On the one hand it gins you up with fear, but keeping control of it in a narrative is kind of soothing, too.


Your theater interests go way back; for instance, you’ve done an adaptation of Euripides’ Orestes—and it sounds like there’s more than a whiff of the ancient Greek theater in the way Mr. Burns develops.

Photo: Buddy Myers
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at Stage West

I wrote the Orestes before Mr. Burns, in 2004, though really, it was a 9/11 idea I began working on in 2001, when “What is Western civilization?” was suddenly the question. So you have to think about the democracy in Athens for that brief period, and the theater that came out of that time.


And at some point, then, there was a crossover action going—something about the Orestes that linked up with what became Mr. Burns?

Yes, huge connections with Greek drama, but with Orestes particularly, because it switches back and forth so much between tragedy and this kind of goofy irony, which is part of the DNA of Mr. Burns.

I’d said I would write the play in 2008, and we’d done the workshop with the actors—but then I put it off for other projects. Then in 2010, I was involved in a production of the Orestes at the Folger [in Washington D.C.], and in the rental apartment there was a copy of Stephen King’s The Stand, which is a book I’d read a bunch of times as a teenager. So by day we worked on the Orestes and at night I was reading this immensely long version of The Stand. I think both were huge influences on Mr. Burns.

Greek drama is about huge things, and incredibly sophisticated—yet it came from a society which was in trouble. And 75 years after the apocalypse, this world is unstable; they haven’t gotten it together. So I think of this third part of Mr. Burns as having the Greek dramatic impulse, with something of the Victorian melodrama and the [medieval] Passion plays thrown in—big stories told in big ways!


And a little Gilbert and Sullivan Pinafore in the mix, too?


The play began with improv sessions with The Civilians. I knew I wanted to start with people telling the episodes. And I loved the language we use in life when we’re trying to remember something. It’s really complex and interesting: oh, oh, wait, and adding things in, and going all over the map. I wanted to capture that. So I got together this group of actors I know and love, and we started it as a post-apocalyptic improv. But we’re not trained for that, and we were terrible! So after 15 embarrassing minutes, we switched to telling Simpsons episodes, and “Cape Feare” was one a few actors remembered best. I took the transcript and edited it down, and started writing from that point. So the first seven or eight minutes of the play are pretty much how they told it.


And your free rehearsal space for those sessions was an abandoned bank vault deep under Wall Street—now that sounded very post-apocalyptic to me!

We went down there for a week. There were elevators and long corridors and people got lost; there was no cell service, and the lights kept flickering on us.


And what if you’d come up one night, and found the apocalypse had happened and the world had stopped?

I know, it’s like that Twilight Zone episode, isn’t it?


Did the Simpsons people have a sense of humor about this from the start, or did they send the suits after you for co-opting their TV show?

I don’t know at what point they became aware of it. I’m sure that lawyers came to see it as soon as it was a proper show [at Woolly Mammoth] in D.C. Yes, they have had a sense of humor about it, and our lawyers felt it was covered under fair use, anyway. But of course the TV people could have made things difficult for us if they had hated the play—but it’s so full of quotes and references I think they must ultimately have decided it was a respectful use of the material. And it isn’t a Simpsons episode; it’s a story of its own.

The show actually was mentioned in a recent Simpsons episode. The family is going to the movies, and Homer starts listing post-apocalyptic narratives; the very last one he mentions is Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. I wasn’t watching, but began getting a ton of texts when that happened, and we were all a bit thrilled. It was sort of things doubling back on themselves, like the snake eating its tail.


You went to New York University for graduate study, but before that to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a very interesting and different kind of school. Do you think you would have become a playwright if you hadn’t gone to Reed?

No, I wouldn’t have been. I would have gone somewhere else, been an English major, and be, I guess, an English professor somewhere right now.

I’d done theater in high school, but wasn’t going to continue, because there’s no money in it, and it’s a hard way to make a life. And I didn’t think I was good enough. But when I went to Reed, you can’t take English classes your first year; they have a lot of core classes the school wants you to take. So I was a bit at loose ends, taking a theater class—and then I auditioned for a play written by one of the seniors. I’d never been exposed to anything like it—very influenced by Brecht and Pinter and all kinds of writers I hadn’t read—and I thought it was amazing. I got a part, and was just sucked into the whole thing.


Is this your first time doing song lyrics for a play? Michael Friedman [who wrote the music for Mr. Burns’ final section] was in Dallas for his musical The Fortress of Solitude recently.

A lot of my plays have songs in them, but this was different, since the whole third act is a musical—and as it turns out, the way I tell a story is the opposite of how you tell the story as a musical. And Michael, in addition to being a wonderful composer, is also a brilliant dramaturg. He’d now and then just drop a sentence or two [in my ear], and I’d go “Oh!”


What do you like most and least about your life as a working playwright?

I love collaborating with great people, actors and others. No production is perfect [or exactly the same], so the feeling of being challenged is kind of amazing with each one. It’s a really exciting time to be an American playwright—kind of a boom time, with lots of really strong, focused, and committed theatrical writers. I’m constantly seeing things that give me pleasure, and we all are challenging one another. So despite the fact that it doesn’t pay very well, it feels like a really “alive” activity to be part of.


And that’s great, isn’t it, when people used to regularly declare that theater was dead or dying.

It’s such an old impulse, I think—both to make plays and to see them. It’s hard, the economics ultimately make theater difficult to afford, both for companies and for audiences. But if you see a good play, it will hold you for six months. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Anne Washburn
The playwright talks apocalypse, Greek theater, The Simpsons and her acclaimed Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which has a regional premiere at Stage West this week.
by Jan Farrington

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