Volunteer Andrea interviews Anne Washburn, author of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play currently at the Woolly Mammoth.
Andrea: How did you develop the story for Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play?
Anne Washburn: Mr. Burns came from an idea I’d been kicking around for a long time – what would happen to a pop culture narrative after the end of the civilization which produced it. Steve Cosson approached me about doing a play with the Civilians, and we began by holing up with the actors in a donated rehearsal space – an abandoned bank vault deep below Wall Street where there was no cell service and only a small bank of flickering fluorescent lights – and asking them to remember Simpsons’ episodes. The episode they remembered best was Cape Feare. We recorded those sessions, and I transcribed them and used them to start the play.
Andrea: How did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?
Anne Washburn: I wrote poetry — in grade school, and high school. I always felt as if the work was somehow wrong. I always loved plays and loved to act, but I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of theater, and the plays my high school did were very old and conservative, and so I somehow didn’t think of it as a contemporary form. I went to college, intending to put theater behind me, but I slipped and in my freshman year was in a senior thesis play, this wild thing based on the Orestia and heavily influenced by Beckett and Pinter, all of which was a revelation. I had a crush on the playwright, and to get his attention I wrote a parody of his play for the late night cabaret. It was my first time working in play form, and I knew instantly that this was what my brain should be doing.
Andrea: What was your journey like to get your first play into production?
Anne Washburn: My first play was produced for a few weekends at an art gallery/cafe in Seattle called AFLN which specialized in toast – each table had a toaster, and you got a small pile of bread and a small pot of butter and jam from the counter. A friend directed it, friends were in it, no one was paid; it felt like a very big deal to me and still ranks up there as an ideal kind of theater experience.
Andrea: What is your role in the theater group The Civilians?
Anne Washburn: Steve Cosson was directing a play of mine when the group was formed in 2001, so I’ve been involved since the beginning. I’m an associate artist which means that I’m one of a very loose constellation of…associated artists. I haven’t had an actual show with the Civilians since 2003 (The Ladies) but I have worked a lot with a lot of the other associated artists over the years and think of it as a go-to community of like minds. Civilians actors are smart, independent, and a lot of fun, so I always want to work with them.
Andrea: What’s next for you?
Anne Washburn: I have plays I need to finish. I have a very long play about Nero, and Seneca, which I’m part way through, and I’m just beginning a play about tech rehearsals. I’m starting to research a play about the anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey.
Anne Washburn’s plays have been produced by 13P, Actors Theater of Louisville, American Repertory Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, Clubbed Thumb, The Civilians, Dixon Place, Ensemble Studio Theater, The Folger, London’s Gate Theatre, NYC’s Soho Rep, DC’s Studio Theater, Two River Theater Company, NYC’s Vineyard and Woolly Mammoth. Awards include a Guggenheim, a NYFA Fellowship, a Time Warner Fellowship, Susan Smith Blackburn finalist, residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo, and an Artslink travel grant to Hungary. Currently commissioned by MTC, Playwrights Horizons, Soho Rep, and Yale Rep.