BWW Interview: ACTUALLY, Anna Ziegler Writes Prolifically
I made the most of the opportunity to delve into Anna's thoughts on her love of writing; how, by chance, she became the successful writer she is today; and her reaction to winning London's 2016 WhatsOnStage Award for Best New Play for her PHOTOGRAPH 51.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Anna!
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you currently have nine published plays to your credit, right?
I think it's seven, unless you count different editions of PHOTOGRAPH 51. Then, there are a couple of new ones that haven't been published yet, and some older ones. So all told, I guess I've written thirteen full-length plays at this point.
Chronologically, in regards to your other plays, when did you write ACTUALLY?
I started writing ACTUALLY in December 2014 in a workshop at the Lark in New York, and then put it down for a while. Before I picked it up again, I worked on other plays - THE LAST MATCH, BOY, revisions of PHOTOGRAPH 51 for the production in London, revisions of ANOTHER WAY HOME for a production in Washington DC. Then the work I'd done on ACTUALLY started to gnaw at me and I went back to it to see if there was anything there.
What sparked you to write ACTUALLY?
A few things. As I said, I wrote it at the Lark in a workshop and it happened to be a fast-paced, write-a-play-in-a-week workshop. So I didn't have time to think or second-guess myself, which was lucky. I knew I wanted to try writing a two-hander, which I'd never done, and I knew that the complicated dynamics at play on college campuses now, and specifically, in certain kinds of campus sexual assault cases, presented an interesting opportunity to imagine a story where two opposing truths could exist at the same time. I also wanted to explore how difficult it can be to determine what happened at any given moment between two human beings.
What characteristic would best describe the common thread running through your plays?
I think I do return again and again to the theme of forgiveness, both in terms of forgiving oneself and forgiving others. In PHOTOGRAPH 51, ACTUALLY, BOY and A DELICATE SHIP, characters are trapped in their guilt or their regret, which also traps them in time, in the past. Hopefully by the end of these plays, these characters have begun to see themselves in a gentler light, and to see events in a greater context, and are able to move forward - even a little.
You majored in writing at Yale and earned your Master's in poetry at the University of Anglia in England. Did you always long to be a writer?
I majored in English in college, but with a writing concentration. And, yes, I did always want to be a writer. That being said, I never imagined that it would one day be my primary job.
What form of writing? Fiction? Poetry? How did you decide on playwriting?
I mostly wrote poetry up until the moment when I went to graduate school for playwriting. It sounds a little crazy, but it's true. I took a playwriting class on a whim my senior year of college taught by Arthur Kopit. He then persuaded me to apply to the playwriting program at NYU, where he also taught. I didn't think I'd get in. I was in England writing poetry when I found out, and applying for jobs in publishing in New York. I wasn't having much success getting one of those. So I went to grad school and then, suddenly, I was a playwright. I don't mean to sound flip or disingenuous, but I did sort of fall into it. Writing a good play was so hard and the challenge was exciting, or at least motivating. I just wanted to write better plays. I still do.
You are currently writing a television pilot for AMC/Sundance and a screenplay for Scott Free Productions. Can you describe the emphasis or de-emphasis you need to incorporate to write for theatre vs television vs film?
Well, I'm pretty new to the TV/film game, so I'm not sure I can fully answer this yet. But I was meeting with a filmmaker the other day who'd read one of my plays and was suggesting that whole monologues, in a movie version, could be effectively condensed into a single look. Which is to say, there's an obvious emphasis on visual language in screenplays and a way in which you can't rely on your characters to talk themselves out of a hole. Something actually has to happen to them.
The production of ACTUALLY at the Geffen Playhouse will be a co-world premiere with the Williamstown Theatre Festival (August 9-20). As the playwright, how much involvement do you have in the casting of your premieres?
I generally have a good deal of involvement in casting when it comes to world premieres. For the Geffen production, I watched a lot of taped auditions because I couldn't easily get out to LA to be in the room. The Williamstown auditions were held in NYC and I was there for that whole process, save one final callback when I was in LA at the Geffen and had to watch on Skype.
At what point do you stop tweaking your premiering script? Once you give it over to be produced? Through dress rehearsals? Through previews?
I will keep changing a script until it's published and even after that. But for any individual production, I stop tweaking when the director tells me the script is frozen. When that is, is usually dependent on the director's sense of when it would start to be detrimental to the play to keep making changes, even if the changes might be valuable ones. At a certain point, the actors are, understandably, FULL. They've got so much in their heads and have been incorporating so many changes that it might do more damage than good to add more. The director has to balance keeping the cast and the playwright sane during previews. It isn't an easy job.
Would you agree that PHOTOGRAPH 51 is your most well-known theatre piece?
I would agree! And I've been very lucky with it. I've gotten to go places I wouldn't have gone, and to meet the most amazing theater people and scientists alike. I just returned from seeing it in Rome, where it was performed in Italian, starring Asia Argento.
Where did PHOTOGRAPH 51 play in the U.S. before its recent London premiere?
It actually played in at least five theaters in the U.S. first. It started at a tiny theater in Maryland, then went to the Fountain in LA, then The Ensemble Studio Theatre in NY, then Theater J in DC, and Seattle Rep.
Would you say the London premiere of PHOTOGRAPH 51 availed more opportunities to you?
If you mean opportunities for that particular play, then I'd say, "Absolutely yes!" While the London production was running, a number of foreign markets optioned the rights to the play, and I think there's been a boost in productions around the U.S., too.
Do you remember your acceptance speech when PHOTOGRAPH 51 won London's 2016 WhatsOnStage Award for Best New Play?
I've blocked it out. I was in New York at the time, so I taped an acceptance speech. I wouldn't even watch it back myself because I knew it was so embarrassing. I can't stand seeing or hearing recordings of myself.
Any particular questions or feelings you'd like the Geffen audience to leave with after seeing ACTUALLY?
I'd love for folks not to be quite sure what to take away from the play. I hope it gets some debates going about what constitutes consent and what constitutes its opposite, and about the complicated baggage that every person is always carrying. I hope it brings up questions of race and gender as they relate to unconscious bias on the part of the audience. Mostly I hope that the audience feels like they've been through something intense alongside these characters.
Thank you again, Anna!
For schedule of performances and ticket availability through June 11, 2017, log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org