BWW Interviews: MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY's Anne Washburn Ponders Pop Culture After the Apocalypse
Anne Washburn, playright and lyricist, has written a number of plays since 1998 that have been produced in New York, Washington, D.C. and London. She was the recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim fellowship and the winner of a 2015 Whiting Writers' Award.
Her first turn at the Guthrie Theater, MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, is a dark comedy that premiered in May 2012. It tells the story of a group of survivors recalling and retelling an episode of the TV show "The Simpsons" shortly after a global catastrophe, then examines the way the story has changed seven years after that, and finally, 75 years later. The play was nominated for a 2014 Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Broadway or Off-Broadway Play.
Q: What was the inspiration for MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY?
A: It was just musing, in the subway, about what would happen to pop culture after a sudden fall of civilization, wondering what would survive, and how it might be useful. I wondered what would happen if you took a TV show and pushed it forward in time, and then forward again, what different needs it would serve, and how serving those different needs would change it. I thought maybe "Friends" or "Seinfeld" or "Cheers," anything which had been beloved or popular, and I ended up hitting on "The Simpsons," a bit at random. Steve Cosson of the Civilians (an investigative theater group of which I am a member) approached me to see if I had a play they could commission and the first step in writing it was to gather a group of actors and ask them to remember "Simpsons" episodes. The one they best remembered was "Cape Feare" and I made a transcript from that session and used it to begin the play.
Q: What about "The Simpsons" do you think captures people's imaginations enough that it would survive a nuclear meltdown?
A: I think people would remember really enjoying it. And it's a show in which the humor is so verbally precise that lots of people enjoy the act of remembering it even now, and so I think chunks of it would be in readiness. More than that it's a show about family, and about community, and I think that focus would seem resonant in a time of deep crisis.
Q: Do audiences need to know "The Simpsons" to enjoy MR. BURNS?
A: They don't! The play isn't so much about "The Simpsons" as it is about people for whom "The Simpsons" - for various reasons, including survival - is important. I think people do need to know that there's a Bart, who is a scamp, and a Homer, who is an idiot, and Marge the long-suffering mother and Lisa the know-it-all sister. Apart from that, if you pay attention in the first act and get the major plot points of the "Cape Feare" episode - as they describe it - you should be good to go.
Q: How has the play evolved through writing, workshop and production?
A: A great deal, the third act in particular since it functions in many ways like a musical drama and that's an entirely different kind of dramaturgy. We began rehearsals in D.C. for the Woolly Mammoth production with a draft, which I would have been dismayed to lay before a paying public, and I did a ton of work on it during that process. I tinkered with it more during rehearsals in New York, and finessed it a bit in London, and tweaked it some in Chicago, and I'll be looking in at it a bit during rehearsals for this production, and I'm sure I won't be able to resist poking at it the tiniest amount, and then after this I'm walking away.
Q: Can you describe the role that music plays in MR. BURNS? Had you written lyrics for other plays?
A: I've written songs for other plays but I've never written a story musically - which is what the third act is, essentially. I wanted the third act to be a big musical event because I wanted the people of the third act to be making the largest and fullest expression of their own story they could and that seemed to call for music.
I was thinking of Greek dramas. Not to compare the production in the third act to a Greek drama - Greek dramas are the product of a very sophisticated and educated society, and the world of the third act is only barely stable - but the Greeks were able to tell very serious, dramatic, exciting stories, with very nuanced psychological exploration, with big singing, and big dancing, and I wanted to capture a hint of that.
Q: Would you consider MR. BURNS ultimately to be a positive play about potential apocalypse?
A: Well ... no, not really. It's positive in the sense that people survive and continue. I think it would have been better to have avoided the apocalypse in the first place; I do think people are amazing, but they aren't sensible. I think it might be a positive play about human resilience.
Q: What kind of experience do you hope Guthrie audiences will get from MR. BURNS?
A: Oh, I hope they'll have a little fun. See something a little unfamiliar.
MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY runs March 31-May 10 on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. Tickets range from $34-$65 (preview performance tickets start at $15). Learn more and buy tickets at www.guthrietheater.org.