Mr Burns author Anne Washburn’s new play tackles the divisive US president. She tells Hugh Montgomery why she is unfazed by negative criticism and how the Almeida has kept faith with her ‘American nightmares’
Could there be a more difficult subject for an artist to address in 2019 than Donald Trump? When Anne Washburn started writing Shipwreck, her new play about the US president, she was well aware of the challenge she had set herself.
“The wisdom about writing plays is you don’t write about the thing that is most electric to you in the moment. Like if you’ve just had a break-up, you don’t write a play about a break-up,” she says when we meet during a break in rehearsals at London’s Almeida Theatre. She adds that another issue is that “political theatre is hard to make”.
However, if anyone is up to the task of tackling Trump in a way that transcends the 24-hour news cycle, it’s Washburn. The American playwright is a master of theatrical invention. Her last original work to be performed here was the post-apocalyptic fantasia Mr Burns. An extraordinary meditation on cultural myth-making tracing the afterlife of an episode of The Simpsons, it split the critics like few other productions in recent memory. The draft script of Shipwreck suggests that this latest piece is going to be no less remarkable.
It’s hard to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling its coups de theatre, but the show centres on a group of mainly white liberals discussing the state of America – among other things – in an upstate New York farmhouse. It is less about Trump himself than his ‘creation’ because, as Washburn notes drily: “It’s how his supporters and anti-supporters are responding to him that has made this moment. I mean, he courts the attention for sure and he’s very good at that. But it’s us – we’re the problem.”
Washburn first conceived Shipwreck in June 2017 while on a silent playwriting retreat in Texas run by fellow writer Erik Ehn. “I felt like the political situation was all I was thinking about. I just wanted to discharge my brain.” Writing a play about Trump “didn’t seem possible to me,” she says, but then she thought: “What I do in this week is my own business.”
Part of the idea behind the retreat was for those involved to write really quickly, Washburn says. “So you’re writing faster than you can think. The value of that is that you write things you wouldn’t write otherwise.”
One curious thing is that such an ostensibly American play is having its world premiere in Britain, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida Theatre. That’s partly down to logistics, Washburn says. She finished Shipwreck in spring 2018 and knew that, because of its current-affairs slant, it would be advisable to get it on to the stage quickly. But that would have been difficult to do in the US, “because our seasons are planned much further in advance than your seasons and we don’t have as much funding as you do. A play with eight actors is something a theatre really needs to plan and budget for”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a yogurt-and-chocolate shop, a couple of blocks down from where my folks lived. I was 15 or 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I was the world’s worst stage manager on a production of The Comedy of Errors at Martha’s Vineyard. It was just terrible. It was on an outdoor stage and occasionally wild turkeys would charge across it in the middle of the performance.
What’s your next job?
After Shipwreck and The Twilight Zone in the UK, probably doing Shipwreck in the States.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t worry about it. Just do it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Playwrights David Greenspan, Maria Irene Fornes, Caryl Churchill, Mac Wellman, Tony Kushner and John Guare. It’s been an amazing time in the States for playwriting over the last 20 years, so the colleagues that I’ve grown up with have been very inspiring.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t try to please the people in the room.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
I’d like to believe I would have become a forest ranger, but I don’t think I would have.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Yes, all of them. I like to pile them on. I knock on wood, don’t say the name of ‘the Scottish play’ or whistle in the theatre. I love them. You need all the luck you can get.
Another compelling reason for producing it over here was her relationship with the Almeida. It began with its production of Mr Burns in 2014, which came about as a result of the venue’s associate director Robert Icke bringing the play to Goold. “Rupert sent Rob over to New York to chat with me. I thought: ‘Well, I’ll chat politely with him, but this young person’s not my directing my play’, ” she laughs. “But then I had this long talk with Rob and that turned out to be great.”
What’s more, alongside some of the rave reviews, the production received a “ton of negative response” – indeed, this publication gave it one star – and Washburn was “moved” by how the Almeida kept faith with both her and the work. “All of my plays, to some degree or another, get a divided response, so I’ve become kind of inured to it. I know it’s really hard on institutions, but I think the Almeida is interested in a divided response. That’s where their appetite is at.”
After Mr Burns, she was commissioned by the theatre to adapt cult, American sci-fi series The Twilight Zone for the stage. A sinister and stylish treatment, it opened in the building in December 2017, and is transferring to the West End later this month.
Washburn describes her familiarity with the original TV programme as “ambient – you have just absorbed it and been traumatised by it. That’s what it is to be American”. Directed by Richard Jones, and intertwining the stories of eight different episodes, it is a venture into slightly more commercial territory for Washburn, though it has tonal similarities to Shipwreck. “Both of them feel like American nightmares, or America trying to sort out what it’s thinking about itself,” she says.
There has always been a dizzying element to Washburn’s ideas since she was first inspired to write for the stage as an undergraduate at Portland’s Reed College while acting in a fellow student’s thesis play. It was a “revelation that someone I knew could write a thing”, she says – and she ended up simultaneously writing a “pastiche-y send up” of it for a separate piece of late-night cabaret theatre.
After her first degree, Washburn remained around the north-west of America. She did temp work in Portland and Seattle for years to support herself as she pursued her artistic ambitions, before eventually heading to New York to do a master’s degree in dramatic writing.
Her work is not only inventive, but often formally very daring, from her breakthrough piece The Internationalist at New York’s Vineyard Theatre in 2006 – for which she created a new language of sorts – to 2015’s 10 out of 12, set during the technical rehearsals of a fictional play, and Mr Burns, with its opera-inspired third act.
But Washburn claims she never sets out to be experimental. “I think I’m just a lazy and distracted writer,” she says, with self-deprecation. “The more I know about a play, the less likely I am to write it. So I start with something that really vexes me, and which I don’t know the answer to, and I have to write to find out.”
As for how she thinks Shipwreck will be received? For all the publicity automatically generated by its subject matter, she suspects it may not create as big a schism as Mr Burns. “I can’t imagine it would be divisive in the same way, but people might just be super-bored. I shouldn’t say that, should I?,” she laughs. “But I have literally no idea, I’m curious to find out.”
In Shipwreck, there’s also a discussion about the extent to which plays should speak to the ‘contemporary moment’ or the ‘eternal’ one. What is her take on it? “I think plays are the most perishable of the art forms, so even though every writer loves to think that in 100 years they’ll be remembered, I know I won’t. I don’t know that in 20 years anyone will be doing my work. This play in particular I wrote thinking: ‘Pray God it won’t be relevant in five years. Pray God it won’t be relevant in three.’ ”
Born: Year undisclosed, Berkeley, California
Training: Reed College, Portland; New York University
• Apparition, Connelly Theater, New York (2005)
• The Internationalist, Vineyard Theatre, New York (2006); Gate Theatre, London (2008)
• Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play, Playwrights Horizons, New York (2013); Almeida Theatre, London (2014)
• The Twilight Zone, Almeida Theatre (2017)
• Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts (2007)
• Whiting Award for Drama (2015)
• Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (2016)
Agent: Mark Subias, United Talent Agency
Shipwreck runs at the Almeida Theatre, London until March 30