What is your name and where are you from?
Anne Washburn. Brooklyn.
Oh! You’re from Brooklyn?
Not originally…Berkeley, California originally.
Oh, yeah, yeah. So, when did you start writing?
Well I wrote, I always kind of wrote as a kid, and what I mostly wrote was poetry, I mean I sort of identified as a poet but I always felt like I wasn’t doing it quite right, and I couldn’t write short stories because the ‘he said, she said’ part always bothered me, I somehow couldn’t make sense of the form of stories, I never thought to try novels. So I always sort of felt like a writer but always felt guilty about it because I could never get a proper handle on it. And I always did theatre, because I loved it, but I didn’t think of it as a literary form; we would do weird performance pieces in my hippie elementary school and these very old war horse plays at my high school. And then in college, I wasn’t going to do theatre at all but ended up auditioning for a senior play, a thesis play by this writer Bret Fetzer, which I thought was amazing and was very influenced by Beckett, and Pinter, which were people whom I hadn’t really dealt with particularly before, so it was all very exciting. And I tried to write a parody of it, the play, for a late night theatre thing, and just writing the parody, everything kind of clicked into place, like oh this is my brain, how my brain makes sense of things: dialogue, conflict, etc.
Wow, that’s very cool. And where did you go to undergrad?
I went to undergrad at Reed College in Portland, OR.
And did you go to grad school for writing?
I did. Years later, I went to NYU, to the MFA program for dramatic writing.
So here at SPACE, have you noticed a difference between your process of writing being here versus being at home, or in the city?
I think anytime you write in a retreat situation you write more deeply, often, in a way, just because you are in a more relaxed state. I think also it can be more stressful.
Yeah, a lot of people have said that actually.
Because it’s on you. But my experience being on writing retreats, although it can often be very frustrating, the work I actually end of up doing is different than what I would have done at home, generally in a good way.
That’s great. And did you come here with a clear idea of what you were going to be working on?
I mean, I’m here for such a short time, so I’m not starting a project; I’m not able to go deeply. I picked something that I couldn’t go deeply into because it would be very frustrating to start working deeply in something and then have to go back and re-jigger how you’re working on something. So I’m just kind of getting stuff done that I need to get done, I’m mainly doing research, and I’m getting so much more done than I would have in the city, and I know that the thought process that I have around it, around the stuff I’m researching is going to be more complicated just because I’ll have had time to think about it, instead of just trotting out thoughts.
Do you ever find that when you write in different places the product becomes different?
That’s a really interesting question, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever worked continuously on something in one place and then another place and then another place. I think it’s harder to tell with plays because they are by their very nature such a portmanteau assemblage of personalities and things. Plays are kind of served by having multiple personalities colliding in them, so I don’t know how much a place will change a play or how much of that is just the task.
That’s true. How do you typically, if you do typically in any way, gain ideas or inspiration for your work? Have you found a pattern or are there certain things that strike an idea?
It happens in all kinds of different ways and it also depends on the situation. I often like to put myself in situations where, for various reasons, I have to start writing quite suddenly without knowing what I’m writing about. I do a lot of silent retreats with Erik Ehn. Or I really like prompts, situations where I’m made to start, and I don’t know what I’m going to do and then I find out as I’m doing it. That to me is often very productive. Sometimes I’ll just start with a structural problem that I’m interested in working out. Sometimes I’ll start with a character who I’m interested in seeing play out. Sometimes I’ll just start with a line of language and I want to see what it infers.
You give these to yourself?
Yeah, or I run across them. Or you just sort of get an idea from someplace. I mean, I don’t know, at the moment I’m sort of backlogged with ideas that I’ve had in the past that I’m still trying to make sense of. I think like many people, there is sort of a jumble of things I’m interested in, I’m obsessed with, and I’m curious about. So by the time I actually need to write a play, there’s usually more than enough things at hand that I sort of want to know more about.
Cool. What is the most challenging thing about playwriting for you? Maybe at this time in your life?
I don’t know if I think there is one thing. I think each play presents a unique set of problems. I think if you start a project and you feel convinced you can complete it, that’s not as interesting. Each play feels like a different challenge, or a response to a different set of concerns around—is it possible to complete it? So they all feel like, in a way they are all sort of failures, because you can’t, I mean playwriting… Theatre is always a failure, because nothing is ever as amazing as it could be, because there are so many moving parts, and it all has so much potential. So even if something is super pleasurable, I think it’s rare that you feel it’s really exceeded your sense of expectation for it, which is what I like about it.
So this is your first time here at SPACE, what was your first impression when you arrived on the farm?
An enormous sense of place. It’s just very, very specific, and there’s something, I mean there’s something very wonderful about this building in particular (The Sycamores homestead), which just has such a… it’s so irregular and it’s so definite at the same time. It’s very charming and then there are all these crazy pieces of furniture sort of dragged in from all over the place. It doesn’t feel like an institution, it functions well, which is beautiful, but it feels more—eccentric isn’t the right word—but it feels more, pleasingly homemade, I suppose.
Yeah, its sort of like, this place was not created to house artists, or created for a residency program, it’s more that this place was created and then the artists decided that we should use it. It was the other way around rather than building a building for a specific purpose, it was more like we have this purpose so let’s find a building, and it happened to be a house that people lived in once upon a time, in the 1700s.
Yes, so it doesn’t feel consequential, it feels more like squatting in a really great way. It takes the pressure off, kind of feels like running into an abandoned building and playing home in it or something.
Yes. So I know that you came here under Playwrights Horizons. They had an opportunity to send a person, is that right?
So what sparked your interest in volunteering or choosing to come?
I heard: upstate NY, pretty, go away, yes! Farm, organic food, yes!
Yes. I had a similar feeling before coming up here as well!
And it’s lovely that it’s so new. I’m sure they’ve worked out kinks the past few years, but it’s lovely to be a part of something that the thrill of putting it together is still part of the thing. It hasn’t become something which trots along on it’s own steam, it’s still being created.
Yeah, and I think that takes the pressure off too…like you are part of creating something that’s sort of homemade, instead of trying to fit yourself into something. So do you have a favorite spot on the farm?
I’ve only been here two days…(laughs)…so, no.
(laughs) Well do you have a spot that sticks out to you?
I am very fond of the low ceiling-ed dining room. That’s the place where I’ve spent the most time in this house. I’m sure if it were summer I would have time to… I’m very fond of the walk down to the lake, and the dark ducks. They are full of intriguing colors.
Have you had a favorite meal so far?
I was very impressed by the lunch with four different kinds of macaroni and cheese.
Mmm, Brendan’s good at that…the mac.
And four kinds!
Yeah! Well, thank you so much!
Interviewed by Julia Schonberg.