Some time ago, I went on a silent writing retreat led by Erik Ehn at a ranch in west Texas. I was grieving at the time: my younger sister Patty had died. Strangely, observing strict silence with playwrights in the desert turned out to be a comfort. I remember one night it was my turn to close up the lodge. And Erik lingered there with me, helping me sweep the floor, pull down the shades, turn out the lights. Then he walked alongside me back to my cabin, the beams of our flashlights shining ahead together on the path, nothing spoken. Just midnight sounds of the place—wind through the cottonwoods, critters coming out from under their rocks. When I split off the path to my cabin, Erik’s beam stayed with me until I reached the door, and then went away.
Anne Washburn was also alongside me on this retreat. I remember her sitting in a back corner chair in the lodge, and the light on her hair. I remember her across the lunch table, quietly eating green beans. Bean after bean after silent bean. I wrote my play Motel Cherry on this retreat, inspired by the row of tiny cabins there. Anne wrote Antlia Pneumatica, a play she set exactly at this old boys’ ranch camp in Texas Hill Country. A play, she says, that is about “place, space, and grace.”
Peggy Stafford (Rail): Anne, can we start first with grace?
Anne Washburn: Oh, hell.
Rail: How does it figure into your play?
Washburn: That’s sort of an enormous question. And a beautiful question. To me grace is our sort of mysterious ability to sometimes catch a wider view of ourselves, our lives, life in general, and to be able to move in those moments in a way which sheds our self-interest, and our fear; sometimes I think there’s a shift in perspective and sometimes it’s just that we find ourselves behaving or feeling in a way which is unaccountably larger. I think it sometimes feels effortless and sometimes is very hard won.
Rail: This reminds me of all the silence you’ve been keeping. I remember years back, silent writing afternoons in your living room with Karen Hartman. And then Erik’s silent retreats. And now Writers Army [playwrights writing together in silence in migrating work spaces across Manhattan]. What are you getting out of all this communal silence?
Washburn: In the practical sense: focus. Writing with other writers around I think is both shaming and encouraging in equal measure. For an afternoon, say. For the longer stretches, I think writing around other people, being unable to communicate with them does increase the internal pressure to communicate with yourself. I think it also, sort of conversely, increases your thirst for the heard world; we hear a lot in Antlia, and I think that’s because I was hearing more of the world as I was writing it, things which would normally be drowned out in the din of conversation.
Rail: Yes, there are these scenes in the play that are heard and not seen. Can you say something about the listening in this play?
Washburn: I feel like listening is so different from seeing—I mean, obviously, but it’s more of an imaginative act than seeing, and in the theater the effect is magnified; even plays which take place in one time and place and in a realistic setting have entire offstage worlds which are important for the framing of the play, and we’re always, constantly, effortlessly, imagining those offstage worlds which we understand only from hearing the words the characters speak on the stage. So I think we’re always listening closely in the theater. In this play perhaps that process is foregrounded and we’re using listening both for both things it would be possible to see and things that it’s impossible to see.
Rail: Yes/and. There are also these holes. Gaps. Chunks of the story that have gone missing. Characters we never see. Language that fails. Memory that slips. Eggs gone bad. Falling stars. Can you talk about what’s not there, and how what’s left out is part of the fabric of the play itself.
Washburn: I hadn’t thought of it in that way! But it’s kind of true. I mean, yes, I suppose it’s a play that is fundamentally about loss. Of people, of time.
Rail: And the music—where it’s coming from?
Washburn: The first songs—the kids’ sonic battle and the Ant Song—came along as I was writing it; the final song came later. The place itself, the ranch, is someplace we think of as being haunted by music in various ways, but for the most part the music you hear is that of the natural world.
Rail: Is there a particular image from this place that holds the play for you? One you return to?
Washburn: The kitchen island, I think. And then also, not a place, but all the space surrounding all of the places, the opposite of New York.
Rail: Antlia Pneumatica, the faint constellation for which the play is named. I’m intrigued by scale—how we go from ants to Antlia in the night sky. What you give us and what’s left to imagine. Again, the listening and seeing—
Washburn: A lot of the play is heard/imagined (kind of the same thing, in a way), but there are a few things we wanted to make sure people see. A funny rule of the production we discovered, as we were working out all the food prep (there’s a lot of cooking in the play), is that if something is referenced verbally you don’t see it visually and vice versa. So for example the characters talk about fried chicken and guacamole and cranberries, and we never see these things on stage—the kids are talked about all the time, but we never see them. There are a few big exceptions to this, however.
Rail: And ritual. The play is, in part, about a funeral. The characters’ attempt to assemble all the proper elements to mark their friend’s life and passing. This desire for the tangible. To pin things down. Do you find ritual to be a meaningful part of your own life?
Washburn: I think a lot of my thirst for ritual is expended in the ritual-heavy process of making theater. If I didn’t make theater, ritual would probably be a more important part of my daily life, and certainly I often think it would be fun to be part of a more ritual heavy cultural tradition. In my own life what interests me most about rituals is the contrast between the duty and the ecstasy of them; the degree to which pulling a big holiday feast together, for example, can sometimes be as much slog as joy, and that will feel like a pity at the time, but the effort of it is ultimately enriching; the grind which can accompany the framing of meaning, I think is often very moving.
Rail: I like the way the play is constructed. Can you talk about its order, shape—
Washburn: I can’t, actually—no idea—it was written so quickly that the shape formed on its own.
Rail: What about working with Ken?
Washburn: I love working with Ken. For so many reasons. He’s a very intuitive director, and he’s not afraid to not-know what he’s doing or where we’re going for long stretches of time; so the process of discovery in the rehearsal process is elongated which is so valuable. He’s so interested in the text that when he does bring his very fine dramaturgical mind to it and really starts shaking it about for structural considerations and gently suggests that a sticking point might be text rather than acting or direction or design I can always trust that it’s something I really do need to bring my attention to and reexamine.
Rail: In the play there’s this idea of a “When I Die” file—something one might keep stashed in a lower drawer for a loved one to find. Detailed instructions about what to do next. Do you have such a file? What would you like to have happen with your remains?
Washburn: I actually don’t have such a file. Which is ridiculous (I mean especially now, in the middle of previews, after watching characters talk about it for weeks and weeks and weeks on end). I have a do-not-resuscitate-in-case-of-brain-damage note somewhere, probably handwritten, somewhere in my filing system, probably under a whimsical name as I wrote it years ago when my filing system was less practical. I do have an epitaph which I don’t think I’ve told anyone and which isn’t written down. I want to be cremated and have a super specific idea about what I want done with my ashes, but I find myself weirdly reluctant to disclose it—not sure if this is superstition or privacy—except to say that it’s fairly wildernessy and doesn’t involve the ocean. This seems like a good thing to do post-opening, when my time frees up a bit, make a “When I Die” file. I’m writing this in my calendar right now. If I die before opening it it’ll be sort of ironic, but when it comes down to it I’m content, really, to just dissipate. Playmaking is good training for intemporality.
Antlia Pneumatica, written by Anne Washburn, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, runs through April 24 at Playwrights Horizon’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Original Music: Daniel Kluger. Featuring Rob Campbell, Nat DeWolf, Crystal Finn, April Matthis, Annie Parisse, and Maria Striar. For tickets and further information, please visit playwrightshorizons.org.