"Play the game yourselves a few times," said Kip Fagan, director of Circle Mirror Transformation, at a recent rehearsal.
"In character?" asked an actor.
"As yourselves," he said.
The game was one-word story, an acting exercise in which participants try to make up a story, one word per player. Annie Baker's play, now in its regional premiere in a co-production by Marin Theatre Company and Encore Theatre Company, consists almost entirely of characters performing such exercises. The play follows an adult acting class in a community center in Vermont. Teacher Marty (Julia Brothers) can recruit only her husband (L. Peter Callender) and a few other students (Arwen Anderson, Marissa Keltie, and Robert Parsons). Baker, according to Brothers, "manages to convey everybody's relationship to one another and everyone's conflicts in a game where people lie on the floor and count to 10." Baker fleshes out those relationships with chitchat — or, rather, spectacular miscommunication — before and after the classes, but the magic of Circle Mirror is the redolence of the acting exercises themselves.
Two of Baker's other "Vermont Plays," as they've been anthologized, were highlights in Bay Area theater this year: Body Awareness at the Aurora and The Aliens at SF Playhouse. Baker is one of the most successful young playwrights in the country, which, given her style, was not preordained. Her plays are slow and quiet. Not a lot happens in them — until, as Keltie says, "at the end you're hit with the enormity of it." That quietness, many posit, is the key to Baker's success. "I think people find it thrilling to sit with a situation that's not constantly trying to entertain you or provoke you or drive you batty," says Fagan. Encore Artistic Director Lisa Steindler says that Baker's writing allows audiences "the opportunity to just contemplate and be."
Baker eschews gimmickry. For Fagan, Baker's plays recall Chekhov's, where on the surface, "people are sitting around a table having tea, but actually their lives are getting destroyed." Relationships spark and die out, identities crumble, fantasies play out, solving both everything and nothing.
And, as with Chekhov, this tragedy is deeply funny.
For an outsider at a Circle Mirror rehearsal, it can be hard to tell when the actors are acting. They wear clothes to rehearsal that their characters might wear to class, they rehearse in a room that could pass for their set, and when they're on break, they lounge about the space in positions that could have been staged. Baker's writing is equally unadorned, full of false starts, dead ends, and gaping silences in between: "Uh ... (pause) It doesn't really ... I'm sorry. (pause) I uh ... It doesn't really look like my bedroom." When writing, Baker sometimes records herself speaking lines, the better to, as she has written, "capture the cadences of painful, ordinary speech." Her long pauses defy the conventions of stage time, clouding the boundary between theater and life. Watching characters struggle in the silence, you can't help but wonder if something has gone horribly wrong. Whether Baker's characters can survive moment to moment, whether they can break the silence without making the scene implode, is what makes her seemingly simple plays so riveting.
Baker's pauses offer fertile ground for discovery; SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English says these silences demand that actors "trust the magic of simply owning something and being it and feeling it," but that the reward is acting "that feels more spontaneous." Puzzling out who Baker's characters are, according to both Fagan and Joy Carlin, who directed Body Awareness at the Aurora, is "endless" for actors, so subtle and open-ended are the playwright's clues.
Unsurprisingly, Fagan's ensemble was good at one-word story. They created sentences that had not only logic but also narrative and wit. When Fagan had them switch to playing the game in character, however, their skills disappeared. They were bad at the game, yet it was more interesting to watch. It was only then that Fagan had the performers rehearse some of the one-word stories in the script: "Pain um ... uh ... loneliness are feeding me ... sky."