“EX-CELLENT...” Post-apocalyptic survivors reenact a Simpsons episode that revolves around cartoon villain Montgomery Burns, played by Sam Breslin Wright.

“EX-CELLENT...” Post-apocalyptic survivors reenact a Simpsons episode that revolves around cartoon villain Montgomery Burns, played by Sam Breslin Wright.

Arts & Humanities

The Electric Mr. Burns

Playwright Anne Washburn ’91 wows Broadway with a drama that fuses Euripides with The Simpsons.

By Mary Emily O’Hara ’12 | December 1, 2013

Anne Washburn still talks like a Reedie.

From the moment she walks into the Mexican restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where we’ve decided to meet, there’s a spark of intellectual intensity in the air. We haven’t known each other for more than five minutes when the discussion turns to class disparity, the role of the arts in society, and ways to score cheap theatre tickets in a city not known for its forgiving economy.

Washburn should know. She’s been a working playwright in New York City—not an easy path to riches by anyone’s book—ever since her days at Reed. A fixture of the downtown theatre scene, she’s cofounded a theatre company (the Civilians), participated in a playwright collective that radically transformed the way plays are produced (13P), and watched as her plays went up at downtown institutions like Soho Rep and Dixon Place. But she’s gained national attention with the production of her Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which debuted on 42nd Street in August and has garnered rave reviews from Time magazine and the New York Times, which called it “downright brilliant” and “so smart it made your head spin.”

Many of the reviews revel in the play’s fusion of conceptual brilliance and weirdness, its theme rotating around a single episode of The Simpsons (“Cape Feare”), and the way the longest-running animated television show transforms in meaning and use after an apocalyptic grid breakdown throws the world into chaos. Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play begins with a small group of battered survivors consoling themselves in the darkness with memories of television—but by the third act, what started as literally a campfire tale has been transformed into the founding mythology of a newly reborn culture. The experiences of the original survivors are absorbed by ensuing generations (who continue to live in a dark, postelectric world) in a sort of posttraumatic game of telephone that was partially inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors: “It wasn’t until the 1970s that people finally started to talk about the Holocaust,” Washburn says. “It was the descendants of the survivors who wanted to talk, wanted to know . . . . Art Spiegelman (author of Maus) had to tell the story through mice. The emotions are too strong to deal with directly or realistically.” 

Similarly, in Mr. Burns, the final act uses the barely remembered Simpsons episode as a framing for the actual apocalypse: “In the third act, it’s still really fresh for people so it gets told through these allegorical stories.” By the end of the play, the retelling of the Simpsons episode has become ancient and formal—presented as a Greek tragedy. The audience leaves the theatre with a firsthand understanding of how cultural mythologies are born and developed. It’s no wonder critics are impressed.

The acclaim is a far cry from her early days working hated temp jobs and trying to figure out ways to write full time. She considered screenwriting for a time, attending a program at New York University that ultimately drove her deeper into a love of theatre. Now, she can look back and realize that while making a living in theatre is hard, it’s not impossible: “The common wisdom about playwriting is that eventually you have to become a screenwriter or a teacher . . . because what you can do in your 20s in terms of living precariously, you can’t do it in your 40s. I mean, you can . . . but those people have a lot of stamina for insecurity.” She has found that commitment and a certain artistic self-esteem lend a lot of staying power. “I really do believe that if everyone started in their 20s and kept and it and worked hard, they could [be successful artists],” she says. “What separates people is confidence—people say ‘I’m not good enough.’”

Her own confidence comes from her days as a theatre-literature major at Reed. She recalls the independence thrust upon students in her program with awe: “As an undergrad, to be able to direct your own work is huge.” Professors like Kathleen Worley [theatre 1985–] and Craig Clinton [theatre 1978–2010] fostered a sense of community, without which she may never have stuck around. “I wasn’t going to major in theatre in college,” she recalls. “I had done acting in high school, but didn’t want to be an actress.”

It was a student production that changed everything. “My friend Bret Fetzer ’87 was doing this crazy thesis production called The Three Policemen,” she remembers. “And I auditioned and was in it. It really blew me away.” She had not been exposed to influences like Pinter or Beckett before then, and the performance affected her so deeply that she wrote a sort of parodical tribute of her own for a student-run event called Midnight Theater. Soon enough, “I found I was spending all of my time being in plays . . . I knew I could write plays and should be a theatre major.”

She credits Prof. Wally Englert [classics 1981–] for the influence of Orestes, the postmatricidal play written by Euripides, on her current production: “If I had read it on my own, I don’t think I would have understood it. I would have approached it with the wrong kind of reverence and it would have seemed just peculiar.” Recalling Englert’s classical drama class, she says: “He did a great job of making the awesomeness of the Greek drama clear . . . In terms of tonal shifts, the leavening of irony and sincerity and tragedy and crazy goofy humor, Orestes is more sophisticated than anything done since.”

Her own play demonstrates what happens when a Reedie’s fascination with ancient history aligns with an artist’s drive to mark the future. “What would happen to a piece of pop culture if you pushed it after the apocalypse and kept pushing?” she asks. “The stories we tell come out of one need now, but how would those stories change along with the need to tell them?”

Despite the buzz about Mr. Burns, Ann remains a champion of independent theatre. “Since I left Reed I’ve always been a part of small theatre,” she says, “There’s really a sense of community with downtown, scrappy productions. I think it’s easier to be independent-minded if you aren’t depending on these vast machines to create you.” She has found her footing in the New York theatre scene, where she still works alongside old Reed buddies like Fetzer, Gordon Dahlquist ’83, Johanna McKeon ’92, and Ephraim Rosenbaum ’92.

For now, this independent mind is dazzlingly preoccupied with historical themes and a Reedie’s eternal drive to question everything: “You don’t write about things you understand, you write about things you don’t understand or else it would be very boring.”

Tags: Books, Film, Music, Alumni, Awards & Achievements