Listening to Lunatics
New York playwright Anne Washburn ’91 admits to eavesdropping—on the street, at Reed parties, even on herself—to find new material. She’s fascinated by ordinary speech, and by the extraordinary ravings of lunatics; she says she finds truth in unexpected places. Washburn is the author of the plays Orestes, The Internationalist, Apparition, and The Ladies. Her latest play, I Have Loved Strangers, is based loosely on the Book of Jeremiah and the activities of the Weather Underground. The play is set in Ancient New York, an amalgamation of biblical times, the ’70s, and the present day. The play was first developed in 2005 at the Williamstown Theater Festival with director Johanna McKeon ’92. Washburn returned to Reed this spring for a production of Strangers directed by theatre professor Kathleen Worley.
Johanna Droubay ’04, who has covered theatre as a freelance writer in Portland, spoke with Washburn from the playwright’s home in Brooklyn, New York.
Reed: I Have Loved Strangers isn’t the first of your plays to be performed at Reed. You wrote a thesis play called Bloode: Winter in a Hot Climate. What was that like?
Washburn: I took the revenge tragedy and smooshed it together with the gothic novel. Theatre professor Craig Clinton wanted it to be a black box reading. But it was three hours long! And it had all these huge speeches. The speeches would just be boring unless you had some action, so in my play there were people haunting people, there were sword fights. It ended up really being a staged reading. I made my actors memorize half of it. Three hours long. Two intermissions. It was kind of crazy.
What was your first spark of inspiration for Strangers?
I’ve been interested in the Bible for a long time. I wasn’t raised in a religion so I find it sort of fascinating. I decided years ago that I was going to write a play based on the Book of Jeremiah without having read it. I’d also seen that documentary on the Weather Underground, and growing up in Berkeley, a huge question was: how far do you go for what you believe in? If you really believe that things are wrong, will you stake everything and will you behave illegally if you think you’re right?
Also, it was 2005. Obviously I was cranky about present-day politics. So the Weather Underground and the sense of urgency in Jeremiah were in my head.
Some of the lines in your play are taken directly from conversations overheard on the streets of New York. Why?
I love actual speech because it has very little in common with [naturalistic dialogue] that’s written for the stage. Anytime you deal with the way people actually talk it’s fascinating, because it’s much more complicated. And it also seemed to provide the most extreme contrast to the language of the King James translation.
Have you incorporated the fruits of your eavesdropping into your work before?
When I was at Reed, I took a tape recorder to a party, and people passed it all around the room. The next day I started transcribing, and it was fascinating. It was fascinating socially, because all kinds of things happened at that party that I wouldn’t have known about.
. . . there is something about being in New York—which was more vivid after 9/11, but which is still present—it’s that sense that something terrible is almost certainly going to happen, and yet everyone remains.
When I wrote The Ladies, I was working with a director and we were having discussions, just to generate ideas. My handwriting is terrible and really slow, so I was recording, and she transcribed these discussions. We’d felt so smart when we were having them, but when you look at the transcript, we just look like idiots. Any normal conversation, if you look at a transcript, everyone involved looks like an utter idiot. We incorporated that into the material of the play. So I often use it in my plays, but it’s always in a different way and for a different purpose.
In the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah warns of destruction—specifically, the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of Babylon. Is there a modern apocalypse waiting in the wings of your play?
I hate talking about 9/11, but in New York, there’s this whole question of why is anyone remaining in the city? It’s the same thing when you’re living on the West Coast. It’s this curious thing—you stay even though you know there’s a major, major earthquake due. Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area—they’re all due for some massive cataclysm that could perfectly well happen in our lifetime. And yet you stay. In the same way, there is something about being in New York—which was more vivid after 9/11, but which is still present—it’s that sense that something terrible is almost certainly going to happen, and yet everyone remains.
The title of the play—I Have Loved Strangers—is a quote from the Book of Jeremiah. Why that particular quote?
It’s the emotional heart of the play— leaving what is familiar for what is dangerous and exciting and difficult. Is that a crazy thing to do, or is that a necessary thing to do? Either way, it’s a hard thing to do.
One of the characters in the play, Ruthie—that’s kind of her journey. And whether she’s made the right choice or not, the play doesn’t answer that question. It’s simultaneously a very childish yearning for something that’s more perfect, and at other times a very mature yearning to actually see what’s wrong and correct it. Which I think of as being sort of an emotional impetus for a lot of members of the Weather Underground.
In the first scene, a couple of New Yorkers confide in each other. One says, “I always have the same strange sick sad feeling when I see a mad prophet which is this: what if he is right. I always sort of think: he’s right!” As someone who pays special attention to speech that others might disregard, do you share this suspicion?
Growing up in Berkeley in the ’70s, when Ronald Reagan had cut the funding to all the mental institutions, there were a lot of people on the streets who thought they were Jesus, or prophets of God in one way or another.
I think that every religion and every tradition and every fairy tale has the idea that truth will come from unexpected places and that you can’t shut your ears. There is something often inspired and beautiful in the words of somebody who is completely unhinged. Something can be false and still be important to hear. In New York, on the subway, you learn to tune things out. But you do have to remember to listen.
Anne Washburn ’91 will be back at Reed as a guest speaker at Alumni College this month.