I had a friend who woke up one night upon hearing a burglar in his apartment and seeing the flickering light of a candle the burglar was carrying. My friend feigned sleep—with his wife beside him and his teenage son in the next room. He heard the burglar go through the pockets of the pants slung over a chair. He heard—felt, really—the burglar go to the dresser next to him, heard things shuffled, gone through. The next morning—in case there was any question whether he’d been asleep and dreaming—he saw a trail of dried wax on the floor around the bed, the drippings from the candle.

I think about that trail of wax when I think about Anne Washburn, who was just announced winner of this year's prestigious Herb Alpert Award for Theatre. I think about Anne Washburn, whose work I've been tracking for over fifteen years, and about whom I still have many questions. Questions like: is she afraid of the dark? Is she mocking those of us who are? Is she anatomizing our fears, as if they’re somehow emblematic of the culture we keep, the society we live in? What exactly is she up to, this spooky-smart, enigmatic playwright? Is she the American theatre's preeminent imp or is she that theatre's imp diviner?

The imps are real—they are all around us—and they are the tricked-up stuff of the stage. In Anne's recent 10 Out of 12, for example, we find ourselves not at a play but at technical rehearsal for one. The tech—timeless and time-bound the way such loose-limbed, fraught, and ostensibly uneventful rehearsals are—is the main event. This super practical tech process is graced (or maybe haunt-tainted—whatever the devilish antonym of graced might be) with the inexplicable and vaguely threatening. The play being teched is a strange Victorian something replete with parlor encounters, bordello antics, vaguely homosexual longing, and stories of childhood recollected less in tranquility than a sort of romantic dread. Then there is the imp.

The Old Lady raises its veil, it's an imp.
Charles gasps.

LIGHTS

Can we hold here?

STAGE MANAGER

Hold please.

The actors slump.

DIRECTOR

That isn't the imp mask surely? That horrible thing?

COSTUME

It's an option for an imp mask.

DIRECTOR
(Mildly)

I hate it. Very very much.

I think about the wax drops around the bed when I think about Anne Washburn, because her eye is always on the odd detail, the macabre trivialities that make terror both more ordinary and, at the same time, more terrifying. I think about the wax trail, and then I think about how much better Anne does it. She does it better than reality does, in a way, because she’s so damn funny, because her eye is on the wry, because she always moves to the side of the action itself, of the horror itself, with a kind of exquisite philosophical—not detachment, but skeptical wonderment, as if to say, aren’t we too too human creatures as oddball as all get out?

Here’s Anne’s version of my burglarized friend's haunting, same setup. The characters are E and B. The play is Apparition: An uneasy play of the underknown from 2005.

E

Oh you’ve seen a demon.

B

Not face to face.

E

Not face to face.

B

I’ve spoken briefly with one on the phone.

E

Yes?

B

Yes.

E

Yes you’ve spoken with demons on the phone?

B

With one demon.

E

Oh.

Little beat.

Who initiated the call.

B

I was called. I was eating, and the phone rang.

E

How inconvenient.

You were eating, the phone rang, and it was a demon. How did you know it was a demon.

B

Because I had heard the voice before.

E

When had you heard the voice before.

B

In the dark. In the corner of my room. Over by the dresser.

E

So. Wait. I can’t decide if I want to hear about the demon on the phone or the demon by the dresser. Okay. No. First demon first. The dresser demon.

B

I was asleep, and I woke up. And I knew that there was something wrong in the room, I knew, after a moment I knew that there was someone in the room, at first I thought there must be a burglar. I didn’t move. I lay in bed very quietly, breathing evenly, waiting for him to move, to move to attack me or to move for the door or...to take something. Even though there was nothing to take. I was listening for a step, or a noise. And he wasn’t moving. So then I—and this whole time I’m so careful to breathe slowly, and deeply, as though I’m sleeping—

E

Did you do that thing—that thing where you kind of move your lips together for a moment and you make those little sounds, like you’re going to wake up but then you don’t, that thing (She demonstrates half smacking her lips together). And then, I usually mutter a little and roll myself over—

B

No.

E

Otherwise it always seems to me. Regular sleep is so varied. but you hate to be a ham about it

B

No, I was just breathing

E

I’m listening.

bit of a beat

I’m listening.

B

I was breathing. And listening. And I couldn’t hear anything. But I knew he was there, that there was someone there so then, it occurred to me, to listen for his breathing. And I lay there. And I listened. And I could feel my ears becoming exquisitely sensitive. I could hear my body on the sheet. I could hear everything in the room. I thought maybe he’s breathing with me, at the same time as me, because he knows I’m listening. I could almost hear me sweating. And I didn’t hear anything. Not the slightest shifting. And I realized that I must have had a dream, and woken up from it wrong, I must have been wrong about when I was awake and when I was still dreaming and that I was alone in the room and I was just about to move my elbow, which had developed a terrible kink, when it spoke.

a pause

E

What did it say.

B

Nothing important. Little things. It was the way it said them.

E

What do you mean nothing important?

B

Really, it was trivial, it was like, small talk, like things you overhear on the bus.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Playwrights Horizons.

Whether she’s making a vampire pageant out of Roumanian dictators or documentary cabaret out of infamous first ladies from around the world, whether she’s fashioning modern ghost stories out of dead languages or international political intrigue among people who can’t understand each other’s dialogue, whether she’s rewriting the fall of the Roman Empire as a series of lessons on the performance of domination, or, in one of the great romps in the history of children’s theatre, dramatizing the song “Little Bunny Foo Foo” with a nest of ten-year-olds as field mice—Anne Washburn makes hay out of our violent and power-hungry ways, out of the ways we transform our absolute powerlessness as human animals—in the face of the world’s encyclopedic terrors—into a theatre of control.

Backstage everything goes kerflooey, everything is puzzling and murky, our lack of control is matched only by our lack of knowledge. We have scraps of information, voices whispered over headset, scenes played out beyond our hearing, lingering questions. Onstage, though, we rule. Backstage, though, is Anne's main concern. It’s not that she watches from the wings. It’s that she watches the wings themselves, a glancing voyeurism that found its emblematic form in her tech rehearsal play.

Weird shit happens in the wings. Weird shit that may or may not be true. The lurking oddity of the usual. In The Ladies, whose principal characters are, allegedly, Eva Peron, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceaucescu, and Madame Mao, a playwright named Anne Washburn and a director named Annie Kauffman (the name of the play's actual co-creator/director), in the process of making this play, digress:

WASHBURN

Did I tell you about the flesh eating computers speaking of things I go around repeating indiscriminately?

KAUFFMAN

No.

WASHBURN

They’re developing okay you know how they’re developing computers that can clone themselves?

KAUFFMAN

No.

WASHBURN

And improve on themselves.

KAUFFMAN

No.

WASHBURN

This is why you should read the paper. They have a really primitive it’s the first permanent—they’re developing computers that can design computers.

KAUFFMAN

Well that’s not surprising.

WASHBURN

No it’s not surprising. But don’t you think it’s a little creepy.

KAUFFMAN

Yes, very.

WASHBURN

Combined with the fact combined with the fact

KAUFFMAN

Flesh eating.

WASHBURN

They’ve already developed computers that are powered not by electricity but by the biochemical electrical impulses created when flesh is digested. They have basically a chamber with acids in it like the human stomach.

KAUFFMAN

SHUT UP

WASHBURN

They’re doing it in Australia. Can you believe it? Why don’t we just build little human processing centers right now.

KAUFFMAN

Totally you have got to be kidding me.

WASHBURN

I’m not kidding you but I have to get the citation on it because obviously I do. Because all I can say is well it was this guy in a bar. But, it was like I knew him and I knew his friend and [...] he seemed very authoritative and everyone believed him and I just have to get—I have to get hold of the article he read it from. It’s the truth.

KAUFFMAN

How can we get that in here?

WASHBURN

We can’t. We really can’t.

They can’t get this information in the play, but they do. Anne does. Notice that? Notice how sly that is, how slippery sly.

What I also don’t know is this: Is Anne Washburn our least revealing playwright because of the way she appears to utterly sidestep the direct, autobiographical, and personal—though she does appear as an actual character in The Ladies, or at least a tape-recorded, verbatim version of herself does? Or is she, by the askance angle of her approach and the constancy of her obsessions—with terror, with power and powerlessness, with theatre, with the underknown, unknowable, almost incomprehensible, understory of our only too absurd funny-sad mysteriousness as, well, people, but also as creatures, as animals, as others to each other—strangers, I guess, in the sense of people are really bloody strange. Is she, by dint of all this askance obsessiveness, revealing in some ongoing way, her own estrangedness, her own powerless questions about power in the world, her own terror? (I tend to believe the latter. I mean, this is a playwright who wrote a play about the bard of American paranoia, Philip K. Dick.)

Is Anne Washburn afraid of the dark? If we were to attend an actual tech rehearsal with her, if we were to shout Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth in the theatre, would she flinch? Would she spit between her fingers or throw salt over her shoulder? Or would she keep her cool? In Anne’s dazzling, monumental, ever-human epic-in-process, The Octavia, Roman empress Agrippina speaks to her son Nero’s young bride: “If you can’t learn to smile out of nowhere, for your own reasons, from some secret place in your own soul then you will find, as you grow older, that there are very few reasons to smile at all.”

10 out of 12, Soho Rep. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

This is a lesson from Anne Washburn. Learn to smile out of nowhere, for your own reasons, from some secret place in your own soul. Anne Washburn writes like the Mona Lisa of the American theatre. What is she smiling at, out of the corner of her mouth, out of nowhere? Is she displaying worldly fascination, worldly skepticism, or unworldly impishness? When you look at the planet as Anne does, both from the side, head bemusedly tilted, and from dead on, openly, thoughtfully, you see how dear we creatures are and how deluded. How can our knowledge be anything but partial? How can our role in history be any less foolish, any less barbaric than the beings we replaced? “What is education?” Nero asks his tutor Seneca, in Octavia, and the boy answers his own question.

Education is the process by which we are made to understand that our understanding of the world is insufficient, which is to say that we are insufficient, and we must have a tiny moment of humbleness where we admit that we aren’t enough, that we aren’t everything, and we accommodate this new … thing, this new piece of information, and then we’re a slightly new person, a whole one for a moment of two until we need to be educated again. And there is the danger that in those moments between discovering that we aren’t enough, and taking in the new thing, and becoming something else, that we will go mad, but it’s only a slight danger. Well I suppose it depends on the size of the thing. It’s a danger, why is this danger necessary, why is education necessary, why can’t we all be happy beasts, because beasts eat each other, and everything around them.

What’s startling about this logical brilliance is that it’s an argument Nero uses while role-playing the part of jealous Medea, in order to understand why she will kill her children to “teach” her husband. In a coup of theatre, Nero enters Medea’s madness through impersonation, following the insane, though completely logical, argument of the bestial. Nero again, breaking character: “To summarize my argument: I, Medea, must kill my children, because if I do not Jason will live in a fundamental ignorance. In doing so I affirm that comprehension is more important than love or than happiness.”

We are so dear and so deluded. And Anne Washburn sees this, as if from the future. Sometimes, she sees it from the literal future, as in her most produced play, the “post-electric” Mr. Burns, in which a ruined civilization is post-apocalyptically remembered through shared, if partial, stories and a kind of futuristic, passion play musical reenactment of episodes of The Simpsons. American cultural detritus as future wasteland liturgy.

Anne Washburn possesses a talent I marvel at: the ability to make the present strange by viewing it clear-sightedly from an imagined future. Here's Paul in The Internationalist, sitting in a bar with a suitcase of embezzled money, talking to an American visitor just before he, Paul, will disappear from his unnamed country forever.

PAUL

What always amazes me is that the future will look back to this time and find it exactly as barbaric. There’s no doubt. I’m a cynical civilized man so of course I think our life is shit, and very badly managed, and that our ideals are hypocritical and deadly, but civilized men always have while at the same time totally failing to understand just what will amuse the future...

He goes on:

What does the future see?
We have a big ‘I am a boob’ sign pasted to our backs. We’re going to go down in history as chumps, you and I, and we have no way of knowing why.

Of course the future will itself be judged, just as condescendingly.

Through the prescience of theatres like Soho Rep, Woolly Mammoth, Playwrights Horizons, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Anne Washburn has, most improbably, become a mainstream playwright, a “leading” playwright, a fact acknowledged this week by her Alpert Award. But where is she leading us?

Here, from Apparition, is one answer:

I will not tippytoe sneaky away the back way, no, I stay where I am standing no where I am here I am and the room about me behind me the chair half teetered over and the doorway is ahead of me.

Stand.
I will step forward.
Towards what is waiting to astonish.