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Shirley, Vermont, is a sleepy Windsor County town of some 14,000 souls, just off Route 7. Possessed of a storied past (a site of indignities perpetrated against Native Americans, a nudist’s paradise), it’s now best known for the annual Gourd Festival. It houses a branch of the state college and a cluster of Cambodian refugees. And it exists only in the mind and work of playwright Annie Baker.
On April 14, The Aliens—Baker’s third professionally produced play and the third set in Shirley—will debut at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, directed by Sam Gold. Over herbal tea and chocolate meringues at a Park Slope café, Baker—lively, self-effacing, and rather gorgeous in a post-hippie way—admits that she can’t say why she’s so drawn to this invented landscape. “I’m not totally sure why I keep setting them there,” she says. “It’s partly because I have an overactive imagination and have come up with lots of imaginary residents. I have a map of it in my head. It’s sort of weird and autistic.” In The Aliens, that map centers on the back alley of a coffeehouse, where two men (Erin Gann and Michael Chernus, Baker’s boyfriend) indoctrinate a young employee (Dane DeHaan) into the mysteries of Bukowski, calculus, and psilocybin.
Baker will soon turn 29, but her plays have a confidence and acumen that belie her age. She writes about unhappy, ineffectual characters with great compassion. She doesn’t gloss over their faults—one is a rapist, another a homewrecker, the men of The Aliens are losers—but she treats them all with a clear-eyed tenderness. Some of this authorial generosity may come from her working methods. She sits with each set of characters for at least a year, writing extensive histories for them, reciting all of their lines into a handheld recorder.
This munificence is especially true of The Aliens. Though female dramatists rarely conceive all-male casts, the men of The Aliens are intricate, exasperating, immediately knowable figures. Baker explains that in her previous pieces she greatly enjoyed writing the male parts, particularly the photographer in Body Awareness. As for The Aliens, she says, “I was interested in writing a white-dude play that was different from other white-dude plays.”
Though her works display ample poise, Baker is far less self-assured when it comes to describing her work, and would rather avoid giving interviews altogether. When asked about the considerable success of her play Circle Mirror Transformation, mounted earlier this season at Playwrights Horizons, she’s quick to dismiss her own contribution and praise her collaborators: “I ended up with great actors and a great director and great designers. We all loved each other. It was disgusting.”
She resists more personal questions, and recounts a recent phone conversation in which a journalist asked the seemingly innocuous question, “Why do you write plays?” Baker began crying so hard that she had to hang up. “The writing is best for me when I feel mindless,” she says, “which is so weird and so creepy and such a contradiction that it’s hard to talk about, so I always get stopped up.”
Happily, such mental blocks don’t extend to her creative efforts. Even as she revises The Aliens, she’s crafting a romantic comedy screenplay and the script for a pilot commissioned by HBO about a communal farm in Northern California. If that seems rather far from Vermont, she’s already at work on another Shirley-set play, this one featuring a doomed marriage, a middle-aged dream analyst, and perhaps the odd gourd.