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“Annie Baker, Creating Theatre for Right Now & Reading People’s Minds” In Conversation with Mitchell Cushman, Director of THE ALIENS

Interview by Megan Robinson

The space at The Coal Mine Theatre has undergone yet another transformation for their upcoming production of The Aliens. Directed by Mitchell Cushman, who is well-known for his creative use of space, the black box theatre is unrecognizable as a Vermont alleyway.

“It takes place outside, which felt like a real fundamental challenge at first,” Cushman let me know from our seats in the audience, where we sat taking in the details of the set, which received some exciting final touches the day before.

Around us, the theatre’s walls were plastered with exposed brick, a handmade picnic table took center stage, and a graffitied image of half of Bernie Sanders’ face was spray painted just above our heads. With a single row of chairs lining the two walls, the length of the playing space called to mind a runway at a fashion show.

“I think it serves the naturalism of what Annie Baker is writing because the audience are really flies on the wall as opposed to feeling like they are being played to in any way.”

For the next thirty minutes, I talk to director Mitchell Cushman about Annie Baker, creating relevant theatre, and reading people’s minds.

MR: You just worked on Treasure Island at Stratford – has this been a breath of fresh air?

MC: They’re both very different. I had a great time with Treasure Island, but they couldn’t be more different. Treasure Island is a huge proscenium, thousand-seat theatre and large budget show, largely for kids.

Annie Baker writes in this kind of hyper-naturalism where everything is sort of sacrificed for the pursuit of trying to get something real on stage. That means it rejects a lot of what we expect about conventional drama. Working on this show makes me realize how much artifice goes into most theatre. Because we expect it. We expect things to be curated into something that is easily recognizable as dramatic whereas there is drama and construction to Annie Baker’s writing but in a way that is so invisible.

MR: What did you think of the play the first time you read it?

MC: I read it like 3 or 4 years ago. Honestly, I don’t know if I knew what to make of it when I first read it. I thought parts of it were interesting. But I’ve had this experience reading a couple of her other plays. They feel very thin. You get to the end, and you’re like – where was the play?

Then I had the chance to see some of her plays. I saw The Flick, and I saw a production of John with The Company Theatre. Both of those were really impactful experiences for me as an audience member, and it was after I saw John that Ted (Dykstra) wrote to me about The Aliens. When I did go back to read it with an understanding of the wavelength that she calibrated on, I found much more in it. Also, I’m now at the exact age of two of the three characters that are at the center of the play, and I think that has had an impact as well.

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: Which character do you think you most relate to? 

MC: (laughs) Probably the guy that is not my age. There are three characters KJ and Jasper and Evan.

KJ and Jasper are 30-31, they haven’t really left their hometown, and they spend their time kind of vegging around and reading poetry or sort of writing music. One of them wants to be a novelist, but they have not really done anything. But even though they haven’t done anything, they’ve had real deep life experiences, and a lot of that is based on living on the margins of society and loss and complicated family life and problems with drugs.

Evan works in the cafe… beyond that “wall”. He’s a seventeen-year-old kid working a summer job and he’s got a comfortable home life but feels at 17 that he hasn’t had a lot of experiences and maybe couldn’t be an artist, a writer, a tortured soul, or musician because he doesn’t have what he perceives to be their pain and suffering. I’m more like him. I think I said that on the first day of rehearsal. I worked in a cafe, I come from a comfortable middle-class background, and I haven’t ever felt fundamentally alone in the way I think the other characters feel in the show.

MR: So you’ve never felt like an alien?

MC: Well I don’t know that… I wouldn’t say I’ve never felt like an alien. But I’ve never really felt that society wasn’t built for me which is the way that KJ and Jasper feel, and maybe Evan feels that in a different way.

MR: Why this show right now? 

MC: The play was written in 2010, and one of the decisions we had to make was, do we set it then or now? The characters have cell phones in the show, and there are lots of stage directions of them flipping them open and closed, and that felt like by doing that we’d immediately be playing something that felt like a period piece. But the phenomenon of disenfranchisement that she writes about is only more pronounced now than it was seven years ago.

The play is set in Vermont, and I was trying to think what do I know about Vermont or what does Vermont mean to me? And you can see right here, we are sitting under a big graffiti thing of half of Bernie Sanders’ face.

Bernie Sanders is a Senator from Vermont who played such a large role in the last American presidential election and epitomizes this part of America. Vermont is very liberal and left-wing in a lot of ways, but it’s also the whitest state… I think it’s like 95 % white. Very little diversity and, among other things, the play looks at what happens when you have a very homogeneous population of people and how do their thoughts develop and how do thoughts about othering occur, and all those things feel very relevant. In its own way, the play has a lot to say about the opioid crisis and things that have only become, you know, more pronounced and tragic.

In some ways, I think she was writing something prophetic. The world around us has grown into the play

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: I did wonder why the cast was three white males…

MC: That’s interesting. As we were casting it we were trying to be conscious of that. I definitely believe theatre should be a place for diverse voices. And we like to create the most eclectic, artistic ensembles as possible. I think this play is specifically about the fact that all three of them are white. So to have cast it more racially diverse would have been to silence the themes of the play. This play was written about specific people in a specific place, and I think in doing it, it’s engaging in the conversation about the need for diversity in our communities. If you just, like, photoshop in diversity into a community where it doesn’t exist I think you’re wallpapering over some of the profound things at the center of her writing. We’ve got quite a diverse artistic team working on the show. It’s not represented in the cast of characters but I think for this piece it was the right choice.

MR: Your big thing is innovative staging, immersive theatre. I read an interview where you said it’s important to do something different because there is so much theatre going on. How do you come up with these new ideas?

MC: I think it can be kind of a trap, despite what I said in other interviews, to think about doing things that are different for the sake of being different. Almost every project I’ve worked on, the script is first and out of the script you try to find a way to tell that story. I think if instead you begin with a desire to do something different then you’re doing something to a play instead of figuring out the best way to tell a story. So I found in my practice, especially running Outside the March, but the other work I’ve done, there’s a broader canvas of ways to tell a story in a live theatre experience than the traditional framework necessarily allows for. So I try to start from a place of zero preconceptions of what the experience will be. So when I think about how to tell a story, I’m not thinking of people sitting in a proscenium space watching. I’m not picturing the experience akin to watching a movie.

MR: This show explores the idea that we can’t ever really know another person and what they are thinking. If you had the opportunity to read another person’s mind would you take it? 

MC: A specific person or telepathy in general?

MR: Let’s go with for a day, you can read everyone’s mind.

MC: I would take it because I’d be very curious but I would go somewhere where I was surrounded by nobody I knew. Because then you’d be able to answer that sort of eternal mystery of what are people thinking and what are they thinking about me as I interact with them, but you wouldn’t fundamentally destroy all of your relationships.

MR: You think it would destroy your relationships if you really knew a person?

MC: Ya.

MR: So you think it’s good that we don’t actually know the truth? Are filters important? 

MC: I think relationships are about striving to get to know someone so if you had the answer manual at the beginning then you would actually feel less close to those people. It’s about the experience of trying to break through those barriers even though, eternally, you’ll never get to the bottom of it.

MR: But isn’t that a sad pursuit? 

MC: I don’t think so. I think that’s what forges history and connection with people. It’s certainly frustrating and disarming and difficult at times, but I think that breathes the need for human connection. If we all knew what everyone thought all the time we’d be robbed of conversation. And art! Theatre comes out of that same impulse of trying to strive to get to know people and things about existence that you can’t just read in someone’s brain, so I think it’s good there are those filters. But I think we should still strive to listen better.

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: Do you think this is a hopeful story? 

MC: I wouldn’t say that it is entirely hopeful, but within the construction of it, there is something quite life-affirming.

MR: If you could talk to the characters in the show and give them advice what would you say?

MC: Don’t kick the audience.

MR: Is that advice for the actors?

MC: (He laughs) Life advice?

MR: Yes. You’re very ambitious and it seems these characters are lacking that.

MC: Well, I would say that they should try to breathe and take the pressure off themselves. Because I think it’s the pressure to accomplish great things that is kind of stunting them from accomplishing much of anything.

MR: Too scared?

MC: Too scared or because, to me, one of the big themes of the show is they idolize these great writers, but genius is a hard thing to emulate so instead they just emulate their destructive tendencies. I think that hero-worship can be dangerous in that capacity because I think the things that are easiest to copy are not the things connected with hard work and perseverance… they are more the trappings of it.

The Aliens

Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Starring Maxwell Haynes, Will Greenblatt and Noah Reid
Set and Costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting design by Nick Blais
Sound Design by Sam Sholdice
Production Manager Charissa Wilcox
Produced by Diana Bentley and Sehar Bhojani

Coal Mine Theatre launches the 17/18 season with Pulitzer Prize Award-winning playwright Annie Bakers THE ALIENS. Sharing the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2010 with another Baker script, Circle Mirror Transformation, THE ALIENS, a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, premiered Off-Broadway in April 2009 and the West End in September of the same year.

Jasper (Noah Reid) and KJ (William Greenblatt) are two misfit souls who have made the out-back of a Vermont coffee shop their private sanctuary and refuge from the real world. Here they can indulge in their dreams and delusions of being a brilliant writer and a divine healer. Seventeen-year-old Evan (Maxwell Haynes) is eking out his summer working at the café and is irresistibly drawn to their world of magic mushrooms, philosophical musings and rock bands that never-were. THE ALIENS is both a cruel and compassionate examination of a lost generation and modern-day America.

Coal Mine Theatre
1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto ON M4J 1N4

Wednesday, September 20 – Sunday, October 8 at 2pm
Tuesday to Saturday 7:30pm (Mondays Dark)
Matinees are Sunday at 2pm.
No intermission. No latecomers.

Regular price $42.50 (plus HST)
Rush tickets $25 (cash only, at the door, 30 minutes before performance starts, subject to availability. No phone reservations).

t: @coalminetheatre
f: /coalminetheatre

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