An Interview With Playwright Anna Ziegler

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Anna Ziegler is an Award-winning American playwright and poet, whose work has been produced on the West End and at major theaters around the United States, Australia, Japan, Italy, Germany, India, and Sweden. A graduate of Yale University, Anna holds master’s degrees in poetry from The University of East Anglia (UK) and in dramatic writing from NYU.

Her play PHOTOGRAPH 51 won London’s 2016 WhatsOnStage award for Best New Play. It was also selected as a “Best of the Year” play by The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post (twice), and The Telegraph. The following year, Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Manhattan Theatre Club, and The Geffen Playhouse premiered her play ACTUALLY (winner of the Ovation Award in Los Angeles for Playwriting of an Original Play), and also in 2017 the Roundabout Theatre Company produced her play THE LAST MATCH. Early next year the Roundabout Theatre Company will be producing Anna’s latest work THE WANDERERS, winner of the 2018 San Diego Critic’s Circle Award for Outstanding New Play.

Most recently, Anna partnered with Broadway Licensing to curate a selection of titles for the upcoming Broadway Book Club box. The Scene spoke with Anna Ziegler this week.

Photo from THE WANDERERS at the Old Globe. Photo by Jim Cox

THE SCENE: When did you first discover theatre?

ANNA: I grew up in New York City and my parents took me to see CATS when I was four or five. I must have loved it because I saw it three more times over the next few years. That said, I’m not sure I ever got any less scared of the costumed actors who would walk through the aisles and (in my memory at least) touch people in the audience. That terrified me.

THE SCENE: What was your experience with theatre in school? Were you ever an actor or director?

ANNA: My final performance as an actor was in 8th grade when I played Louise (a bit part) in a play called Stage Door. Throughout middle school I’d played various small roles — Villager number 3, that sort of thing.  In 12th grade, in 1997, I wrote my first short play in a playwriting seminar but (despite taking playwriting classes in college taught by Arthur Kopit and Donald Margulies) I didn’t finish a full-length play until the summer of 2001, right after I graduated. I did, however, attempt to direct a play my sophomore year at Yale — Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which I’d seen and fallen in love with the summer before. Not long into the process I realized I had no idea how to direct a play, especially one as complex and unusual as Copenhagen, and so found a more seasoned college director to take over. (Thank you, Colin Spoelman.)

Photo from PHOTOGRAPH 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre. Photo by Johan Presson

THE SCENE: What made you want to become a playwright?

ANNA: I went to graduate school for playwriting and, even though I didn’t go into it thinking I’d necessarily emerge a playwright, I did end up getting hooked on the sheer difficulty of writing plays. It motivated me to keep going, to try and write a better one.

THE SCENE: Who were the educators that inspired and encouraged you to become a writer? How did they impact your life and career?

ANNA: When I was growing up, there were many teachers who encouraged me to write (I happened to go to a somewhat hippy-dippy school at which everyone was encouraged to be an artist) but I credit (and sometimes curse) Arthur Kopit with making me a playwright. I took his playwriting seminar my senior year in college. I applied to get into it with a poem because I didn’t have a play. He admitted me and from that moment on seemed always to believe in me. He encouraged me to apply to the MFA program at NYU, where he ended up supervising my master’s thesis. He invited me to be in The Lark’s inaugural Playwrights’ Workshop in the summer of 2001, which is where I wrote my first full-length play. If not for him, I’d have taken a job working at the literary journal The Threepenny Review in San Francisco and kept at my poetry. Arthur died last year, and I miss him. He impacted my life and career profoundly.

Photo from Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of THE LAST MATCH. Photo by Joan Marcus.

THE SCENE: What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights?

ANNA: Apply widely! When I was younger, I would scour the Playwrights Center’s newsletter for opportunities. Also: show up! Becoming part of the theater community where you live — by going to readings and productions and events — is probably half the battle.

THE SCENE: Without giving away the plays you selected for the upcoming Broadway Book Club, how did you approach the process of selecting the titles you included?

ANNA: I looked through the catalog of available titles, highlighting all of my favorites. There were, of course, too many. I tried to cull my list in such a way that the selected plays would represent a diversity of writers, content, and form. All the plays I chose are very different! But probably share a similar heart — or that intangible thing that draws me to a play: some combination of beautiful language, humor, empathy for its characters, and an awareness of the fragility of our experience here.

Photo from The Geffen Playhouse production of ACTUALLY. Photo by Chris Whitaker

THE SCENE: What’s next for you?

ANNA: My play THE WANDERERS is going to be produced at Roundabout Theater Company in NYC this winter (Jan-March 2023). It’ll also be produced this fall/winter at City Theater in Pittsburgh and the Ernst-Deutsch Theater in Germany. A tv miniseries I wrote for — INVITATION TO A BONFIRE — will be on this winter too, on AMC.

THE SCENE: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today!

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