Interview with playwright Anna Ziegler

Anna Ziegler

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you? 

Anna Ziegler: I was born in New York City and grew up there, in Brooklyn. I went to St. Ann’s School for 12 years, which as some people probably know, is a bastion of/for the arts. So, it wasn’t so much a question of whether I would become an artist, but which kind. I am being a little facetious, but it really was an environment that made a life in the arts seem possible and respectable. Teachers were often working writers and artists, which was incredibly inspiring. At St. Ann’s, Marty Skoble, who taught me poetry for many years, had a profound influence on me, as did Beth Bosworth and Elise Meslow. Later, in college, Arthur Kopit saw something in my poetry that made him think I could write plays and suggested I apply to graduate school in playwriting. There I was lucky enough to be mentored by Rinne Groff and Martin Epstein, who showed me that there were so many ways to write a play, and that you didn’t have to follow certain rules. You could make up your own rules, and then break your own rules, and a play could also be poetry.

TS: What inspired you to write The Last Match? What would you say this play is about? 

AZ: The idea for the play took root when Andy Roddick retired from professional tennis in 2012. I was so moved by his goodbye speech at the U.S. Open and by the idea of someone so young (he’d just turned 30) having to change course so entirely, to give up everything he’d known and worked so hard on. Little did I know I was about to undergo my own retirement, in a sense. Within a few weeks, I was pregnant with my first child. And while I can’t say that having kids has felt like a retirement in any traditional sense of the word—in many ways, of course, it’s the exhausting opposite—I did shift gears, and move beyond the life I had known. And I came face to face with my place in the cycle of things. And I think it was the combination of these two things – along with a love of tennis that began when I was a little kid, and played all the time – that inspired the writing of The Last Match.

To me, it’s a play about how and why we do things—why we push ourselves to compete, why we have children, find love, grieve -- in the face of or in spite of death. Why we keep wanting things throughout our lives, especially given the fact that nothing is ever enough. Or the bravery of wanting things despite nothing ever being enough. It’s also about a kind of American denial of mortality, and the feeling – the hope we all harbor – that certain athletes can defy time.  Early in the play, one of the characters says that the fans at a tennis match want the newcomer/underdog to defeat the long-time reigning champ – and, also, they don’t want that at all. Because somewhere, deep down, we want to believe that that reigning champ can live forever, and that so will we.

Gaye Taylor (G.T.) Upchurch

TS: How are you collaborating with your director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch -- can you give us a sense of what you look for when collaborating with a director on new work

AZ: G.T. – as she is often known – is an amazing director, and I’ve been really lucky to have worked with her on this play for a long time. She directed its first production at The Old Globe in San Diego and brought it to life in a way I never could have imagined, giving the audience powerful access to its poetry and its humor, and finding visual poetry and movement that made everything more vital.

When I collaborate with a director on a new play, I look for someone who is going to embrace the less traditional aspects of my work – the fact that time can be fluid and that we’re very often in a memory space as opposed to a literal one – along with the need for a strong dramaturgical hand…and patience! Theatre requires a lot of patience, and I’m not long on that, so it’s good for me to work with directors who enjoy the process, who accept that different people will figure things out in different ways, at different times, and that ultimately, despite all these personalities (and often we are not at our best when beset by the terror that what we’re making won’t work, or will be an embarrassment) the play will find itself.

TS Will you give us some insight into your process as a writer? What kind of research did you have to do in order to write this play? How active will you be in rehearsals on this particular show? 

AZ: Embarrassingly, I don’t have much of a process. I work in different ways on every project. The Last Match was a lot of fun to write because I felt close to the world I was writing about and it all kind of flowed. I loved writing these characters. And even though I felt I knew the tennis world pretty well, writing this play was a good excuse to read Open, Andre Agassi’s wonderful memoir, which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It really pulls back the curtain on professional sports—and is catnip for a writer because it gives you a sense of what people are really thinking while they’re performing, while they’re making things look easy. Spoiler alert: things are not as easy as they look and life sucks for everyone. I hope to be really active in the rehearsals for this show – this production is happening in New York, where I live, after all. You have to make the most of that as a playwright because so much of what you do is out of town.

TS: Do you expect there to be any rewriting during the rehearsal and preview periods? If so, how does the rewriting process usually manifest itself on your plays? Is there more rewriting done during the rehearsals or during previews or...? 

AZ: I do imagine there will be some rewriting in September. But since this play has already had a production, I don’t feel like I’m in a place where I’m still figuring it all out. Now it’s about refining. in general, I rewrite a lot in the lead-up to a first production – during workshops and in anticipation of readings – and then when I’m in rehearsals it’s often a process of making the thing as lean as possible. Previews are for gauging where the audience drops out and figuring out how to fix that – which can be accomplished through any combination of text changes, acting notes, and shifts in the design.

TS: I’m curious how you understand the relationship of the two couples to each other and how the men and women relate to each other in this play. It seems to me both couples (Tim and Mallory, and Sergei and Galina) are somewhat symbiotic -- would you agree? 

Cast of The Last Match. Photo by Joan Marcus.

AZ: Yes, I do. Sergei certainly needs Galina – in a very obvious way, she supports him and motivates him – but she also needs him; it might sound a little anti-feminist, but he and his career give her a purpose, too. She relishes being what he needs, the only one who can truly inspire him—and also, and not least, they really love each other. Tim needs Mallory to keep him grounded, to find humility, and to make sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. She needs him to keep her from going to darker places in her mind. I think they are also deeply in love. This isn’t a play about people who shouldn’t be together, or people searching in vain for connection. I have written those plays, but this isn’t one of them. And in terms of how the couples relate to each other, we’ve talked a lot in rehearsals for this play about how the trajectory for the Americans is one of coming to accept life’s limitations, while for the Russians it’s about coming to accept life’s possibilities. Sergei and Galina ultimately see that joy and success are achievable, and Tim and Mallory see that no matter what our lives are going to be pockmarked by sadness. In some ways, the couples exist in inverse relation to each other.

TS:  What traits did you need in casting the actors for the four roles in The Last Match?

AZ: I’d say that these four all need to be versatile actors – all of the characters exist in different places on the emotional spectrum at various points in the play. And all four need to be funny, to have a good sense of comic timing and a light touch.

TS:  How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to write for the theatre? 

AZ: Seeing and reading plays definitely keeps me inspired. In fact, there’s nothing more simultaneously soul-crushing and soul-nourishing than seeing a play you love. Soul-crushing because you fear you will never write something as good, but also here is the bar, now a notch higher. It’s incredibly motivating. Also, just living this complicated, full life, juggling kids, parents, and a husband along with this strange, unpredictable job that requires different things each time – all of that is pretty inspiring, too. Which isn’t to say I don’t periodically endure stretches of panic because I don’t feel inspired – I do. But, in general, I find that the fuller and faster life feels the more hungry I am to try to set it down on paper in some way, maybe as a way to slow things down, to think about what’s interesting or troubling or gnawing at me.

As far as advice to aspiring writers goes, I’d go back to reading and seeing lots of plays. These will teach you what you like and want to emulate, and soon enough your voice will be your own.

The Last Match runs through December 23 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, The Last Match

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