Playwright Anna Ziegler returns to the O’Neill with ‘Antigones’

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Writer Anna Ziegler was last at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford in 2011 with her play “An Incident” for the esteemed National Playwrights Conference. She returns this summer with her new work, “Antigones,” which was selected for the 2019 conference from among 1,416 submissions.

In between those stints at the O’Neill? Well, Ziegler has been impressively prolific and successful.

Among her credits:

In 2015, her play “Photograph 51” opened in London’s West End in a production starring Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin, who was an integral but unsung figure in discovering the structure of DNA.

That same year, Ziegler’s play “A Delicate Ship” ran Off-Broadway.

She saw other plays of hers — “Actually” and “The Last Match” — open Off-Broadway in 2017.

And now Ziegler is happy to be back at the O’Neill. She recalls her 2011 experience there with clear affection.

“I think it was really the first time I had been away for a full month as a writer. I had done other playwriting workshops before but, because this playwriting workshop is kind of part of a larger writing residency, it was really the first time I had done that or gave myself the time to do that. The week of working on my play was wonderful, but it was also just the most deep time away from my life that I’d had at that point. I remember it as being incredibly valuable — from a writing perspective and also it was incredibly fun,” she says with a laugh.

She remembers nights at Blue Gene’s Pub, playing cornhole, hitting the beach, and getting lobster rolls.

She made good friends with the other writers, and she learned from them, too. Seeing all the work was great fun.

“It’s nice to be in a community where, as a playwright, you’re not the only one who’s on the spot (she laughs) because, usually as a playwright, you’re part of your production and everything’s kind of on you,” she says.

About ‘Antigones’

Her new play, “Antigones,” is a contemporary take on the Greek tragedy of “Antigone.”

(In the Sophocles tale, Antigone’s brothers fight to rule Thebes after their father’s demise. Eteocles takes power, but Polynices tries to overthrow him. Both eventually die. Creon, the man who ascends to the throne, refuses to let Antigone bury Polynices because he’s deemed a traitor. But she holds fast to her beliefs; she tries to bury him anyway and is sentenced to death. She is imprisoned. Creon changes his mind, but it’s too late; she has hanged herself.)

The description of Ziegler’s “Antigones” accompanying conference information is this: “Women’s bodies and the body politic collide in this arresting new ‘Antigone’ for the #metoo moment. As this funny, lyrical retelling of the classic play asks, how can we possibly change the world if we don’t even own our own bodies?”

It’s still very much about a woman sacrificing herself for a principle, Ziegler says, “but I would say this version is also a bit of a statement about how we’ve had enough of that, women have had enough of that. We’re ready to move on. So it’s a little bit of a fight song, I’d say.”

She adds, “It now has a lot to do with a woman’s right to choose, has much more to do with Antigone’s body than the body of her brother, which the original focuses on, the burial of her brother’s body. That is not a component of this play. While it tells the Antigone story, there’s also a very modern story of another woman that’s woven through it. … I don’t want to give (that woman’s story) away, but I would say it’s a story about how liberated women really are these days.”

“Antigones” was originally commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The first draft had nothing to do with reproductive rights, but Ziegler says the evolution of the drama “has had to do entirely with the moment where we find ourselves, where abortion rights are threatened.”

Ziegler acknowledges that it’s timely “and I hope it’s not so timely in a few years.”

While the play has depth and drama, Ziegler says it also has humor. She thinks it boasts some of the funniest scenes she’s written.

“Antigones” will be given public readings on Wednesday and Thursday at the O’Neill, and Ziegler is looking forward to seeing it performed in front of an audience.

“I just need to see how it works, how it operates dramatically, kind of the usual early stage of play development things — where is it confusing, or inert, what needs to be cut. It’s a fairly intricate storyline, so I want to make sure that that is reading clearly. It’s a pretty poetic play, so I want to make sure the poetry isn’t obscuring the meaning. I can get a little carried away with words. So sometimes, it’s about paring back my lyrical attempts,” she says.

The path from poetry to playwriting

It comes as no surprise that her play might be poetic, since Ziegler began as a poet before a shift to playwriting.

Ziegler has been writing as long as she can remember. There was a big focus on creative writing at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, which she attended, and she thought of herself as a writer by middle school.

She might have remained a poet had she not taken a course her senior year at Yale University with playwright Arthur Kopit. He also taught in the graduate program at New York University, and he encouraged Ziegler to apply to that program. Even after she started at NYU, she didn’t necessarily think she would come out of it a playwright. But that’s what she became.

“I think plays are so alive. Obviously, I love poetry, and I loved writing it for a big chunk of my life. But now I find the ability to write a poetic play or put poetry in a play is kind of the perfect combo in some sense because the poetry comes alive in a different way when it is in the service of story and when it’s coming out of the mouths of really wonderful actors,” she says.

She appreciates that the process is so collaborative. She loves writing dialogue, and she loves character.

“Just getting to put some of my creations onstage and watch amazing actors give them life can be really thrilling,” she says. 

If you go

What: Anna Ziegler’s play “Antigones” 

When: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, and Thursday, July 18

Where: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

Tickets: $30

For tickets or info:  (860) 443-1238, www.theoneill.org

 

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