Hello all – this is Alex Leidy, summer literary intern for Theatre J. These past few weeks I’ve been actively involved in the dramaturgy for Body Awareness, including getting a chance to provide dramaturgical support in rehearsals for a couple days’ worth of table work.
As I’ve been working on this show, I’ve found myself thinking back to one of the first shows I ever worked on and how it changed and shaped my theatrical life for years to come. Back in 2006, I got a part in a high school production of The Cherry Orchard, and I remember being kind of quietly frustrated with the play itself because I didn’t know how to handle it. I remember thinking: “I guess this is funny, but I wish something would happen in this play.” By the time we opened the play, I’d come around on it completely. There was a huge amount going on in that play, but a great deal of it was happening under the surface of the language, slipping out through otherwise innocuous language instead of thundering out in climactic monologues and screamed arguments.
It’s the kind of major realization that sounds a bit trite when typed out, but looking back at it I think that particular personal epiphany did a lot to shape what kind of theatre I wanted to be involved with to the present day: when asked what my dream project to dramaturg was two years ago, my response was that I wanted to work on more Chekhov.
I think I’ve been coming back to that high school moment because there’s something distinctly Chekhovian about Body Awareness, and Annie Baker’s plays in general. I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so, given that she got commissioned to adapt Uncle Vanya for Soho Rep in New York earlier this year. She writes entirely believable characters who use familiar language written with an incredible ear for the rhythms and patterns of day-to-day speech. The characters in Body Awareness feel like people I could run into at the supermarket, they remind me of family members and friends in ways that makes their situation all-too relate-able. I know people like Joyce and Jared in real life, and I’ve seen and been a part of conversations like the ones in the play. The fact that I can see myself and other people in her characters so easily makes their story especially powerful; their personal schisms have a real weight which I could feel the first time I read the script and felt even more powerfully when I got a chance to watch the show read by the fantastic cast of Theater J’s production.
And of course, there’s a great deal going on thematically underneath and around the personal conflicts in the play. Issues of feminism, family, mental health, self-image, the role of art, and identity all underlie the story of Body Awareness in ways both immediately apparent and subtle, and like Chekhov Annie Baker seems to approach these ideas without any agenda. There’s no sense of moralizing or preaching to Body Awareness – instead Baker unpacks these issues without telling us as an audience how we’re supposed to feel about them. It’s a hard way to write, but one I always find rewarding in a playwright, and one that makes a play able to affect audiences well after its time. It’s what makes Chekhov still worth producing today, and it’s why I hope to see Body Awareness still being produced in fifty years: because as long as we’re dealing with these difficult questions, the play is still going to matter.