For this week's web feature, we caught up with playwright and director Randy Baker, nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his direction of Rorschach Theatre's Very Still & Hard to See, and in the midst of rehearsing The Electric Baby, opening April 21.
Randy Baker is a man in perpetual motion. When we caught up over coffee near Dupont Circle he was in the midst of directing student productions at Imagination Stage and Theatre Lab, prepping classes at American University and the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, and rehearsing The Electric Baby, which opens April 21 at Rorschach Theatre, where Baker serves as Co-Artistic Director. On top of all that, he’s an accomplished playwright who was a member of the inaugural Playwrights Arena group at Arena Stage.
He stopped to chat enroute to a National Conservatory seminar on Macbeth. “They offer everything from hip-hop to stage combat to acting on film,” he explained. “I do a series of theatre history seminars, pairing a historic period with a play. So one week it’s Renaissance Theatre and the next week it’s Macbeth. It’s amazing how often you see someone come out of a university program and they’ve never read Chekhov. We’re just trying to have smarter actors out there in the world.”
Baker received his nomination for directing Very Still & Hard to See at Rorschach Theatre in 2015. The nomination comes after more than a decade of work in the Washington area. “It’s weird, right?” he says. “It’s impossible to judge art; it’s inherently an objective thing. So you can’t really take it too hard when you don’t get nominated. On the other hand you can’t let it go to your head when you do get nominated. Of course, your brain says it doesn’t matter but your heart says, ‘Why am I not loved by everyone?!’”
He was especially pleased that the nomination honored Very Still & Hard to See. “It was the culmination of lots of things that Rorschach was doing, and that I was working on personally,” he says. “We’re into entirely new plays that tell these unexpected stories where magic and miracles exist in everyday life. The plays we do are unconventional in that they address issues of where the supernatural and the commonplace meet.”
In approaching Very Still & Hard to See, Baker drew on his experiences directing Rashomon at American University, where he employed elements of Kabuki and Noh theatre traditions. It proved a good match for the Rorschach show. “[Playwright] Steve Yockey wrote the play with influences of Japanese ghost stories,” he says. “It’s an American play but it has a Japanese sense to it, a Japanese horror kind of thing.” Key to the production was an Electro-Swing score. “It’s this mash-up style. It's contemporary with electronic beats but it's also got horns and a 1930s sound.”
The experience proved to be quintessentially Rorschach. “Worlds meet in this play,” Baker says. “And the places where worlds meet are the places that Rorschach and I have always been interested in. They create this brief visual moment where it’s neither shadow nor reality, neither west nor east. It’s a moment when it’s just its own thing.”
The Electric Baby fits the genre well. “A car crash connects three different story lines, but at the center is this Romanian woman who has a baby who is dying but who glows like the moon," he explains. "And the baby really is magic, it’s not just a metaphor. It’s this heartbreaking human story framed by this inexplicable magic.”
Putting it in the simplest terms, Baker concludes, “I feel like reality just isn’t enough.” His work, in collaboration with Rorschach’s company of artists, is to figure out why that’s true. “Electric Baby for all its bells and whistles – and there are some beautiful bells and whistles – is a human story,” he says. “It’s about how one deals with loss, how one moves on, how people change."