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Kristine Nielsen, Marylouise Burke and Mia Katigbak on performing in Annie Baker's Infinite Life
The first rule of talking about Infinite Life, the new Annie Baker play directed by James Macdonald at Atlantic Theater Company, is not to talk about Infinite Life. To be clear, Kristine Nielsen, Marylouise Burke and Mia Katigbak—three beloved New York stage stalwarts in the cast alongside Christina Kirk, Brenda Pressley and Pete Simpson—are eager to discuss how much they enjoy performing in this challenging and empathetic work, which demands audiences lean in and listen between the lines. But they're wary of giving too much away beyond saying their characters are all brought together by a shared desire to heal at a clinic in Northern California.
Audiences familiar with Baker's other plays, which include John, Circle Mirror Transformation and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, know that she values people over plot and has a penchant for long pauses. Admittedly, her work is polarizing, but fans find her plays unique and rewarding. Two-time Tony nominee Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus), Burke (Epiphany) and Katigbak (cofounder of NAATCO) certainly count themselves among her enthusiasts.
TDF Stages chatted with these theatre vets about why performing in a Baker play is a singular experience, the difficulties of doing less on stage and how they've learned to let go and enjoy the silence.
Gerard Raymond: What was your initial response to reading Infinite Life?
Marylouise Burke: I think a first encounter can be a little puzzling, but my trust for Annie is enormous. So, I just thought, I'm going to be a sport about this and jump in. And I'm glad I did. She has a very unique way of writing. People were asking me plot questions and I said, "Annie's dramaturgy is her own invention." It's not conventional dramaturgy as far as the structure of it goes, but it works. I had done her play John at London's National Theatre with James Macdonald directing, so I got to know the territory then. I feel it's an honor to be part of the mystery of it all.
Mia Katigbak: I think I first read it five years ago. I'd never done any of Annie's plays, but just knowing her work I was very excited and intrigued. As Marylouise said, my first encounter was a little, what is this? Then we did a couple more informal readings. She's amazing as a playwright because she just revises and reworks her own material and cuts and edits ruthlessly to get to where we are now. The experience of saying those words and living them, it's pretty incredible.
Kristine Nielsen: I was actually slated to do another play. Then I read Infinite Life and the part was something that I had never gotten a chance to flex my muscles with. I got very excited about that. And it takes a lot to get this old lady excited again! I've always been a fan of Annie's plays—I just love them. I thought, this is scary; I don't know what it is, but I know I have to do this. So, I had to bail out of the other play, which was hard because I had never done that before. I took this leap with Annie… and then the pandemic happened. I didn't know where it was after that. I was so scared that she'd moved on and that I'd open the paper and read about it being done somewhere. But Annie is very loyal, I think, once she's made up her mind about the voices she wants to hear doing her material. She came back to me. I was so grateful and excited when it came back.
Raymond: Kristine, can you elaborate on what got you so excited about your role in this play?
Nielsen: I think it's not being asked to do something that is familiar, or that my audience would be familiar with me doing. Life makes you put lots of layers on, different armors as an actor. This is peeling that back and sharing a little soul-to-soul talk. For me, it is about cutting to the bone: getting simpler and simpler and trusting the writing to help me as opposed to trying to work something into the writing. And I think that's scary and hard. I hope I'm getting closer to it. And these ladies that I'm working with are extraordinary.
Raymond: Marylouise and Mia, what are the challenges of "getting simpler," as Kristine puts it?
Katigbak: We are told, "Don't comment on your character, don't even think about character." Both James and Annie say it's small talk, but of course there is so much happening underneath. It's a little mind-boggling putting all of that together. Anecdotally, at last night's show, after the last scene that all of us are in, we were kind of commiserating backstage, and Pete [Simpson] said, "My God, it's going against all our instincts!" It's like suppress, suppress, but then because of the suppression something comes out.
Burke: I agree. It's sort of like a leap of faith that we take, isn't it? We accept that direction from James and from Annie—they want me to do what? And it turns out they are right. Annie's style embraces a different way of entertaining and storytelling.
Nielsen: I remember Annie said to me, "It's very hard to do nothing, isn't it?" It's a whole lot of nothing you are asking.
Raymond: Fans of Baker's plays know that her silences speak volumes. How do you approach those wordless but thought-filled moments?
Katigbak: There are three degrees of silences in Infinite Life: a beat, a pause and a silence. And Annie is very particular about the difference between those three. If it is taking a little too long, she'll be like, "Let's edit that. It's not quite a silence, it's maybe a pause with a little beat after it." So, there's a whole vocabulary happening.
Burke: I got one of those last night. I said, "Oh! This is now a silence instead of a pause. Okay."
Nielsen: It's so musically scored. She's so smart. You first go, well I think they're crazy, but then you do it and they are a hundred precent right. I hear the difference.
Katigbak: And the direction that we always get is "slower, slower, slower."
Raymond: Infinite Life is a world premiere. What was it like developing your characters with Baker?
Katigbak: She's very attentive. She has a lot of empathy for each of her characters and you can feel that in the room. But also, she has a way of working with the actors that is of mutual interest. I have worked with a lot of playwrights and directors who insist that it's a collaborative process, but it's kind of on the surface. Annie will actually ask you how it feels to say what she has written. If somebody says, "Uhhh… that kind of feels funny," she does something different. She has incredible trust in her actors, which is a gift.
Nielsen: It's always that thing about going deeper as opposed to broader. What she's actually saying is, "Can you make that more mysterious? Can you not tip your hand? I want the audience to have to discover these people, so stay mysterious." That's why I said it was such a challenge and so enriching—you have to withhold a little bit in this.
Burke: What's weird is, this isn't a group of old friends getting together to play cards or have a cookout or something like that. The bonding is different. You know what I mean girls? Has it felt different to you, too? We are not portraying longtime friendships. They are in each other's worlds only during each individual's challenging time.
Nielsen: That's right, Marylouise, each of us comes from a different world that we eventually have got to go back to. It's very odd. You do want to act like, oh, in these troubling times we are all bonding, but we are not really bonding, we are just commiserating.
Katigbak: What we have to constantly remember is the circumstances that have brought us together. We are from different places from all over the country and from different generations. In a sense, you are taking care of yourself when you are in this place. It is kind of the beauty of the play and that's where the mystery comes from: what gets revealed and what gets withheld.
Raymond: You've certainly been careful about not revealing much. Is there anything you can tell us?
Katigbak: It's about illness and what it does to the body.
Nielsen: There's that, but I think it is also strangely hopeful. Last night somebody said some line and I teared up. I didn't anticipate that. It takes you to a lot of different places. Yes, it's about illness, spiritual and physical—mostly physical—but it is also about these women who all choose to try to get healthy. That's some of the journey: they are women who were willing to try anything to heal.
Raymond: While the play's themes are serious, there's also a lot of humor.
Katigbak: Remember the first preview? We were greeted with such raucous laughter. Those of us who were backstage were looking at each other like, huh? I knew there was humor in it, but we've had varying degrees—from total guffaws to little titters, or a solo cackling person. It has been very surprising to me personally, the different temperatures and volume of hilarity.
Raymond: Like all of Baker's plays, Infinite Life, with its silences and things left unsaid, is not for everyone. How have the reactions been so far, and what do you hope theatregoers take away from the play?
Burke: Each audience has been slightly different. There was that first audience that we mentioned—I think there must have been a lot of Annie groupies. People are just taking it in in different ways. And it's delightful to have the characters be appreciated, I think, by people both young and old. It crosses that border—there are young people who are nowhere near a challenge like these ladies have, and people who probably have been through it.
Katigbak: One of my friends who came to see the show said she felt the audience was doing something that happens so rarely in live theatre these days: they began to lean in and then they kept leaning and leaning in. If that's what we give to the audience, I'll take it!
Nielsen: I actually was really fond of our first matinee. That was an older, less vocally exuberant audience, but I felt they were deeply affected by this play. I really enjoyed playing to them. It was a little more rueful, a little more wry. They got it, they went with us. I think that's what I really want: that people don't know too much about this play. I know that sounds like I'm skirting something but I'm not. Let it wash over you. I had a friend who said it was like a wave, you sat back and let it pull you forward. And I think that is a beautiful way of saying what theatre should do, it should reflect something of what we are going through but not hit you on the head with it. This play really has that delicacy.
Burke: Delicacy and guts.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Top image: Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley, Marylouise Burke and Mia Katigbak in Infinite Life at Atlantic Theater Company. All photos by Ahron R. Foster.