In January 2020, the playwright and director of The Last Match discussed playwriting and tennis with Director of New Work & Dramaturgy Bobby Kennedy
Bobby Kennedy: Anna, I’ve heard that you were a poet before you turned to playwriting. How did that evolution happen? What appealed to you about writing for the theatre?
Anna Ziegler: I wrote primarily poetry for many years—I even got a master’s degree in poetry writing in the UK. But the more I experimented with playwriting the more alive it felt to me, as compared to poetry (with an added bonus of not having to read your own work aloud!) In July of 2001 I was invited to take part in a workshop (taught by Arthur Kopit, whose playwriting seminar I’d taken in college) at the Lark Play Development Center in New York and it was that summer when I really got hooked on the form—when every week we would bring in pages for wonderful actors to bring to life. It felt totally magical. I found myself writing on my laptop on the subway to and from the workshop. And after that I never really looked back. Theater was invigorating – and still is – and much less lonely than writing poems.
BK: Keira, you direct a lot of new plays by American playwrights. What stands out to you about Anna’s writing?
Keira Fromm: There is a real poetic sensibility to Anna’s writing. (Not surprising since poetry was an entry point for her!) She’s able to balance a heightened style of storytelling with characters who are grounded, familiar and full of flaws. The full spectrum of the emotional experience of life is so alive in her work. Her plays also have a meditative, almost existential, quality to them that I find so compelling.
BK: What do you both love about the sport of tennis?
AZ: So many things. I love that it’s this intense psychological showdown that comes down to nerves and courage more than skill. I love that singles puts two people in an arena, facing off against each other but also against their own limitations. I love that a match can feel relentless and one-sided but then change on a dime. I love the profound human drama of it. But I also love that it’s the only sport where you can win more points and still lose. That feels very much like life to me. It’s deeply unfair and yet we indulge and even celebrate its injustices. For all these reasons, I didn’t enjoy playing competitive tennis. But I love watching it. And writing about it.
KF: I’ve been a fan of tennis since I was a teenager. I was a sporty kid growing up, and I remember joining my high school’s tennis team because it seemed an easier sport because there was less ground to cover. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course; tennis is an incredibly difficult sport that requires peak athleticism and rigorous technical skill. Even though tennis never turned into a calling, I was glad to have been curious about the sport early on because it meant I got to grow up watching some of the greats play. One of the high points in my tennis watching career was being able to watch Venus and Serena Williams play a women’s final match at the U.S Open in 2001. One of the most exciting things in tennis is a five-set match. In grand slam men’s tennis, the first player to win three sets wins the match. Oftentimes a player will win successive sets and win the match rather quickly. However, if you get to play a fifth set that means two players are tied going into that final set and either player has a real shot at winning the match. Unlike baseball or football where if you’re significantly behind toward the end of the game you’re likely to lose; in tennis it’s still anyone’s game in that magical fifth set situation.
BK: Anna, where did the idea for The Last Match come from?
AZ: Well, I always knew I wanted to write about tennis someday for many of the reasons cited above. I had been a player and I was a big fan. And around when I had my first child, and felt I was closing a significant chapter of my life, Andy Roddick retired and gave a very moving speech on court at the U.S. Open. That’s where the seed of The Last Match started to grow—with this notion of putting a huge part of your life behind you at a fairly young age. It got me thinking about tennis as a microcosm for everything. About how not to go gentle into that good night. About how to stay in the fight despite getting older. And about having to leave behind something you truly loved. It felt incredibly sad, and hopeful, to me. To think that life will continue to offer up wonders even after that thing that once constituted your identity has dropped away.
BK: Although it’s of course set during a tennis match, the play is about far more than just the game. What else did you want to explore and how did tennis lend itself to that exploration?
AZ: I’ve touched on a bunch of those things, but I’ll add that it’s also an exploration of why we want what we want, what drives us. And that applies as much to the tennis players in the play as to their wives. Why does Galina want Sergei? What does she see in him? What does he bring to her life that she needs? Why does Mallory so desperately want a child? Why does she love and stay with Tim? And I think both of the women come to see the answers to those questions more clearly by the end of the play.
BK: Anna, you acknowledge the fact that The Last Match is a very physical play, but you don’t prescribe in the text how to stage any of its physicality. Why did you want to leave that component open to interpretation?
AZ: I acknowledge that The Last Match could be a physical play, given its subject matter and setting. But it’s a memory play too, and I think different productions could make equally valid decisions about which of those to weight more. Ultimately, it’s two people telling the audience a story, which means it could be done on a bare set, without any bells and whistles. Is that the best, most dynamic version of it? I honestly don’t know. I don’t like to prescribe too much so that I can be excited and surprised by different directors’ interpretations.
BK: Keira, what were you looking to achieve in the design process for this production?
KF: The Last Match takes place both on the tennis court in a semi-final match at the U.S. Open, as well as in the minds of the players playing that match. I really wanted to create an environment where both the linear tennis court and non-linear brain space of the players could co-exist concurrently. That’s created a really exciting challenge for our design team. We know what a championship tennis court looks like, but what does the brain matter of two athletes look like? Finding that balance between each was our goal. I’m really thrilled by where we landed.
BK: Anna, you’ve written plays on a variety of subjects: the discovery of DNA in Photograph 51, a sexual assault allegation on a college campus in Actually, Orthodox Jews and celebrities in The Wanderers. Are there any commonalities in what you choose to write about, or is each play a chance to explore something completely different?
AZ: Yes, I think there are commonalities, and they have to do with the emotional minefield of ambition and of wanting. How the quest for meaning and our place in the world can come to feel a bit like a prison if nothing is ever enough—if we never feel that we’ve done enough or truly achieved to the best of our abilities. Why do we always want more? And is that thing that drives us to do what we do (and sometimes to do beautifully, and world-changingly, in the case of Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51) also the thing that destroys our chance at happiness?
Over a year later, Kennedy caught up with Zieglar and Fromm again for some new perspective on the play and its journey to film:
BK: How have you two been staying artistically engaged during this challenging year?
AZ: Mostly I’ve called upon my good friend Denial. I try to tell myself that things will get back to normal soon and this is just a pause. If I were to let myself go deep into what-this-all-really-means I’d probably be completely stymied (artistically and otherwise). I know that I can’t game out, any more than theaters can, what people will want to see when plays return, or when that will happen. All I can control is what I write…So I drink more wine and keep doing my work, sporadically, with some necessary blinders on.
KF: I was meant to be directing at American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin last summer. As with all theater companies, their season was postponed and, at that point, I thought there wouldn’t be much art to occupy my time with during the lockdown. However, one of the ways APT continued to engage their patrons was by presenting public readings featuring their core company members on the Zoom platform. They invited me to direct a series of comedic one-acts: Overruled and Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw; and Swan Song by Anton Chekhov. We had about twenty hours to rehearse each play, and the reading series was a big hit for APT. PBS Wisconsin picked up many of the readings for streaming on their website. It was a really great way to focus my energy, not to mention it’s incredibly funny material, which was a balm during this heavy moment in time. I was also able to develop a holiday show with APT for streaming this past December. The show, Holidames: Tangled in Tinsel, was a variety show of sorts — some holiday inspired poetry, songs, scenes, nostalgic stories of the season. It was a joy-filled experience. Otherwise, I’ve been doing a lot of reading as well as having virtual meetings with friends and collaborators — dreaming about future artistic projects.
BK: When revisiting The Last Match recently after a year on pause, did anything resonate for you stronger or differently than it had before?
AZ: To be honest it just resonated to be in a rehearsal process again. I was (and am) so profoundly moved that all these artists are diving into this, even with all the unknowns involved, and the potential risks. It speaks to some of the themes in the play too, about the lengths we’ll go to to get what we want—and the importance of family. The American theater community is a family; I feel that more keenly than ever in this moment of separation.
KF: For a long time, I’d been thinking of the play primarily as a sports drama about the nature of ambition, and the lengths we go to feel relevant. Those things are certainly true; however, ever since the pandemic hit and our industry has been shuttered, I’ve been especially focused on the theme of reckoning in the play, and how we address major shifts in our lives. Do we let them derail and destroy us, or do we use them as growth opportunities to reevaluate and redefine ourselves? The pandemic has forced us to recognize our own mortality and take stock of who we are and what we’re doing with our lives. Like the characters in the play, we’re all in a period of self-examination and endeavoring to live our lives with greater purpose. At the center of The Last Match is a reminder that we’re only alive for precious little time and it’s incumbent upon us to be thoughtful in how we spend that time. It’s become the most cherished aspect of the play to me, and essential to my exploration of it.
BK: Of course the desire was to have live audiences for this, Keira, but what about the play and your staging of it will allow it to translate to an on-screen experience so easily?
KF: So much of the experience of the play is a conversation with the audience about why we want the things we want and how the endless desire for more plagues us. Were we in the theater with a live audience, there would be a good deal of direct address from actors to audience. Since there is no live audience to play to right now, the cameras will become our audience surrogates. That creates a really exciting opportunity to explore breaking the fourth wall. Sort of like John Cusack in High Fidelity or Fleabag or Ferris Bueller. The moments when characters talk directly to the camera (to share insight, or a joke, or a longing) will hopefully establish an instant bond with viewers and a deepened relationship by virtue of the increased focus of really talking to the audience. This kind of energy strikes me as so uniquely of the film world, which I hope creates a really thrilling hybrid of a theater/film experience.