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Playwright avoids the ordinary on purpose

| Friday, March 11, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
From left, writer Anna Ziegler, actress Nicole Kidman, director Michael Grandage and actor Stephen Campbell Moore pose for photographers during a photocall to promote a new production of the play Photograph 51, at the Noel Coward Theatre in London, Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
Anna Ziegler
Author Anna Ziegler

Less than a year ago, Anna Ziegler was a relatively unknown playwright. When a famous actor was cast in her play “Photograph 51” in London, the press started to take notice.

In August 2015, a New York Post article asked, “What's Nicole Kidman doing in a play … that's by Anna Ziegler, a writer nobody's heard of?”

“Obviously, the New York Post needs a good headline,” says Ziegler, laughing. “Having Nicole Kidman do your play does raise your profile; there's no doubt about that.”

Ziegler will speak March 16 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland. Her appearance is presented by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and City Theatre, with the support of the Dramatists Guild Fund's Traveling Masters Program. Ziegler's “The Last Match,” directed by Tracy Brigden, will be presented at City Theatre from April 9 through May 15.

Only 35, the Brooklyn native has drawn effusive praise for her work. Margot Bordelon, director of Ziegler's “A Delicate Ship,” touted Ziegler's “theatricality and poetic language.” The website nytheatre.com, writing about the play “Dov and Ali,” noted how its “beguiling script crackles with nuance and wit.”

Ziegler studied poetry and fiction at Yale before turning to playwriting at the behest of one of her professors, the noted playwright Arthur Kopit. He encouraged her to apply for New York University's graduate program for playwriting.

“I didn't know what I was going to do with my life and thought, ‘That sounds like fun,'  ” Ziegler says. “I didn't realize it would send me down this path and, in some ways, I would never look back.”

One of the remarkable aspects of Ziegler's work is the range of her subject matter. “Photograph 51” is about Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist whose work was instrumental to understanding the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, coal, graphite and viruses. “The Last Match” revolves around an epic tennis match between an American and Russian at the U.S. Open. “The Minotaur” is an updated version of the Greek myth.

Ziegler, whose plays have been produced by theater companies from San Diego to Berlin, admits to avoiding the ordinary when searching for subjects.

“I do seem to be drawn to stories that are a little bit more outlandish,” she says. “I guess I like a challenge. I tend to be drawn to stories that seem like they would be hard to tell.”

Ziegler's penchant for the unusual adds another layer of difficulty to a genre that is predicated on being a cogent storyteller in compact time frames. She calls it a paradox, trying to fit in all the necessary elements in 80 minutes to two hours.

“I do think once you're doing something in three dimensions, you want to find a way to break free of the story, too,” Ziegler says, “and not be too constrained by it, or hope that it doesn't feel too small.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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