MacArthur ‘genius grant’ goes to Amherst native Annie Baker


For the Bulletin
Thursday, October 19, 2017

New York playwright and Amherst native Annie Baker is one of 24 winners of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”

The fellowship awards a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant every year to 20 to 30 creative individuals with promising potential.

“In mining the minutiae of how we speak, act, and relate to one another, Baker captures the humor, absurdity, and tragedy that result from the limitations of language and our fraught search for more meaningful human connections,” according to a MacArthur Foundation press release announcing the grant winners.

An acclaimed playwright, Baker, 36, was also a winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for best drama for a play called “The Flick,” which examines the lives of three young employees of an aging Massachusetts movie theater.

After she won the Pulitzer, The New York Times called Baker “one of the freshest and most talented dramatists to emerge Off Broadway in the past decade.”

Baker’s other notable works include “Body Awareness,” “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens.”

The MacArthur Fellowship was set up to free intellectual leaders from financial burdens and empowers them to pursue their most innovative ideas. Since 1981, 989 people who work in different fields — from mathematics, computer science, landscape architecture, human rights, artists and musicians — have been named fellows.

Though coming from different intellectual background, these fellows must be “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

“I feel released from a profound, decades-old financial anxiety,” Baker replied to the New York Times by email. “Now my job is just to wake up every morning and ask myself: What do I want to write? What is the most important thing I could be writing?”

Baker was born in Cambridge and raised in Amherst. Her mother, Linda J. Baker, Ph.D., is professor emerita of psychology at Keene State College. Her father, Conn Nugent, is director of the Seabed Mining Project, at The Pew Charitable Trusts, in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Amherst Regional High School in 1999, Baker studied dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and then earned her master’s degree in playwriting at Brooklyn College.

Baker is currently a resident playwright at the Signature Theatre and a master-artist-in-residence and co-associate chairwoman in the Playwriting Program at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Baker is known for her skillful representation of normal people’s everyday life, infusing humor, wit, and empathy in the delicately constructed speeches and dialogues, as well as in pauses and silences.

Even the length of her plays — usually about three hours — is appraised by audiences.

“When an artist’s work is sensitive, disciplined, and well-structured, and when it listens to its subjects, portrays them thoughtfully, and treats their lives with respect, that generosity of time becomes part of the empathy, and we become part of the empathy, too,” writes Sarah Larson on the New Yorker.