Michael Phillips came to Los Angeles like any other wide-eyed writer in search of opportunity. Instead, the English writer found himself lost in a city littered with laptops and writers at every Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
“(In Los Angeles), you can walk into any cafe, and someone is writing something,” Phillips said.
“The flip side of that is that writers are a dime a dozen (here). It’s a very humbling experience.”
Strangely enough, Phillips’ sense of isolation and insignificance sparked a reconnection with one of his literary idols, famed late French author Anais Nin. Phillips saw numerous parallels between his journey and those of Nin, which were well-documented in her journals.
“I was looking for a subject that sort of sums up, in a weird way, my own experience in Los Angeles,” Phillips said. “(Nin) lived in Los Angeles, and we had a similar sort of path, so everything just sort of fell in place.”
Nin, a writer whose diaries famously detailed passionate affairs with both Henry and June Miller, inspired Phillips to write his play “Anais: an Erotic Evening with Anais Nin.”
Yet he didn’t simply want to tell Nin’s life story. Rather, Phillips chose an unorthodox conceit ““ a one-woman play based around an undocumented weekend sojourn in Arizona during which Nin visited June Miller at a mental hospital.
“I was looking for a framework … and I discovered that there was this weekend where she was actually in Arizona,” Phillips said. “Normally, when she would go away, there would be tons of stuff in her diary, and there is nothing.”
Phillips found solace at UCLA’s English Reading Room, where Nin’s actual journal is housed. Here, Phillips shared a kinship with Nin through her works.
“You can go find her diary anywhere. It’s quite widely available,” Phillips said. “But it is so different sitting with papers that were hers. It is mystical … you feel close to her.”
Colleague and librarian Lynda Tolly of the English Reading Room played an important role in Phillips research, referring him to useful materials like the papers of Anais Nin and the pages of Henry Miller.
“It’s just really exciting being a librarian in a city like Los Angeles, with so many aspiring writers who do draw upon our amazing collection here,” Tolly said. Writers are really finding the need to access the primary material and UCLA Library is a great collection to assist … writers in that capacity.”
Still, one of the greatest challenges for Phillips, despite the large amount of source material, was capturing the voice of Nin.
“The hardest thing of all was trying to capture her voice,” Phillips said. “I spent hours and hours studying the way she actually writes, not just what she wrote. … That was what I tried to capture.”
Phillips credits the Library with mediating the connection that allowed him to eventually replicate Nin’s voice.
“I don’t think this play would’ve been possible without (the Library),” Phillips said. “When people ask me why I didn’t do the show when I was in Boston or New York, I don’t think I would’ve been able to, because there wouldn’t have been this connection. So in that way, UCLA was paramount in the production.”
The result is a play that Phillips admits is immensely difficult for an actress to perform. Actress Sonia Maslovskaya, who plays Nin, agreed.
“I need to have honest reactions from imaginary characters every night, so I have to really engage my imagination and really commit emotionally,” Maslovskaya said. “It’s also a very emotionally charged play, and the range of emotion really varies from seduction and eroticism to feelings of desperation and rejection and unrequited love.”
According to Phillips, Maslovskaya’s performance is a substantial reason that the play has drawn hordes of passionate, college-aged fans.
“I guess there is a sense that college is a time of immense personal change as well as other kinds of changes,” Phillips said. “The thing about Anais Nin is that she captured that model of change perfectly.”
For Phillips, Nin’s journal helped facilitate a personal change in his life. Phillips relishes the opportunity to introduce Nin to those unfamiliar with her work.
“We’re seeing a lot of people running out and buying her books, wanting to learn more about her,” Phillips said. “(The show) encourages people to find out about her, and that’s one of our goals.”