In an interview Annie Baker gave for Walter Bilderback for her production of Uncle Vanya, she had said that “[she] love[s] Chekhov’s writing[…]He taught me a lot about offstage action, offstage characters, and how important it is to have dialogue that does not appear to forward the plot.” There is no doubt that Chekhov had influenced Annie Baker as he does with all playwrights who live in a post-Chekovian era. However, upon finally seeing The Flick, I am glad to say that I saw a really well done interpretation of The Cherry Orchard needed for a contemporary audience.
The plot of The Flick: a contemporary movie theater using 35mm film is being sold to an entrepreneur who wishes to revamp the projection for digital film. As with Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, this is the action that happens offstage while being inevitable. Movies are being filmed less and less on celluloid because the process and production of the film is too expensive. Digital film, however, are much cheaper to produce and thus makes more business sense. Theaters are universally digital at this point, with a few stragglers clinging to the celluloid format. Chekov’s play illustrates the precarious and crumbling position of the Russian aristocracy and how they cannot change the modern world from crashing into their lifestyle. With this in mind, what does Baker’s The Flick do to this theme?
At the Company One staging of The Flick, the audience replaces the movie screen while watching the seats in a theater. Simultaneously, the theatrical audience is watching actors perform art. Art watches art watching art. The show starts with an empty stage while the film projector plays the last few minutes of a movie. Audiences seeing this show are asked to be thinking about art at the beginning of the play and engage in what art is.
Two characters are at contention, in regards to their position on movies, namely Avery and Sam. Avery is a college student film aficionado who loves the medium, and will quickly analyze and criticize any film that he sees. Celluloid is an art form for Avery and moving away from this familiarity is disastrous. For him each individual frame is a painting that was painstakingly constructed by the director to tell his story. Sam, however, does not necessarily see merit in the digital format; rather, he feels indifferent to the change. There will always be movies for Sam to see, whether they be in digital or celluloid. Avery is in an analogous position of the Russian aristocracy in that his preferred format of viewing film is quickly going extinct. For Avery, the change of the art form means the end of the art form.
Is this not a conversation that happens within the theatre community on a semi-regular basis? Old plays have survived the decades, centuries, millennia and have defined the canon and art form. New plays may never see a premiere with an audience on a large stage, and perhaps condemned to an eternity of development. Plays that are canonical are safe for the commercial stage because they are familiar to an audience. That is not to say that the goal of the playwright is to make it to Broadway; rather that the playwright should not have to endure table readings for their work. New art is challenging for theatres because it changes the meaning of the medium, the way the audience understands the medium, the way the canon is constructed.
However, this cannot be the end of the argument. After all, Avery gets the celluloid film projector from the theatre and wishes to continue showing the old films to an audience who will appreciate them, namely film student and film buffs like him. He moves on from The Flick, while Sam stays behind to continue watching movies in this theater. Perhaps old plays have their time and place as well, and room has to be made for new voices. Rather than clogging the pipelines of theatre productions with the same classic voices, the classics should be understood in the context of theatrical history, studied, and maybe limited in their runs rather than dominating the theatre scene.
The Flick in performance is fascinated with speech and how speech cannot convey nearly as much information as the speaker wishes. Baker presents a challenge to the audience: engage in silence, in nonverbal action, in repetitive action. Most of the actions the audience every sees on stage are Sam and Avery cleaning the theater for the next showing or cleaning it at the end of the day. These are often done in periods of complete silence, and the end is composed of minutes of Sam not talking. Yet in these periods without speech convey so much about the characters and their dynamics better than any words could possibly explain.
Baker expressed her views for speech in an interview with Playwright Horizon by saying that “the way human being speak is so heartbreaking to me-we never sound the way we want to sound.” For Baker, language fails. For humanity, language also fails to convey what we mean. Only a small percentage of our speech is understood verbally; the rest comes from gesture, body language, vocal inflection, and eye contact. In the Company One production, characters do not acknowledge all of these faculties; Sam often does not reach other characters, opting to shut them or keep his back to the others. Often, though, the awkwardness and the tension of character’s inability or anger comes from spells of silence. As an audience member, I wanted much for these moments to break, which was answered by longer periods of silence. The audience is as uncomfortable as the characters are.
The Flick cannot be read as well as it could be seen. It follows similar veins that Martin Sherman’s Bent and Chekov’s Cherry Orchard do, but mutes most of the politically charged issues. However, the issues are not removed; they are still there, but they are incidental. It is not a focus that Sam’s brother is mentally challenged, that Avery’s mother left his father, or that Rose has commitment issues. This kind of characterization is well done. It makes Baker’s work universal and important. Her characters are not stereotypes; they are real.