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Never Yell Fire in a Crowded Theatre…

But C1’s The Flick is lighting a few matches.

One of the most exciting pieces of theatre on the horizon is Annie Baker’s newest play, The Flick. After its world premiere at Playwright’s Horizons in 2013 and subsequent New England premiere at Company One, this play is brand new and catching like wildfire. One of the most thrilling themes of this play is that it makes a strong argument for the igniting and invigoration of the live, contemporary theatre. The rapidly declining attendance of the theatre is due in part to the boom of the film industry. Just as films took the place of reading books- the film industry has begun to replace the tangible and Annie Baker’s play gives a reason to continue forth with new plays and strong, contemporary theatre.

There is something about this play, the misfit–yet completely relatable–characters, the conversational dialogue, the silences, the authentic interactions and simply bodies in a space that would not translate on film. Movies are edited, choices are made in the editing room to skip the silences, the “boring parts”, the in-betweens. In theatre, an audience member must choose what his eye goes to, what or who to watch. An editor with her editing scalpel peels away the unnecessary bits. However, Baker, with that same precision, builds the script to exact specificity. The stage directions are brilliant, if not overbearing. Silences are measured out and characters’ actions are often fully accounted for. The characters are familiar, relatable, nuanced, refreshingly realistic, yet simultaneously unfamiliar because their “types” are rarely represented on stage. This hyper-specificity translates directly and seamlessly onto the stage to the point where an audience member (I) was completely unaware of the precision and exactitude of the script and the play was enjoyable and simple to watch.
    The sheer amount of silence in the play is the primary reason it would not translate directly to film. So much silence that the artistic director of Playwright’s Horizons, Tim Sanford,  felt the need to send a warning-of-sorts to subscribers. The letter came out of audience criticism that the play was too lengthy and filled with too many pauses. The criticism of these silences is responded to by Baker,
        “All the walking and sweeping and mopping and dustpan-banging-there’s a whole symphony happening that Sam [the director] and the actors orchestrated.. But I wouldn’t call that silence. I think there’s actually very little ACTUAL silence in this play. But yeah, my favorite moments in all of my plays are usually moments when people aren’t talking.”
On film, silence may serve one purpose, but in this play and at this theatre, each silence (or perhaps, moment without dialogue) was filled, taut, tense, and real. It gave the production a sense of hyper-realism, that an audience member was watching the course of events in real-time. Those moments also set the mood of the play. The environment of The Flick Theater, that same, familiar, seemingly endless, crappy day job. These stage directions are not new territory for Baker, either. Her widely successful Circle Mirror Transformation was also full of scripted silences. She offers an entire soundscape to accompany the play, every projection, music piece, light cue is carefully arranged, so much so that it becomes forgotten background noise, simply creating the world of the play, where the characters are carefully dropped and exist freely.

A compelling theme the play invoked was vulnerability. The play deals forcefully with intrusion on intimate moments from the moment an audience member walks into the theatre. The staging makes it clear that the audience faces another audience. One’s role as an audience member is interfered with, put into question, and made vulnerable. That kind of interaction can only happen with a tangible set.  The audience watching the seats of the Flick Theater. When one sits in the seats of an audience, he or she takes on the role of the audience member, thus attention is off them. Focus is then directed at the same place- away from the audience, away from the self. Even in theatre in the round, the lights dim and the audience is not the center of attention- almost hidden. So what does it mean to watch the side of the theatre that is never watched? When an audience is comfortably out of the line of fire, it is able to relax and simply receive the film, play, etc. Inherently, they enter into a state of vulnerability, all of the guards are down. Annie Baker allows the audience to see the characters’ selflessness and openness when they are completely engrossed in something other.

The play, conversely, deals with the moment that the lights come back up and focus is shifted back onto one’s self. That shift is present in the space, visually, by the lights being refocused but is also highly mental. An audience member snaps back to the “social” self and become self conscious. One is plunged back into “real life” after what can be hours of engaging in another world. After watching something as epic as a movie, everyday life can seem monotonous and taxing. That same vulnerability then is present. The films projected on the “screen” are so grand, starkly contrasting the day-to-day battles fought by the characters. However, these smaller battles are real, relatable, and heartbreak still is epic to the owner of the heart.

An audience loses something if that human vulnerability is being seen through a projection. There is something safe about the ability to distance one’s self from a film. Theatre, especially this play, is bodies in space than an audience is forced to confront. Avery fights for what he believes in when it comes to film as an art form. Although his sentiment is 35mm versus digital, his ethics accurately reflect the film versus theatre argument, as well, “Film can express things that computers never will. Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness. Film is light and shadow and it is the light and shadow that were there on the day you shot the film.” (100) Something about the authenticity of what is tangible is thrilling. Amidst the controversy surrounding this play, it has sparked a conversation. This play gets people talking, this play necessitated a formalized response to subscribers of a hugely successful off-Broadway theatre. Annie Baker is a hyper-contemporary female playwright lighting a fire under the American theatre with her newest play, The Flick.


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