Often family and friends ask if it is more difficult for me to enjoy a play now that I have undergone extensive theatre training. Does it give me a more critical eye when the lights go down? I reply it’s true that I’ve become aware of the inner workings of theatre and notice previously overlooked nuggets while watching a show. However, the mark of a truly great show is when even the harshest critic is stuck to his/her seat with eyes glued to the stage; their mind cleared from all other responsibilities in order to open wide and accept the characters’ words, the changes of thought, the creative choices, and ultimately the messages of the play. This was my experience stepping out of Company One’s New England premiere of Annie Baker’s The Flick. After an almost 4 hour dip into a world strikingly similar to my own, I was struck by Baker’s ability to reveal the epic nature of 3 lives deemed insignificant by contemporary standards of class, employment, and economic standing.
Three characters fill almost the entirety of this play; Sam, Avery, and Rose. Although the quantity, form and detail of text holds great significance in the telling of this story, much is said in extended periods of silence. In a windowed projector booth planted upstage, a floor above the back row of cinema seats, the audience can see about 40% inside the room and receive about 5% of the sound. This of course is no mistake of design; rather a brilliant theatrical device supporting the idea that life isn’t packaged into an all-viewable, fully accessible bundle. It’s complex, messy and everyone experiences it differently, as every chair in the audience would see a different fraction of the projector booth. But although every audience member’s vision was uniquely impaired we all felt the surprisingly long lengths of silence. By removing one sense, others are strengthened and any visible action, no matter how simple, was given a heightened focus. When Rose and Sam methodically disassembled the film projector to replace it with a digital one, any text would have disrupted the chilling image of flashy convenience subverting pure originality. This one silent scene largely encapsulates the whole play.
It’s not only the sound and set design that restricts the audience from accessing the entire story, the text itself creatively masks specific information. The play isn’t an easy watch and requires attentive viewers. Even for the attentive Baker doesn’t give all the pieces to the puzzle, which might frustrate some. When a production reveals all to an audience, they become satisfied because the play is easier to swallow and drift from the mind without lingering provocation. Baker has masterfully crafted a fully functional play with all the correct theatrical components, while making it seem like it was a random splatter of life, revealing ugly moments and concealing desired information. In the middle of the play Avery receives a phone call and we see a reserved character open up and become vulnerable. Despite an obviously important relationship in his life, the caller is never revealed, nor is the call ever addressed again. The playwright has deemed the details superfluous (or at least unworthy of releasing to everyone). The significance lies in the content of his words, that that’s within him, and we should feel privileged enough to see that much. It’s one among many moments that represent life as we live it: fragmented and hungry.
Like any well-written play The Flick has clearly defined character arcs. Avery has the clearest: beginning the play at the first day of his new job, makes friends, conflict arises, doubts friendships, leaves job at the end of the play. The other arcs in the play don’t lack clarity, but are longer are we meet them midway through. Rose and Sam have the same jobs before, during and after the play, surviving the new employees, change of employer, change of technology, and the ceiling of the cinema. Immense resilience to change is built up due to necessity; change for a minimum wage worker in a desperate economy is high risk and could cost a meal, a job, even a house. This need of stability runs deep enough to let Avery take full blame for their own employee tradition of stealing a fraction of the profits every week. The option isn’t an attractive one but it is one that they and countless others will continue to chose until dramatic improvements are made for the lower middle class.
As far as the setting for the story Baker has chosen a recognizable place of magic. A cinema is a vessel of mental, emotional, and spiritual transportation, however the majority of the play we see that vessel unused. Baker is challenging our notion of conventional locations of catharsis. Indeed, it is the very same room that the sleeping man was transported in earlier in the day, but can that room, or any room, be a place where inner beauty can be unabashedly released, without the aid of a flashing screen? When I walked out of the theatre I felt a call to action to allow myself to remain open to change in places other than those I expect change to happen. It’s putting an amount of faith in the other people that most are uncomfortable with.
I would be shocked if someone saw this play and gained little from it. Baker has piled so much inside it that I believe it’s impossible to fully engage and come out unchanged. She presents 3-dimensional, deep characters trying to survive in an unforgiving world. Despite the disguise of being insignificant workers we all know so well from avoiding eye contact as they wait for everyone to exit the theatre, underneath these are epic characters dealing with life problems. Baker is doing many things with this play, but primarily I believe she is giving humanity to those we so often discard. I, for one, am grateful for the reminder.