Annie Baker Cleans Up Off-Broadway With Her New Play, ‘The Flick’

On Broadway, there are superheroes flying above an audience, a handful of actors singing while pushing around a bright red pick-up truck, and the familiar chandelier crashing onto an opera house stage (although it seems to drop a lot slower than it did when The Phantom of the Opera premiered twenty-five years ago.) Meanwhile, at a smaller theater just blocks from those large theaters, is Playwrights Horizons where Annie Baker’s play The Flick is showing to much smaller crowds who are not witnessing the distracting spectacle of a big-budget musical, but rather a small-scale examination into human behavior featuring characters resembling people who would pass by the small theater unnoticed on Forty-Second Street. And it involves a lot of cleaning.

“You sit in a movie theater for two hours and watch a past-tense, recorded version of reality on screen,” Baker says to me over coffee at Kos Kaffe in Park Slope, where she lives, a few days before The Flick’s opening night. “When the movie is over, these real people come out and start to clean up. It’s like an act of theater that takes place after a movie ends: the dance of cleaning, of going up and down the rows.”

The Flick follows three employees of a run-down movie theater in Boston—Avery, Sam, and Rose—as they clean and mingle following the projection of second-run movies. The Flick is representative of a dying breed of theaters—that small town, one-screen movie house, the kind that doesn’t accept credit cards and still projects actual film rather than an updated digital projector. The specifics give an added weight to the characters on stage; they aren’t the typical anonymous multiplex employees. They are instead three of the most realistic, fully formed characters you’ll find in contemporary theater, thanks in part to Baker’s meticulous ear for dialogue and pitch-perfect eye for how people work, love, and live with each other.

But it’s the set that is perhaps the most striking part of The Flick: the audience, separated by the invisible movie screen at the foot of the stage, faces rows of empty theater seats. It’s down those rows that Avery and Sam silently make their rounds—sweeping up popcorn, picking up soda cups, finding the occasional shoe—pausing often to make conversation about the state of American film (Avery insists that Pulp Fiction is the last great American movie, an argument Sam tries to negate by submitting various titles released in the last decade as great works of art) or to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, as their common interest does not extend much further than their jobs. It’s the details of the seemingly mundane that first prompted Baker to write The Flick: to examine what happens after the audience leaves and the play continues.

“I was interested in exploring the phenomenological difference between theater and film by literally making the fourth wall a movie screen,” Baker says, revealing the idea for the set was what inspired her to write a play that takes place in a movie theater. The setting also allowed Baker to delve into the near-universal cultural experience of movie watching. “You can meet people who don’t read books, look at paintings, or listen to music, but everyone has seen movies,” she continues. “All of our personalities and love stories and friendships and careers are shaped by movies. Our personal narratives are determined by the movies we watched as kids, which is beautiful and also a little, well, fucked up.”

the flick
Photo by Joan Marcus

The twenty-year-old Avery, who is taking time off from college following family and personal troubles, most embodies this sentiment. His encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia seems to rule his life, and his view of film as an art form sets him apart from the other two characters, who appreciate commercial films like Avatar as much as the supposed serious films like the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. His snobbery even makes himself weary; in one scene, Avery sits alone in the darkened theater, telling an anonymous friend over the phone about a dream in which he must pick one movie to sum up his life as he enters Heaven. He is disappointed that the film he picks for himself is the 1992 comedy Honeymoon in Vegas.

Despite the satirical take on taste, Baker takes a glance at how film dictates our actions and behaviors. Movies are seen as a comfort, Baker insists, on account of their universal acceptance. Baker herself knows this first-hand. “I was a crazy movie buff as a teenager, and in my twenties I felt like I had fallen out of love with movies,” she says. “I was an unhappy teenager, and movies can really feel like this balm when you’re unhappy and lonely in a small town.” She insists that her disillusion with film did not follow a specific, triggering moment; rather, it happened naturally. “When I moved to New York and became a grown-up, I didn’t need them anymore. But I was interested in getting back to my first love when I was writing The Flick.”

Not only did Baker return to her first love for inspiration, she may have dug up some of those unhappy emotions from her adolescence when developing her characters. Avery, Sam, and Rose all exhibit an active disappointment with the menial day-to-day aspects of their lives. Avery complains that everyone seems to act like a stereotype of what they think they are supposed to be. Rose, who is aggressive in both her personality and her looks (she dyes her hair green and exclusively wears loose-hanging black shirts and t-shirts), admits, “I’m afraid that something is wrong with me and I’ll never know what it is.” Sam, a portly, awkward thirty-something, is slow to reveal details about his personal life—a mentally handicapped brother who is able to find a partner while Sam harbors an unrequited crush on Rose—and struggles to achieve his goal to move up in his position to work the projector at the theater. Baker’s characters, in The Flick as well as her earlier plays, Body Awareness and Circle Mirror Transformation, express a specific discomfort with themselves and their surroundings. One would expect Baker to be awkward and quiet herself.

That’s not the case. With a thin frame and long, blonde hair and bangs framing her round face, Baker gives off the illusion that she is much taller than she is. Her presence as an artist is immediate, even from photographs—she has the tendency to give just the hint of a smile, seemingly effortlessly, so much so that it resembles at first glance a frown. But after sitting down and talking with her, it’s clear that the hyper-intellectual façade isn’t accurate; she is soft-spoken, friendly, inquisitive, and talkative. She seems almost the opposite of her characters—she is self-assured and confident. But she is willing to admit, despite the critical acclaim she has achieved in her very brief career, that she is “a lazy writer,” someone who cannot successfully knock out several plays in a year. (She spent three years writing The Flick.)

She also knows her work will not receive universal acclaim, thanks in part to the preview period for The Flick. “There have been extreme responses,” she tells me. “On some nights, there are people laughing possibly too hard, and on other nights there’s a lot of silence during the first act and people leaving at intermission. People have told me they don’t want to watch a three-hour play about people cleaning.” Despite the varied response, the subject matter is still what Baker wants to explore. “I approach my plays with the intention of drawing attention to people, places, and phenomena that are a part of people’s lives,” she tells me, “like the guys who clean up after us at movies. I want to make people think about them for a few hours. I just want people to notice.” Luckily, audiences are paying attention. If Annie Baker’s early success is any indication, they will be noticing for years to come.

Annie Baker portrait by Zack DeZon.

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