'The Flick' Tells The Story Of The Movies, Off The Screen
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Annie Baker has an ear for the way people talk. People who work together, people who share in activities but share only measured rations of their inner lives until they can hold it back no longer. She also has an ear for the silences that interrupt our conversations. Her play, "The Flick," won the Pulitzer Prize last year when she was 33. And now it's running through August in New York off-Broadway, and Annie Baker joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
ANNIE BAKER: Hi, thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Let's start with the setting of "The Flick" - a rundown movie theater that's about to abandon 35 millimeter for digital. The characters are Rose, the projectionist, and Sam and Avery, the men who sweep the theater after the movies. It strikes me as almost the opposite of a family drama. That is, these are people who could log hours together and barely communicate if they chose not to.
BAKER: Yeah. It's a workplace drama, but I had so many day jobs throughout my 20s. And the little family that you form with your fellow employees, I always found it to be a kind of distinctive thing, and I was really interested in writing about that, among other things.
SIEGEL: Was there a particular workplace that was an inspiration for "The Flick?"
BAKER: I had so many jobs throughout my teens and 20s. I can't even begin to tell you, but my longest job was at "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" And there was a lot of camaraderie at that day job, and I do think some of the weird relationships between people that developed there probably inspired...
SIEGEL: You were a writer - you were a writer for "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"
BAKER: I actually wasn't a writer. I was the script PA, so I was - I mean, I was writing but I was in charge of writing, like, don't touch that dial. We'll be right back and...
SIEGEL: It's a great line.
BAKER: (Laughter) Yeah, thanks, thanks. Next up, Robert Siegel in the hot seat and then...
BAKER: And then later I was a fact checker.
SIEGEL: "The Flick" is a play about movies, movie lovers. The set is actually the movie theater with the seats and the projection booth facing the audience, so that I guess the theater audience is the movie screen or what's beyond it.
BAKER: Exactly. And that was the first thing that came to me when I started writing the play. That was sort of the only thing I knew is that I wanted it to be a face-off between a theater audience - a theater-theater audience - and a movie theater audience and that the fourth wall of the theater would also be a movie screen. And that concept is sort of what created the play for me, and the characters and the plot, if you could call it that, came much later.
SIEGEL: You begin with the situation - plot, you figure, that'll come later.
BAKER: Well, I - less the situation and more just the stage experiment of it. I really - I was so interested in what was happening in the transition from film to digital at that time. I wrote the play in 2011 and then we staged it for the first time in 2012, which was a big year. 2012 and 2013 were the year that, like, 75 percent of all movie theaters in the United States converted to digital. It was huge. It was a complete changeover of the medium.
SIEGEL: And by that time, by 2011, you were a confirmed playwright theater person?
BAKER: (Laughter) Confirmed. I guess. I don't know what makes you a confirmed theater person. I didn't (laughter) - I'm continually surprised that this gets to be my job. I don't know if you have the same feeling, but I wake up every morning and sort of can't believe that I get to be a playwright. But yes, I think when I wrote the play I was (laughter) - that was - how old was I? I guess I was in my late 20s, early 30s.
SIEGEL: I have that feeling very often, actually, personally, so I can share that. I can enjoy that.
SIEGEL: I didn't know how to write about the fact that you were 33 when you won the Pulitzer and that you're 34 today. I was going to say she's only 34, so I went to look up. You know, Edward Albee was about, I think, 34 when he wrote "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" and...
BAKER: Yeah, I'm nothing special.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) I wouldn't go that far. It's good company.
BAKER: It's not great shakes.
SIEGEL: But, you know, I wonder, is it a young person's game, of being a playwright, you know?
BAKER: God, I hope not. You know, I try not to worry about that. I really (laughter) - I hope I don't become irrelevant. I don't know if it's a young person's game. I actually think there's a lot of really interesting young theater artists working right now, but young is so relative. I mean, by young I think a lot of the time we mean people in their late 30s to mid-40s, which is technically middle age, so, you know, I hope I'm writing plays for a long time.
SIEGEL: I hope so too. I want to talk with you about time a little bit. I want you to talk about time. I have not seen but I have read "The Flick" and "Circle Mirror Transformation," an earlier play of yours, which is now, I gather, one of the most widely produced plays in theaters around the country. And you often write very specific stage directions - this character should do this. It should take about 45 seconds or show the first six minutes of "The Wild Bunch" I guess at the audience.
SIEGEL: How do you decide, while you're writing, no one should speak for 20 seconds at this point or for a minute-and-a-half at this point?
BAKER: You know, it's very instinct driven and I didn't even really think of myself as a person who wrote a lot of pauses and silences into my play. For me, it was just actually sort of transcribing and recording the scene unfolding in my mind onto the paper. But time is something and duration was something I was particularly interested in addressing in "The Flick," both through the length of the play, which is over three hours and just the way I feel like that going back to just sort of the relationship between theater and film. I think theater is so special because time is passing at the same rate for the actors on stage as it is for the audience, which is completely different than film and TV and other mediums. And I also think time works differently with celluloid than it does with the digital image and that contrast between mediums and the way you experience time through them was something I really wanted to deal with in "The Flick."
SIEGEL: As you've mentioned, "The Flick" is a long play and...
SIEGEL: ...While your critical admirers outnumber your detractors, they all will say something like it's either a play that's good and long or good but long. Did you set out to write a long play about people...
SIEGEL: ...Working long hours or just ended up that way?
BAKER: I mean, I wanted the play to have a kind of epic feeling. I was really - you know, the play - every scene is just people cleaning the theater after the patrons have left. That's literally the structure of every scene. And I was maybe kind of amused by the idea of a story that had a kind of, like, epic "Lawrence Of Arabia" type length and feel to it, but that was just about people cleaning in a small town. I think I wanted to give their stories that kind of importance and duration. But I also - I think my plays just end up being really long. I have a play coming out later this summer at the Signature Theatre in New York and that play's almost four hours. And then the next play I'm working on I think might be around six to eight hours, so they're just getting longer and longer.
SIEGEL: Annie Baker, thank you very much for talking with us.
BAKER: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Annie Baker, talking about her play "The Flick," which is playing off-Broadway in New York. By the way, she grew up in Amherst, Mass., she told me, hearing ALL THINGS CONSIDERED as supper was being prepared. She'd hope to hear our theme music for the interview, so we obliged.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON VOEGELI SONG, "ALL THINGS CONSIDERED THEME")
BAKER: Oh, so good.
SIEGEL: There we are. OK, I'm glad you...
BAKER: Best theme song ever.
BAKER: OK, yeah, it's, like, chills. It's like - I smell pasta cooking.
BAKER: OK, yup.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.