Annie Baker’s ‘The Flick’ still too long? Tim Sanford sends surprise email to subscribers to explain

The Employees of The Flick

The Employees of The Flick

Annie Baker’s The Flick at Playwrights Horizons is still causing controversy, though of a very practical sort. Baker’s newest play about three employees at a run-down movie theater runs just over three hours and audience members are disagreed about how long they are expected to sit in the seats. Recently, Playwrights Horizons has dealt with numerous complaints and walkouts related to the show’s long running time. Also recently, an unusual letter from Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford to subscribers has surfaced. The letter, in which Sanford defends the choices of Playwrights Horizons, was sent to about 3,000 subscribers on March 23, some of whom have now made the letter public.

The Flick has stirred up so many emotions, both positive and negative, in audiences that I thought I would reach out to all of you and share my thoughts about it. I have to admit I was not totally prepared for it to be such a polarizing show.” Sanford goes on to describe the characters Baker brings to life and adds, “I hoped that Annie’s palpable love and compassion for her characters and the play’s fairly straightforward plot about a developing ethical workplace quandary would win you all over.” Apparently this was not the case since Sanford had to write the letter anyway.

The lead in is also a bit of a red herring, as almost every critic who has expressed dissatisfaction with the show criticized its length. Sanford eventually addresses the issue: “Theatergoers rarely encounter three-hour plays these days even though most classic scripts from earlier ages routinely clock in well above that length. When performances began and some of you walked out at intermission, emphatically expressing your displeasure to our House Manager, we had lengthy discussions about what to do. Could we make internal cuts within the scenes or could whole scenes go? Were there places to pick up the pace?”

Sanford, along with others not specifically mentioned (but presumably Baker and the director, Sam Gold), eventually took other advice. “[A]fter our initial concern about walkouts, we began to pay attention to the other voices, the voices that urged Annie and Sam not to cut a second, the voices imbued with rapture for a theater experience unlike any they had experienced and for a production that stayed with them for days, even weeks afterwards. And it became clear to me that every moment of the play and production was steeped in purpose. Annie had a vision and this production beautifully executes that vision. And at the end of the day, we are a writer’s theater and my first responsibility is to that writer.”

Sanford makes the point that, “We are the only theater in New York (and practically the country) devoted solely to the premiere of new American plays and musicals.” So it makes sense that he is going to stand by the writer first and foremost. He gives no good reasons for the extended length of the play except to say that there is no good reason, or in his words, “The business of putting on new plays is not empirical.” Aristotle might disagree (he made it his business to empirically define a good play in Poetics, the foundation of literary theory) but that is okay, since Sanford would still applaud his “independence of mind” for disagreeing with him.

This slight condescension toward the critics and the “rapturous” voices are about the only parts of the letter that exceed the bounds of a good argument, but Sanford ends on a high note: “So thank you for caring enough to complain or to praise. Perhaps we can all agree that whatever values we look for in the theater, we all stand on the common ground that it is a vital and important art form that we look to to illuminate the human experience with complexity and integrity. Warm Regards, Tim Sanford, Artistic Director.”

As they say, any press is good press, so this letter should just add to The Flick’s pile of publicity. In other good news for the show, Baker was recently awarded the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize, an annual award given to women who excel in English-language drama. Baker is also the latest recipient of the Horton Foote Legacy Project, which awards writers a four-week writing residency in Horton Foote’s hometown of Wharton, Texas.

The Flick is currently playing at the Playwrights Horizons main stage and has been extended through April 7, 2013.

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