Playwright Annie Baker on Movies, Theatre and ‘The Flick’

Annie Baker

Annie Baker

Annie Baker, a playwright becoming known for her light touch, surprising characters and Chekovian grace (Chekov was a famous playwright who wrote charmingly about nothing at all, and then changed theater forever), took a moment from her busy schedule of writing, teaching and traveling to speak to a gathered group of students and fans at the Drama Book Shop on 40th Street.

Just when you might think straight plays are done for, a whole bookstore full of eager theatre lovers brave the rain and cold to hear Baker speak about her latest play, The Flick, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons. Tim Sanford, the Artistic Director for Playwrights Horizons (located just two blocks away at 416 W. 42nd Street) introduced the conversation between Baker and Adam Greenfield, Playwrights Horizons’ Director of New Play Development. The conversation focused mostly on The Flick, a play set in a movie theater, about three underpaid employees whose own drama outshines that shown on the silver screen they work behind.

“Why the movie theater? Why that subject?” was the first question asked. Baker replied that she had grown up with movies, in a small town in Massachusetts where there was little else to do. Because her mother did not approve of her watching movies, she would rent them on the sly after school and watch them before her mother came home. She averaged about 14 movies a week. Movies took her out of her small town and let her explore the world, first in film and then in real life. After watching A Room With A View, she traveled to Italy during her senior year of high school. It was not like the movie, she made sure to explain.

And that might have been why, after graduating and moving to New York, movies stopped being interesting to her. But what she had loved most about movies, the long shots, the composition, the sense of place, were what she found in the theatre. “Movies that stole from theater were my favorite movies,” and yet, “movies can’t do the live thing.” But theatre can. “Movies are like time-machines, and theater is the opposite of a time machine,” she said. Baker explained that while a movie takes its audience back to a shot made at a previous time, a play is always happening in the moment, on a stage, in a special community of actors and audience.

With The Flick, Baker explores what makes dudes cleaning up an empty theatre so much more interesting than the latest blockbuster. She says it is a combination of a specific setting, real life and the ability to “talk about movies in a way that movies can’t talk about, because they’re movies.” She said that despite all of the conventions, such as sets, lights, actors, and scripts, the realness of theater is inescapable. Someone standing onstage is just more real than a film. It made me, as a listener in the audience, think about why fans crowd to Broadway to see their favorite star onstage, when they could just as easily see many of the same performers in a rented movie or streaming TV show. “It’s making the stone more stony,” Greenfield said (referencing Viktor Shklovsky, and giving us our intellectual quote for the week), or in my example, making the star more starry.

It must be Baker’s belief in the attractive reality of theatre that inspires her unconventionally charming plays. And it is this dedication to “realness” that probably inspired a lot of young theatre lovers to huddle in a basement in a bookstore to hear Baker speak. A question and answer session rounded out the evening, where we learned that she writes her plays really slowly, and, never to write plays while “trying not to suck.” Don’t try so hard to be liked, she says, and you just might forget being a fake long enough to be real.

The Drama Book Shop hosts a regular series of conversations between artists and other writers, check their website for more. Tickets for The Flick are available now at Playwrights Horizons, where it is playing through March 31 on the Playwrights Horizons main stage.

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