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The Flick Complaints: Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Responds

Complains about "The Flick" have led Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford to send an e-mail to the theater's subscribers.

Complaints about “The Flick” have led Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford to send an e-mail to the theater’s subscribers. “…I was not totally prepared for it to be such a polarizing show”

In response to reaction to Annie Baker’s The Flick, Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford sent the following e-mail to the theater’s subscribers:

Dear Friend,

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. I love Annie’s work and thought this was just the play to introduce her to a wider audience. Here are three characters rarely portrayed on the stage these days and Annie imbues them with such humanity and integrity. Here is how she describes them in our artist interview: 

A female projectionist, on whom the men in the play projected their fears and fantasies…this like “unattainable” girl up there in the shadows who was dying for someone to get to know her “for real”… a 35-year-old Red Sox fan who was worried he’d be working there for life… and a young film buff who came from both a different race and class background than the other characters in the play. They all started emerging from the movie theater set in my mind. Also, the main characters in the play are a black guy, a woman, and a Jew (although I no longer make Sam’s Jewishness obvious). And that was important to me when I started writing the play. Three of the great “Others” of American cinema, all of them victim to extreme stereotypes. And yet what are Hollywood movies without blacks, Jews, and women? I wanted these people to be quietly (maybe even unconsciously) fighting against their respective pigeonholes. And I also grew up knowing lower-middle-class Jews, hyper-educated black people, and women who wear baggy clothes and no makeup, and yet it is so rare to encounter any of those people in plays and movies. It feels like those people are like forced to wander outside of and on the periphery of plays and movies. So I literalized that — they’re like cleaning up everyone else’s crap AFTER the movie is over. 

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. 

Of course I had some trepidation about its length. 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? Each scene seemed to have important reasons for being there. And what about those long silences between lines? Here are Annie’s thoughts on this subject:

I’m just trying to accurately portray the people who live in the movie theater inside my head, and I guess there’s a lot of moments of not-talking in that movie theater inside my head. All the walking and sweeping and mopping and dustpan-banging — there’s a whole symphony happening that Sam and the actors orchestrated… But I wouldn’t call that silence. I think there’s actually very little ACTUAL silence in this play. But yeah, my favorite moments in all of my plays are usually moments when people aren’t talking. 

Did we know we had programmed a three-hour play when we chose it? No. I don’t think Sam Gold, the director, did either. But after 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.

My goal is not to dissuade any of you who disliked the play. I would rather evince passionate dislike than a dispassionate shrug. I imagine that most of you have read the many good reviews about the play and then most recently the fact that the play won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. If you read these stories and continue to say to yourself, “I still don’t know what they see in it,” I applaud your independence of mind. Hopefully that free-thinking will swing to our favor in your response to other productions of ours.

Our hope is to cultivate an audience that trusts the underlying integrity of our decision-making process. We are the only theater in New York (and practically the country) devoted solely to the premiere of new American plays and musicals. We use our Subscriber Bulletin to share with you what excites us about an upcoming play and to convey the passion that went into its selection.

The business of putting on new plays is not empirical. We follow some rules and rely on experience, but we’re also following our hearts. And we appreciate that you are taking a risk and putting your faith in us when you sign up with us. We are dependent upon your willingness to take that ride with us. We need you.

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

My reaction:

1. Playwrights Horizons is one of my favorite theaters in New York. They consistently do good work, and they treat theatergoers well. One play is not going to change my opinion of them.
2. As I wrote in my review, “The Flick” was too long for what it is. Its excessive length to me indicated something of a breakdown in the bond between these theater artists and their audience.
3. There are a couple of paragraphs in Tim Sanford’s letter I find unctuous, self-righteous, nearly passive-aggressive:

the “voices imbued with rapture” urged them “not to cut a second.” –– oh please.

If you don’t like the show despite all the awards and the great reviews, “I applaud your independence of mind.” —Yeah, yeah. 
Obviously, we are far from alone in our “independent” view — or he wouldn’t be writing this letter in the first place.
I do appreciate, though, the paragraphs in which he quotes Annie Baker and her thinking about the play, which make me glad he wrote it.

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

6 Responses to The Flick Complaints: Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Responds

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  2. Nanofish says:

    I am a subscriber and was quite shocked to have received Tim’s sometimes condescending letter. That was highly peculiar. Tim just wanted to let me to know what a philistine I had become. I was one of “those people” who left at the interval out of boredom. Oopsie. No, I did not ask for a refund.

    The letter drove me to read the play’s reviews; something I usually never do. I usually prefer to let the play stand on its performed merits. Imagine how surprised I was to find that the play had garnered almost unanimous critical praise! Still, even after re-reading the best of these reviews, there isn’t really in them besides faint praise, either. 6-degrees of Kevin Bacon isn’t groundbreaking entertainment, yet it was mentioned as praiseworthy by many of the play’s sycophants. If “nuanced” is the best thing one can say about a play, then is it really a great play? Is Albee “nuanced”?

    I’ve seem much worse plays than this one. I did not find it polarizing, except that I felt it to be in desperate need of editing. At the delivered pace it was like watching paint dry. White paint. In the dark.

    I have not written off the playwright, who is a person of obvious talent. Nor have I cancelled my subscription. It’s all a bit of a tempest in a teapot, if you ask me. Tim should be shamed for being so defensive, but as money is at stake I’m sure he is just trying to attract more interest. I hear it worked. They play was extended for a week.

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