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Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford Sends E-mail to Subscribers Explaining The Flick

Annie Baker's three-hour play about movie house employees has prompted patrons to walk out at intermission.

Aaron Clifton Moten, Matthew Maher, and Louisa Krause in The Flick.
© Joan Marcus

Sanford, you got some 'splainin' to do. Annie Baker's The Flick, currently receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons (through April 7) has rankled more than a few audience members with its uncommon length (three hours) and extended moments of onstage silence. So much so that Artistic Director Tim Sanford decided to e-mail 3,000 of the theater's subscribers and offer his rationale in choosing the play, while urging them to stick with Playwrights Horizons for future programming.

"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." Sanford wrote, sounding a little bit like a guy who had just been dumped by his girlfriend.

Still, he stood by his decision to produce the play, writing, "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."

The Flick is about three underpaid cinema employees working in Massachusetts' last 35-millimeter projector house. They mop the floors and read books between screenings, buttressing their awkward emotional encounters with painfully long stretches of silence. Speaking to the New York Times, Sanford disclosed that, early in the run, about 10% of the audience was leaving at intermission, but that this has gradually lessened as the run progressed.

Founded in 1971 by Robert Moss, Playwrights Horizons is indeed a writer's theater, focusing exclusively on new plays by contemporary American playwrights. It has premiered some of the most notable and controversial plays of the last four decades, including Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room, Jeanine Tesori's Violet, and recently, Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. Eleven Broadway shows got their start at Playwrights Horizons, as did five Pulitzer Prize winners.

Tackling hot-button subjects like AIDS, extreme head injuries, and gentrification has definitely earned Playwrights Horizons its fair share of angry audience members, but none so much as the three-hour meditation on the lives of lower-middle-class Massachusetts film snobs, it seems. This e-mail is a first for Sanford, who took the helm of Playwrights Horizons in 1996 after serving for a decade as its literary manager.

You can read the full text of the e-mail below:

Annie Baker and Tim Sanford
© Tristan Fuge
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