Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Analog World vs. The Digital World

by Linda Nelson

Last Friday, Judith and I took our Board of Directors to Playwrights Horizons, in Manhattan, to see Annie Baker's new play, "The Flick."

We thought it would be appropriate: after all, the play is set in a small New England town's single screen movie theater at a time when the theater is ready to give up its beautiful 35mm projectors and go digital.

The Stonington Opera House is at that same place. In late March, our gorgeous, loyal, hard-working 1941 Simplex 35mm projector will be replaced by a true Digital Cinema system. For the record, digital cinema is not your grandma's DVD's, or even Blu-Rays. To keep doing what we're doing, bringing first run movies to you shortly after they open on our big screen, we need a big, sophisticated system that will allow the movie distribution companies to ship us hard drives rather than cannisters of 35mm film. We will be able to slot the hard drives into a special server, punch in a code to prevent movie piracy, and show the movie according to the schedule pre-booked with the distributor.

But our board didn't love Baker's "The Flick." They found it long and boring: following a couple of working class guys as they clean an old, single screen movie theater between shows, without the action or quick dialogue to which we've become accustomed. Like Baker's earlier plays, especially "The Aliens" which we produced in early 2012, "The Flick" is a masterpiece of working class realism, filled with silences and the power of ordinary, not extraordinary, dialogue. In what I think is an important way, "The Flick" isn't enough of the digital world, in which we all talk quickly and have multiple conversations simultaneously, through our phones and computers and headsets. "The Flick" is about the analog world, the one that happens slowly, in between the others; the one that happens "to" people more than "by" people. And the truth is, many of us have fallen out of love with analog. We want our agency, we want our MTV.

In an essay for the show materials, Baker reveals her own love affair, and then her falling out of love, with celluloid movies: "From age 9 to 19, movies were my greatest happiness. They were the thing that got me through the day. Watching a movie was always, always What I’d Rather Be Doing. I never felt fully present in my life, except when I was watching a movie...The point is, I fell out of love with film and when I tried to fall back in love with it I was shocked to realize that most of our country had fallen out of love with it too. But instead of falling in love with the theater, they had fallen in love with computers."

The cast of "The Flick," the new play by
Annie Baker at Playwrights' Horizons.
Live theater, by contrast, is extremely analog. Real sweating bodies on the stage right in front of us. You never know what might happen: lines might be missed, pants may rip, the actors may laugh or cry. It's unpredictable and never the same, kind of smelly and intimidating to those who have only ever known film and TV. Live theater is an analog experience, and we value and produce both at the Stonington Opera House: live theater + film.

But what about this nearly three hour play? If Baker's mission is to create a dynamic realism in which we are immersed in the experiences and worlds of her characters, and if her characters' world is, in this case, tiny, repetitive, and even grim...then how are we to reconcile being asked to sit through that world? That's what our board members wanted to know, and it's not an unreasonable question. They experienced the same thing as these characters in their lives. They were bored. They were restless--we all were. Mostly, we were uncomfortable: first physically, then intellectually, and finally--if we allowed it to take us this far--emotionally. I think Annie Baker evoked the response she wanted. But without the entertainment factor, will enough audience members be able or willing to follow her there?

In moving to digital cinema, we're taking a bold leap into a new world. Gone will be the craft of splicing together reel after reel of 35mm film, of lacing up and oiling the projector, of flipping on the rectifier, opening the dowser, adjusting the framing knob and the lens focus. It's a pretty tedious world, the world of any handcraft, in which motions and actions are repeated over and over again to ensure a quality experience for the viewer.

OHA's Artistic Advisory Board comprised of theater
artists, meeting on February 23: some of the artists had
more sympathy for "The Flick" than the
governing trustees. Photo by Alicia Anstead.
But it's one that might be worth experiencing, even in its tedium. It's one that is worth remembering -- or at least being enough aware of it to say a proper goodbye. It's one that, like so many others, demands our empathy -- and maybe even some compassion.

Baker says "The Flick" is "about the theater that will always happen between the movies." And our attentiveness to that theater of life could be important to how we move forward, together or apart, into our shared futures.