How a ... theatrical pause can mean so much
By CHANDLER LEVACK
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 19, 2019 Print Edition, Page R8
It's been estimated that without the pauses, Annie Baker's play The Flick, would be an hour shorter. Yet, the power of these pauses, which also received notice in The New York Times when a number of people walked out during the play's first Broadway production, is illustrated in the opening scene. The first five minutes feature a mere four lines of dialogue, punctuated by long, agonizing silences.
"We call this 'the walkthrough,' " says Sam, a 36-yearold balding employee of a rundown movie theatre called The Flick in suburban Massachusetts.
"Pretty simple. You just ah ... " He pauses to demonstrate his popcorn sweeping technique to Avery, a 20-year-old new hire, who is secretly brimming with anxiety. What follows is a minute and a half of Avery observing his co-worker brush popcorn into a dustpan. Avery follows suit, but struggles, charging awkwardly down the aisles with his broom.
A minute later, Avery discovers a Subway sandwich wrapper in what could arguably be the scene's climax. Trying his best to sweep away the tiny pieces of shredded lettuce, Sam finally pieces their prolonged quiet with: "Yeah, with the little pieces of lettuce, you kind of have to ..." indicating Avery will have to bend down and pick them up by hand. For anyone who has ever had a humiliating day job, the pathos exhibited in this balletic exchange of awkwardness will seem as achingly familiar to you as a yearbook photo. The Flick only gets more heartbreaking from there.
Baker's play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and receives its first Toronto remount in October in an excellent production by Crow's Theatre continuing until Nov. 2, has funny, naturalistic dialogue and devastating character revelations, but it also takes its time. It is mumblecore theatre played in a minor key, all the more rewarding because of its glacial pace, which slows human interaction down to a crawl, reminiscent of when I was a teenage Blockbuster employee who spent my Friday nights asking every single customer on the floor whether they were interested in pre-purchasing Spider-Man 2 on DVD. More so than any other piece of art I've encountered, it articulates the painful gulf in conversation that can happen between people who primarily live inside their own heads and how hard it can be to perform the act of being yourself, even if you desperately want the other person to understand you.
"There's a different kind of listening required in Annie Baker's work," says Mitchell Cushman, director of the current Toronto production of The Flick. (Cushman also directed a stellar production of Baker's The Aliens at Coal Mine Theatre in 2018.) "It's interesting working on her stuff because most theatre is about trying to pick up the pace. She's after real life, where silence is actually the rule."
Cushman says their rehearsal process has focused on who each pause in the play "belongs to."
Pauses can be issued by a character, but they can also be absorbed. For the cast, understanding the subtext of not only their words, but the space between them, has been one of pure discovery.
"There's things where it's written: 'pause,' then 'short pause,' then 'long pause,' and then 'silence,' " says Colin Doyle, who plays Sam. "We have to define the differences of what all of these things are."
"It's all silence, it's all pauses, but my favourite pause is right at the end," says Amy Keating, who plays Rose, a projectionist in the theatre and a foil to Sam and Avery.
"It's when I say, 'Sam do you have anything else to say?' and Sam shakes his head because he has nothing else to say and Rose says: 'Okay. Great.' It's a horrible silence and I love to sit in that. It's really gross and fun."
Between their Sisyphean popcorn sweeping (fun fact: each production of The Flick engineers its own machine for replenishing the set with popcorn between scenes; the 2014 Broadway show used a conveyor belt!), Sam, Avery and Rose attempt to make small talk. Baker writes dialogue like no other, so this includes a raging debate about if there's ever been a great American movie made after Pulp Fiction, Avery's fear of human feces, Sam and Rose's hatred of their scumbag boss who owns the theatre and might sell their film projector in favour of going digital and most tragically, a moment when Avery asks Sam what he wanted to be when he grew up and Sam responds, "I am grown up." At first, when everyone is trying their best, frequent pauses occur when the characters are tired, have run out of things to say, or aren't really listening to each other. By the more dramatic second act, it's when they're feeling antagonized, heartbroken, or have accidentally revealed something deeply personal.
"It's just fun negotiating Avery's anxiety and his nervousness with his first job and working with these people he doesn't know," says actor Durae McFarlane who plays Avery. "I find it's so true to life as well, working a new job where you don't know anyone. There's gonna be a lot of negotiating of, 'What are we going to talk about?' " Pauses in the theatre tend to come loaded, baked potato-like, with dramatic tension. We await them to see what horrible secret gets exposed, which characters will start to kiss, or how a climactic monologue will reveal a twist in the plot.
The best playwrights invest us so fully that the pleasure you take from them is like turning the pages in a book. (I am still recovering from the pauses I saw in August: Osage County and The Little Foxes.)
But lately I've been obsessed with the pauses in art that allow you to live inside them. HBO's brilliant dramatic comedy Succession is full of awkward lulls in a conversation that bristle with shame and subterfuge, silences that betray every member of the power-hungry Roy family, even when they're supposedly at maximum conviction. While singlecamera sitcoms such as The Office or Parks and Recreation used a pause to punctuate a joke, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag culminates in a long glorious silence between our messed-up heroine and the priest she's just admitted that she's in love with.
The seconds that pass as they sit side by side together in a London bus shelter are forever sacred to me.
As an awkward movie obsessive myself, I've probably read The Flick upward of 80 times. I instantly declared it my favourite piece of art, without having ever seen it live. I know compared to say, Euripides, this three-hander about bored suburban movie theatre employees has small dramatic stakes.
But when I finally saw a performance of the play last week, it dawned on me that all the time Avery and Sam spend sweeping popcorn, or staring up at Rose threading the projector, is what makes Baker's play a masterpiece. Witnessing the character's heartbreaking interactions and enduring it with them, in real time, is paramount to loving The Flick.
"One of the big lessons for me was when Baker writes, 'There's 20 seconds of sweeping,' " says Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, who plays two small roles. "When I first came in, I was doing 'acting sweeping' where you show you're sweeping. But when you actually have to count out 20 seconds, you're like, 'That means I have to actually look at the kernel on the ground, sweep it into the bucket and take the amount of time to think and do all the things we actually do in real life.' Things such as this actually allows us to look at the minutiae of these human beings: the way Rose touches her ear, or these tiny really idiosyncratic things that are the most vulnerable and beautiful things about people. By forcing the audience to slow down, all of a sudden, those tiny things become massive."
Annie Baker's play The Flick uses pauses to articulate the awkwardness in conversations between people who live in their own heads.