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In Annie Baker’s Plays, Pay Attention to the Pauses

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“The Flick”, a play by Annie Baker, premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2013. Its runtime of three hours and 15 minutes consisted of long segments in which the characters – three underpaid workers in a tired, single-screen movie theater – moved row by row, mopping the floor. The play found a kind of poetry in everyday speech: hesitations, filled-in words, omitted sentences, and otherwise awkward attempts to connect. At times, Baker’s characters did not speak at all.

The show apparently tested the patience of some. Actor Matt Maher said, “We’re going to see a lot of empty seats after intermission.” a widely shared email Tim Sanford, Playwrights Horizons’ artistic director at the time, made reference to loud expressions of customer displeasure and a lot going on behind the scenes. He wrote that “we had a long discussion about what to do.”

In conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning baker in a recent Chelsea cafe “The Flick,” He said he is not bothered by the walkout. She added, “I don’t think of myself as a provocateur, but I don’t think of myself as an entertainer either.” “People walk away from my plays all the time. I am not afraid of it.

Baker’s best-known works are symphonies of partial silence in which nothing could be wrong but dead air. His scripts require comfortable pauses, uncomfortable pauses, awkward pauses, confusing pauses, terrifying pauses, and in “The Flick” a happy pause that turns into an awkward pause. When we’re not watching non-speaking characters eating popcorn, we might be watching them silently smoking weed, drinking tea, or hula-hooping. His script for “The Aliens” begins with a classification: “At least a third of this play – if not half – is silence. The pause should be at least three seconds long. The silence should last five to 10 seconds. Of course, the long pause and the long silence should be even longer.

Director James Macdonald said, “She is the high priestess of silence and stillness.”

Atlantic Theater Company and the National Theater are co-producing Baker’s latest play, “infinite livesMacdonald, is in previews now and will open on September 12. It is a play about the experience of pain – our own and each other’s. Macdonald said, “Eternal Life” goes further than Baker’s other plays in its search for peace. “It appears that nothing is happening on a large scale.”

Then, in October, “Janet Planet,” Baker’s first feature film as writer-director, to be screened at the New York Film Festival, ahead of a wider release next year. Baker said the film used natural soundscapes, but no musical score, and replicated the way time had made him feel at age 11.

While she has said that “some of her favorite moments in all of my plays are usually the moments when people aren’t talking,” Baker also stressed that she was not obsessed with stillness.

“I am interested in silence, I am interested in noise, I am interested in movement, I am interested in stillness. To me it feels like writing a play is somewhat like composing music. There are quarter notes and there are others.

Regarding the air and space that pervades his work, he said, “It was never a conscious decision or aesthetic cultivation on my part. It’s just me trying to follow my pleasure, my taste and my ear.

Ten years after the “Flick” controversy and before the opening of “Infinite Life” — productions of Baker’s earlier plays are still finding audiences around the world — it’s worth considering that his low-and-low theater has a lot to do with the lines. What’s going on in the middle For starters, why do some viewers find silence so offensive?

Amy Muse, professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and author of “The Drama and Theater of Annie Baker,” offered a theory rooted in metaphysics. “We fear silence because it signals the absence of meaning,” he wrote in an email, adding that “the indefinite expanse of time, like space, fills people with dread.”

More likely, she continued, “they fear they’ve wasted time and money getting bored watching normal people do normal things instead of hearing the smart dialogue expected of a drama.”

However, for fans, Baker extends “a kind of sacred invitation to attend”, Muse said. it urges us to succumb to sensibility Right down to the subtlest moments, gestures and expressions and the ever-present pain of his characters. What is? What has been said takes on added significance surrounded by the unsaid, and the details accumulate like a snowfall as the critic written by hilton ells In The New Yorker.

It was the quietest moments in “The Flick”, Maher said, when he could feel most drawn to the audience. “As if I could just shrug or raise an eyebrow and feel like the audience was watching.”

Baker’s preference for brevity stands out, not only in comparison to most mainstream entertainment, but also in comparison to daily life. “Infinite Life” actress Christina Kirk said, “For me it’s very regressive.” “In the sense that our core values ​​are bigger, faster, louder, more. I think Annie in general is interested in smaller, slower, quieter, less explorations.

In a way, viewers who skipped “The Flick” were fooled by a fundamental deception on Baker’s part. It doesn’t seem like much is happening, yet everything is happening. Deep truths emerge, horrifying revelations occur, human cruelty, despair, shame and weakness come into shocking focus. As Chekhov – a major influence for Baker – wrote: “People are sitting at a table eating food, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their life being disintegrated.”

There is a specificity and precision required of actors and directors. Michelle Cushman, who directed the productions of “The Flick” and “The Aliens,” said, “The biggest lesson I learned as a director was that those pauses and silences have to be active — taut as the most encouraging monologue and Must be completely alive.” Toronto. “I clearly remember the work we did on ‘The Flick,’ after the first preview, to capture the pace in the long silences.” The silences did not subside. Rather, “they got a lot more Was accused, It made all the difference.

Macdonald provided a mantra to the cast of “Eternal Life”: “Steady body, alert mind.”

Actress Mia Katigbak explained, “Those moments of peace cannot be empty.” “There must be something there. Even when it is in a state of rest, it is still active.”

Not every production has followed Baker’s stipulations religiously. A staging of “The Aliens” in London reduced its running time from at least 100 minutes with intermission to 75 minutes without intermission. Perhaps even more horrifying, Baker saw regional theater performances that were punctuated by half-hearted pauses. “I could tell he was counting to five during that time,” she said. “Now I do not see productions in my plays in which I was not involved.”

On the other hand, for the productions of “The Aliens” and “Circle Mirror Transformation” in Moscow, director Adrian Giurgia expanded non-dialogue to “unbearable” lengths to make it feel more in keeping with Stanislavskian psychological realism. Did. That said, 11 minutes long.

Some silences may feel more alive than others, or suggest a porosity between the real world and the world of the play. Maizzi Scarpa directed an outdoor production of “The Aliens” in a tunnel under active railroad tracks in the Berkshires. He added, “I had to remind the actors to accept the ambient sounds, not fight them.” “If someone shouts from afar, look up! If a car honks during your monologue, react!” Ultimately the audience can “absorb the whole experience.”

In the production of “The Aliens” at The Old Fitz, an 80-seat theater in a Sydney pub that allows patrons to bring their own drinks, the silence was relatively raucous, especially on a normal night. Director Craig Baldwin said, “The audience really felt like they were in the yard, hanging out with the characters, drinking beer.” “If you think of the audience as always a silent participant in a piece of theatre, it was especially magic when the characters joined them in that silence. Everyone in the backyard was silent together.

Which suggests another way to think about these moments: as audience participation. This is an opportunity – whether we accept it or reject it – to fill those voids ourselves.

Baker said, “Ideas are often most powerful when they are hidden.” “It’s very pleasant to realize that a character has an idea and he doesn’t know, he doesn’t have access to that idea. I prefer to allow an audience member to do their own research.

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