If you were in the Valley in the 90s or earlier, you probably remember the old Amherst Cinema, in the Amity Street building which now faces the New Amherst Cinema. If you were ever inside, you’ll remember it as a shabby, downtrodden place where, according to the cinema’s own history, “a lack of basic upkeep eventually allowed the building to deteriorate…and the building has been closed periodically for safety and health reasons”. code violations. After years of struggling with declining audiences, the theater closed for good in 1999.
The program for The flick, who plays at music academy this weekend, says it’s set in a movie theater “in central Massachusetts.” But it’s generally accepted – around here, anyway – that the play actually takes place in the old Amherst movie theater. Playwright Annie Baker grew up in Amherst; she was a teenager in the last days of the theater and lived a few blocks away. The flea pit in which its three characters work might just be that ramshackle cinema in the twilight of 35mm film, when digital projection and multiplexes swept through old movie theaters like spilled popcorn.
Indeed, much of what happens in The film involves scanning. The characters are the theater’s weekend crew – three youngsters in a dead end job, cleaning up after the last show, passing the time debating the merits of classic films and bitching about patrons who not only spill their pop- corn but their drinks sticky and worse. Over the course of three hours of seemingly repetitive episodes, their rambling conversations turn into edgy relationships that, as one reviewer put it, “are more engrossing than second-run movies on the screen.”
Baker, who won an Obie and a Pulitzer for the play, said he conceived it as “a showdown between a theater audience and a movie audience.” In his stage directions, the set is the theater itself, with seats facing the audience and a projection booth behind, so the theatrical fourth wall is, in effect, the movie screen.
The production of the Academy is better than that. Rather than sitting in the theater watching a stage set up to look like a theater, we will be sitting on the stage looking into the theater. The action takes place in the aisles of the theater, the rows of seats, up to the projection booth, at the very end of the balcony.
Last week I attended a rehearsal of The film, which has been on producer Debra J’Anthony’s to-do list for a few years. I sat on the edge of the proscenium apron with director Linda McInerney and stage manager Nikki Beck, watching the 800-seat “stage” as the three actors moved through their scenes.
It wasn’t just cool, it was fascinating.
Jhe mesh of theater and cinema crossing the room is amplified in this place. It’s a huge space, and they’re using it all. At times, as I watched, that wide, high, deep view, stretching beyond my peripheral vision, looked like Cinerama of old (now Imax) – but I was also able to focus on the individual performers creating intimate moments from seemingly aimless elements. Trades.
McInerney told me that the play “reminds me so much of Chekhov – misunderstandings are constantly happening, so much yearning for connection and never quite. Add to that the humor, the kind of humor that laughs while you cry. And add to this, you are dealing with these young people who are trying to find their way in a world that really does not offer them the possibility of to have a path, trying to find a life, trying to find meaning, finding yourself.
The three characters are, each in their own way, loners, misfits. Sam, the team leader, resents Rose, the projectionist, because it’s the promotion he thinks he should have got; but he is also secretly in love with her although he does not admit it, even to himself. Avery is the newbie, awkward in the role but confident in his cinematic intelligence; he thinks he’s a filmmaker and nails the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon rounds he plays with Sam. Wren Gilbert, who plays Rose, says she suffers a bit from “main character syndrome.” She loves attention, but ultimately on her own terms.
Sam is played by Kevin Tracy, who told me that learning that the show would be performed “in reverse”, with the audience on stage, was initially a disappointment. “The very first time I walked into this building, I was like, ‘I have to work on this scene! “”The crushing of that ambition was more than offset by the opportunities and challenges of this unique staging, he said.
“It’s interesting to work on filling and inhabiting this space. After a day of trying to figure out what’s up, down, left and right, we just gave up. We memorized our blocking by seat and row numbers.
Marcus Neverson, who plays Avery, said he also experienced the production concept as “kind of a shock”. But now, “Living in this world is really, really fun.” An unexpected benefit, he said, is that “although many productions don’t get the final set until very late in rehearsals, we got it on day one. So being able to play in the space where it was finally going to happen” actually helped the process.
While the two men spend most of their time in the orchestra section, Gilbert, the projectionist, is constantly in and out of his booth. “I’m skipping cardio knowing I’m going up and down four floors for two and a half hours!” she said, adding, “I love how flipping the stage gives the actor the ability to ‘return the gaze’ to the viewer.”
DDespite the actual verisimilitude of its setting, this production requires some suspension of disbelief. You will have to imagine that you are in the old Academy of Music, prior to the 2015 renovation which gave it new seating and a complete facelift, including red carpeting and restored vintage gold trim to the proscenium and balcony facade. And there’s no popcorn.
April 7-10, very limited seating. Tickets $20 + fees, at www.aomtheatre.com.
Photo of Noel Clark
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