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Riverside Theatre play turns lens on art house cinema
‘The Flick’ becomes character study on ways we communicate
While “The Flick” isn’t a holiday play, going to movies with his family at Christmastime is a happy memory Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre’s managing artistic director.
“There's something to me that evokes the holidays — about the movie theaters, and that experience of gathering together and watching a story. So in that respect, it felt right to program ‘The Flick’ now,” he said.
The play opens Nov. 25 and runs through Dec. 11 at Riverside Theatre in downtown Iowa City.
It’s set in 2012 in a rundown art house cinema in Massachusetts, one of the final places in the country still showing 35 mm films, when everyone else is switching to digital projections.
The lives of three young employees intersect as they sweep up spilled popcorn and pop in silence, before launching into a character study that Riverside says “pays tribute to the power of movies and paints a heartbreaking portrait of three characters and their working lives.”
Timing and availability of the script and a guest director also played into the decision to program the show now — as well as limited holiday-themed shows.
If you go
What: “The Flick”
Where: Riverside Theatre, 119 E. College St., Iowa City
When: Nov. 25 to Dec. 11, 2022; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $35, click on a date at riversidetheatre.org/the-flick/
COVID protocols: Masks optional Friday and Saturday; masks required Thursday and Sunday
Talkback: Discussion with Miriam Gilbert, the cast and director Angie Toomsen following the Nov. 27 matinee; free and open to the public, whether or not you attended the performance.
FilmScene programming: Riverside will host a panel discussion the weekend of Dec. 9 to 11, featuring FilmScene staff on the transition from 35 mm to digital and its affect on small cinemas, as well as the movement to keep the 35 mm tradition alive; details to be announced at riversidetheatre.org/the-flick/. Also: FilmScene’s film series, "Our Let’s All Go to the Movies," celebrates the experience of movie-going, presented during the run of “The Flick.” Details: icfilmscene.org/series/lets-all-go-to-the-movies/
“There's only so many great Christmas plays at a certain level, and we were already doing something very seasonal with ‘The Weir’ (at Halloween). And so this was a place that I definitely wanted to program (“The Flick”) this year,” he said.
The play debuted for a short run off-Broadway in 2013, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, and came back for a longer off-Broadway run in 2015. Director Angie Toomsen of Cedar Rapids went to New York specifically to see the second iteration of the play.
"I was absolutely mesmerized by this piece, and by (playwright Annie Baker’s) work in general, and so it's an honor and a privilege to get to work on this in the new Riverside,“ Toomsen said. "It's a piece that both Adam Knight and I loved and were eager to bring to Iowa City audiences.”
They had discussed staging it off-site before the pandemic hit in 2020, but during that shutdown, Riverside closed its former site and renovated its new home along the Pedestrian Mall. Toomsen, artistic director at Theatre Cedar Rapids and a frequent Riverside collaborator, said she “was delighted” when Knight told her he planned to produce the show in the new theater.
“It's really cool for me — as someone who has been directing with Riverside for a while — to get to make this transition over their new era,” she said.
"As far as what happens, it's really kind of a character study on the way we communicate — or rather, fail to communicate — in modern times, and in the digital age,“ she said.
“Each of these characters is carrying something either kind of operatically massive in terms of an emotional experience that they can't express; or feelings about another one of the characters; or a past trauma that they haven't fully processed.
“During the course of their time together, they each have a series of revelations that kind of come in fits and starts and at the pace of modern and contemporary speech and thoughts. ...
“It was exciting to see something that's at the pace of everyday life,” Toomsen said, “because the real challenge, and the trick of it is, there's never nothing going on in our daily lives. There's never nothing going on in the mundane activities and events and experiences, because there's always something going on under the surface of life. That's the challenge and the opportunity with this piece.
“It's kind of a meditation on the subtext of the mundane.”
The core players are Claire Boston, Elijah Jones, familiar to Corridor audiences, and Louisiana actor Ren Price. But the play has lighter moments, as well, thanks to two other characters, both played by Kyle Schindler, acting as “disrupters at various times,” Toomsen said. One is “a guy who falls asleep in the theater and then doesn't leave, which is pretty funny. And then (Schindler) plays a future employee sort of representing a new era for their theater.”
“On a certain level, it's a love letter to movies,” Knight said, “and a love letter to the active gathering and experiencing an art form. Even since the play was written, movies have moved more to the small screen in our pocket or on our tables.
“I think that the play asks what gets lost when acts that humans have been doing for thousands and thousands of years — and Americans have been doing in droves since the advent of cinema — what's getting lost in this transition?
“In some ways this play is about a space that’s the evil twin of FilmScene (in downtown Iowa City),” Knight said. “FilmScene, like the theater in this play, is an art house cinema. They still have 35 millimeter films that they show. The difference being that FilmScene is a not-for-profit that is very mission-driven and takes care of it employees, whereas the theater in the play is falling apart because that mission has faded.”
Like Toomsen, Knight also is captivated by the playwright and her style.
“I think Annie Baker is one of the great playwrights of her generation,” he said. “One of her great skills is finding the poetry and the tragedy in everyday life, and in particular, everyday speech. Much like some of the great playwrights 20 or 30 years ago found new ways of writing plays that felt more realistic, there's a sense of you're a fly on the wall, and at the same time, you feel very well taken care of as an audience member because the writing is so good.”
Like Riverside’s other fall plays, “The Flick” is being presented with the audience sitting in front of the playing space. But unlike this usual placement, the audience seats will be facing theater seats from Riverside’s former Gilbert Street theater.
“It’s a setup that you've probably never seen before, unless you have seen this exact play,” Toomsen said, “because when the patrons come in, they're faced with a mirror image of a theater. They're going to go sit down in the theater seats and look at the seats in a movie theater. It's been really deliberately designed ... so it really does feel like there's this invisible line of demarcation that's fuzzy between the theater space and then this other theater.”
In essence, the audience will be sitting where the movie screen would be. “It's very disorienting to walk into a theater and you're looking at a row of seats,” Knight added.
“The cool thing about this happening in a movie theater, is I believe that movies are a universal language or even like a sublimation of a desire to connect with others,” Toomsen said. “We can all talk about movies, always. We all have opinions. We can say, ‘Did you see this?’ ‘Who's your favorite actor?’ ‘What's your favorite movie?’ ‘I like this, I like that.’
“And so for these characters who have such a difficult time articulating their own experience and connecting with one another, they can always connect through conversation about movies.” she added. “And that feels very universal.”
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