Playwrights Horizons’ Sanford Writes a Lengthy Letter on Length

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Are these characters upset by the length of the play they're in? Aaron Clifton Moten, Matthew Maher and Louisa Krause in The Flick Photo by Joan Marcus
Are these characters upset by the length of the play they're in? Aaron Clifton Moten, Matthew Maher and Louisa Krause in The Flick Photo by Joan Marcus
Are these characters upset by the length
of the play they’re in?
Aaron Clifton Moten, Matthew Maher
and Louisa Krause in The Flick
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two of my three favorite plays this season have been produced by Playwrights Horizons. They’re Samuel D. Hunter’s drama, The Whale, about a 600-pound man self-destructing and Annie Baker’s comedy drama, The Flick, revolving around three adrift souls working at a small town movie house.

I’m so enthusiastic about the courageous nature of both plays that I was startled to learn PH artistic director Tim Sanford had felt it necessary to send his subscribers a letter defending The Flick. Or if I have it right, he sent the explanation only to the 3,000 subscribers who’d attended Baker’s remarkable work.

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His reason-which I find misguided at the very least-was that some percentage (never quantified) of those patrons had either objected so much to the announced three-hour length that they left at intermission or remained for both acts and then complained.

I’m not startled that some audience members ankled early. I was so certain there would be hit-the-roaders that during the intermission at the performance I attended I stood near the front doors to see if my suspicions were confirmed.

They were, though no more than 10 theater-goers fled that night. I wrote in my enthusiastic Huffington Post review, “[A] conscientious reviewer must concede that by its very atypical nature, the work at Playwrights Horizons may not be for everyone. Nonetheless, The Flick remains a play that significantly raises the bar on the season’s offerings.”

I also noted that “It’s only fair to report that the lack of anything overtly dramatic taking place did have some audience members, but not many, taking advantage of the break to scram. They were the losers, however. They hadn’t grasped how deeply Baker would get into the lives of the three people forming the staff of an unprepossessing Worcester County, Massachusetts, movie house.”

The above quotes aren’t included so I can hear myself expatiate, but because it was clear to me that The Flick was going to strike some takers the wrong way. But doesn’t some, if not all, of the most significant theater affect some audience members as not to their liking? Furthermore, wouldn’t it seem that if a theater company pleased all the people all the time, it was doing something wrong?

But here’s tastemaker Sanford apologizing (is there another word?) for having asked his subscribers-as well as single-ticket buyers-to sit for three hours watching the newest work from a playwright whom he’s championing. To begin with, Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation was a 2011 hit for the establishment, as directed by Baker’s frequent collaborator Sam Gold, who also guided The Flick.

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You’d think Sanford would be totally sold on the opportunity he’s offering his audiences, since that would appear, for one thing, to be the business he’s in. You’d expect him to be completely behind its artistry and to endorse fully its length without any clarification.

His letter isn’t, it shouldn’t be necessary to point out, one he’d have written to anyone a few decades back when audiences hadn’t become accustomed to plays running 90 minutes or less (usually without an escape-hatch intermission). Had he produced Eugene O’Neill’s three-hour-plus Long Day’s Journey Into Night, perhaps the greatest American play of the 20th century, he wouldn’t be firing off a letter because a few subscribers quit the premises before the final curtain.

His letter is written to people who like to get in and out in a hurry, perhaps because, as Carrie Fisher has quipped, “Instant gratification takes too long.” That some 90-minute-and-shorter plays shouldn’t even be as long as they are is a column for another time-as is the indisputable, and maybe even worse, fact that too many of today’s 90-minute-and-shorter plays readily sacrifice substance in favor of brevity.

So try as Sanford might to put his reasons for reaching out in the best light possible, he unfortunately comes off as obsequious. He writes, lamely, “Did we know we had programmed a three-hour play when we chose it? No. I don’t think Sam Gold, the director, did either.”

But both of them knew the script calls for myriad pauses that Gold, often acclaimed in reviews for his adventurous approach to a text, maybe even exaggerated for admirable theatrical reasons. Also, both Sanford and Gold were at run-throughs when they could have chosen to tighten the pauses but evidently for artistic integrity decided not to.

As of this writing, the Sanford letter has prompted much discussion, not to mention Charles Isherwood’s piece in the Times, but one far-reaching ramification hasn’t been emphasized where apologies are concerned. While Sanford has apologized to his subscribers, he has not, as far as I know, apologized to his playwrights-or to all playwrights.

For he has now delivered a message, albeit a silent one, that the taking of real chances might well be over where his audiences are concerned. He’s suggesting that today’s audiences-and perhaps not only his-want their theater fast and sweet. He’s implying that playwrights had better think along those realistic lines if they want to get produced.

With all this in mind-including the thought that the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons is indicating that contemporary playwrights’ horizons have just become less wide and less far-reaching-I wondered what Annie Baker herself might be pondering about future projects. She let me know, through a spokesperson, that she’s prepared to talk about anything but the Sanford letter. Not surprising, though she may not have to worry. She’s announced as one of five residency playwrights the Signature Theatre Company’s James Houghton has inked for three plays each over the next five years. (The others are Kenneth Lonergan, Katori Hall, Will Eno and Regina Taylor, and all five of those chosen may be relieved that if they’re contemplating three-hour-or even two-hour-plays, they’re relatively assured the play will be mounted.)

In his note, Sanford states, “[A]t the end of the day, we are a writer’s theater and my first responsibility is to the writer.” But if he truly believes his first responsibility is to the writer and not the subscriber-at a moment, granted, when subscribers are of vital importance-he never would have written his letter.

  • I think all the emphasis on the three-hour length of The Flick is misguided. There are playwrights whose work is so involving that hours seem like minutes. Alas, there are others who can make minutes seem like hours. The problem with The Flick is the perceived length, not the actual length. People are not looking at their watches when they are involved with what is going on onstage.

  • M Phillips

    I did not see “The Flick” so I have no opinion on the length except to say I agree with Robert Sholiton’s comment and add that I have several theatre friends, people whose opinion I respect, who did in fact leave “The Flick” at intermission because they found the play boring. They also described a mass exodus, not just ten people. I respect Mr. Sanford’s support of playwrights and think his letter was in reaction to more than just a few voices and people need to get off his back.

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  • I find it difficult to accept a comment from someone who hasn’t seen the work under discussion. I mentioned that when I saw “The Flick,” I witnessed first-hand a relatively small number of patrons leave early. M. Phillips reports that his or her “theatre friends” saw a “mass exodus.” He or she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the term is vague and could be an exaggeration by those “theatre friends” to make a point. I’m dismayed that M. Phillips calls for “people” get off Tim Sanford’s back–“people” obviously referring to me–because it indicates he or she has Mr. Sanford’s back but isn’t concerned with the backs of the many playwrights to whom Mr. Sanford has just issued a veiled warning about the likelihood of few productions for lengthy plays in these days of you-better-keep–it-short inclinations among theater-goers–some of them, possibly, among M. Phillips’s “theatre friends.” I made it plain at the outset of my column that I admire Tim Sanford’s directorship–especially for his presenting two superb plays this season–but I continue to consider his letter to subscribers deeply disturbing.