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J. Kelly Nestruck: Theatre reigns as film goes the way of vaudeville

Theatre and film have been duking it out for more than 100 years now, but it's time to declare a victor.

At this point in the 21st century, theatre has clearly emerged, arms raised, as the last art form standing of the two. Indeed, live performance is flexing its muscles by moving into abandoned cinemas, while film is about to spin off its mortal spool.

And yet theatre, rather than enjoying the moment, seems a tad anxious about the future.

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Film – that is, moving images actually made by shining a light through celluloid strips – is nearly extinct because the tiny dots have taken over. Most moviemakers have switched to digital cameras, while the vast majority of cinemas now use digital projectors – and Hollywood studios are set to shortly stop shipping 35-mm prints all together.

The Flick, a new play by the exciting up-and-coming American playwright Annie Baker currently having a warm and welcome Canadian premiere in Victoria, is a theatrical requiem for film, the medium that once seemed an existential threat to theatre, and an eyebrow raised skeptically in the direction of digital, the new supervillain in town.

Its main character is Avery (Jesse Reid), a twentysomething film buff hired to rip tickets and work concessions at one of the last remaining movie theatres in Massachusetts to use a 35-mm projector. In Chelsea Haberlin's smooth and streamlined production, we meet him on his first day of work, shyly sweeping up popcorn with a slacker named Sam (Chris Cochrane).

Eventually, however, Avery comes out of his shell to pronounce his disdain for digital movies in the play's take-away monologue. "Film can express things that computers never will," he says. "Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness; film is light and shadow and it is the light and shadow that were there on the day you shot the film."

In Baker's play, then, film is reimagined not as the lifeless opposite of the ephemeral but lively art form known as theatre, but a brother in artistic arms equally of the physical world. The enemy – for both, it is implied – is the inhuman and distant world of digital.

The elegiac tone of The Flick, a hyper-colloquial and deceptively simple comedy itself full of light and shadow, is deepened in its Victoria production by the fact that it's being performed in the Roxy, a second-run cinema purchased by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre a year ago.

Blue Bridge, a classics-oriented company run by University of Victoria theatre professor Brian Richmond, is not the first theatre company to take over a struggling cinema. It happens all the time. In fact, on my latest trip to British Columbia, every play I saw happened to take place in a theatre that once showed movies.

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The visual artist Stan Douglas's film noir-inspired Helen Lawrence was staged at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, which stopped showing movies in 1991 and was transformed into a live venue for the Arts Club. Likewise, Floyd Collins, the latest musical from the feisty young company Patrick Street Productions, was performed at the York Theatre, a building that, before its recent renovations, was a Bollywood cinema known as the Raja.

Richmond may have dedicated his career to live performance – co-founding Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon in 1974, running Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in the late 1980s – but he's is also a fan of film. He has been sorry to see cinemas closing left, right and centre in Victoria – and, like The Flick's hero Avery, is devastated to see the end of 35-mm projection in town. "You wouldn't be able to really see The Godfather," he says, explaining the shortcomings of digital, "the chiaroscuro that makes the film so beautiful."

Taking me on a tour of the Roxy the day after The Flick's opening, Richmond shows me the theatre's functioning 35-mm projector and describes his dream to keep it running, showing movies in between runs of plays, or late at night after live performances.

In a way, that would be a return to how the Roxy operated when it was first opened (as the Fox) in 1949 and movies were shown alongside vaudeville acts. Indeed, what is happening at the Roxy and elsewhere isn't so much an invasion of movie theatres by live theatre companies, as a reclaiming of spaces lost a century ago.

When the Lumiere brothers, the French founding fathers of film, first brought their new cinematographe machine to North America, there weren't multiplexes to project their photoplays in, of course – and so they showed them off on the vaudeville circuit.

While short movies were first integrated into vaudeville amid live entertainment, however, it wasn't long before flickering images began to dominate and live actors, jugglers and comedians were pushed out. Pantages became known as a movie chain rather than a vaudeville one, while the powerful Orpheum circuit that dominated the U.S. and Canada eventually became only the O in RKO Pictures, the Golden Age Hollywood studio that would produce King Kong and Citizen Kane.

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As film now goes the way of vaudeville, the communal experience of watching a movie with strangers seems destined to follow. Like Richmond – who sees six to seven movies a week on cable or Netflix – most cineastes now watch their moving pictures in home theatres, on laptops, or increasingly on even smaller screens.

Film, interestingly enough, has had a parallel history as a private art form since its start. In fact, Thomas Edison beat the the Lumiere Brothers to the commercial exhibition of motion pictures by two years with his Kinetoscope – a peep-hole viewer where one audience member at a time could view short films of, say, animals chasing others animals or women dancing.

Sound familiar? At one point in The Flick, Sam – who does not share Avery's passion for celluloid – raves enthusiastically about a video he saw on Facebook in which a bottle talks to a woman. He puts down his broom and pulls out his iPhone (a very ironic sight in a fictional movie theatre on the stage in a live theatre) to show it to his colleague. Here's the belated triumph of the Kinetoscope's mode of viewing – watching YouTube on your smartphone.

While live theatre and film have often been positioned as competitors, in truth, their rivalry has always been of the sibling variety – their histories are intertwined. Public audiences are necessary for both to survive, so, as film dies, it's no wonder theatre artists like Baker and Richmond are not celebrating, but mourning and eyeing the digital future warily.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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