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Frame by frame

Mason J. Wagner takes Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick inside the movie theater

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The setting for Annie Baker's The Flick is particularly familiar in a place like Missoula where everyone from high school students to those with master's degrees work service jobs. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning play focuses on three underpaid movie ushers from different backgrounds who spend time together mopping up soda in between screenings and discussing the theater's recent switch from film to digital projection. Of course, it's not so much about the projector but what the change means in a broader sense. How do you move forward and what's at stake when you do? But these larger ideas aren't particular to movie theater work; they're the kind of life questions most young (and old) people ask themselves when they're trying to figure out their lives—the kind of fodder slyly embedded in Richard Linklater's coming-of-age stories or the 2009 Adventureland.

Mason J. Wagner, who directs a Missoula production of The Flick this week, is a familiar actor around town. He's also been a waiter at The Catalyst, so working in the service industry is not alien to him.

"I think anyone who's worked in service jobs or in a menial job will get it," he says, laughing. "And that's almost everybody in Missoula."

Baker is a lot like Linklater in that natural dialogue is part of her signature. She's precise in her writing, but she also captures how people really talk, letting awkward lulls hang in the air or undercutting sentences with "like." Back in 2013, even before she won a Pulitzer, Baker told The New Yorker that her goal is to explore what's left unsaid along the edges of conversation. The unscripted feel of her work is highly scripted.

"She leaves a ton of space and a ton of silence, and in those silences you find a lot of terror," Wagner says. "You don't know what's going to come next."

When I speak to Wagner on a Monday afternoon, he is wearing a wool Ivy cap and eating a muffin. He's happy and appears confident, having just graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor's degree in theater where he received an outstanding senior award. He's had a high profile at the School of Theatre and Dance, showing up regularly in productions, including as the lovestruck Christian in Cyrano De Bergerac and being cast as narrator Nick Carraway in last year's Montana Repertory production of The Great Gatsby. But like the characters in The Flick, Wagner spent some time of real uncertainty trying to find his path. He started his undergraduate studies as a creative writing major.

Mason Wagner’s production of The Flick features, from left, Taylor Caprara, Sam Williamson and Brandon Taylor. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Mason Wagner’s production of The Flick features, from left, Taylor Caprara, Sam Williamson and Brandon Taylor.

"My grandfather was a poet and so it was a legacy thing I wrestled with," Wagner says. "He was a really wild guy. He knew the Beats really well—my dad remembers Kerouac reading him bedtime stories—and so I felt obligated to try that."

Wagner always knew he wanted to try theater, but it was an acting class with UM's Randy Bolton that made him realize that's what he wanted to pursue. For the class, he and local actor Cally Shine performed Robert Frost's poem "Home Burial," about a couple who have lost their child.

"That was one of the first moments I knew," he says. "I realized, 'Wow. That's what it's all about.'"

Wagner took a year off from classes between fall 2012 and fall 2013 so he could save money. That's when he read The Flick for the first time. The characters came to life for him because he could identify with the wayward world they lived in.

"I was not in school," he says. "I wasn't following my passion. And so it resonated in that regard. There's just something about it when you read it. I knew I wanted to do it."

Most productions of Baker's play take place on a stage constructed to look like a movie theater. Wagner's is set inside the Roxy Theater, a real movie theater in which the audience will sit on stage in front of the screen and the action will take place among the seats and in the projection booth. The cast includes Sam Williamson (a young but highly accomplished local actor), Taylor Caprara (known mostly for musical theater shows at MCT), Brandon Taylor (a second-year acting student) and Hudson Therriault (a first-year).

"My overarching concept for the play is that each scene is like a complete frame in a film reel," he says. "I really think that's what Baker's getting at with the title, that each moment flicks past. It's an interesting study of time. And everyone involved in this project is at a different place in their life and we've all brought our personal 'moving-on' perspectives to the work."

The Flick marks Wagner's directing debut for a full-length play and he's excited about being on that side of the stage. He says his role as Nick Carraway in Gatsby was a challenge that prepared him for this moment.

"Being cast in The Great Gatsby really ripped me wide open," he says. "I've written and thought a lot about it because I was really scared. I was really scared of that role. I had built that book up so much in my mind. It took me a few weeks of performance to feel like I had reached that point. I had kind of insulated myself intellectually and that's my biggest issue as an actor—but as a director, that's really a good thing."

BetweentheLines Productions presents The Flick at the Roxy Fri., May 20–Sun., May 22, at 6:30 PM nightly. $18/$14 students and seniors.

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