Why are Plays getting Shorter?

Mike Boehm over at the LA Times published a very interesting article yesterday entitled Taking Note of a Wave of Shorter Plays. In it he discusses the growing trend of shorter plays, smaller casts and the abandonment of the intermission. He offers this little blurb of data:

Los Angeles Times critics note a play’s running time at the end of their reviews, permitting an unscientific pulse-taking of what’s happened to play lengths over time. In September and October 1997, 15% of the plays reviewed ran 95 minutes or less. For the same two months in 2012, it was 37%. The inverse was true for plays running 21/2 hours or more: 33% in 1997, 16% in 2012.

So basically, in the last fifteen years the plays being written and mounted have gotten shorter.

Why?

We lamented the loss of the intermission here at the Lemon last year in this article, mostly because we missed the tradition of the halftime break, milling about the lobby, getting a drink, grabbing a smoke, snorting a line, emptying your bladder, discussing what we’ve seen with others, anticipating what’s going to happen next, there’s something solid about the intermission.

Certainly some plays just don’t make sense with an intermission, Small Engine Repair from last season, Guare’s brilliant Six Degree of Separation would never have worked with an intermission and Krapp’s Last Tape most recently seen at the Kirk Douglas has all the words it needs to be the masterpiece that is, but what appears to be happening is that playwrights are making a choice to write shorter plays with smaller casts and no intermissions. The article cites some obvious reasons adding some noteworthy voices to the conversation:

Guare says playwrights’ chief worry is not producers keeping an eye on the clock but on the bottom line. “Today’s main problem is not running time but most producers’ reluctance to produce a play with more than five characters. Four is better … two is best, provided they’re both stars. And one big star would be perfect. That’s what calls the shots today.”

Travis Preston, a stage director and dean of the school of theater at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, says there’s definitely something in the air about the advisability of keeping things short. “There’s a lot of conventional wisdom that’s seemingly dictating choices about duration — a perspective that’s almost unchallenged in certain theater circles that a contemporary audience has a shorter attention span because the quick delivery of information has become a staple of our lifestyle. There is concern about ‘keep it moving, keep it fast, it needs to pop, it needs to stay exciting.’”

These are valid reasons, but I’d like to add one more to the mix: I believe that many contemporary playwrights simply don’t have the talent or vision to write a play with the complexity, depth and breadth that demands a two or three hour running time. Also, many contemporary playwrights simply lack the craft to provide an act break that inspires an audience to come back. And I’ve heard many a producer and writer say this to me, “We don’t want the audience to leave at intermission so we don’t have one.” To that I say, “If your play is fucking good they’ll come back!”

Now granted, the ultimate reasoning is probably a melding of all these, budgetary constraints, the audience’s shrinking attention span and a writer’s lack of vision. Ultimately, if the story is good and the execution is compelling, a three hour play never feels long. I’ve seen 60 minute plays that felt like an eternity. And so have you. The article touches on this:

A Noise Within is devoted to classic stories — half-century-old plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams would be among its seasons’ newer offerings — and, ancient Greeks notwithstanding, they tend to run beyond two hours. But Rodriguez-Elliott says that judging from the company’s frequent performances for high school and middle school audiences — with no cuts from what the general audience sees — fears about dwindling attention spans may be exaggerated.

“My sense is they might be slightly more engaged” than their peers from 20 years ago, she said. Perhaps minds bombarded by electronic prompts and digital stimuli welcome the chance to settle in for a spell with something that can’t be summoned or dismissed with strokes on a keypad or touch screen.

“They crave being in this world where they’re getting a different experience,” Rodriguez-Elliott said. “It all comes down to the content. Is it compelling to them or not?”

Also, some people – and we all know them – simply do not have the concentration, focus, patience, or willingness to engage in a theatrical experience, because it demands something from the audience, a participation in the process, and in this age of instant gratification and the never-ending deluge of information and sensorial stimulus, why participate when you can simply be bombarded by sight and sounds and told what to think and feel?

That said, if you can say everything you need to say in 90 minutes, do it. But I still want my fucking intermission Goddamnit.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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  1. Kevin Delin Kevin Delin says:

    Just read your intermission column. So I’ve prepped when I say: “I don’t understand your comments about intermission.”

    Movies have lacked intermissions for years. The standard movie is somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes in length. Without prying into your gastrointestinal needs/desires, do you typically get up in the middle of a film?

    Now, were I, as a playwright, to make you pee your pants via my writing – and you needed to go to the bathroom as a result – why, that would be perfectly understandable.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      No, I don’t typically get up in the middle of films, but would and have if I needed to. Movies and theater are two drastically different mediums. Most films are far too long and the same story could be told in half the time. Most filmmakers simply feel that they have to give “more” because of the bloated budgets and ticket prices, when in reality their stories simply don’t merit 2 1/2 hours and sometimes three, let alone 2. Most movies are also so incredibly predictable, you can easily leave, come back in twenty minutes and have missed nothing of note in the storytelling.

      Theater, on the other hand, is a completely different experience. It is live. Leaving in the middle of the a play is incredibly disruptive to everyone involved. It’s also much more difficult to get back into the swing of a story after leaving in the middle of a play. The degree of concentration and focus is much more intense for an audience at the theater than it is for an audience at a movie.

      The intermission is the opportunity for the audience to get a respite, to recharge, to linger on the cliffhanger that the well crafted play has left them with. Some plays, as I mentioned, don’t need it, but most do. Mostly for the audience.

      It really comes down to that, craft. I referenced “Gospel According to First Squad” in that article you mentioned, in my opinion, they just made a mistake as to when they decided to place the act break and because of that the first act ran “long”. I remember thinking while watching that play, “Oh, here’s the end of the first act. Nope. Okay, this is a perfect spot! Okay, nope.” And then an hour and a half later I was wondering if I could get to the bathroom first.

      My bladder is the harshest of critics.

  2. Tanya Saracho says:

    Is it easier to deem an entire crop of contemporary dramatists to be lacking in craft, rather than to just admit that an intermission is a matter of taste? A whole generation of modern playwrights can’t possibly be lacking in talent and/or vision, merely because their works refuse to utilize the (archaic?) notion of an intermission. I’m not saying that every play should fit the Long/Full One-Act structure, but the trend has merit. It has been evolving throughout the History of Western Theatre. Theatre – more or less – started with the 5 Act structure, then moved to 3 Acts, then to 2. Why is it bad that – given how we consume culture and information now as a society – we should organically lean to a Single Act structure? This progression has been a long time coming. But people don’t like change, I suppose. They must put it down, rather than embrace it.

    I’m almost positive that when 3rd and 2nd intermissions started becoming extinct back in the day, some other cultural critic also bemoaned those losses. (Before going the way of the dinosaur.) I’m sure those critics thought to offend the new generation of artists to cover up their own inadequacies.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      So following your logic, Tanya, you’d be okay with a two and a half hour “one act”?

      Or are you simply rallying for shorter plays altogether? Something which I don’t necessarily bemoan.

      I ask the question sincerely, because you make a fair point.

      I’ll let the silly personal attack go for now if you can actually follow up with something at least as an intelligent as your main point. Just once though.

  3. Michael says:

    Whenever I hear someone say, “90 minutes, my favorite kind of play,” I respond with “my favorite kind of play is a good one no matter how long it takes.” We’ve all sat through 90-minute plays that feel like several hours.

    Yes, it’s a trend that may reflect our current social and cultural tastes but so be it. Just keep giving them quality and they’ll continue to show up.

  4. Callie says:

    This is a spectacularly condescending swipe of a generalization.

    I’ve written 75-minute, intermissionless plays as well as two-hour, two-act plays. And both were on purpose. I’ve dispensed with an intermission when I wanted an audience to feel breathless at the sweep of a play. I’ve used an intermission in a humorous way, and also have used it to let everyone regroup, coming back a week later in the play’s time.

    This is really insulting. But perhaps that is your main goal in writing it.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      You’ve sussed me out, Callie. It was indeed meant to be insulting. To you. Specifically. Mission accomplished. Thank goodness it was sweeping enough to catch your attention. I can now rest easy.

  5. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    Oh, and Michael, in response to your as usual breathlessly astute response I say, “Indeed”.

    As someone who is in the trenches when it comes to choosing plays for a season – along with your artistic directors of course – it’d be interesting to hear whether length of play every comes into play at all when making your decisions?

  6. Callie says:

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that taking the time to read and sincerely respond to your post engendered a dismissal from you when you clearly hold playwrights in such low esteem. Glad you set us all straight that we lack vision, craft, and what was it…oh yes, talent. How ridiculous of me to stand up for myself or my fellow playwrights.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      No, Callie, not “playwrights”. Just you. It doesn’t surprise me that you can’t tell the difference.

  7. I love this. I’m a theater/opera writer whose work always clocks in around 2 1/2 hours. So I’ve been lashed with the savage whips of the Shortologists. Here are the facts: the director of the New York Theater Workshop (I don’t have the name, just the gossip from a deep source) decreed around 20 years ago that plays should be 90 minutes, no intermission, and launched a reign of terror sealed by the success of “The Drowsy Chaperone”. This filtered out through the workshops, the departments, everywhere and has now become received wisdom. The truth is this: if you tell a story and actually use Language (and/or Music) you need at least 2 1/2 hours. So they cut the language and now we have only stories, which is NOT ENOUGH.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Peter. Very interesting information. But can you clarify one thing for me? What exactly do you mean by “cut the language”? I think I understand but it would be great if you could expand on that.

  8. Turner Munch says:

    In response to the film comparisons. If I need to get up during a film I can without any worry. I don’t feel bad towards the actors or audience because the actors aren’t there and for the audience: the screen is big and the sounds are loud. And film theaters tend to have more comfortable chairs and way more leg room (I’m tall, it matters.)

    In regards to the stage: I love the 90 minute musicals that have been released over the past 10 years or so only because the challenge of that 90 minute time frame seems to rattle the classic structure of musicals which I think has led to some new territory in terms of how they are telling their story. (Putnam County Spelling Bee)

    Plays I can’t seem to decide but I have seen several awesome shows with TWO intermissions and didn’t mind at all(MORE BEER!)

    Every story in its own dramatic structure and action, to me, implies its length. A bad example would be a show having an early catharsis that sets us the audience into falling action mode which we would then rest in for too long and get fidgety and then begin to notice the liquid in our private parts (NO MORE BEER!).

    Good conversation thread. Loved reading everyones thoughts

  9. RVCBard says:

    Or it could be that shorter plays are cheaper to produce because you tend to pay by the hour for rehearsal and performance space.

  10. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    I believe most performance space is usually rented by the night, but I get your meaning. The smaller cast trend is certainly one that was born from budgetary constraints.

  11. Victoria Watson says:

    Having just produced a 2 1/2 hour show with elevated language and depth of text, I understand both sides of this. Personally, I believe that good is good, but I feel that I (and you, Colin) are more and more in the minority. I had people say to my face at intermission that “it’s so good, but we can’t stay for the whole thing.” Immensely frustrating! Even assuming they were all telling the truth. My one revenge, in this case, is that that statement was inevitably followed by the question “can you tell us who did it?”…which I refused to answer.

    For the sake of argument, I would put out there that there seems to be an evolution to live theater. And maybe this is the next stage. Since there are several examples of shorter pieces that warrant high praise, and longer pieces that are intolerable, maybe the goal here should be not to find out why plays are getting shorter, but how do we still make them worth watching in the short attention span age?

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      Yup yup yup. You have hit the nail on the proverbial head, Victoria. The meat of the matter is not the length of plays, but how to make the play you want to write watchable and entertaining no matter what the length in this the age of distraction.

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      In my tireless quest to sacrifice myself for the LemonHeadNation – and to further this conversation – I will be attending REDCAT’s “Gatz”, a 6 and a half hour theatrical adaptation of The Great Gatsby this week. Check out our current LemonMeter on the show here: http://losangeles.bitter-lemons.com/2012/11/30/gatz-redcat-100-sweet/

      Hey, it’s how I roll. I’ll have a full report later in the week.