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.
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.
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.