Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Narrowing Scope of American Theater

Shows are getting shorter. When we were kids and big serious plays ran two hours with an intermission, this was a good thing, but now we've got shows that run an hour and a half without an intermission.

At any rate, that's a piece of conventional wisdom I'm seeing around. It definitely comes up whenever there's a good show that's longer (Gatz, say, or The Lily's Revenge, both of which were five hours or more).

It's definitely true that plays are getting shorter. Is it a bad thing? A good thing? Probably, it's just one of those things that happen that are on the whole neither bad nor good, but are either bad or good in specific cases.

I do have to say this: I've just started writing for StageGrade (which you should follow!) and it means I'm reading more reviews of shows than I used to, and if I have a nickel for every time I read a review that boils down to "It was a good premise/trifle, but at two hours it starts to wear..." and "The second act lagged" I could retire.

Here's the thing: whether or not a play should or shouldn't be two hours, or one hour, is irrelevant. The point is what percentage of that show is necessary. If it's not 100%, there's a mistake in the editing pen.

When my friend John Kurzynowski (who just started his own company after putting up a show with us last year) directed Doll House (that's how he titled it), he started by handing the cast an editing pen and saying, "Let's cut every line we don't care about." And they did. And they wound up with an incredibly lean but incredibly passionate hour and fifteen minutes of Doll House.

So if your play is longer (The Lily's Revenge, Gatz, Architecting, etc.) you're basically saying, "This show is really, really important to us. There's a lot here that's important." If you live up to that, people will sit for five hours and come back a second time (like I did for The Lily's Revenge, despite the financial toll it took on my wallet).

On the other hand, if your show is empty, you can make even an hour and fifteen minutes feel like a lifetime.

The reason I write this is because I have friends who are just starting in playwrighting who have, for some reason been told:
  1. One page = one minute (which is a good rule of thumb)
  2. One play = one hundred and twenty minutes with an act break (wrong.)
I keep getting plays on my desk that are one hundred and twenty one pages, or one hundred and twenty three. And many of them are really great, but not all of the pages in them are great.

I don't think it's a bad idea for early drafts of a play to be that long, by the way -- I just think the next step is to go through and viciously expunge everything that you don't think is vital.

In fact, I did that once with a play of mine called St. Vitus' Dance. I started with 90 pages and I ended with fifteen. That was a wake-up call to me that I had written a bad play. Consequently, you have not seen it onstage.