How long should a play be?
I realize this may seem an odd question, with the only logical answer similar to the one Lincoln gave to the query about a man's legs—long enough to reach its audience. But in the era of the Entertainment Buffet, when we're growing used to dividing up our entertainment options not in hours but in minutes, do shorter works make theater more competitive? Or are we just pandering to a populace with a collective case of ADD?
Shorter scripts and productions are certainly a trend. The British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose celebrated play A Number premiered at ACT earlier this year, told her intense story in about an hour's time, while at Washington Ensemble Theatre it's rare to still be in your seat 80 minutes after you've sat down. In the '90s, epics like Angels in America caught the zeitgeist, but the most common critical reaction to the current nine-hour Stoppard epic, The Coast of Utopia, is that, while it's good, even split across three evenings it's a butt numb-er.
Last week I took part in the Doubleshot 48-Hour Play Festival at the University of Puget Sound, an event similar to Seattle's 14/48 and the 24-Hour Play Festival (both of which have summer editions coming up). I was one of seven playwrights sent off at 9 p.m. with a theme and the mandate to produce an under-10-minute play by 8 a.m. the next morning. Ten minutes might not seem long, but trust me, it can feel that way. I once got into an argument with a 14/48 director about the length of his production, which ran closer to 15 minutes. Audiences should be able to sit still for an extra five minutes, he insisted. I countered by asking if he'd ever sat at a malfunctioning traffic light for the same amount of time. Yet his point stays with me.
To get some insight, I talked to a couple of local experts on short-form theater: Sean Ryan, who oversees "12 Minutes Max" at On the Boards, and Bret Fetzer, the longtime curator of Annex's late-night cabaret, "Spin the Bottle." Ryan points out that most of the pieces in 12 MM are works-in-progress, teasers for longer works to come, but that the "distilling" process is often valuable for the artists. "Sometimes they could do even more with less. I'll see a 12-minute piece and think, 'Hmmm, could have done it in 10.' It's all about getting to the point, and I've seen dance pieces, for example, that do that in just four minutes." He also notes that recent longer pieces have been successful at OtB, including last season's visit from Forced Entertainment, a two-and-a-half-hour-long experimental production with no intermission. "It's all about what you have to communicate, and how good you are at holding the audience."
Fair point, I think. But just what can one achieve in, say, 10 minutes? You can make an audience laugh, but can you make them cry? Or care? Can you make them continue to mull over the piece during breakfast the next morning?
Context is everything, according to Fetzer. "After 10 minutes, the late-night crowd (often a tad inebriated) is ready for something new, even if what they're watching is really good. It's just the nature of the format and the time frame." He compares short work to snacking between meals: "It doesn't mean you don't eat the meals. The American appetite for entertainment is pretty insatiable." And a lot of that entertainment, he points out, is epic in length—movies like Lord of the Rings and serial television like Lost and The Sopranos.
Maybe he's right. Plays shifted from a three-act structure decades ago (with a notable loss in bar revenue, I might add), and if audiences snack on 10-minute works, they may still be up for the occasional three-hour feast. In my case, I avoided my normal comfort zone of comedy and tried to see if 10 minutes was long enough to tell a little melancholy story. To my surprise, the play elicited some sniffles and teary eyes amongst the audience. I report this somewhat reluctantly—in my desk drawer sits a hapless full-length tragedy written years ago that's never elicited more emotion from any reader than a few pitying looks.