Short plays settle for less

February 17, 2012

It’s like global warming: a lot of the evidence is anecdotal rather than empirical. But over the last decade at least, plays have been getting shorter and shorter. Are playwrights at fault? Do they realize they can earn the same bucks (if they earn anything at all) for a 75 minute show as for one twice that length? Or are audiences with shrinking attention spans demanding shorter performances? Whichever it may be—and you’ll have my opinion by the end of this post—a good night out in theater almost always is briefer than it used to be.

Right now in Chicago, you’ll be hard-pressed to spend even two hours in a playhouse, let alone longer. American Idiot, the Tony Award winning musical at the Oriental, runs 95 minutes. Feast: An Intimate Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is 75 minutes. Punk Rock at Griffin Theatre is less than two hours without an intermission. dark play or stories for boys (sic) at Collaboraction is 90 minutes straight through. Race at the Goodman, Disgraced at American Theater Company, Hesperia at Writers’ Theatre and Love and Money at Steep Theatre also are current attractions clocking in at 100 minutes or less.

One argument is that the attention span of audiences is shorter due to TV, internet, multi-tasking and our ability to absorb images more quickly; a proposition I firmly and adamantly reject. The vast number of theaters presenting three-hour-plus works by Shakespeare, O’Neill, Chekhov and other authors gives that argument the lie. Some of our most popular works are long plays, among them A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Angels in America (either part) and musicals such as South Pacific and A Fiddler on the Roof. Audiences sit through these works with only one intermission typically.

What’s more, film patrons eagerly stay glued to their seats without an intermission for films running two-to-three hours in length. Some may take a potty break or hit the concessions stand, but most do not. Not so very long ago, the standard length for a movie was 90 minutes while theater always was two-and-a-half hours or more. It’s ironic that the profiles have reversed. The point is, however, that there’s ample evidence that audience attention span is NOT a compelling argument for shorter plays, so we must look to the playwrights themselves.

My colleague, Kelly Kleiman, puts forward an economic argument in her current blog post, and there’s some truth to it: generally it will be cheaper for a theater to produce a one-set play with two or three or four characters, which is the profile of shorter works for the most part (musicals such as American Idiot being an exception). Still, I say look to the playwrights. Beyond economics, it’s very, very difficult for a writer to sustain interest in only two or three characters over a stretch of two or more hours. Yes, Tennessee Williams does it in The Glass Menagerie and Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and O’Neill in Long Day’s Journey Into Night but they are exceptions by master playwrights.

Conversely, it’s virtually impossible to create a play with 10 or 12 or more characters and multiple sub-plots in 90 or 100 minutes. An author simply doesn’t have time to develop that many characters and situations.

And here we must look at how playwriting is taught, as dramatic authors mostly come out of academic programs nowadays rather than materializing spontaneously. Writing exercises very often call for an author to create a two-character or three-character scene based on a particular situation or goal, but almost never are authors-in-training asked to create an eight-character or 10-character scene. Young playwrights are not asked to envision and outline larger works, say an epic history play in the manner of Shakespeare, or a three-act drama in the manner of Chekhov, or a multi-generational work in the manner of whomever. Those few writers who do just that usually come to such works after they’ve been writing awhile and often through mighty struggles. Tony Kushner worked on Angels in America for 10 years.

I could continue to discuss this subject at much greater length, and astute observers certainly could counter my arguments with numerous examples such as Sarah Ruhl’s ambitious Passion Play or the type of large stories the House Theatre of Chicago and Lookingglass often develop for, and within, their own ensembles. I’ve made my points, however, so this probably is a good place to stop. I’ll close with just one final example.

The ultimate reduction in playwriting so far may be A Number by award-winning British playwright Caryl Churchill. Produced successfully in London, New York, Chicago (at the Next Theatre Company) and elsewhere, this two-character play runs just 55 minutes but is sold as a full-length evening standing on its own.

The Churchill play is NOT a full evening, no matter how you slice, dice or julienne it. Even though the Next Theatre production was extremely well-done (far better than the New York staging), it should have been part of a double bill of two one-act plays. If Churchill insisted by contract that it had to be staged as a stand-alone work, then she should be drummed out of the business. Simply put: it is exploitive capitalism at its worst to extract a full ticket price from audiences for less than a full evening of theater. Then again, caveat emptor.