Monday, October 15, 2007

The Hiccup of Length

Why can't I write an epic?

This is my first post. It happens to be the 54th post to NTFD, which is not a number that has significance to me, and I'm glad of that, because it really allays the pressure I would undoubtedly feel if this were the 16th post, or the 29th or something.

I am currently acting in/directing an episode of a trilogy of full-length plays called "The Madelyn Trilogy" which are being mounted by Curious Theatre Branch as part of the Rhino Fest. Beau O'Reilly wrote them, and each play comes in at 2.5-3 hours running time, totaling 8 solid hours of drama. The plays happen to be quite good, but the quality of the plays is not the issue. The hot button of this project, of course, is its length. 8 hours of theatre. Fringe theatre. No bangs and whistles, just solid writing, terrific acting, and an engaging, original story.

Recently, I was approached after a performance by a castmate's cousin, who was a complete jerk and "not someone who goes to theatre except to see his cousin perform" (so why am I talking to him about his opinions regarding theatre in the first place?) and he asked me, with a question that could not be more leaning or loaded: "Don't you think a writer asking an audience to watch an 8 hour play is self-indulgent?"

Ok ok, now of course, this guy is a jerk and made several comments during this encounter that made me want to shake my fists and growl. But this is the one that sticks with me, because it touched on something I've been obsessing about lately (perhaps because I've been doing an 8 hour trilogy since january): length. And specifically why it is so dwelt-upon in theatre by audiences and critics alike?

His question was best answered with another question: "Why is it more self-indulgent than a novelist asking you to spend 40 hours reading a single story they wrote? Or a writer creating the bible for a TV show that will take 6 seasons to complete?" The response, of course, is that "That's different."

Indeed, Beau's experiment is rooted in this. Shakespeare could get away with writing plays of length. So could Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill...Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner are still getting away with it. I say "getting away with it" ironically, because writing a long play (even 8 hours long) is not an artistic crime, and shouldn't be considered one. John Barton's "Tantalus" which premiered in Denver several years ago was a 12-play cycle about the Trojan War that took 2 full days to perform once.

I've read Tantalus. It's...ok. But again, quality is not the concern of this, the 54th post on NTFD, but this question of length.

Why is theatre held to such strict standards of length? It seems that most people have this idea of what a play is and what theatre is supposed to be and supposed to do, what the rules are, what the context is, and how they're going to receive it, and how long they need to invest. We're willing to watch the entire Godfather Trilogy in one Saturday, but the idea of partaking in 8 hours of a play in three sittings over the course of a weekend (or even a 9-week run) makes people bristle.

Does it have nothing to do with the work itself and have everything to do with the form and venue? If you go to a play, yes, you are expected to be a willing captive, the actors can see you and hear you, the rest of audience is aware of you, you must sit quietly, politely, and watch. Is this what creates the standard of expected length? If this is true, then what makes theatre immediate, crucial, and unique is also what provides the excuse for it to be so harshly regarded (and often neglected) by the average consumer. When you see a play, you are (ideally) part of a cycle of energy that radiates from the performers out into the audience, through the audience, and back to the performers. When you see a play, the experience cannot be replicated, because next time around, the performance will not be the same, the specific combination of people in the seats will not be the same, and so forth. This is not true of films, in which the experience stays purely within the audience, and rarely extends beyond the individual. Even if you could give to the screen, it couldn’t give back. The channel is one-way and static. Theatre is about community in a world that for all its connectivity is becoming more and more singular, and one of the few artforms that creates a direct and live two-way channel, because it has to.

As an experiment in length and depth, the Madelyn Trilogy is admittedly extreme. 8 hours is a long time to receive, share, give back, and receive again. But is that the only reason why we won't tolerate long plays? It can't be, because theatre didn't always follow this tendency of 10-minute plays and hour-long one-acts. Not only did writers used to write long plays, but producers produced them and people came to see them. It was an event. The play has shrunk over time. Shakespeare's 5 acts became Chekhov's 4 became Miller's 3 became the modern moment's 2. But wait! Even 2 act plays are frowned at more and more.

The dangerous thing to me about this trend is the way it affects the way we write. Writers are writing short plays because that's what can be produced. There are countless one-act festivals and short-play marathons across the country where writers can get their work done, as long as it's under 10 pages long. Even if that 4 act Faust comedy you're sitting on is the best play anyone's written in 20 years, good luck getting it put on. It's certainly affected me: 12 of my plays have been produced, but only 4 of them 'full-length,' and only 2 of those require an intermission.

How does this length issue affect you? Why does it exist, and why now more than 40 years ago? I don't want to blame TV and the internet because that would be easy, but is that the most logical answer? Is it that people don't want to take part in the creation of the event, they merely want it to happen to them? But then why go to a Cubs game instead of watching it at home?

Chris Piatt wrote in his review of Tracy Letts' epic "August Osage County" something to the effect of most American playwrights are writing plays that are nothing more than tumbleweeds rolling across a desolate landscape, and that to make a mark in this day and age and add to the canon, you gotta show up wearing some serious shit-kickers, I believe was the term. But that seems to imply any of several things, none of which are true:

1) Most playwrights don't have the guts to write something epic.
2) All good plays, or even great plays, get produced.
3) All playwrights have the option to get something like Osage County produced at a venue like Steppenwolf, but choose rather to dabble in unimportant trifles, or don’t have the ability to write it in the first place.

The only difference between Tracy Letts’ epic and the epic that all playwrights have sitting on their floor collecting dust is that his got done, for whatever combination of reasons, many being obvious, and one certainly being that the play was good. But his isn’t the only one. It’s not fair to take a struggling playwright to Osage County, then smack them on the chest, point at the stage and say “Why can’t you do that?” It seems pretty transparent to me, actually, why most of us can’t do that, and it has nothing to do with writing.

The climate has created the condition, not the other way around. It isn’t fair that writers are expected to adhere to certain constraints or—god forbid—rules, but then we’re criticized when the scene doesn’t produce anything that sticks or demands attention. Everyone cries for the next Great American Drama, and then moan about having to spend more than an hour in the theatre, once in a while deciding “this one gets a pass” because of where and who and because they had enough money to build a staircase onstage. I would argue that The Madelyn Trilogy is a much more important work due to its context and the gesture it makes, going further despite the norm and not allowing budgetary or technical limitations to dictate the writer’s process.

We’d all love to write something huge, or we at least should have the option to. But we don’t. Tony Kushner does. Tom Stoppard does. Saying Tracy Letts is more important or has more to say than another playwright because of Osage County's epicness is like saying an NFL receiver is elite simply because he catches a lot of passes. But he doesn’t control if it’s thrown to him, does he? All he can do is get open.


Paul Rekk said...

Interesting. I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum -- call it the Ionesco end.

My work tends to lean towards the short side. And sure, I've been experimenting with longer work. And sure, Ionesco also came around to full-lengths rather quickly. But the question remains: if I can say all I need to say in half an hour, why keep going?

Not that epics are by nature self-indulgent or that I am by nature adverse to them. But I think it's a mistake to imply a well-written three hour play should be the horizon a playwright chases.

A well-written play that ends when it's time for it to end -- that I can get behind.

Scott Barsotti said...

I'm not implying that at all.

The point I'm making is that quality should be what we aspire to, but what if the best quality play we can produce happens to be 4 hours long? Cut cut cut, everyone will say. I think there is a double-standard in theatre currently where a writer's ability to fit a certain constraint of time becomes a judgment of that writer's quality (not to mention the quality of the work itself) which I think is grossly unfair.

And I wonder is the difference between exploding a short story into a novel and exploding a one-act into an epic is purely a pragmatic difference?

There's no reason why you should keep going if you've said everything you need to say in a half hour. But that's certainly not every play. As I say in the post, the majority of my produced work runs under an hour, and for the most part I'm happy with those plays. But if a writer hits the 3 hour mark and still has more to say, what then?

Shouldn't the horizon a playwright chases be to write the best play they can? And then after they've written that play, write a better one? Again, it's about uncompromised process and quality of craft. Length, especially imposed length, should have nothing to do with it. Of course, there's nothing stopping a playwright from writing an epic or even a completely unmarketable/unproducable one-act, simply for their own satisfaction of having done it if that's what they want to write. But playwrights need audiences to see their work, and I'm not even talking on an emotional level, I mean as working, learning artists.

Which begs the question: As a writer do you write what you want to write or do you write what can get produced? If those things are one and the same then good on you. But otherwise...

Anonymous said...

Does it have something to do with the medium not of theatre but of live performance?

i.e. if I watch a recording of is totally on my time...the needs even the intent of the storytellers is completely disposable in this sort of consumption. But when it is live then it is suddenly something that the storymakers are making the audience sit through of watch.

Could it have everything to do with a lack of desire to submit to the will of artist...a desire that has now been subverted by the recording medium?


Scott Barsotti said...

devilvet, I think you're on to something.

I don't want to simply say "TV is to blame" or "Movies" or "the internet" or anything like that and point fingers and make excuses, but I'm really interested in this idea of submission to the will of the artist, and it being subverted by recorded media.

When Beckett's plays were made into films by the BBC a few years ago, some decried the project as blasphemy. Theatre is a subjective medium, some said, the audience's eyes cannot be controlled (manipulated, sure) whereas in film, the director has complete control over what we see and how we see it. Interestingly, while we only see what the director wants us to in film, we can choose to watch it on our own time, yes, subverting the will of the artist, rendering their needs null in their absence from the experience. In theatre, the artists are present, and they require our attention. Not just our attention, but our bodies in space.

That the audience is expected and needed to take part in the creation of the experience in theatre, that is empowering to me as an audience member and as a theatre artist...but perhaps not to all. The changing focus and accessibilities of media are creating a power struggle. A crisis of agency?

Aaron Carter said...

Hey Scott! So glad you posted.

So. I have two thoughts.

1) It's funny to me to hear (see?) people talk (write?) about how theater is all about the exchange that goes on between live performance and the audience and then talk about "submitting to the artist's will." Why are we populists until the audience doesn't like what we're doing? Or until they don't want to play the game we ask them to?

2) I have a three hour play, unproduced, and I get pressure to make it more compact so it can be developed. That's right - not even produced, developed. So I hear you on the economic pressures that control long work by unknown folks. At the same time, I wonder: isn't it part of our job to figure out how to say what we want to say within the strictures we're given?

Look - artists have managed to survive (and speak out, cryptically) in totalitarian regimes. They got their message through the strictures. So why don't we figure out how to get what we want to say into the form that is curently being accepted? Where did the idea come from that we artists must be unfettered?

Anonymous said...

We are always fettered, but who gets to fetter and why?

These are valid questions and essential if we want to transform ourselves and our work.


Christopher De Paola said...

Aaron- I love #2! I never thought of it that way! If I think of myself as a playwright working under a totalitarian regime (the current theatre machine), I think I might write a whole hellava lotta plays!! Seriously.

I think there is something to be said for working within the constraints of a medium/culture at one particular time. Instant Theatre is exactly that- and we've had some beautiful pieces come out of that exercise in writing within the constraints given.

Scott- you said, "The point I'm making is that quality should be what we aspire to, but what if the best quality play we can produce happens to be 4 hours long?"

I think the operative words there are "best quality." What is that exactly? How do we determine it?

I think much of an audience's aprehension towards longer work is, quite honestly, being burned too often by poor theatical productions in the past- playwrights and theatres not doing a good enough job of engaging their audience. I know I feel this way.

I always use my Shakespeare analogy: the reality is that 95% of the Shakespeare productions out there are poor. And yet the theatre community asks/begs me to continue to go see Shakespeare. Now why should I sit through 20 bad productions of Shakespeare, hoping for that ONE good production?? If I experienced 20 (or even 10) bad productions of Shakespeare, do you really think I want lay my money on the table and risk seeing another bad production? The answer is no.

I think that's what the theatre community as a whole has done to our audience. For too long we've squandered our audeince's good will. They come into the theatre WANTING to be there. So why aren't we keeping them? Because we haven't done our job of entertaining/engaging them- and yet we ask/beg them to keep coming back.

Maybe the trend in shorter work is our medium's way of easing those people who have been burnt in the past back to the theatre? Once they've "taken the bait" so to speak, then maybe the trend will change, and we can give them some longer, engaging work to view. And they will be more than happy to sit there and watch...??

Scott Barsotti said...

There is no definition of "best quality," it differs for each writer. When I say the "best quality" play they can write, I'm referring to each writer personally, not in objective or standardized terms.

Chris, I agree that there is an implied abuse of audiences, even the most tolerant of audiences, in your suggestion regarding bad Shakespeare, or bad anything for that matter. But then, is the sitting in a certain place for the badness what's burning audiences out? The radio churns out plenty of bad top 40, but listeners stay tuned. The TV was called a "wasteland" 50 years ago, which is to say nothing of the depthless amounts of crap that's aired today, but the ratings stay up. Is it really just about home vs. away? (I like thinking about this in terms of football)

Aaron, I understand what you're saying about the contradiction in a "desire for communal energy" and "submission to an artists will." I think maybe the latter is too aggressive a term to be true. I've been thinking about it all afternoon. But I still think what might cause the audience burnout in theatre simply boils down to patience: when we listen to music or watch a film, the artist is controlling what we hear or see, but we control how we receive it, in what order, what outside forces we will allow to interfere with our listening or watching. Theatre attempts to thwart outside forces, and hold the audience's attention. Perhaps that makes people nervous, in this day of stop and rewind, of passive consumption, to be a "captive audience" (again with the aggressive speak)

Certainly audiences are not always going to like what they see onstage or be moved or even interested by it. But it seems that there is a decline in audiences' willingness to take part...therefore it's not about "submitting to the artist's will" so much as "participating in the artist's work."

Regarding all that talk about regimes and strictures...I don't know if I think it's as political as all that. That we need to hide our messages in ciphers and slip them through the cracks. Maybe I'm being naive, but I don't like the idea that we have to outsmart the system in order to get our meaning across, or fool an audience into seeing something unexpected, or trick a theatre into producing a work that has poignancy hidden in marketability. Especially when the strictures come from within the theatre community, it seems that we must subvert an already subversive system of art-making and storytelling ( it is political).

But all of that subversion makes me feel like people don't want us doing what we're doing, not even our own community. I also don't believe that one's gestures need to be subversive in order to make an impact or change the scene. again, that may be naive. I guess I like to think that playwrights aren't as marginal as all that, no matter how marginalized I feel day to day.

Artists are not unfettered by any means. I doubt they ever have been or will be. Even Shakespeare, for all his artistic license, had to please the King. I wish writers could self-govern and shape the scene in a way that we just can't. We have to instead be cryptic. But I'd bet that there are plenty of plays floating around in development hell
that have no audience (read: market) yet are wonderfully artistic and successfully realized on the page without being subversive or cryptic. Is that the reality of making art in America? Let the market decide just like everything else? I hate the idea of that. But I also resent the idea of having to subvert the standard from within rather than taking it head on if I so please.

Paul Rekk said...

"Is that the reality of making art in America? Let the market decide just like everything else? I hate the idea of that. But I also resent the idea of having to subvert the standard from within rather than taking it head on if I so please."

That's the reality of selling art. Anywhere. Art as business is reliant on the market. But this goes back to your question of writing what you want vs. what can get produced. (I'm a 'what you want' guy, by the way, but I'm also the odd duck that embraces subversion whenever I can.)

Making art in America is simple. Just do it. The plays floating around in developmental hell have already been made. Nothing will ever be able to unmake them. And the number of people who see them doesn't have any effect on how successful they are artistically.

If it's a numbers or money game, 90% of all artists are straight fucked. If it's about quality work, numbers are a supporting role: a goal, but not the goal.

Scott Barsotti said...

Numbers aren't the issue. I don't think anyone writes plays to make money. But audience is crucial in theatre. Yes, a play that's been written cannot be unwritten, but if no one sees it (or reads it) it might as well be a block of paper. Playwrights can't grow as artists unless live audiences respond to their work. I'm not saying they can't write, but what can a playwright learn if they're their own and only audience?

I think your answer touches on my fear: Art as business. Art cannot be business, otherwise art, in its purest sense, is destroyed. This is at odds with the REALITY That art is business in America, like everything else. Obviously, some art is marketable and can make the artist money, but most artists (myself included) don't consider their work as product nor themselves as entrepeneurs (or do they?). If art is a business, it's a failing business.

The "art as business" model is what has destroyed screenwriting as a craft with artistic integrity and provided us in the non-profit theatre community with all of these lovely strictures and rules we're talking about. The theatres themselves must consider themselves businesses in order to operate effectively, which in itself compromises probably 90% of theatre's mission statements.

This is part of the problem, and if we're willing to say making art in America is simple: just do it, then why do we even have this blog?

Also, art's reliance on the market is not the reality everywhere. There are many countries where art is subsidized by the government to an extent that would make our eyes pop out of their sockets, but would also likely be impossible here. I'm not saying that government-subsidized art is necessarily better, as that could provide some really nasty compromises. But even in that scenario, art is driven by the economy, if not the market as here, but now we're getting into a different issue altogether.

Paul Rekk said...

There's also that sketchy ground within the necessary collaboration of theatre. Is it enough for a play to be read to be appreciated or must it be seen as well? If it's the former, that's simple, give copies to everyone you know. If it's the latter, which it must be at least partially, how can we divide the playwright's contribution from that of the actors, director, or designers? Especially when each provides such a unique aspect of a production but at the same time it's very possible to make theatre without a playwright, or without a director, or without designers, or (much less common, but I'll stand by it) without actors.

I would say that strictures and rules are only as important as you make them for yourself. If you have a different perception, play by those rules. It won't be effective within the current system, but if you're not judging yourself on that system anyway...

Which all sound naive and abstract and idealistic, but those are the rules I'm playing by.

Devilvet said...

Ok I'm being a smart ass here but I have to say...Scott, your posts are too long...


Scott Barsotti said...

Call it "Blogust: Osage County." *groan*

Thanks folks, I'll be here all week.

Chris was warning me about this kind of audience burnout. I didn't heed his advice.

Chas Belov said...

There's length of a play and length of an act (defined for this discussion as a period during which I cannot get up, go to the restroom, and return to my seat). As I get older, the length of time I can tolerate for an act gets shorter (although with judicious timing of water-drinking, I've been able to tolerate 90-minute one-acts; The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, at 105 minutes without intermission was really pushing it, however). So then I'm sitting thirsty in my seat (which takes me out of the play, but is not nearly as distracting as having to pee).

At home, watching TV, I can hit pause on the CD player.

At a movie, I can walk out, pee, and return to my seat. I've missed a bit, but I can do it.

But I can only get the theatre experience in a theatre, so I put up with the inconvenience.

I've seen Angels in America, as well as a couple by August Wilson. I'd rather have 3 shorter acts than 2 longer acts. Was Tony Kushner the big name he was before Angels became a hit? And yet he got away with it because it was a fantastic play.

I'd say I do have some sense of market. I cut my 140-page play Rice Kugel down to 120 pages to meet my playwriting group's requirements for a staged reading. But then the audience told me, by their starting to shift around in their seats, that Act I was too long, so I cut it from about 70 pages to about 55. I took 5 of those 15 saved pages and added them to Act II to resolve some confusion revealed in the talkback session. So the play now stands at 110 pages, and I feel it's right for that play.

My next two plays, in first draft form, clock in as long one-acts, about 70 pages each. The play I'm writing now will be two acts (and has to be; the play is meant to be staged realistically, and there's a set change).

I've written two 10-minute plays, one with a production, and do not plan to write any more. They don't engage me the way full-length plays do.

Aaron, 3 hours may be what's right for your 3-hour play. But how do we find the theatre that is the right match for our play? That is the $64,000 question.