On Duration

by Bryce Lambert on February 27, 2013

I don’t expect every show I see to knock me over. The best playwrights, actors, and other theater creatives all have duds. And that’s OK. There’s often a great play, or a great performance, or some cool lighting effects there to put a positive spin on any kind of overall weakness or mediocrity, especially in cases where you’re watching a fringe group develop over several seasons. But, to put it bluntly, I can’t stand plays or productions that are too damn long.

And I like long things. I think other people do to. Even though some might argue that our culture is moving from films to video clips, or from albums to mp3s, there are other shifts that point to the opposite. On demand cable and Netflix subscriptions let people consume television at marathon rates. And they often do, watching The Wire, Lost, or Breaking Bad for hours, if not days at a time. Many modern TV shows are, in part, designed to be consumed this way and post-air ratings are now a big part of the numbers that decide whether shows are renewed.

My point is that there’s nothing wrong with long things and that I don’t think 3 hour performances have become obsolete in this age of YouTube and Tweets, but an audience member’s time has to be earned. A 2-3 hour duration should be considered by a playwright or a director (who might be choosing a long work to produce, drawing a play out with musical interludes, or abridging the text) as a narrative tool, not a cultural standard. After all, had a few of history’s great playwrights decided to write differently, the average duration of play might well be 15 minutes long, or 6 hours.

Now, larger houses with subscriber bases and, for Boston, high ticket prices have something of a self-imposed obligation to put on a shows that are at least 2 hours long. If they come in under that, people would complain about not getting their money’s worth, or something like that. And that’s not entirely unreasonable, if they made the drive in from Weston and everything.

The frank truth is that it’s easier for a big budget production to grip even the most enuretic audiences. It’s a much greater challenge for a small theater group, without a massive revolving set, well known actors, and a modern HVAC system. But, possibly in compensation for that, they have the freedom to do almost anything they please. I’d love to see more short plays from the fringe scene. Some of the best nights of theater I’ve had in Boston have been double bills of short plays and I’d much rather climb aboard the 1 bus after a night of taut theater than a show that had me looking at my watch, even if it means an early night.

But, I often see an unwillingness either to produce shorter texts or to cut plays to a length where they would have become much more nimble for performers, directors, and audiences. While a full text Hamlet is powerful, you can cut a lot from it and still do something great without trying your audience.

And this brings me to the most difficult part of this post; the production that led me to write it. BCAP, the “professional extension” of BU’s theater program, is currently running Blood Knot. The show has some strong acting and cool lighting effects, but comes off as if it’s being performed for some kind of academic posterity. This once controversial text by South African playwright Athol Fugard dates back to the sixties and is modern in the 1960s sense of the word. But at 2 1/2 hours, one questions the relevance of this weighty two man meditation race.

This is not to say that social relevancy is a requirement for good theater. I’m all for abstract meta irrelevancy. But this play was written, produced, and subsequently revived in order to be socially relevant–in the sixties and eighties when it was. Time’s erosion of Blood Knot‘s political bedrock, as well as the estrangement of its political message from its homeland, and that message’s packaging in a semi-experimental 1960s script, makes the production come off academic. And, I think, at least here and now, it’s demanding of audiences without offering them much in return.

Cut it down, and I think you’d have something more alive, more interesting, and there less for its own sake. Blood Knot‘s central metaphors don’t require nearly as much development as Fugard gave them and the play, whether you see it as being relevant today or as a piece of the cultural record, would be much stronger in a dose 60-70% of its current size at BCAP.

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