Monday, April 18, 2005

In the Guardian, Michael Billington argues that argument itself gets the short end of the stick now that short plays are becoming the norm. Apparently, he thinks the 90 minute play is losing more than just the intermission, and that the audience and theatre are losing more than a bathroom break and a chance to buy a piece of carrot cake. Like many theatre columns lately, I feel he may be treating the symptom more than the cause. He thinks that a standard of 90 minutes is starting to creep into the majority of young dramatists' works, and that is weakening drama's ability to truly explore issues.

It is an interesting rallying cry, and Billington is smart enough to address the recent artistic triumphs in the short form by such artists as Pinter and Churchill. However, when he argues" that Beckett, Pinter and Churchill all began by writing conventionally structured plays and only gradually mastered the technique of creating images that distill a wealth of human experience," it makes his thesis border on begging the question.

Will Eno, a relatively young dramatist, has created Thom Pain (based on nothing) which is a 70 minute monologue that was hailed by the New York Times, as well as almost any critic who has seen it, (there are exceptions of course.) Charles Isherwood of the Times raved that Eno, "is the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." So if there is nothing wrong with a short play, why even complain? And why blame the playwrights?

There is a lot to this dilemna, and Billington is kind of onto himself when he doubles back with "Only a fool would deny dramatists the right to choose the appropriate form.But what worries me is the way relatively young writers are settling into the 90-minute groove: a form midway between pure Beckettian crystallisation of an idea and the once-familiar two-act structure."

Ten Minute play festivals, Evenings of One Acts, (or my favorite, an evening of one act solo performances,) and 48 hour film projects are abounding in the marketplace of entertainment. A Comedy Central offering called Shorties Watching Shorties crunches the already shortened arena of standup comedy to smaller samplings of different comics' best bits. Could it be that just as Wal-Mart consumerism is pushing manufacturing and retail into sweatshop capitalism, so too are we enslaving our artists to crank out less developed pieces?

Billington's conclusion would support this. He claims that short plays don't explore ideas or "connect dots," or even present counter arguments. They basically just present the essence of an interesting idea and the rest is left up to you. Wal-mart products, short on features and quality, present the essence of their use in order to do away with frills and expense. I am a theatre junkie, but I will confess to sometimes deciding not to attend a performance because I saw that the run time was over two and half hours.

When I laid out the parameters for Essayons' Europhochylus, Massachusetts last year, I told the playwrights to write a thirty minute play so that I could give them a little more room to "explore ideas and themes." I think it worked well, but basically the playwrights, including me,were left with unmarketable properties. (Not that that marketable properties was the goal.)

Many contests and theatre development departments like either one-act plays (45 minutes to One Hour) or ten minute plays for their festivals. But a trip through the Dramatist's Sourcebook will reveal that most theatres still are interested in playwrights who can write in a two act stretch. There are numerous theatre profiles that proclaim loudly, "No One-Acts."

If some of the examples Mr. Billington uses in his list of offenders had been expanded to two acts, would Mr. Billington then proclaim that two-act plays are being built on one hour's worth of material? He uses Joe Penhall as an example of a talented playwright who has lately suffered from the shortened play syndrome, but I think that Penhall's good play Blue/Orange, (which recently had a great production by Zeitgeist,) labored its thesis to the breaking point, running out of enough dramatic power about 20 minutes too early.

On the other side, August Wilson's Play Cycle, consisting of ten mostly two-plus hour works, still has not exhausted the spectrum of ideas contained within the African-American experience. However, many supporters of his work will even admit that he could do with some judicious pruning within each of the individual plays.

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