Thursday, May 15, 2008

Boston Theatre Marathon Wrap-Up - And Some Unsolicited Advice

Larry Stark provides probably the most comprehensive coverage of the Boston Theatre Marathon. He attends pretty much the whole day and takes copious notes.

I was there for a few hours, and to be honest Larry jogged my memory about a two plays that I had watched, but completely forgot about. It is fun way to spend an afternoon, but it can all go by in a blur.

However, I am think I am over my days of trying to stay for the whole thing, (I've done it several times in the past.)

Once you are there, settled into your seat though, the experience can be addictive. You almost always find yourself anticipating the next play. There are a several reasons:

1. The last play was so good, you want to see another.
2. The last play was so bad, you want to end on a good note.
3. You look in the program and see that an actor, director or playwright you like or that you know personally is in the next show.

In my experience only one thing can break the spell, and I think Jenna Scherer hits on it in her recap of this year's festival:

What I was expecting was some serious variety. Playwrights on the bill ranged from first-timers to living legends such as Ed Bullins and Israel Horovitz, and troupes from the fringey and newish (Orfeo Group, Gurnet Theatre Project) to the firmly established (the Huntington, the American Repertory Theatre).

What I saw was a whole lot of sameness. With certain notable
exceptions, most of the plays were overwhelmingly safe. Each time the lights came up on another living room set, another cafe table, another bedroom, another contemporary middle-class potboiler, my heart sank a little more. It leads one to believe that the next crop of local playwrights are grounded in realism, in the now, in the theater of coffee-table exchanges and buried feelings. I kept hoping for something different, something strange and new - a period piece, a
sci-fi yarn, a metaphysical lark - but these were few and far

Scherer admits that she did not attend for the whole day, but I have in the past and I can second her observation. Now part of this perception is a result of logistics: anybody who has been involved the Marathon, or in any short play festival, knows that if there are two plays with a kitchen setup, or a bar setup, it is better to have them back to back to facilitate a quicker set change. This logistical decision can have the effect of things looking the same, but, (if the plays are different enough,) it can also be inspiring. Seeing how many different ways playwrights can stage events around a park bench can be a hoot.

But the sameness can be crushing. Lots of things can keep you there in your seat, but have a run of three or four mediocre, kitchen sink plays that are about five minutes too long each, and suddenly you find yourself thinking about whether you can navigate out of the Wimberly's continental seating rows during a set change.

There is rarely anything really "out there" or really risky. Although a run of several wacky, anti-structured and baffling pieces that are also mediocre would probably engender the same flight response as the more realistic ones.

I really enjoy Whistler in the Dark's Fever Fest every year, but once it is over, I am usually ready to go home and watch a few episodes of 24, or watch something like The Devil Wears Prada.

Just one more note, (playwright to playwrights:) I know nobody asked, so just consider it a friendly comment:

Remember, your play doesn't HAVE to be ten minutes. It can be six or seven minutes, Heck, it can be five. If you have covered everything you want to cover, and your play is ending on the bottom of page 6, there is nothing that says you have to keep going all the way to page 10.

I only say this because I saw many, many plays in the past few years that are, believe it or not, way overwritten for ten minutes. Most of these plays are in the sketch, or joke category. In other words, the play seems to have been written on the premise of one, sometimes very slim, idea or joke. The playwright seems to be so enamored of their idea, or joke, that they keep repeating it over and over and over again for ten minutes.

A ten-minute sketch is simply too long. If you want empirical evidence, go and look at some of the most influential and funny comedy sketches of all time, from Abbot and Costello to Monty Python to Saturday Night Live to Mad TV and beyond. They are rarely anywhere near ten minutes long.

Somebody said there can be a big difference between a play that is 3 hours long and a play that is 3 hours and ten minutes long.

In the world of ten minute plays we should remember that there can be a difference between a play that is 8 minutes long and a play that is 10 minutes long.

And in blogging there is a difference between a post that is one paragraph and a post in which you're babbling, so I'll stop now.

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

Good to point out Monty Python. A major element of the Monty Python format was to abruptly end any sketch and move on to "something completely different" unless there was a strong narrative thrust that brought the characters to the next scene. Rarely did they use dénouement or extended narrative in the television program.