Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Captive Audiences? What Is the Breaking Point?

Knees ache, bottoms numb up and watches flicker. 

When a theatrical performance, even an enjoyable one, has gone on too long at one clip, the audience members feel it.   And let's not forget about their bladders.

Isaac Butler recently wrote an open post to "theatermakers" in which he implores them to insert intermissions into lengthy projects.   

There is currently a crop of good, solid, intermission-free plays gracing the boards in Boston.  Red at Speakeasy Stage, God of Carnage at the Huntington Theater Company, A Number at Whistler in the Dark and 'Art' at New Repertory Theater all come in around the 90 minute mark.

 Red pushes the envelope just a bit.  Speakeasy lists the two-hander about painter Mark Rothko as running 1 hour and 40 minutes, about what it was when I saw it.

My opinion is that I don't see much need for a playwright, director or artistic director to confine an audience member to his or her chair for over 90 minutes. I'm willing to listen to arguments, but in all my years of theatergoing, acting, directing and playwriting, I have rarely seen anything but diminishing returns on audience attention and focus after about an hour and fifteen minute stretch.   And a two-hour, uninterrupted stretch of watching live theater can get pretty uncomfortable, if not unbearable.

Of course, it is not as easy as just inserting an intermission.  The play's structure and beats have everything to do with it.  A break should make sense dramatically and emotionally.  

There is also the fear of an audience leaving a difficult work if they get they the chance.  Famously, Margaret Edson's play W;t, (now receiving a Broadway production starring Cynthia Nixon,) played intermissionless because the production team believed audiences would not want to continue to watch to the suffering and death of a woman with late stage ovarian cancer. 

Here is Edson in an interview with Jim Lehrer in 1999:

JIM LEHRER: And it's produced without an intermission, correct?
MARGARET EDSON: That's right, because we feel if there were an intermission, people would leave and we want them to stay till the end.
JIM LEHRER: Why did you think they would leave?
MARGARET EDSON: Well, in the middle it's very hard to take. It's -- it has a lot of talk about language and punctuation and complicated words, and then the medical parts are very graphic also, very realistically presented.

Note: I believe I remember reading someplace that the original production of W;t did indeed have an intermission, and people did leave, prompting the playwright and director to nix the interval.  However, I can't find any reference to that story now.


Ian Thal said...

I really don't think that there are that many plays that clock in over 90 minutes that don't have an intermission. So I am really not sure what Isaac Butler was complaining about (I am also mystified by his claim that he likes Shakespeare.)

Is this really an epidemic? If anything I am more concerned with writers seem who assume that their audiences have short attention spans and refuse to create plays that demand more than 90 minutes of attention.

That said, I was momentarily confused when Whistler presented Howard Barker's The Europeans because the intermission came much later than expected, so for several seconds I thought I had just seen a very cryptic ending to to a fascinating play, rather than the beginning of the intermission to a fascinating play!

Ian Thal said...

Just saw Whistler's production of Fen which easily clocked in at around 110 minutes and had no intermission. Not a problem, in fact, an intermission would have disrupted the flow.

I still don't see any evidence of a trend worth complaining about.