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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


While In Public is going into its final performances (get your tickets!), I'm struck by one of the compliments I've heard a few times about it. It's certainly not backhanded, in fact, this compliment struck me as sincere...

"It's not too long."

In the midst of talking informally about any given play running in New York City, lack of length is often considered high praise. (Not to overstate, I'm sure this often means "We can all drink earlier.") In my self-conscious way, though, I think about The Death of King Arthur and The Most Wonderful Love, both of which run at around 2 and a half hours, and wonder how often that was viewed as a failing of the work.

We're in an era when we can receive more, faster, and with less effort. For everyone Coast of Utopia (three parts and hours long) , there are many more Wrecks (75 minute monologues for one actor.) Somewhere in between is the typical, songless play, which is now, I fear, expected to fall more within the length of the latter than the former.

This trend towards shorter works strikes me as a concession to the ease by which we consume other media. (It may be that people don't mind something longer if they see uniform excellence.) It may simply also be that the shorter works are those that have the least fat on them, and therefore, are direct and elegant in a way that flabbier works are not.

Sometimes, though, there is power in some weight and length, and stories need to develop in a way that is firmly edited. Imagine trying to turn Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into a more compact, sixty-five minute evening. How much of the play could be lost in order to get across the major ideas? Plenty? How much of the exhaustion and bullishness would be lost in a trimmer version... all of it.

I'm also concerned that we're teaching new playwrights to push an elephant through the eye of a needle: that their thoughts should be bite-sized to be tolerated, and that if they write a play that is five-hours long, it is hubris, as opposed to ambition.

This is not to say, of course, that a compact play is not capable of large and complex thoughts (far from it.) In fact, some of the best works of the modern theatre have been shorter works by Beckett or Pinter or Albee. (In Public certainly doesn't trade in light-fare.) It's simply an observation...or more accurately a reservation.



Devilvet said...

The best thing about the 60-90 minute play is that if it isn't your cup of tea, you're out before too long. If it is just the kind of thing you're looking for you can always leave them wanting more.

In today's world were 95% of what we call entertainment is broken up into 30 or 60 minute chunks on the TV...I think it only makes sense that may of us perfer a shorter form.

But, I would respect the playwright who writes what they intend to write and the piece is over when it is over. If it takes 90 minutes to tell...fine...if it takes 3 hours to tell fine too. But, if it takes 45 minutes to tell and the playwright has stretched than into a longer play so that they have a "full length" piece...I say ughhhh!

Mark said...

I think what people (agents are famous for saying this) mean when they speak of brevity as a virtue is that they're more excited when plays by playwrights-they've-yet-to-experience are short. Even if they wind up liking them. Time is really valuable to people and it's hard enough to get people to see a play at all, let alone for a length of time that will throw their weekly schedule out of whack, cost more for a babysitter, etc.

Also, for people who see a lot of theater (the aforementioned agents, yours truly, etc.), their longer outings tend to be reserved for things they're more identified with--known commodities. That's not right or wrong, it just is.

Yes, people will settle in for three-plus for Albee or Stoppard (not that anyone could drag me to much of the latter), but they know what they're getting into. One has to earn that.

Ian G. said...

Yet again I find myself out of step with current sensibilities. I like long stuff. When I think back on the real turning-point theatrical experiences of my life, so many have been long: "The Kentucky Cycle" - six hours. "Richard II" with Fiona Shaw in London - three hours and forty-five minutes. The list goes on. I have nothing against short, short can be brilliant (I would have given damn near anything to have seen Harold Pinter do "Krapp's Last Tape" last week). I wonder, though, if TV has conditioned many of us to the point that everything must be geared to Short Attention Span Theatre. It seems to me that we lose a sense of the epic when we decide to try to make everything fit into 90 minutes, and I've always been a big fan of epics. They have to be carefully crafted to be that lengthy successfully, but when it works it can be terrific. I don't remember anyone complaining about "Lord of the Rings" - how many people when out and bought the even longer extended versions on DVD?

I wonder what effect this has on what kind of plays get written? We've already heard how writers learn quick that if they want their stuff produced, they better write for no more than 6 actors. I'm thinking that length might be subject to similar restrictions, but I dunno. Check out American Theatre's roundup of most produced plays this season. What's at the top? Surprise - "I Am My Own Wife". Now I don't really know the play at all, it's won lots of awards and I'm sure it's brilliant. But let's face it - that's not why it's getting produced everywhere. Also high on the list is "The Santaland Diaries", several other short, solo and low-actor-count plays, and I'm pretty sure the most populous play to make the list is "Gem of the Ocean", and I don't think that play's cast even reaches double digits. There's nothing wrong with writing plays for only one or a small handful of actors - but I do wonder if the the reality of the odds of getting produced anywhere sends playwrights the clear message: "Keep it short and sparsely populated" and if that ultimately limits the kind of work that gets produced and seen. Maybe playwrights should ask themselves, "If I had all the money and resources in the world, and as many actors as I want, what would I write?" Just to see if the answer to that question is different from the length/company size of what they're writing now. If not, great. But if you find yourself thinking you'd write bigger/longer if you could, hmm, that's a dilemma worth talking about.

Ginger said...

I think the operative word is "too," as in "excessive." "It's not too long" means that there is enough done in the time used to justify the length. I've recently worked on a scant 75-minute play that felt too long in places, yet before reading this I had no idea that "The Most Wonderful Love" was over two hours. In the latter, there was enough there to keep me entertained throughout. Sure there are those who use length as a criteria for deciding to buy tickets, which is unfortunate, but I think this is less to do with busy schedules, and more to do with too many plays being produced before the script has been rigorously edited.