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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.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The One-Act Treatment?

The NY Post wrote recently about reasons to be pretty and Impressionism getting the "One-Act" treatment. Maybe if you're not Tom Stoppard or Tony Kushner, you're encouraged to make leaner and meaner plays, get the audience in and out, at the speed of a Hollywood comedy.

All dramatic narrative forms have a sort of "act" structure, even if it's truncated. Most television shows have those acts delineated by commercials. But even those television shows that don't have commercials break their narratives up episodically.

Film has an act structure, but that's purely for internal logic. We, as an audience, are intended to feel the narrative shifts, but not literally see them. We don't stand up and get some popcorn at the end of the first act of a movie, we sit tight and watch. That's made for some long-ish films as of late (everything by Peter Jackson, The Dark Knight, Watchmen) but they still eschew literally stopping the action and allowing the audience to stand up and stretch.

So why are we acting like audiences are no longer accustomed to seeing a full length story, in a single sitting, with built in breaks? Hearing about plays getting the "One-Act Treatment" begs the obvious question: is the tightening of a play, shortening, or simply quickening, a solution? An improvement? I'd argue that to make a two-act play into a one-act play just means the audience spent less time watching the same play. How does that help?

You have to imagine that you and your audience are on a first date. Apologize too often, come off as too eager, seem excessively solicitous; it's going to be a turn off. Act like you're lucky they showed up and they'll wonder if they're something wrong with you. If you're more focused on getting them home on time than showing them a good time while they're with you, and you're going to show them you're not very confident in what you've got to offer.

It feels like collapsing two-act plays into one-act experiences is akin to apologizing for your production. Lengthy productions do not, necessarily, fail. In fact, they often thrive. Coast of Utopia sold, I'm told, plenty of tickets. Longer films do just fine as long as they keep audiences entertained. The Dark Knight made nearly $600 million domestically, and it was almost three hours long. August: Osage County has act breaks and overflowing with scenes. I don't think it can be said to be a commercial failure.

What causes an audience to lose interest is failing to be interesting. People don't fork over cash to get less; they pay to see as much of what they enjoy as possible. Fix the play, not the length of the play.

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