Thursday, October 27, 2016
How long is 90 minutes?
The current version starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery is getting lovely notices. One thing struck me in one of the reviews – it mentioned that Nathan Lane doesn’t even enter the play until two hours in. When he does he’s great, yada yada, but still – TWO HOURS? How long is this damn play? (Actually, I find that hard to believe. I wonder if Lane was in the first act but the critic just slept through it. Or showed up an hour late.)
THE FRONT PAGE is in three acts, meaning two intermissions. Now that was the style of 1928, and I suspect with radio in its infancy and TV still just a gleam in the CBS eye, a theatergoer was happy to be entertained for any length of time.
Today, of course, it’s different. We all have the attention span of a gnat. Late night shows are measured in click baits.
And the theater has had to adapt over time as well. By mid-century, plays evolved into two-acts with one intermission.
Today the trend is one long piece, no intermission, running roughly 90 minutes. There are advantages and disadvantages.
Uber Playwright, Tom Stoppard, doesn’t like intermissions. He feels it's like asking the audience, “How am I doing so far?” I must say that’s how I felt during intermissions for A OR B? when it played at the Falcon Theatre. I’d stand inconspicuously in the lobby trying to assess from the conversations whether the play was going over or not.
What I don’t get about this new trend is that theater owners seem to be all for it. You'd think they’d be unhappy giving up all the intermission concession sales. Yes, no intermission means people don’t leave halfway through, but so what are far as theatre owners are concerned? They have the customers’ money.
But it’s the trend so it’s what I’ve followed with my latest play, GOING GOING GONE (tickets available here). No act break, just a brisk 90 minutes. As a result, the storytelling changes. No longer do you build to a big crisis act break and then resolve – now you design a story to just build and build and pick up momentum leading you to your conclusion. And that’s okay. Just be aware that concessions to this new format must be made.
You’re also now obligated to keep your play in the 90 minute range. It was easier staging a longer play when the audience was given a break. But what a contrast from FRONT PAGE where one of the two main stars doesn’t enter until two hours in. (I still don’t believe that. The critic might have had amnesia.)
I can’t speak for other playwrights, and perhaps in dramas it’s different, but to me keeping your play down to 90 minutes is a good thing. The theater offers more free license (or at least it did). Your plays could be as long as you wanted. No restrictions. But sometimes restrictions are a good thing. Haven’t we all spent a brutal night (or twenty) squirming in a theater watching a play that was not only terrible but endless? There’s an old saying about musicals: “Take out twenty minutes and run two more years.”
On the other hand, especially on Broadway, audiences are paying big big money for tickets. I saw a play last summer that was a one-man show starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from MODERN FAMILY). He was terrific in it, but the play was like 70 minutes. I walked out saying, “I spent all that money for this?”
This debate will continue I’m sure. The ultimate answer lies, as with most things, in the bathroom. Can audiences go 90 minutes without having to go? They do for movies. In fact, a 90 minute movie is considered short. (Of course at one time long movies also had intermissions. Only Tarantino does that today but that’s because there’s not one single frame of the brilliant HATEFUL 8 that could come out.) Personally, I think the answer is yes. But not 95.
On the other hand, can we go 90 minutes without texting? Hmmm. Just to be safe my next play will be 83 minutes.