Durable Durations

I hereby request that more movies and stage productions subvert how audiences expect to spend their time in a theater.

And, at least today, I mean that literally..

What occupies the audience’s time inside a theater relates to a bedrock framework for creating and understanding art: the relationship between form and content.

A question of form; how long should a movie/production be?

Well, the answer probably depends on the content: how long it takes to tell the story, how much ground they want to cover, what effects they intend to have on the viewer, and the time required to achieve these effects.

If theatrical consumers crave a diverse menu of options … then why the heck do the vast majority of movies and shows avoid runtimes closer to 60 minutes like the plague, sticking with their slavish fidelity to 90 minutes and up??

Some guesses:

It’s called show business, not show show, for a reason. If audiences are accustomed to paying a certain amount of money for a ticket that guarantees a certain amount of art, then lowering this latter amount runs the risk of having audiences decide that, you know what, anything under 90 minutes ain’t worth the moolah, let alone all the work of organizing a sufficiently full night out at the theater.

But are we sure that the stage and screen stories worth our time and cash cannot clock in much under 90-minutes? Is our taste so stringently, stridently quantitative? Are we really air-headed vacuums who can’t be pleased until we hoover up what we’ve arbitrarily deemed is our fill? What’s worse than art that feels like it’s treading water to reach a durational quota, as opposed to allowing the nature and specifics of each individual piece to inform how long it lasts?

Also, if an artist is inundated since birth with 90-minutes-and-higher art, then it makes sense that they become conditioned to think about their own “full-length” stories through this perceived 90-minute dictate.

And I’d rather not live in that world, thank you very much.

Luckily, 2022 has provided us with a surprising number of alternatives to this 90-minute norm, each and all of which “experiment” (it’s not new, but it’s still rare enough to be labeled as fringey) with what happens when you unexpectedly shave off some expected minutes: the 70-minute At the Wedding, the 60-minute California, the 73-minute Petite Maman and Mad God, and my personal radical fav: the 51-minute Lux Æterna (a radical theater fav from recent years: TFANA’s 45-minute He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box). Their relative brevity is a crucial part of the viewing experience.

But also, it’s not always solely about the art’s total runtime; at least for theater (though I’d love for intermissions to return to the movies!), it’s also about how a production uses and stratifies its elapsing time.

Theatergoers have come to expect each act of a play to be a certain duration. And if it can be performed in 90 minutes without a break? Then you damn well better go with that approach!

Says who?

Without an intermission, the current Broadway revival of American Buffalo wouldn’t even crack 90 minutes; it’s 100 minutes…INCLUDING THE 15-MINUTE INTERVAL. What gives?

Commercially: it affords the audience another opportunity to purchase lucrative-for-the-theater concession sales.

Artistically: each act feels like a marathon sprint of Mametian talk talk talk talk talk talk talk fucking talk. The reprieve in between could act like a recharging station for the cast, allowing them to maintain their pedal-to-the-metal pace, both vocally and physically.

Circle Jerk ups American Buffalo’s temporal-structural ante. It’d be 90 minutes…if not for TWO intermissions, the first ten minutes and the second TWENTY. Given the physical feat of its two actors nonstop costume-changing in plain sight on stage throughout the show, maybe these built-in rests are a practical consideration on their behalf.

OR, the show benefits from the audience being as drunk as Circle Jerk.

OR, is it dramaturgical: the play is about our warp-speed online generation, where everything is bite-sized and coming at you fast, loose and free?

OR, do the intermissions grant the audience even more time to chat with each other, mulling what they’ve just seen and what’s to come…a bedrock of social media discourse, another of the play’s interests?

(Another instance of a production altering norms to reflect the content and form of the era it’s released into: when both parts of Angels in America first premiered decades ago, each of the two plays contained one intermission apiece. But for the last Broadway revival, each play contained TWO intermissions, turning each of the six acts into one-hour, prestige TV-length episodes, befitting the boob tube streaming world it was unleashed into).

OR, (why) is the answer: yes, all of the above?

Subverting custom can facilitate this brand of engagement; nothing spurs the noggin’ quite like being provoked by the nagging question: “Why the hell is this art in this weird and wonky way?!”

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