by Barry Martin
Two recent distressing experiences compel me shout from the rooftops to producing companies and directors – “Take your foot off the gas!” But since shouting from the rooftops would probably only get attention from SWAT teams, I think I’m better off posting it here.
In both of these situations I came to the theater excited, looking forward to seeing a play that I had read and loved. Case #1 was Annie Baker’s Body Awareness at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Case #2 took place on Broadway—David Ives’ Venus in Fur at the Lyceum. I loved these plays on the page because of their enticing tensions, the interplay of characters with conflicting desires, their peak moments of humor and drama. I couldn’t wait to watch great actors make this text even more compelling for me. In both cases, I left the theater feeling cheated. It reminded me of my dad’s story of when he made a special trip to see Ted Williams play in a doubleheader and they walked him every time he came to the plate. Delicious anticipation without the payoff.
I will save several people the trouble of saying, “But wait, both of these productions have been highly successful, with large audiences, great reviews, and nominations for awards! These are top professionals at the peak of their talents!” All undeniably true. And yet these playgoing experiences were disappointing for me. Why? These plays failed due to the breakneck pace at which they were presented, especially in the first twenty to thirty minutes.
Allow me to digress long enough to say that when I am directing, I am obsessive about pace and rhythm. These are the two areas where I feel a director, working with skilled actors, can do the most to make the show sing. I am thinking about pace and rhythm from the first read through and I get demanding about it as soon as actors are off book. Most of us would agree that a good play is tight, there’s no flab. No one wants to see a play that drags, right?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is a play that plunges forward so relentlessly that all sense of believability is lost. How can these people on stage possibly draw me into their characters and their story when they don’t seem to be listening to each other? Shouldn’t I be feeling that their words are born out of a natural human thinking process, rather than just pouring out in unblinking torrents?
I have formulated two theories in an attempt to explain this phenomenon:
- As old hands of stage work, we all know the best, juiciest stuff comes later in the play, so we’re eager to get past the boring first third that we’ve become overly familiar with while working up the production. We get lazy from that over familiarity and forget that most of the audience members will be hearing this for the first time, and they need to hear the words, absorb the meaning, and get into the flow of the story.
- We have become obsessed with the eighty to ninety minute play with no intermission because it’s hard enough to get people to buy a tickets in the first place and you won’t want them leaving thinking, “Wow, that was too long,” and we keep producing this way even though we know that’s really too long to make people sit without a break, and we worry that people’s bladders will explode so we race through the dialogue so the audience can see we’re moving it along as fast as we can. Besides, people really don’t want to be in the theater in the first place when they could be comfy at home watching reality television
What is the cure for this franticness?
- Put yourself in the shoes of the person seeing this play for the first time. Is the exposition being given the right amount of weight, so that the viewer will care when important things happen later? Are there natural pauses and silences in the dialogue where they belong when you’re “holding the mirror up to nature?”
- Get over the fear of boring the audience, or the fear of intermission—whatever it is that is causing the speed-of-light style. These people have paid a lot of money for a night at the theater. Do they loathe your play so much they just want it to be over as soon as possible? Most of the audience will not sneak out! Some plays are written as long one-acts and there is no natural act break—fine. Do it that way but give each scene, each moment the time it’s due. In each of the productions I described above, allowing for the proper amount of natural pauses and silences could not have added more than five minutes to the overall length of the play. Five more minutes might cause them to pee their pants, true— so maybe that old-fashioned intermission is not such a bad idea after all. There is no correlation between the number of acts, the number of intermissions, or the length of a play and its quality. I’ve looked at my watch five times during a ten-minute play, and been mesmerized for three-and-a-half hours by August: Osage County. Conversely, there may be a correlation between the length of time an audience can sit at one stretch and their ability to enjoy the play. Give these people a break! Literally!
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say I’ve been in more than one dressing room where the most enthusiastic post-show compliment shared between the actors was “We took three minutes off of it tonight.” If every meaningful moment was given its due, that’s sweet. But I wonder about our level of self-respect as theater-makers when we present our work as if it is something painful, to be done with as quickly as possible, rather than something to be savored.
And besides, if there’s no intermission how can I get a drink?
Barry Martin is a writer, actor and director in the San Francisco Bay Area.