30 Minutes to 30 Seconds: How to Use Length as a Device in Theatre- By Chiara Fumanti

In this blog, Chiara talks about her love of theatre and writing, discussing the use of ‘length’ in the stage play form.

Theatre has been a part of my life since I was tiny. I fell in love with it watching Miss Hannigan in an amateur production of Annie; I must have been about 8. I was in the show too; well not really inin the show – together with about 20 more children, we were a kind of choir/ensemble/not-really-sure-how-to-call-it, standing on wooden bleachers on the side of the stage with our white polo-shirts, black shiny shoes and made-up hair. It was serious. I was supposed to focus on pronouncing ‘tomorrow’ right, but I just could not stop watching this insanely talented 16-year-old bully little kids around while pretending to be drunk. I was mesmerised. I wrote her a little letter after the show (real fan-girl vibes…) and she replied, to my surprise. I kept her letter safe in my secret diary like it was from Leonardo Di Caprio or something – it’s still there. And funnily enough, I ended up playing Miss Hannigan too when I was 16.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to say when I fell in love with writing. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t, really. I wrote my first very cheesy lyrics when I was 7 – they literally translate to never you’ll be able to escape from me, because the heart has bars; never you’ll be able to escape from me because I love you. I wrote several (probably quite bad) short stories at around the same age. I daydreamed of presenting my novel while singing and dancing on the stage of my own concert… Ambitious, I know. But I guess it shows that actually, my love for writing and performing have always co-existed – I just never thought I really could do it all. But today, I am living in London, working to get my performing career started and pursuing this MA in Creative Writing. And although the pandemic has been a big blow for us all and for the performing industry in particular, in a way I need to thank it, because it has awakened me to how these two passions can be melded into one: playwriting!! (I can hear you shouting Did you really need a pandemic to figure that out??? I know, I know, please don’t judge…)

Issue is, where to start? But of course, by jumping into the internet wormhole! You know those unnecessary facts you need in your life? Well, if you want to be writing plays, or anything else for that matter, I believe they are a very useful (and fun!) way to get you going. Have you ever wondered what’s the world longest play? How long is it and why would anyone want to be writing something that long? How could length benefit your writing too? Well, keep on reading if you’d like to know more – I found some interesting stuff…

Longest Plays Ever

Are you ready to sit tight for 30 hours and 33 minutes? According to the Guinness Word Records, that’s the longest play, performed by Deepika Chaurasia in August 2020. Unfortunately, there is little information out there regarding the play itself, I couldn’t even find the title. What is known is that the play is about Indian history and culture and it has been performed NON. STOP.

How I wonder, does she pee?

Thirty hours might seem a little excessive, but there are a few reasons why you might want to choose to go for a multi-hour experience for your own play. Back in 2010, Peter Stein directed a sold-out 12-hour adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s examination of human evil, The Demons, for the Lincoln’s Centre summer festival. The length, in this case, served the purpose of highlighting the community nature of theatre, as NY critic Alexis Soloski confirms in her article. The audience was boarded onto a ferry in the morning and transported to Governors Island, which is only accessible by water, and from then on was almost forced to share the whole experience. Lunch and dinner were served on long tables, perhaps to resemble a big family meet-up, and ‘suddenly’, Soloski writes, ‘all was community and commonality’. In a different article on the same play, she goes on to state that ‘multi-hour plays often prove immersive… during a day-long event, one must give oneself over to a different sense of time’. So, if you want the audience to really feel like they belong in the world you are setting up in the play, maybe a full day experience is the best option! Just remember to provide lunch, dinner and bathroom breaks…

I think one of the most important things to remember, if writing multi-hour plays, is necessity. Don’t write a 9-hour play just for the sake of it – the audience will hate you. But, if you absolutely need 9 hours to tell the story, if there’s nothing more that could be cut, if everything you have put on paper is absolutely necessary and serves the story in some way, by all means, go ahead!

Take for example Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s epic exploration of life, death, love and sexuality in the midst of the AIDS crisis in New York. In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Kushner describes how originally he had wanted the whole play to be about two and a half hours long. However, as he was writing it, it kept getting longer and longer, and he couldn’t find anything that wasn’t necessary to the story. Ultimately, Kushner’s unprecedented decision to surrender to length and produce his epic 7-hour work into two 3.5 hour parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, is arguably one of the reasons why it had the great success it deserved. The length allows for the complexity of each character to be explored – which means the audience will be able to empathise even with Roy Cohn, the story’s antagonist. And faced with the issue of attention spans, Kushner replies:

People need to be interested in order to engage, but if you can keep them interested, I think people like length, they like complexity, they like depth and they’ll respond to it; I think they like being told that they’re capable of sitting for 3.5 hours and feel good about themselves when they’ve done it. (1993, interview with Charlie Rose)

Of course, this was in 1993, before the Internet era – before Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube; before we got into the habit of scrolling past anything that doesn’t catch us in the first couple of seconds. However, Kushner’s statement still rings true on many levels and despite our attention spans arguably getting shorter and shorter (I am not an expert in the field, but I have heard, for example, that radio stations had to shorten the length of the songs they play to avoid listeners getting bored), many successful multi-hour plays have been produced in recent years. Angels in America itself was revived at the National Theatre in 2017 to a sold-out run and a consequent transfer to Broadway. In the same year, The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, had a very successful run at the Royal Court Theatre before transferring to Broadway, despite the 3 hours 15 minutes running time. And how about the eighth story in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? The show, which opened at the Palace Theatre in London in 2016 and went on to win a record-breaking nine Olivier Awards, is divided in two 2.5 hours parts: according to J.K. Rowling, the play was simply too epic to be shortened any more.

I’d argue that Harry Potter is probably the bridge between multi-hour plays and regular full-length plays. Despite the total 5 hour running time, each part is actually the length of a regular play. It makes me wonder why this choice has been made as it surely wasn’t casual, but alas, I must stop rambling before I lose your interest.

The rule of thumb when writing multi-hour plays, then, seems clear: as theatre critic Charles McNulty puts it, ‘less isn’t always more, but more for the sake of more is invariably a trudge’.

Shortest Plays Ever

What about the shortest play ever? Can you guess how long it is?

It’s….

…..

…..

35 seconds.

It’s Samuel Beckett’s Breath and it consists in a birth-cry, followed by an inhalation, an exhalation and a second cry. No actors are seen on stage – the space is filled with rubbish. Originally, the play was part of the theatrical revue Oh! Calcutta!, which opened off-Broadway in 1969, but Beckett soon withdrew permission of its use after naked bodies were added on stage without his consent. It hasn’t been produced much since, but plenty of essays and papers have been written on it. And, you can watch a filmed version here, directed by Damien Hirst. Enjoy!

Now, 35 seconds might seem a stretch to the opposite extreme, however, the realm of very short plays is something very much alive: in McNulty words, ‘intensity is more alluring in our age of distraction than extended duration’. And he might be right: in recent years quite a few festivals celebrating the brevity of plays have popped up – example is the annual Stockwell Playhouse’s 5 Minute Festival, which has been running until 2019 (year the Playhouse sadly closed its doors) and for which submission had to be shorter than five minutes and with a clear narrative thread. Or the Short+Sweet International Festival, which only accepts submissions of ten minutes or less. Speaking of the Short+Sweet festival, one of their beliefs is that ‘short form theatre can move audiences as effectively as long form’. Sure, in very short plays character development may not be as profound as Angels in America, but condensing the story to its bare bones while still encompassing much of the narrative via what is not said is an art in itself. I mean, take one more look at Beckett’s Breath: in 35 seconds, it encrusts the entirety of life and all its possible meanings. Or at least, that’s my interpretation. And that’s another beautiful thing about very short plays: in so little time, they leave so much space for audience engagement and interpretation!

Personally, I am not sure whether I’d be up for writing a 30-hour or a 30-second play – I am still very much new to playwriting and still need to explore and experiment what works for me. However, if there’s one thing I have surely learnt on my wormhole, is that the standard two-hour play is definitely not the only way forward. Sense of community, exploration of character or theme, space for the epic, different sense of time; but also space for interpretation, audience engagement… all proof that length (or shortness) can be used at your advantage – just make sure to use it wisely!

About the author – Chiara Fumanti

I am currently doing the MA in Creative Writing at University of Surrey, and I am loving it! I enjoy reading and writing in a variety of different genres, particularly drama, children’s and young adult, poetry and mystery fiction. Alongside my passion for books and reading is my acting career. I am thrilled to be part of the 2021 SNWF team! Find me on instagram @chiarafu94

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