One-Act Wonders: A Growing Trend for Shorter Plays Could Be Just the Way to Attract New Audiences, Writes Katharine Hibbert
Hibbert, Katharine, New Statesman (1996)
Theatregoers might once have thought that an hour after curtain-up was the perfect time for an interval gin and tonic. But today's audiences are just as likely to find themselves back in the bar for good, the play finished and final bows taken, thanks to the growing trend for one-act plays clocking in at 60 minutes or so.
Where brief writing by Pinter, Beckett and, more recently, Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp once looked groundbreaking and adventurous, new plays lasting two or three hours are now the exception. The Young Vic offers Debbie Tucker Green's 45-minute-long Dirty Butterfly. At the Bush Theatre, Neil LaBute's Helter Skelter and Land of the Dead (reviewed by Andrew Billen in the NS of 28 January) form a pair of playlets that together last just under an hour, and the Bush's next production, Mike Bartlett's Artefacts, is only just over that. The National Theatre is about to open Baby Girl, DNA and The Miracle, a trio of plays lasting roughly 55 minutes each; either two of the plays or all three will run each evening.
But size doesn't matter, according to the writers and directors behind these sub-60-minute pieces. Anthony Banks, who commissioned the National's short plays, says: "The size comes from the impact of the piece--a great play is a great play, no matter how long it is. Most two-and-a-half-hour standards that I sit through now, I do find myself thinking, 'Just get on with it.' There's so much flab in the text in comparison to these shorter plays I've got used to by working with."
Dennis Kelly, the playwright whose DNA presents both a crime and a cover-up in less than an hour, says: "The instinct to not mess around is a very healthy one. When you're writing so tightly, it forces everything to justify its inclusion in the play. Sometimes there's an idea I want to explore, and then I see that I've written everything I want to say in the first 30 pages. So it's great if theatres are prepared to stage just that, and you don't have to pad it out with a whole lot of extras."
Some see shorter plays as a pragmatic way for theatres to compete with the huge range of other entertainment options available. "The perfect post-work prescription" is how Paines Plough describes its pleasingly alliterative "A Play, A Pie, A Pint" nights, an annual season that does what it says on the packet, offering audiences in London and Glasgow the three Ps for [pounds sterling]10, in a 6pm time slot, aiming to be a warm-up for a night out. The performances regularly sell out.
Banks agrees that plays have to fit into today's busier lives. "Back in the 1950s it wouldn't have been like this--there was simply less to do," he argues. "Sitting in the theatre for three hours would have been better than sitting at home with nothing to do but play cards."
Shorter plays may also allow theatres to attract audiences used to fast-paced stimulation from television and films. The National's plays are part of its Connections programme, which commissions ten new pieces a year, to be performed by school groups; three of these each year are staged at the National by professional casts. …