Jane Scott’s recent entry on the Guardian Theatre Blog addresses so-called ‘long play’ theatre, and suggests that the very concept of such pieces is riddled with problems which can undermine their purpose. However, her entry seems to cover a multitude of diverse issues which are tenuously linked under this heading, and I feel strongly that further exploration of some key points is needed to flesh out the debate.
One of the focus points of Scott’s blog is the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays, which she states is “a showcase, where selected young directors, producers, writers and actors get to strut their stuff on the famous stage”. Although I can understand to some extent why she may focus on the idea of it being a showcase, having taken part in the process myself I feel this does not truly reflect the purpose of the event; as Diana Damian points out in the comments section of the Guardian blog, the Old Vic New Voices version of the 24 Hour Plays places great emphasis on the process – it’s a chance for those involved to test their skills in a high-pressure environment, and to learn from working closely with their peers about creating a piece of work from scratch. Those in attendance as industry guests understand the concept and process, and are aware that the final pieces cannot fully represent the skills of those involved in the evening – but it can give glimpses of people’s ability or potential, and being selected in itself is a reflection that the participants stood out above other potential candidates for any number of reasons. Even if one were to look at the event as simply a showcase, the participants clearly must have some talent to ensure they don’t fail in delivering work with some positive points – although the audience will largely be made up of sympathetic friends and family, there is still a responsibility to entertain those who have bought a ticket.
Moving on, the article itself doesn’t seem to know what it’s really critiquing – is it performances created over a short time period, durational performances or late-night events? They’re clearly all very different things – for example, the Bush Theatre’s Sixty-Six Books has been a long time in the making, with the production having been developed over a long period and writers being commissioned to create something over a period of time considerably longer than 24 hours. The scope and ambition of such a project is something I feel should be commended for a Fringe theatre, and the volume of the King James Bible creates the issue of either abridging the books or finding a way to present all works over a longer period of time; offering the durational performance provided a solution to this issue without compromising the content, and offered an alternative form of complete engagement than asking people to commit to returning across a number of performances on different days. The length of the performance itself may have been too much for many to last, but being aware of the length of performance at least also gave audiences the chance to steel themselves in preparation to be in it for the long haul; although Michael Billington may not have seen the full production (no doubt due to the pressures of filing deadlines), the accounts of those such as WhatsOnStage’s Honour Bayes who did endure offer a much more comprehensive account of the production – as opposed to making mention of their level of endurance as if some kind of badge of honour, which only serves to make such events feel like the ‘gimmick’ Scott accuses them of being in her blog. Subsequently it seems that perception is everything – a complicity is requested by such pieces (as with the Nursery Festival’s improvathon, which Scott refers to later in her blog) to embrace the nature of the performance without undermining its strength and purpose as a dramatic work.
With regards to performance times, later slots may lead to different audience responses than the traditional 7:30pm slot, but audience reactions will vary for any number of reasons far beyond a time slot – what makes a midnight audience any lesser than a midweek matinee one, or one largely populated by school/college groups? And what of festivals, with their varying time slots – should we look at them differently as they have a more committed audience, ignoring those who may be from the local community or non-regular theatre attendees who are dipping their toes into the waters? I feel the argument about performance times is far less pertinent in the context of Scott’s blog than the debate regarding performance length; there are already far too many caveats and variables involved in performance times and audience make-up which make it difficult to draw any conclusions from the examples Scott draws upon and undermines her argument against performances such as the Midnight Matinees at Shakespeare’s Globe and Tristan Bates Theatre. Scott proclaims her suspicion is that there is not “the same level of performance and alertness from the audience” in events such as this, and that Midnight Matinees attract a younger audience, but this is all mere speculation and fails to make a strong case either way; assumptions and statements such as these are reductive and look foolhardy without any evidence to back them up.
Scott concludes her blog by suggesting that works such as those she refers to seem “a waste of everyone’s time” if done badly or pointlessly – but is that so? Surely the experience of creating work which fails provides those involved with the opportunity to learn from the experience, with a view to improving things should there be a next time? Moving away from the traditionally-accepted forms of theatre-making will always entail an element of risk as it challenges people’s perceptions and expectations, and challenging convention helps artists and the form itself to move forwards; dismissing such efforts as wasting people’s time either misses the point or suggests that the currently accepted format of theatre (six weeks rehearsals, 7:30pm start time, home before midnight) is without flaws – which is definitely not the case. If people wish to continue to push things forward by working in such ways, then they have my support.