We all know time is ticking faster these days, and we are impatient when it doesn't. I'm one of those 21st century idiots who has been saved by my iPhone, which is with me every moment. My magic phone has ended my boredom in checkout lines, during television commercials, and even in some conversations and meetings where, really, things might have moved a little faster into territory I want to be engaged in. There is always something good and diverting to be found on my fast, responsive and so on topic phone.
Our tastes for acceleration have certainly influenced our dramatic entertainment too. What was our biggest hit of recent years? The 39 Steps of course, where there's nothing but action action action. I myself can't wait to see another episode of Breaking Bad or Homeland, because I know each week a lot is going to happen, and in a very short time. And generally I'm pretty restless in a theatre after 20 minutes, and find myself thinking about dinner or basketball or other things.
So it's worth noting that the richest dramatic experiences I've had in the last five years have been very slow and very long. The most recent was this weekend, watching Annie Baker's new play, The Flick. Critics are generally agreed the playwright is a prodigy, but this new play has tested even avant-garde audience patience. It is about three people working clean-up and projection at a small run down movie theater. Much of the time they are not saying much; just sweeping and cleaning or changing reels. There is not a lot of what people who like action in movies would call action. And the play is three hours long. That's a long time. So long that the artistic director of Playwright's Horizons has written a letter addressing his subscribers, some of whom leave the play after the 90 minute first act. It's actually sparked some controversy, very rare in the theatre these days:
I saw the play and thought about leaving every 10 minutes. The woman to left of me said she hated the playwright. The woman to my right said she couldn't connect. Yet both stayed to the bitter end. The woman to my left left without comment, though the aggressive crunching of her plastic water bottle during the second act spoke volumes. The woman to my right said afterwards--"well, I'm glad I stayed and I'm glad those three hours are over." I said I was with her.
And yet the wonders of The Flick are still with me. I'm very glad the playwright and the director let the actors work so much without talking. I was hoping during the show something amazing might happen-- lots of drunk spring beakers in bikinis might run in, for instance. (I still think this is a good idea, and might save every show we do, including our forthcoming Ibsen). But in retrospect I'm very glad the most spectacular event was a brief fountain of dumped popcorn. By resisting action, smart talk, and conventional (and therefore predictable and false) structure, and by taking its time, The Flick lets something else in, which feels like actual life--the actual life we are too busy too see. How terrific.
And so it goes when I count many of my favorite minutes in theaters recently- they tend to be counted in long hours. In the 2012 film, The Loneliest Planet, the audience spends an hour watching a couple hiking in the Caucasus. They are mostly just walking. Nothing happens. And then something does happen, and so quickly that it's gone in twinkling-- but it changes everything. How like life that is too! In Amour, we are confined in the house of a old couple, one of whom us dying. It takes a long painful time for her to fade away, and that too, we know is like life. In Gatz, an actor reads the entire Great Gatsby on stage, all 182 pages. It takes 7 hours, and I guarantee you that everyone nods at least a little during performance. Yet Gatz remains for many of us who saw it one of the most ravishing experiences we've had in a theater. Closer to home, and just the other day, I was initially very worried about how much time our audience would spend between scenes while riding the Everyman bus. Yet now I think those times in between, looking out the bus window, were some of the richest and most memorable of the entire ride.
It's an odd moment in our culture when you spend money, time and effort to go a theater to have things slow down. When gaps open. Paradoxically this is often the moment when art seems most alive, resonant and revelatory. I hope it happens more often!