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Friday, 2 December 2011

The Elasticated Time Paradox

What is too long?  What shape should a show have?  How do you escape the Elasticated Time Paradox (trademark pending) otherwise known as the Intangible Arse Problem?
Allow me to explain.  As The Natural History of Trolls approached revival (electro-convulsers on stand-by - CLEAR! - Bumph! - It's alive!) there arose those issues raised in the New Wim tryout.  The running time was a cool 80 minutes - without an interval.  Now, the show was supposed to last between 65 and 70 minutes (this fitting neatly as a single CD if I get round to recording it for sale) but the story grew beyond this length.  I cut it down as much as I could, but if I cut anymore I would stop pruning and begin hacking, and that would lead to damage of the text and artistic failure.  
Now 80 minutes is an odd length of time for an audience to sit for.  An hour is generally a good length of time before the arse goes numb (the Intangible Arse Problem or IAP) whereby the evening either ends or an interval begins prior to another sitting.  You can push the IAP envelope a bit, but after 70 minutes the audience starts to get restless.  Quality will out, of course (see below), but even if you are enjoying a show a numb bum can take the edge off.  And most of the population of the planet have / will have / will have had piles - so there's a reason why sitting for over an hour is difficult.  Sometimes, if the show is extremely long - 2 hours plus without interval - then the act of fighting the numbness becomes part of the narrative of the show.  You become a survivor of a great struggle (especially if you misjudged your IBS) and can take masochistic pleasure in the whole experience.
A solution would have been to put in an interval - there is a place in Trolls where this can happen.  But there is also something particularly unsatisfactory about two forty minute halves.  Each half is a little too short and breaks up the narrative of the show to little good purpose.  This is where the Elasticated Time Paradox comes in.  The show is too long to fit perfectly into one sitting, but too short to seriously field an interval - paradoxically the only way to make the show feel shorter would be to make it longer.  If I were to write another 20 / 30 minutes of material then I could put an interval in-between two 50 ish minute halves and that would make the show feel much shorter (in terms of endurance) than the 80 minute straight run through.  I know that sounds a bit mad, but it would.  People perceive time in funny ways.
Another example of the elasticity of time: in a show with one interval, people will always time the length of the second act from the length of the first.  So, if Act One lasts an hour, the audience will expect Act Two to last about the same - or less.  If Act Two is even five minutes longer than Act One, the audience will feel that is too long.  Trust me - they do.  (Exceptions to this rule include plays like Glengarry Glen Ross, where Act Two is so much longer than Act One that it feels like a completely different entity.)  I won't go into the dynamics of the shape of Three Act plays and the placement of two intervals - this is largely a dead field as few people field three acts anyone (though Jerusalem does indulge in such activity, it is largely an exception to the rule - a pity, I like two intervals... but I digress).
Getting back to the point, I couldn't cut the show anymore because it all fits very well together - to make a difference I'd have to remove some 1000 to 2000 words, which would be terrible.  I can't make the show longer (enough that is - I have added a few hundred words) because that would mean starting again from scratch and I didn't really have time to do that.  So, basically, all I can say is... tough, you'll have to take the show as it is.  It's only ten minutes above the norm - breathe, that'll help. 
The other thing to remember is that, for all the generalisations I have just made, individuals will always react in random ways.  Some people love long shows, some people beg for a good interval, some people want two intervals, some people hate them.  It's an art, not a science.  Which is why the only answer is to look at the show and try to judge what is the best shape for it?  When writing a show I'm always half aware of the shape of the time I'm trying to fill.  I like one interval usually, because I'm used to working in theatres with a bar that requires the trade.  These days I'm producing more on the London fringe where the bar is either a separate entity or is a second thought to the business and wants only to open before curtain up and then close.  The place of business does have an effect on the art - but only in a general way.  The play does tend to decide what it wants to be.  Hence the running time and the placement of this show within the ETP.

Now, I wrote the above (mostly) prior to the current run and the tryout at the Quay Theatre.  At the Quay we had an interval - but they have a very nice bar and like people to use it.  I broke all the rules I've just made up, with a shorter first half compared to the second.  So from that example you can ignore everything I just wrote.  Also, on the first night at Barons Court I was talking to someone from the audience after the show and quoted the time (it ran about 78 minutes that night) and they were amazed - they perceived at most only 60 minutes and were a bit confused to find the show had run so short (until I told them the timing that is).  Time is elastic and I'm really rather chuffed that time for our audiences runs 20 minutes faster than real time.
Sadly, I'm afraid, that doesn't mean you retain your youth.  After 80 minutes of the show you will still be 80 minutes older, however quickly time passed for you. x

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