Too Much Theater? The New Marathons

Are theatre marathons turning into a kind of Ironman Triathlon Theater? Consider:

*In All The Faces of the Moon at the Public Theater, Mike Daisey will deliver a different new monologue starting on September 5 every night for twenty-nine nights, each on the secret history of New York City. “Night after night he will strive like Scheherazade to tell the largest story ever attempted in the American theatre,” the Public Theater says. Russian artist Larissa Tokmakova will paint a different painting each night to illustrate Daisey’s stories. There will also be a live, free podcast.

*Lucy Thurber’s The Hill Town Plays, also opening on September 5, tell the story of the pivotal moments in a woman’s life from age thirteen to her thirties in five different but related plays (Scarcity, Ashville, Where We’re Born, Killers & Other Family, and Stay) in five different theatres—Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Axis Theater, New Ohio Theater, and both Cherry Lane Theater spaces.

“I don’t think five plays at once has ever been done before,” said Karen Allen, the director of Asheville. “Maybe in Europe somewhere.”

Thurber’s five plays are just the start. The Hill Town Plays have been announced as the inaugural Theatre: Village Festival; each year from now on, there will be five interrelated plays by one playwright or on a single theme running simultaneously in five different theatres in the West Village.

*From August 26 to September 28, artistic director Ruben Santiago-Hudson is gathering together some sixty performers to do staged readings of August Wilson’s entire American Century Cycle of ten plays at WNYC’s studio and theatre, The Greene Space, in front of a live audience. Each play will also be livestreamed with video and audio on the Greene Space Web site. Then the recordings will be distributed sometime after the new year to public radio stations across the nation to broadcast as radio dramas.

Talk to the people behind these events, and most seem reluctant to see what’s going on as anything new. “Theatre in Ancient Greece took place at festivals that lasted all day,” says actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, associate artistic director of the August Wilson project. “The Greeks were doing it for cultural/religious reasons. We’re doing it for survival.”

“Agreed,” said Rattlestick Theatre artistic director David Van Asselt, who came up with the idea of the Theatre: Village Festival. “I think it’s important to keep theatre alive.”

“If I made work in a traditional way…I would starve,” said Mike Daisey.

The Long and The Short of It: Theatre as Event

At a time when commercial theatre is moving increasingly toward productions of ninety minutes with no intermission, adventurous theatre artists seem to be experimenting with elaborate works of moment and circumstance, requiring endurance.

 “Theatre in Ancient Greece took place at festivals that lasted all day,” says actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, associate artistic director of the August Wilson project. “The Greeks were doing it for cultural/religious reasons. We’re doing it for survival.”

“They’re a badge of courage,” said director Whit McLaughlin, artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories, a theatre company based in Philadelphia known for its noodling. Mort played out over the course of more than six hours in three separate performances. Extremely Public Displays of Privacy was in three parts: It began with a story told online; continued with a walking tour accompanied by a monologue delivered by mobile phone; ended in a live performance. It is hard even to give a running time for this show. Like much immersive theatre, it entirely depended on how much time the audience member wanted to invest. “I believe people look, more than ever, for experiences, not just performances,” McLaughlin said.

British drama critic Michael Billington agrees, although he has a less starry-eyed view of it. “Epics satisfy our current hunger for event theatre,” he wrote in The Guardian.  “We love the inordinately long, the cryptically short or anything with star names. What we seem to have lost is our taste for anything good of average length.”

Henderson, a professor of theatre at SUNY Buffalo, and one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s plays, having performed in eight of the ten, including three on Broadway, looks pragmatically at the focus on theatre as event. “In order to survive, theatres have to come up with all sorts of ways to invigorate the form,” he said, “in order to get people to buy tickets.”

Length is not necessarily the most important aspect of the longer productions. For the August Wilson project, as for many of the others, “you don’t have to be on board for the whole thing,” Henderson said. Many—from Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980s to Angels in America in the 1990s (and in a recent revival) to Orphans Home Cycle in 2010—have offered the option of seeing the show spread out over different nights rather than all at once. Most, though, also encourage a single, all-day, or at least all-weekend immersion, such as Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service staged presentation of the verbatim text of The Great Gatsby over six and a half hours, and The Great Game: Afghanistan, the Tricycle Theatre Company’s presentation of nineteen works of theatre over eleven hours (with plenty of breaks.)

To Van Asselt, the new marathon theatre is distinguished from that of the past, such as the “spectacular theatrical events from the seventies” that he saw when he was still a philosophy student. (“Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata was presented, if I recall, for six nights, four hours a night. Einstein on the Beach [an opera by Philip Glass] at the Met—six hours—and Robert Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin lasted from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”)

These had more to do with the performances than with the scripts, Van Asselt asserted. The Thurber marathon, he said, is text-driven. In addition, “there is an element of creating an event, to do something different—in order to draw attention,” which unlike the past experiments, this is done out of a sense of necessity. “It’s a nation addicted to screens. The theatre is not alone. It’s tougher to get people to a symphony orchestra, a ballet. We’re all looking at audiences who are not willing to get out of their house anymore—because there are 300 channels to watch, video games.”

Decades in the Making

Actors reading on stage
A photo of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Recording Session. Photo by the Greene Space. 

This is not meant to suggest that these elaborate theatrical events are no more than calculated acts of marketing. To hear Ruben Santiago-Hudson tell it, his idea for the newly born August Wilson recording sessions was conceived twenty-nine years ago. That is when he first attended a play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of Wilson’s plays to appear on Broadway. “I was smitten, captured…put in a spell,” he said. “Nobody had represented me with such integrity; nobody seemed to have the love for me and the people I knew like August did. It set me on pace for what we’re doing now.”

Van Asselt first discovered Lucy Thurber’s work in 2001, with her first play Killers & Other Family. “She already had an idea for five different plays. I had the idea back then that when she finally finished this cycle, I would do it.”

Thurber’s plays inspired the current productions. But Van Asselt had other motives for launching a new theatre festival: “There are two things I’m trying to do here. One, we’re a playwrights’ theatre. I’m trying to create an event that tells playwrights to be ambitious: If you want to do something that you think is crazy, we will find a way to put it on.” Second, Van Asselt said, “I want to reinvigorate the idea of this neighborhood being a destination for theatre.”

actors reading on stage
A photo of Fences recording session. Photo by the Greene Space. 

A Conversation with Mike Daisey—and A Key

Jonathan Mandell: Are there other works that inspired you to come up with All The Faces of the Moon? Models?

Mike: It sounds a little tongue in cheek, but I kind of mean it, given the scale, when I say, “All of them.” Western theatre: Les Ephemeres by Theatre du Soleil. Nonwestern: John Frum Day on the island of Tanna.

Jonathan: What is the longest show you've seen, and did you like it?

Mike: Longest I have experienced and participated in was All The Hours In The Day, my tweny-four-hour monologue I performed in 2011.

Jonathan: Do you see these marathon theatrical events as something of a trend? If so, what explains the trend?

Mike: Oh, I don't know. If it is a trend, it’s important to innovate within it—Moon, for example, is twenty-nine “normal” length shows. And you can choose how to receive it—live, or by podcast. Some people are seeing twenty-nine—others are seeing three.

But all are free for listening. The scale allows for new ideas about access. I like that.

Jonathan: Why does the scale have anything to do with access? Couldn't you do a sixty-minute piece for free on podcasts too?

Mike: Well, if I made work a traditional way, it might take years for one to get staged. And then if I gave it away for free, I would starve. Making the show immense allows interaction. Each night another show, another link in a chain. The work is the size, in time, of a season or more of a TV show. Which allows new ways to listen.

There is, both in Daisey’s comments and in how he made them, a key to what is going on. The interview took place over Twitter. Many of the new theatrical events have a multimedia component (or multiplatform, to use a hipper word.)  They are presented on stage, yes, but they acknowledge and embrace the various ways (and devices) by which the public now gets its information, its entertainment, even its art.

When Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, waxed enthusiastic about the television series Mad Men, (“Just remarkable writing filled with so much thematic and character richness.”), I asked him what plays he would compare it to.

“Not comparable,” Falls replied. “TV can create stories, theme, develop characters over 100 hours plus. At best, it’s a brilliant medium.”

Although it’s still common for theatre critics to dismiss plays they don’t like by saying they resemble TV series, the truth is that quality television like Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad has captured audiences that in previous generations would be avid theatregoers.

Couldn’t the new TV be influencing the new marathon theatre?

A journal piece addressing this question will be forthcoming from Jonathan Mandell.

 

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Thanks for writing about this! I am so interested in exploring and creating this type of theatre. Would love to read the upcoming installment!