Last month, I had the immense good fortune of attending the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. For the duration of the conference, I did nothing but watch, listen to, think about, talk about, make, and be inspired by plays. It was a tremendous gift from which I am certain to keep learning. To those playwrights who read my blog, let me say this: do not fail to apply, and if you’re accepted, do not fail to attend.
While I was in Omaha, I saw, read, or heard readings of the following plays:
- THE EGG PLAY, Candice Benge
- TOILET TIME WITH ELIZA BENT, Eliza Bent
- ALLIGATOR, Hilary Bettis
- BLISS (OR EMILY POST IS DEAD), Jami Brandli
- TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS, Constance Congdon
- MICKEY & SAGE, Sara Farrington
- THE CROWD YOU’RE IN WITH, Rebecca Gilman
- AT THE VANISHING POINT, Naomi Iizuka
- ON THE 8’S, Stacey Isom
- FALLBEIL, Liz Maestri
- MATCH, Jennifer Maisel
- BLACK SHEEP GOSPEL, Katie May
- CONK AND BONE, Joe Musso
- RASKOL, Kira Obolensky
- JOE CORSO RE-ENTERS FROM THE WINGS, Todd Olson
- NUREYEV’S EYES, David Rush
- THE BUTCHER, Gwydion Suilebhan (yes, that’s me)
- MUAZZEZ, Mac Wellman
- THE GIN DIALOGUES, Kit Williamson
- HERETICS, Richard Zinober
That’s twenty different plays, all jammed into about seven days. (I’m also leaving out a few shorter pieces.) One or two were a touch shorter than full-length scripts, and one or two I had to duck out of early… but any way you slice it, that’s a lot of storytelling. At the Humana Festival every year, by contrast, I see about eight plays in a weekend, which always feels like a lot. That’s a slightly faster pace over a shorter amount of time, but the attention span race is about stamina and duration, if you ask me, not speed.
The amazing thing about the list above is that I actually SKIPPED several plays I was scheduled to see, mostly from sheer theater-going burnout, but also to attend rehearsals for my own reading. If I’d attended everything I could have possibly attended, the total number would be closer to 25 or 26… or roughly 3.5 plays a day. *
So, let me ask you something: when was the last time you watched two different plays in a single day? I do it a few times a year, as I’m sure several of my readers might, and I always find it akin to eating a really rich meal (particularly if the plays are of high quality). I’m full afterward, and though of course I’ll be hungry again in 24 hours or so, I can feel how much story I’ve consumed. It’s not always comfortable.
Do you know how much less comfortable that feeling is after four plays in the same day? And three the day before? With three more ahead of you the day after? A lot less comfortable. Your brain begins to lose the ability to judge how long a given story has been unfolding. Is this a five-act play, you begin to ask yourself, or have I just been sitting in theaters since 9:30 am? You start applauding inwardly when whomever is giving the curtain speech announces that the story you’re about to experience will be told in a mere 70 minutes. You become rather tremendously aware of a forthcoming ten-minute intermission… and that’s for the plays you like.
We live in a short attention span world. We all know this; it’s no longer surprising. In the kingdom of the distracted, however, we who make theater are generally kings (and queens). We have attention span super-powers, relatively speaking, and we exercise them all the time by going to the theater.
But seeing so many plays in such a short time? Three a day, roughly? It was like running an ultra-marathon. The level of difficulty may have been increased somewhat by the fact that when we weren’t watching plays, we were generally either rehearsing them, holding panel discussions about them, attending playwriting workshops, and just plain chatting about the plays we’d just seen or were about to walk into. There was no escaping the theater, period. The experience was demanding.
And yet… I highly recommend it. I feel proud, perhaps more so than I should, for having survived (is that the right word?) the experience. I feel as if theatrical storytelling is now deeper in my bones than it has been in some time. I have the general sense not of over-indulgence, as I might have after a three-show weekend in New York, but of having attended a kind of boot camp. It made me strong. It enriched me. And if I could find a way to do it again once a year, I sure as hell would.
* To those of you whose plays aren’t on the list above: please know that I have great regret for not having seen them… and I look forward to reading those you’ve promised to send, if I haven’t already!