If you follow the theatre news, I'm sure you've heard about the "Broadway Bolter," Joanne Kaufman, a culture columnist (not a theatre critic) for the Wall Street Journal who admitted to something awful: that she often leaves Broadway shows halfway through. Very often leaves plays, escaping at intermission. As Howard Sherman in his great summation of the issues at hand says:
I happen to believe that, for the regular theatregoer, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a show at intermission. You paid for the right to be there and if you’re miserable, it’s probably to your benefit and the benefit of the rest of the audience if you depart. It’s your right (so long as it’s not done mid-scene, which is far too disruptive) and frankly the rest of the audience and the actors are probably better off without your repeated loud sighs, your ongoing dialogue with the person you came with, or your snoring.
Most of our responses as theatre people have been centered on our collective shock that a person who writes reviews and gets free tickets feels no embarrassment (she's "embarrassed by how unembarrassed" she is.). She's been vilified and one press agent has now banned her from these lovely freebie tickets. (I'll take them!)
I wanted to come at this topic from a different perspective. In play feedback sessions, I've learned to listen to all voices and consider their comments and criticisms with weight (some more than others of course), and I believe that even if I disagree with their assessments or their suggested solutions to the problems they see in the play, I realize that they are reacting to something that's present (or not present) in the play that might be worth investigating. And Ms. Kaufman's bolting has given us all quite the criticism.
Here's what I take from her article (which now you can't read without a WSJ subscription):
Are these criticisms valid? Are we being too negative/defensive towards her to see that she might be right? I'm not saying she's right, I'm not saying she's wrong, I'm asking the question. And I think we all should be asking ourselves about the structure, thrust, and action of our plays from the very beginning.
What is a first act? And what is its job?
Even plays without conventional act breaks have first acts. Sometimes, it's the first scene itself, sometimes it delves deeper into the play, but it's there. So, what does it do? How do we use it? Kaufman suggests that most first acts that she sees are treading water until the big payoffs of the second act. I see a first act as doing two things: 1. establishes the world and its rules and gives us what "normal" looks like 2. Introduces what will attack, challenge, transform the world, its rules and the "normal."
If we look at it like a joke, it's the set up. I liken it more to a magic trick. I know I've talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating if for nothing else than to refresh my thinking. In the movie, The Prestige, a magic trick is described as having three acts:
From the film:
The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige."
"The Turn" should happen in a play before the second act. Long before. Some might call it the "inciting incident." I wonder if we're doing them much too late. I've seen plays where the turn is right at the act break or the final line, the final moment. It's the cliffhanger to make you want to return. And I suppose Kaufman doesn't mind leaving the play clinging to that cliff. So, if the turn isn't at the end of the act break, where is it? I don't think that the second act truly begins with the act break. Crazy, right? Maybe that's why I haven't written a play in two acts and have leaned on the "90 minutes with no intermission model." Maybe we take too long to introduce the world disruption.
It's not a question of length of the first act or of the play, Kaufman reports that she stayed through the entirety of August: Osage County and that sucker is long. Wonderful and beautiful and exciting... And long. August: Osage County is told in 3 acts. But I'd venture to say that the first act doesn't end with the first act break. The first act of August: Osage County ends after the prologue. The prologue establishes the norm: Beverly is an alcoholic and his wife, Violet, has mouth cancer and a pill addiction. What the script calls "Act 1" disrupts the norm with Beverly's disappearance. Boom. Off we go with the transformed world, with its new rules and the challenges that it forces the characters to face. In effect, the true act 2 of August: Osage County is the entirety of Act 1 and Act 2.
Let's return to a magic trick analogy: sawing a person in half. The magician enters and shows us a normal box. The first act begins. She invites a volunteer from the audience to get into the box. The magician shows us a huge saw. That saw is the introduction of what will change the norm and when that saw goes through the volunteer, the first act ends. The person splits in two and opens the volunteer's body to show us that she has sawn that person into two, distinct pieces. That's the end of act 2. (ACT BREAK?) And then act three is getting the volunteer from two pieces back into one and restoring a new world where things look the same, but are changed because we now live in a world with magic in which someone can be chopped in half and put back together again.
If the first act ends before the act break, what the heck is the act break for? Why bother having one? To give people a chance to pee? To grab a glass of wine or sip of water? To talk with their friends? To give time for the audience to process what they've seen? We, the artists, have to answer that. The act breaks in August: Osage County allow for the passage of time. The play is told in real time, so when time needs to pass for the characters, time needs to pass for us. On the whole, I believe we've gotten to a place where a second act is added because it's tradition and has been the law of the land for so long that we go so far as even cutting Shakespeare to fit into that model. But is it the right model for now? I'm not going to argue that we have audiences with short attention spans, because they don't. Ask Netflix. It's not about the length of a play. What makes it possible for someone to binge watch 4 hours of "Breaking Bad" or sit through 2 1/2 hours of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but makes that same person unable to sit through a 2 1/2 hour play?
I think we need to use the confessions of Joanne Kaufman to really look into the way we're writing and planning our plays. We need to ask ourselves why we need two act plays and not three act or one act plays? Can a play be 120 minutes with no intermission? How are we telling our stories? Instead of continuing to bash Kaufman, now's the time to take her criticism, digest it, and move forward to make our work better and stronger..
As we go on, remember to enjoy your work and be excellent to each other.