#9- Writing Plays Today - The Rules Have Changed! - January 26, 2017
Theatre, like language, changes with the culture and with the times. Many of the "rules" of a good play, don't apply anymore for the audience is different. Perception is different, and most importantly, because of digital technology, the audience's focus is different.
I love my IPhone. Just love it. I am one of the 70% of Iphone users who actually sleep with their phones. (I use it as my alarm clock.) In the 9 years since the Iphone was created, thus creating the SMART phone industry, this little device has changed the "focal depth and length" of the average human. What do I mean by that? Because of smart phones, most people can't focus on things as long as they used to. Most people have literally been conditioned by their phones to be a bit A.D.D.
Walk into any restaurant and you will see at least 10 phones on the tables with people checking them constantly. Even in social situations, people check their phones. So then, when these same people go to the theatre, and the announcement comes on that says: "Please silence your cell phones!", for many it is like withdrawal from heroin.
So it can be hard for many people to focus on theatre.
As a playwright, writing for live theatre TODAY, what can you do to keep your audience focused.
1. Keep the length of your play (if possible) to under 90 minutes or make it 2 acts with each act lasting no more than 60 minutes.
From my experience here at Manhattan Rep, and from seeing many broadway shows too, I have noticed that if a play runs longer than 90 minutes, the audience's attention wanders - even if it is a good play! And if a play is 2 acts, if the acts (especially the second act) are longer than 60 minutes, the audience might struggle, even if the play is good. Let me repeat, even if the play is good. So try to limit your full length plays to 90 minutes or make it two acts, with each act running no more than 60 minutes. It is a good practice for you will focus on being concise in your writing which will probably create better work.
2. Make sure there is a clear problem to be solved in your play and this problem becomes evident within the first 2 minutes of the play.
Yes, I know having the problem happen within the first 2 minutes of the play (I personally like 30 seconds) can be challenging but again, it will force your writing to be concise and focused and it is a good practice and exercise, and, most importantly, it usually works. If the problem is evident at the top, and it is a compelling problem, your audience will stay focused longer.
3. Break your play down into shorter scenes if possible.
Shorter scenes take less focus. As long as you don't make your play a "POPCORN" play (lights up/lights down) shorter scenes can propel your play faster, and keep the audience's focus. If you must have a long scene, make sure there are EVENTS happening throughout that scene, not just clever dialogue. Clever dialogue in a play gets dull if there is no problem connected to it and no events. Have things HAPPEN in your longer scenes and demand the audience's attention.
4. Limit your characters (unless you are having multiple characters being doubled and tripled by the actors.) If you have too many characters, again people may lose focus, for the main characters journey may become watered down, and not be as concise or quick paced as it might need to be. If you do need many characters, let fewer actors play a multitude of parts. It fun, and if the actors are talented, it will help keep focus, and also, plays needing fewer actors have a better likelihood of being produced!!
We are in a different world and in order for theatre to continue to survive, we need to shift our writing a bit to connect better with our modern audiences.