01/05/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

Time Enough at Last: Durational Theatre

My generation is accused of a lot of things. We've all heard that we're addicted to our phones, that we're not good at communicating face to face, and that we have the attention spans of hyperactive puppies. It is this final point that came to mind as I signed up to review a new five-hour long show called These Seven Sicknesses, an imaginative re-staging of all of Sophocles's extant works being put on by The Flea Theater. Five hours is a long time, but with Elevator Repair Service bringing back their six and-a-half hour-long epic Gatz, it is hardly the lengthiest theatrical time commitment offered in New York today.

What is the place of lengthy shows such as these in our fast-paced world fueled by instant gratification? I saw Gatz last year and, as the return of the show proves, I was not the only one. A few people asked me how I could sit through something that long, but I found it entertaining and interesting. If you think about it, how many hours do people spend in front of a TV or computer in one sitting? Although seeing live performers is a markedly different experience, there is some continuity here.

This is why it always surprises me that we are so quick to cut down plays such as Shakespeare's. I can tell you right now that you have probably never seen an uncut Shakespeare play in your life (don't feel too badly, I'm fairly certain I haven't either). Though there are plenty of reasons to trim plays, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say, "Well, you know they needed plays to be long because they didn't have TV in those days." Besides the countless other issues with this argument, our sedentary lifestyle today means TV should have trained us to sit for longer.

"Ah, but we can change channels, we have the sitting power but not the attention span necessary to commit to such a lengthy tale," you might say. That is a fair point, but it is also why I think that going to see a show like Gatz is appealing to a certain part of the population for the sheer novelty of proving that your mind can indeed be engaged for that amount of time. It is, in a way, the Mt. Everest of theatrical viewing experiences, a status symbol, a notch on your belt. It also functions like an athletic achievement in the sense that your mind is taken off of the mundane activities of obsessively checking your cell phone as you are taken on another kind of mental journey.

And it is a journey. No one is saying that watching a play for that length of time is the same as watching a marathon of Law & Order (which is another kind of fun and entertaining experience to be sure). However, as a One-Minute Play Festival over the summer showed me, concentrating on short-form is much more mentally exhausting than allowing a longer piece of theatre to take you into a new world. The One-Minute plays were rapid fire, and keeping all of them straight in my head was nearly impossible, even at the time. It was the equivalent of throwing a bunch of pennies at a hat: I caught about seven or eight.

Of course, to stay with the penny motif for a moment, these two experiences are two sides of the same coin. We have become accustomed to plays that are between 1 ½ and 2 ½ hours, and anything outside of this range is strange to us. In case you hadn't noticed, I like strange. Even Sleep No More's three hour time slot isn't enough for me, and I would absolutely go to an eight-hour performance if they offered one. I am greatly anticipating another long viewing experience, though I am just as happy to be seeing The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill: vol. 1 Early Plays/Late Plays, in which each scene is about as long as the title itself.

Where does this leave us today, as we turn off our cell phones before we either sit down or walk through a show? Basically, today's audience is different from those of the past, but I just bring up these points to show that different does not necessarily equate to a negative value judgment. Those of us who make and go to theatre are all just people, and you never know what an audience is willing to see unless theatre makers endeavor to challenge them. If you see more theatres expand the temporal dimension of their theatrical imaginations, don't be afraid to follow them into those new territories, you never know what you'll find.