Creating Theatre for Attention-Span Challenged Audiences

I get this phone call at least once a month.

“What’s the running time of the show?” It’s usually a theatre critic who is coming to review. There is often an almost audible sigh of relief on the other end when I say “Ninety minutes with no intermission.”

The image for 'Night, Mother, a show I'm doing publicity for that opens tonight--90 minutes, no intermission

It seems like ninety minutes with no intermission is the new golden child of the the-ah-tah. Last week, I had to leave at the second intermission of a show I was doing publicity for on opening night, because it was three acts long (with an intermission after each), and I had to be home for 10:30 for the babysitter. I felt bad–it was one of those shows that requires a massive set change between acts, so cutting an intermission is impossible. But I had to get home.

I do feel somewhat relieved when I hear that a show is one act, and under a hour and a half. Having said that, for me, it has much more to do with my financial situation (paying a babysitter) than my attention span.

We hear so much these days about “the kids” and their attention spans. Yes, I grew up in a world where we were not allowed to watch TV while we did our homework, and even now, I might have the radio on when I’m working, but that’s about all the distraction I can handle. My son, I’m sure, will be able to handle multiple-sensory input and complete essays at the same time.

I put this question out to my 2amt Tweeps, and the response was almost unanimous.

Adam Szymkowicz, a playwright, put it the best, though, I think:

I think it’s because a lot of plays are overwritten and or boring. People also like to know when they can leave. I don’t know what play it was but I think there is a take your medicine kind of feel in a lot of theaters. People go because it’s good for them, this art that is boring and no fun at all. I’m not saying that’s your theater. I hope it’s not. But they may not know that.

It’s true. If you are at a show that is incredibly engaging, you get lost in it, you become one with the show, in a way, and that’s what makes theatre magic. So maybe it’s not our attention spans.

You may also want to read this post by The American Theatre Wing called Long Enough to Reach.

What do you think? Are our attention spans shrinking, or do we need to write and/or produce more engaging shows?

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 7

  1. I love love love short shows. LOVE them. Would have babies with them if I could.

    I noticed this inclination after seeing Rick Miller’s Bigger Than Jesus at The Cultch when I first moved to Vancouver. Ever since then, a well-told story under 90 minutes with no intermission makes my heart flutter. Ask anyone that’s with me at a show when I have the realization- whether it be looking in the program, or being told by FOH. My eyes light up.

    Not that I hate longer shows. Love ’em as well (as long as they aren’t dull/boring/poorly written). I just seem to have an affinity for 90 minutes or less.

    It has nothing to do with my current position as GM at a TYA company- though I know you my second guess that. 😉

  2. I am not too concerned about the length of a show, but anything over 2 hours usually needs a bit of editing. I’m a fan of shorter shows, not because they’re less tedious (although that is often a common trait of shorter productions), but because most theatre seating is frikkin’ uncomfortable. As someone with long legs, it gets to be quite painful sitting in some Vancouver theatres after a while (even with an intermission).

    I also hate intermissions. When my sweetie tells me the play we’re seeing has no intermission, I am much more excited to see the show. I appreciate the need in some cases for an intermission (such as the example you gave), but that does not mean I have to like them. 😉

    BTW, Jessie is hilarious.

  3. She is pretty funny.
    I know a lot of theatre companies (the bigger ones, especially, like the Arts Club/PLayhouse) really rely upon bar sales to help make them a bit of money at intermission. So that’s a strike against “90 minutes no intermission.”

  4. Totally, though there are ways to still maintain a revenue stream.

    Bar sales pre or post show are a great way to engage audiences outside of the traditional theatre-going experience*, like the increase in flex lobby spaces that have better seating/ perching, drink selection and the option of hanging out after a show and chatting (w/o the feeling of “Oh, the front of house staff want to leave- better get going!”).

    *TYA matinee intermission bar sales are dominated by apple juice, and on occasion- a dad in need of liquid courage, who’ll knock back a beer before noon.

  5. One of the reasons I enjoy theatre is that it is an immersive experience. During a good show, my attention in tightly focussed on the action, and when it is truly magical, there is a coalescence of the audience into a shared bubble of thinking and feeling. This is one of the factors which makes performing arts unique and powerful. I find intermissions tend to interfere with the magic making.

  6. I remember reading a recent series of letters to the editor complaining about the no-intermission trend. An artistic director was commenting on his innumerable experiences at the back of the house seeing how antsy audiences get – religiously, after the 1 hour mark. I’ve noticed I get antsy at that point too and start to wonder when the intermission will come. But why? We sit through 2-hour movies (or Peter Jackson’s 3-hour fare) without blinking. I can’t believe it’s that plays don’t know how to be as interesting. Perhaps the seats do have something to do with it? Or are we such creatures of habit that our brains are spoiled into associating our playgoing experience with the privilege of a break?

  7. Two things for me:

    1. I generally find intermissions annoying and a waste of time from an audience member’s perspective. It’s true, sometimes you need one for a really long show or where it’s important to really change the scene/mood. When attending an opera at the MET in NY earlier this year, there were two 30 minute intermissions and I thought they were fine so I guess it all depends.

    In many cases I think the flow is ruined by intermissions. Of course, there’s the issue of people needing to go to the washroom and from the theatre’s perspective, there’s the bar sales.

    2. This is just me, but I get up so early that can often barely stay awake late. I’d way rather be immersed in the play/performance for a solid time and then leave. Adding 20 minutes just pushes it further into the night for me. I realize I sound like an old man, but it’s a problem for me because I am up at 5AM each day. I often have to pass on shows if I know they will be really long.

    Having said both those things, if a performance is truly captivating, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be engaged and see it through with delight.

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