• When did a 120 page play become too long?

    by  • March 15, 2012 • plays, revisions, writing • 2 Comments

    “The theater, the theater… what’s happened to the theater?” sang Danny Kaye in White Christmas.

    That’s what I asked myself when my full length play, The Guru, was accepted as a possible addition to a theater company’s Fall production line-up. The Artistic Director loved the play, and gave me wonderful, positive feedback that made me feel like a real playwright. “You’re really good at this,” she wrote. 

    Thank you, thank you… yes I am… (blush, giggle, swelling of pride). 
    “Just one thing, though…”
    Uh oh.

    “The play is too long. It should be no more than 100 pages. Less is better.”
    Too long? When did a two-act, 120 page comedy become too long? That equals one hour for each act. Hell, have you read a Shakespeare play? Those things are three-acts and take three-and-a-half-hours to perform. Your butt could fall off from lack of blood flow by the end of Act 2! 
    When I was getting my undergrad in Drama at San Francisco State University in the 1990’s, a play was typically a little over two hours long: two acts with a fifteen minute intermission. If you left a theater in less than two-and-a-half hours you felt cheated. Who pays $30.00 for a 90 minute show? Ridiculous! You’d have people bad-mouthing your production as low budget and god forbid, amateur
    But that was 20 years ago. Now, people want to see a show in less than 2 hours.
    I asked a friend who teaches playwriting at a college and she confirmed that plays do need to fit within 2 hours, including intermission. But she also said for every rule, there’s an exception. Some plays are much longer, and she reminded me about Angels in America, which is the equivalent of three, 3-Act plays and is usually performed over two days. That play won the Pulitzer in 1993.

    Then she encouraged me to take another look at my play and see where the language could be tightened up. “It’s an opportunity to revise your play and really make it shine.”

    So I did. I read and re-read my play, chopping out whole sections of dialogue. I looked for anything that slowed down the pace. A farce really should have quick and witty language and lots of action. After a week of hard work, I had the page count down to 115 pages.


    Calling my friend again, I begged for help. I’d been working on The Guru for five years and had lost all perspective. I needed someone with an ax to chop my play. She agreed to try.

    With her help, I got my play down to 98 pages. The process was as challenging as crossing a busy street under blindfold during grad school, because I was afraid one cut would unravel the whole plot. But by chopping so many pages, I think my play is cleaner and the humor more precise.  I think revising for length helped me see it with clearer eyes and a better understanding of how to write comedy.

    I sent it back to the theater company and now I wait to see if a director picks it up. Man I hope my play is fine just as it is because after all these years of hard work, I’m sick of the damn thing.

    Why have plays gotten shorter? Hasn’t everything? Movies, books, albums… full-course dinners. It’s just the times we live in and I’m not going to debate if this is a bad thing. We had long attention spans in the so-called “olden days” because there was less to grab our attention. Now we have so much to choose from it’s hard to stay focused on one thing. Is that bad? Lots of experts seem to think so. But revising with the knowledge that we need to hold a reader’s shorter attention span encourages us to write with precision. Our characters need to show themselves through action and word, not backstory. A little exposition goes a long way. You really have to make every word count. Notice I said revising. Don’t worry about it during the writing of your play or story, just write the absolute best story you can create. Then take an ax to it during editing; you need an ax, not a scalpel anymore. “Kill your darlings” has never needed to be more bloody than today. 


    2 Responses to When did a 120 page play become too long?

    1. March 15, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      Great thoughts, my friend. Shorter is better these days, unless you’re doing a mini-series! I’ve lived your pain, with one of my screenplays, where cutting material taught me more than any class ever could! Thanks for sharing.

    2. April 21, 2012 at 6:23 am

      Awesome planning!It’s really right.

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