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FILM & TV
A CurtainUp Feature
Live Theater's Version of Binge-Viewing
By Elyse Sommer
Ever since Netflix released an entire season of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey as a Richard the 3rd-like ruthless politician and Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth-like wife, bingeing has been a favorite topic of discussion among media watchers, bloggers and even psychologists. In fact, it takes a bit of binge reading to stay abreast of all this punditry about the pleasures and pitfalls of gobbling up stories without pause.
The practice of distributing multi-episode content a full season at a time works best for streaming services like Netflix which are monetized by subscriber fees rather than advertising. However, it taps into our penchant for self gratification, in this case, to seize on this all-in-one opportunity to take in serialized storytelling. Long before content designed for binge-watching s like House of Cards and Breaking Bad, viewers binge-watched DVDs of popular full runs of popular TV shows.
While most people binge-watch just two or three episodes at a time, there are hyper-bingers who literally go on a full season bender. For Season 3 of A Place Called Home, Australia's addictively entertaining answer to Downton Abbey, Acorn Media opted for a semi-binge mode: posting three episodes at a time each Sunday (see our film and tv page ).
Though new mainly as a media marketing topic, our need to know what happens next is not limited to TV show watching. It applies to reading — for example, the book you can't put down,no matter how long, and that sends you to the library or bookstore to get hold of everything by one author or about a particular character. While the two Masterpiece Forsyte Saga series were available an episode at a time, I pretty much binged my way through all of John Galsworthy's books that inspired them many years before that — ditto for Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, which inspired The Jewel and the Crown series. On the other hand, in anticipation of seeing Tim-Pigott Smith in Mike Bartlett's terrific King Charles III I binged myself through a Netflix replay of The Jewel and the Crown in which he played a major role many years ago. And this brings us to binge-viewing's counterpart in the theater!
Even though the 80 or 90-minute one-act play has gained ground over the once standard 3-act play — or, going back even further, the 5-act play, the theater has it's own version of presentations to appeal to binge-viewers. These can be traced back to the Greek and Roman theater festivals/contests, the Medieval mystery cycles, the periodic productions of' the passion play at Oberammergau. In 1980 Charles Dickens's novels were initially serialized in newspapers did what TV and streaming services now do. One of the modern theaters first big marathon hits, was an 81/2 hour adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Those lucky enough to see it in London or New York still talk about it fondly.
On or Off-Broadway, a marathon length play or a group of connected plays tends to be enthusiastically received. According to my friend and colleague Charles Wright the man to be credited for institutionalizing the term "marathon" in NYC theater is Curt Dempster with the annual EST One-Act Marathon that's still produced to this day, though somewhat shorter than in the past. Charles also mentioned one of his own favorite annual marathon events, Bloomsday on Broadway, Symphony Space's rite of spring celebration of James Joyce's prose led by well-known actors
Though multiple play productions can be seen on different days, the marathon schedules allowing viewers to see everything in one day are invariably sold out and especially popular. The sense of being at an event works its own magic even in this age of short-attention span tweeting and texting. In some cases, the snob appeal of being part of the conversation pertaining to buzzed about productions that are not only challenging in terms of the viewer's sitzfleisch but intellect; case in point: Peter Brook's nine-hour Mahabharata back in 1987 and in 2006, Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia .
Of course, there's no way a stage production can run as long as some of the 10-episode (more if there are several seasons), but five or six hours of making the theater experience the equivalent of spending a day curled up on the couch to read a book from foreword to epilogue.
There's also a convenience factor. In the case of serials made for on screen viewing, it's handy to be able to see a something when it fits your schedule, and whether one or multiple episodes at a time. For theater goers who don't live within an easy commute from the theater, it means less time and money spent getting to the theater (one train fare, one parking fee).
Marathon stagings are also a chance for theater companies to give audiences a new perspective on plays previously presented individually. Some marathon stagings expand the time spent in the theater by conflating several previously individually staged plays into one. But while lengthening the time spent in the theater, the process can also be true to Shakespeare's much quoted "brevity is the soul of wit" by cutting chunks of the overall text. One of my most memorable examples of this had the three parts of Henry VI fitted under a single umbrella called Rose Rage. It played out over five and a half hours, plus a one hour dinner break.
The invaluable Signature Theater has produced several especially noteworthy examples of newly envisioned marathons. Perestroika, the second part of Tony Kushner's AIDS epic never enjoyed the attention of Angels in America, the first part. In 2010, seeing them both, if not on the same day, but within the scheduled run period made this a thrilling and new experience ( my review ). A year before that Director Michael Wilson assembled some of the prolific Horton Foote's colorful characters into a rich patchwork under the umbrella title of The Orphans' Home cycle ( Orphans'Home Cycle 2009
The prolific writer, Alan Ayckbourne, has been a favorite at the annual Brits Off-Broadway Festival. His decidedly binge-worthy Intimate Exchanges was the hot ticket during that festival's 2007 season. Ayckbourne's triptych, The Norman Conquests was the 2009 Broadway season's favorite marathon event.
Small downtown theaters have not been blind to the appeal of marathons. The Flea Theater revitalized Sophocles' plays with These 7 Sicknesses , a five hour presentation that included dinner and dessert breaks. The Rattlestick Playwrights theater reconfigured its entire venue to accommodate Adam Rapp's Hallway Trilogy . They also participated in a variously located marathon of Lucy Thurber's Hilltown Play Festival . And speaking of plays connected by their geographic settings, I don't think it's too wild a guess to anticipate someone doing a marathon of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker's Shirley, Vermont plays
The Public Theater is on a very special binge of hit-after-hit plays, topped by the super hit Hamilton . Unsurprisingly, theyve shown themselves to be tuned in to the marathon phenomenon. Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's rather unlikely to succeed 8-plus hour word-for-word staging of Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby was so popular that the Public had to bring it back for'second run. They also gave Tarrell Alvin McRaney's Brother and Sister Plays a marathon staging ( my review ). More recently the popularity of Richard Nelson's time specific plays about the Apple Family of Rhinebeck, New York, seeded a quickly sold-out limited marathon of the whole shebang. With Nelson back, this season with another Rhinebeck family, the Gabriels, I see another binge opportunity in the not too distant future.
Last year viewers had an opportunity to see two different adaptations of Hilary Mantel's epic Wolf Hall history novels seeded two different marathons, one an all day stage marathon, one a PBS series (each with different adapter, directors and casts). The TV adaptation was issued an episode at a time, but became binge-able via a DVD. The Broadway stage adaptation afforded marathon lovers a chance to make a full day of it. As I'm writing this Wolf Hall Director Herrin again has a show on Broadway with a revival of Noises Off , but this one is not just a quite different genre and at a more typical maxium length of two and a half hours.
To sum up, there are some theater marathons that have made me feel that life's too short to give up a whole day. And there re some stories that benefit from being allowed to breathe rather than to be gulped down in big bites. Stil, l I have and will continue to succumb to the immersive pleasures of binge watching and reading.