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"You are working in the extremes of something"

When anything over 90 minutes is considered long-haul, why do we still make marathon theatre?

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“Bewitching”: How long-form theatre casts its spell

Date: 29 Aug 2018

We’ve all got used to the idea of “binge-watching” television.

People will proudly tell you they watched the entire Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale in one sitting. Or episodes 1-to-10 of Counterpart. Or all of Queer Eye.

But those same people wince at the prospect of seeing a piece of theatre that extends beyond two hours. Anything over 90 minutes is considered “long-haul” in the current theatre climate.

Mentioning to a neighbour that I was seeing all six hours of the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Harp in the South on its opening Saturday, earned me a twisty-face usually reserved for those heading for a hospital waiting room.

I’ve done a bit of long-form. I watched American actor Scott Shepherd recite every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in the 2009 Sydney Festival highlight Gatz, a show that ran for a mesmerising seven hours.

Another Festival extravaganza, Robert LePage’s Lypsinc, ran for a trippy nine hours. Audiences left that show feeling like they’d been sharing the same dream.

The STC’s The Lost Echo and The War of the Roses clocked in at something like eight hours apiece.

Angels in America? A mere five hours if you did both plays back-to-back at Belvoir in 2013.

I went to Adelaide in 2016 just for the 11-hour experience of the National Theatre of Scotland’s The James Plays trilogy and more recently, I could have settled in for all 24 hours of Nat Randall’s durational performance The Second Woman at Carriageworks.

I could have … I only managed four.

All of those productions are lodged in my memory, though not just because they were out-of-the-ordinary in the demands they made on my time and concentration. Those stories were utterly immersive and it was a thrill to experience them with hundreds of other people. There’s an excitement in a shared experience that can’t be compared to a long stint on the couch watching Netflix.

Long-form shows are among the most memorable experiences an actor or an audience member can have, says John Gaden, probably the most experienced actor in the country when it comes to playing in productions of scale.

His credits include the Sydney Theatre Company’s epic 1983 production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (a nine-hour show he co-directed with Richard Wherrett), Company B’s Cloudstreet (nearly six hours), and, as a member the the STC’s Actors Company in The Lost Echo and The War of the Roses.

“My principal memory of Nicholas Nickleby is going backstage at the end of the show and thinking it was like a casualty station during the Crimean War,” Gaden chuckles. “People lying on the floor, gasping … but they loved it.”

Nickleby was a hit with audiences. Many saw the show more than once.

“I know of people in the audience who met and bonded over Nickleby and they would get together every so often to relive it,” says Gaden. “It was the same with Cloudstreet. The audience gets so involved in the story, the time just whizzes by.”

The audience becomes your friend, says Gaden. 

“It’s the best thing about long-form theatre. People want to come up to you after the show and talk about the experience we’ve all shared. They’ve really gone on a journey and you can feel it in the applause. We had so many standing ovations for Nickleby – and that was before people stood up at the drop of a hat.”

Gaden has also enjoyed long-form theatre as an audience member. He recalls sitting next to director Peter Brook (“I was too nervous to say hello to him”) for the opening night production of The Mahabharata, performed outdoors in a quarry in the Adelaide Hills during the 1988 Adelaide Festival.

“It ended at dawn with an actor high on the quarry wall with the sun rising behind him … but it got awfully cold. I thought I might die at one point. I stuffed a cushion up my T-shirt to keep warm. But it was so … involving, so spectacular to watch. The quality of the work was amazing.”

Amber McMahon has done her share of marathon theatre work, too, in The Lost Echo, The War of the Roses and Angels in America.

“In these durational pieces, there’s a beautiful sense of community between you and the audience,” she says. “For me, it transcends the normal theatre experience because you spend the whole day with these people.

“It’s not just a couple of hours, it’s more like the amount of time you would dedicate to a friend. It’s a really beautiful thing to live inside a character for an entire day and spend it with an audience. It is a very immersive experience – bewitching in some way.”

Bewitching?

“I can’t quite put my finger on it exactly,” says McMahon. “But it is that you are completely living inside something. It is real and it is a piece of theatre all at once. The connections between the characters become real. I love it. I just love it.”

McMahon says audiences for The War of the Roses were treated to a visually stunning experience that the actors themselves never saw. “They were witnessing the spectacle of it, whereas we were inside it, concerned with the minutiae of it. The production was almost like visual art, at times.”

The Lost Echo was more extraordinary again,” she says. “The music was so ecstatic and the stories were so visceral and seductive and horrifying … it went everywhere. And the way Barrie [Kosky] directed it was so fantastic. He rehearsed us privately so we only saw each other’s performance during tech week. It was like a gift to each other. And when we started that project, he changed all the lights in the rehearsal room so there was already something enigmatic about the room when we walked in. We knew we were doing something very, very different.”

Performing in Angels in America, McMahon also experienced the audience wanting to talk to the actors after the show.

“The audience has gone through such a gamut of emotions watching it, and that play is all about community and finding the love and compassion of the people around you to get through something difficult.

“The audience has gone through those exact feelings with you so it’s really quite cathartic and they want to talk about it with you after the show. It really is beautifully shared.”

McMahon was still at school in Adelaide when she sat in the audience for her first long-form show – Howard Barker’s The Ecstatic Bible.

“I was just blown away. I had spent my entire day with these people. There was one part when the stage just bled. This blood just oozed out of the stage really, really slowly and a woman was talking out of a mound of dirt. It was extraordinary.

“That is the other thing about long-form theatre. Every moment needs to be exquisite. You can’t justify an eight-hour show unless it needs to be eight hours because the ideas in it are so massive or the imagery is stunning or epic. You are working in the extremes of something, which is lovely.”

The Harp in the South: Sugar bombs and quiet rooms

Director Kip Williams, who is overseeing The Harp In The South, believes audiences have a different contract with the performers and the theatre makers when they come and see a long-form piece.

“They are there for the duration, they want that experience. There is a myth around how our attention spans work and a lot of people are prepared to challenge it.”

For Kate Mulvany, who adapted novelist Ruth Park’s trilogy for the stage, long-form productions offer writers, actors and audiences the rare luxury of time.

“You get to unpack a lot more, you have more time to get to know the characters and it means the audience has time to fall more deeply in love with those characters,” Mulvany says. “It allows for more complexity, you have time to think about how they disappoint you or how they exalt you.”

But, Mulvany says, a writer has to keep at least one eye on the clock. Actors will flag. Audiences will tire.

“I also have to acknowledge that people have bladders that need to be emptied and might get hungry. You have to think about all those biological things when you are putting the script together.

“I also like to give the audience a sugar hit now and then,” Mulvany adds. “You throw sugar bombs in so people have a good laugh after they’ve had a good cry.”

It’s an old trick, says Williams. “You see it in lots of writing throughout history where a writer puts a comic scene in because when you laugh you take in big amounts of oxygen, it refreshes your brain, and then you are ready to take in more information. After an intellectually dense or emotionally dense scene, a moment of comedy – even if it’s just one big laugh – can totally refresh an audience.”

A marathon show is usually the result of a marathon production process. Harp rehearsed for 8 weeks (five being the usual). That commitment of time requires sensitive casting, says Williams.

“We’ve tried to cast a community, a group of people who are going to look after each other. The show is technically big but it’s also emotionally big so there are times when you go for a little walk with someone, just to check in and provide some extra love and support. And hugs.

“We’ve also got the Ruth Cracknell Room as a quiet space. It’s important to have somewhere to be quiet if you need it. We have beds set up, too, so people can sleep.”

And the “sugar bombs” don’t have to be in the script, says Mulvany. A supply of confectionary helps no end.

“Heather Mitchell has a dressing room full of treats,” Mulvany says. “She does it up like a saloon. She has the baked goods. All the actors hang out in there. The community feeling extends well after the show has finished.”

The Harp in the South, Parts 1 and 2 plays at the Roslyn Packer until October 6

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