Monday, December 12, 2011
Some thoughts I had while writing my tiny little bad boys for the SF One-Minute Play Festival…
Here is perhaps our most famous short play, in its entirety: Beckett’s Breath:
1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold about five seconds. 2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds. 3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in 1) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold about 5 seconds.
And so in the end, Beckett’s views on life can be boiled down to one simple, yet endlessly huge idea (at least in my take on the piece): You’re born, you breathe in the garbage of life, you’re snuffed out. This is arguably a central notion running through Beckett’s entire oeuvre, and in a career marked by endlessly stripping down word counts to their barest essentials (he started as a novelist), he finally managed to strip away words and run-times all together.
Yet in less than a minute (around 35 seconds to be exact) he conveys volumes, and the visceral impact of making me feel as though I am breathing in garbage has a lasting effect. I can feel the toxicity, and in less than a minute a window begins to open on all the unhealthy aspects of my life. I begin to see things in terms of pollution: my bad eating habits pollute my body; my neuroses pollute my soul; my endless hours on the internet pollute my mind. Although Beckett probably didn’t intend his plays to be motivational allegories, these sudden revelations are cathartic. Because in this particular play, run-time is part of the thematic conceit: from a cosmic perspective, a single person’s life-span registers as less than a minute, so we’d be well advised not to fill our few precious seconds on earth with poison. It is a terrifying call to action.
If the goal of the playwright is to capture some essence of life, some essential Truth- with a capital T- then surely the nature of this Truth is timeless. And if this is the case, then the play, given its finite run time, can be seen as a symbolic representation, a tip of the iceberg of the endlessly expansive and endlessly expanding aspects of this Truth. So the experience of a profound play doesn’t stop when the lights come up, or even begin when the lights first go down. The experience of the play has already commenced from the time each audience member began experiencing life: accumulating their histories, forging their mind-frames, and developing their methods of processing. The audience provides the substance and meaning that fill out the symbolic actions that play out before them. And after the audience is moved and shaped by the mingling of their and the artists’ perspectives, they will carry this experience with them as they move on with their lives- from the discussion in the car ride home to the memories in their subconscious for years and decades and even generations to come. So in the end, the play is part of a continuum. It is not an isolated event.
Looking at a play from this perspective, what is the difference between a run-time of one-minute and a run-time of a hundred and twenty minutes? Relative to the span our Lives- with a capital L- there is no difference. Consider a Rembrandt painting, which is a frozen moment in time but captures multitudes that expand in time on all sides, from the history of the painted figure on one side to the emotion you carry forth into the future on the other. You may look at the painting for five seconds and tap into the timelessness that is its lineage, or it may take you half an hour to get there. Or maybe it takes exactly one minute. So I am a fan of one minute plays. Or the idea of any work of art that questions the normal boxes of time we put things in. Because the Essence- with a capital E- of what we are circling around as artists is so much bigger than any box can hold.
The Second Annual SF One-Minute Play Festival, in partnership with Playwrights Foundation at Thick House is Sat Dec 17th at 8 PM, and Sun Dec 18th at 2PM and 7PM. 60 Plays. 30+ Playwrights. 20+ Actors. 1 Minute. Tickets are $18 dollars online and available here.