Time-based art

After many years of waiting, I finally had the opportunity to see one of the 4 days of 14/48. Afterward, my theatre partner and I had an interesting discussion about time-based art, and what the benefits vs downsides are. He’s not in favor of it, generally, because it doesn’t allow space for the creative process. As a visual artist, he has created pieces with a limited amount of time, but he doesn’t feel like they’re good work. His argument, essentially, was that artists can create a sketch in a limited amount of time, but not a coherent, complete, and appealing work of art.

Overall, I agree with the assessment, but as an artist, I have a bad habit of procrastination and wallowing. Time-based theatre is a great experience for me, personally, because it forces me to make choices, and any edits in the process are made without judgment. In time-based art, the artist doesn’t have time for personal judgment of work. And frankly, that can be liberating.

Here’s a couple of classics to illustrate our points: Shakespeare, and many other playwrights in history, had deadlines. Tough deadlines. Shakespeare was probably adding chunks to his plays in the week or two of rehearsal the actors got before the show went on stage. If he wanted to edit the plays, it happened after the actors started working the scene, or even after the show went up.

On the other hand, modern playwrights write without as much of a deadline. While self-imposed deadlines might help their writing, selling the play doesn’t normally happen until after the entire play is finished. Sometimes the play can spend months, even years, in work-shopping. This means the play has the advantage of the playwright’s focus, actors’ voices, and lots of consideration before it hits the stage. The final product, in an ideal world, is honed down to what is necessary to convey the story to the audience. Musicals in particular go through this process: they move from work-shopping to first productions at regional theatres to final productions on Broadway or Off-Broadway. The show isn’t considered complete until it hits a theatre in NYC.

On the other OTHER hand, some of the most classic works of art are not officially, according to the painter, complete. The Mona Lisa is a great example. “According to Da Vinci’s contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, ‘…after he had lingered over it four years, left it unfinished….'[…] It is known that such behavior is common in most paintings of Leonardo who, later in his life, regretted ‘never having completed a single work’.”

So there can be benefits for some artists in having a time limit. It forces you to start your work, and it forces you to make decisions, even if in hindsight the piece needs more work.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite pieces of time-based art.
14/48: 14 plays written, rehearsed, and performed in 48 hours.

24 Hour Plays: similar to 14/48, this is a set 6 or 7 plays written overnight, rehearsed during the day, and performed the following evening. Every actor, writer, and director brings one prop or costume piece on the first evening, and the writers then use those props/costumes in their pieces.

365 Days, 365 Plays a collection of short plays written by Suzan-Lori Parks in 2005. It was then performed all over the country in a festival in 2006; plays were divided up into one week per theatre company per city that applied (I directed week 18 for Eclectic Theater Company in Seattle). One short play was performed per day, and at the end of the quarter, each group got together and performed their whole week for a large audience.

National Playwrighting Month (NaPlWriMo): inspired by National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), this annual event inspires playwrights, from amateur to professional, to force those creative ideas onto paper during one month. Participation is totally voluntary, and many participants (myself included) don’t make the deadline. But you have a support group to check in with, which can be really helpful, as well as articles and updates from the event coordinators that discuss the writing process.

Neo-Futurist’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”: “Each week, these plays shift as ensemble members add new plays to the existing body of work. Each night of performance, we create an unreproducable living newspaper collage of the comic and tragic, the political and personal, and the visceral and experimental.” Writer/performers create 2-minute pieces, which are rehearsed during the week and performed for TMLMTBGB during the weekend. The audience gets a “menu” on their program, and between plays shouts out the number of the show they want to see next. The group attempts to perform all 30 plays in 60 minutes (the night I went, we made it to 28!). And then the next week, it’s all done again.

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