Much of the buzz surrounding Canadian writer Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win came from her affinity for the short story, a form usually spurned as a kind of bastard stepchild of literature. Munro doesn’t write the long, drawn-out novels the Nobel committee (and many readers) generally prefer; her concise, concentrated narratives pack whole lives into paragraphs, sweeping movements into a few pages. The effect is often riveting and sort of eerie—at the end of a good one you think to yourself, how did she do that?—and so quickly! Munro’s brand of elegant economy isn’t usually rewarded, so her win here counts as a real achievement.
As in literature, the theater doesn’t generally hold brevity as a virtue. Popular marathon performances (Gatz, The Coast of Utopia, Life and Times) are extreme examples of a general bent: Ticket-buying audiences prefer like their theater served in hefty, 90-plus minute servings, thank you very much.
But there is real value—and fun!—to be found in much shorter pieces, plays no longer than 30ish minutes or so. I recently saw three such works in various stages of development under the collective title Ladder to the Moon at HERE, and stand behind their shortness: Size needn’t matter!
The first of these playlets—Harold, I Hate You by Amanda Szeglowski—imagines a trio of Girl Scout-like gals traipsing through the woods, voicing their anxieties in counterpart to a disembodied voice in a tent. The girls’ worries run the gamut—they fret over everything from death-by-mulch-grinder to sleepover abandonment. Their movement is highly stylized and choreographed, as are their mostly expressionless, monotone speaking voices. Before you know it, the story is over… and the briefness of these collective conversations is part of what makes the play successful: Enhancement might’ve spoiled the creepy and anxious space so quickly conjured.
The second piece, Ghost Stories (a product of Tiny Little Band, Jerry Lieblich and Stefanie Abel Horowitz), also trades in the world of worries, this time through—duh—ghost stories. Three narrators beckon audience members onto the stage, gather them around small lamps, and tell spooky tales of the supernatural. We’re talking good old fashioned, gather-round-the-campfire ghost stories. There’s some commentary, but mostly it’s the scary goods told straight up… and it’s awesome. The simplicity of good storytellers telling good stories holds up spectacularly, and, because it doesn’t need to prop up a two-hour evening, can stay as spare as it needs to be.
Ryann Weir’s The Dinosaur Play, the final piece, tracks two disenchanted employees at a zoo. Layering on their depressing-beige uniforms, polishing visitors’ glasses and ultimately pausing for a treatise on dinosaurs, they wallow in the doldrums of their sad-sack lives. (In a particularly funny/sad moment, one employee explains why it’s “financially irresponsible” for the workers to stay in their low-paying jobs.) Again, the impact comes swiftly and needn’t wallow. Clarity comes in the quickly-formed setup, climax and resolution (such as it is) of the narrative.
One, twice, three times Ladder to the Moon proves you don’t need to drone on to make a point or an impact. In that spirit, I’ll stop now, toast brevity, and shut the hell up.