My play’s longer than your play

Robert Lepage’s new work is nine hours long and it’s not unique. Here comes ’slow theatre.’

My play's longer than your playAfter wowing audiences in London, Sydney and Madrid, Robert Lepage’s multilingual play Lipsynch finally receives its North American premiere next month at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. And what has theatre mavens chattering most about the Canadian theatrical alchemist’s latest production? Its exploration of the human voice? Its multidisciplinary virtuosity? No, the buzz is all about Lipsynch’s audacious running time of eight hours and 25 minutes. It’s being staged in three-hour chunks over three days or, for Lepage devotees, at all-day marathons punctuated by 20-minute intermissions and a 45-minute meal break. Tickets run $75 to $125, which when you do the math is a bargain. Where else can you buy genius for 25 cents a minute?

Toronto-based actor and playwright Rick Miller, one of nine actors who collaborated on the production, says Lepage’s desire to mount a nine-hour play met with resistance. “We all thought he was nuts,” he says. But he now sees the time commitment as key to the “operatic experience”: “Time takes on a different scale; you experience things without turning on the BlackBerry or cellphone.”

Of course, turning off the BlackBerry runs against the grain of an ADD-afflicted, Twittering culture. “Nine hours of theatre scares the hell out of some people,” Miller says. “I’m going to have a hard time getting my family to it.” Once people settle in, though, “it’s like watching one episode after another of a TV series on DVD.”

Lipsynch is part of a larger “slow theatre” movement, a riff on “slow food” that calls for audience immersion. In August, Ontario’s Shaw Festival is staging 10 Noël Coward plays in one day, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m. Ticket sales are brisk, says Odette Yasbeck, director of public relations: “People who love Coward want to say ‘I did it; I survived it.’ ”

Extended cycles satisfy a need for narrative, says Naomi Campbell, producer at Nightswimming, the company that staged City of Wine, Ned Dickens’ acclaimed 16-hour, seven-play cycle about the city of Thebes that ran over three days in Toro earlier this month. “Just look at the popularity of the latest Star Trek,” she says. She recalls running into a society type at City of Wine who she assumed would never have the time or the inclination to sit through it: “She told me: ‘Oh, give me anything epic, anything long—I’m there.’ ”

Slow theatre has even been heralded as the new Ritalin. Writing in the Guardian, the British playwright Mark Ravenhill praised celebrated Polish director Krystian Lupa, who’s known for Factory 2, an eight-hour homage to Andy Warhol. Lupa’s currently staging Marilyn, a three-hour work-in-progress to be part of a nine-hour exploration of “personality.” Ravenhill enthused about “its slowness, its longueurs.” He was initially frustrated by the pace, he admits. “But then I suddenly became hugely excited. For almost the first time in my theatregoing experience, I was truly being treated as an adult, someone who didn’t need to be constantly diverted, who had chosen to be here and was being given space for my own responses.”

Theatre provides a unique forum, says Matthew Jocelyn, the new artistic director of the Canadian Stage Company. “It’s the one place you can really subject your body and mind and imagination to a rhythm that’s radically different from that of our everyday lives,” he says. “Having that slightly more lyric empty space can be extremely rich for an audience and extremely rich as a narrative process.”

Of course, being receptive to the process requires patience, a quality not evident in the Guardian reviewer who live-blogged Lipsynch’s premiere at London’s Barbican Centre last September. He lauded its visual wonder, but became antsy by the halfway mark, writing, “Note: that sound you hear is someone peeling my eyelids up off the Barbican floor.” Still, he reported most of the audience gave it a standing ovation. Maybe they were celebrating their own endurance.

Lipsynch is an antidote to a monotonous culture that serves up “prepackaged” theatre, Miller says: “You know what you’re going to get out of Shirley Valentine or Dirty Dancing. And they deliver. But we want people to experience something that sticks in their brains. I’ve had people write me and say, ‘I’m still mulling this over.’ They didn’t quite get it because there’s nothing to get: it’s a reflection of a disturbing, difficult world.” For anyone making the plunge, Miller has advice: “Bring water. And wear sweatpants.”