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Is the three-act dead?

posted by Karen McKevitt on Sat, Jan 28, 2012
in General theatre talk

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By Kristin Cato

As Berkeley Rep’s new Ground Floor initiative revs up its engines, it’s a good time to talk about what makes new theatre. Is it contemporary stories, contemporary forms, or both? At a company meeting this fall, Artistic Director Tony Taccone declared, “Artists are moving away from the three-act structure. Not because it is a trend, but because the three-act no longer reflects how people think and feel.” 

This statement was one of the more interesting things I’ve heard all year and, evidently, I was not alone. When I posted this quote onto my Facebook wall, it attracted a whopping 82 comments, and an incredibly vibrant dialogue about the possibilities of new theatre. I thought I’d share a few of those thoughts here.

But first, what is a three-act structure? Very succinctly, a three-act play includes basic storytelling elements: character set-up, inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict development building to climax, and resolution. All these sound familiar. So could it be as Tony suggests? A centuries-old storytelling technique is now fading from the mainstream? 




A few of my friends begged to differ:

“The three-act structure is an unyielding orthodoxy for the vast majority of Hollywood films and a great many ‘independents’. And I would submit to Mr. Taccone that the staggering profits of the film industry suggest that the mass audience expects the three-act structure just as compulsively as the industry serves it up to them.” –Douglas Michael Massing, freelance writer

“I feel that there have long been many valid forms of narrative, and while a given approach may become more fashionable among certain types who fancy themselves taste-makers, the human need to convey stories will never die. I think it’s silly to say that one form of story telling has more of less validity than another. Different strokes for different folks.”  - Lisa Lazar, scenic artist

“I believe we simply reshuffle things in storytelling, add or remove things here and there, usually out of a sense of wanting to invent or improve something, to make our own ‘modern’ mark on the craft.  I truly doubt the three-act is going anywhere.” – Matt Turner, actor/writer 

But at least one friend embraced the idea:

 “And now stories might start in the center, go back, have the climax at the beginning, show the end and then delve into character exploration?”  -Nathan Bogner, actor

Amy Potozkin, Berkeley Rep’s casting director, weighed in. “My impression of what Tony was saying is that there are an increasing number of theatrical works that are incorporating more varieties of art forms and that, as we have become an increasingly more visual culture (with the obvious being technology), we are creating theatre in new ways.  That what we used to call ‘the well-made play’ is no longer the norm and that our imaginations are wired differently. I agree that we are seeing more theatrical works programmed that incorporate media tech, dance, etc.”

When I brought this discussion to Tony’s attention, he responded, “Eighty-two comments?! What’d they say?” I admitted a few people disagreed with his assertion. He replied, “Well, part of the reason why I like to say things like that, is to get people talking. It’s not that there’s no structure. It’s just that younger people these days are used to a more episodic format from growing up watching TV. But also I’d say that it’s not just about TV. It’s about seeing the world as a more fractured place, about not expecting ‘resolution’ of an easy kind. That easy resolution feels untrue to the size of the world’s problems right now. It’s about the fact that the planet is imperiled and is making its way into the worldview of everyone under the age of 40 in a different way than before.”

So I ask you, Berkeley Rep audience: Does the three-act structure satisfy? Does it frustrate? Is it time for something new?  What do you think?

Kristin Cato is the director of the episodic audio drama The Lighted Bridge.



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