what if: programming the double bill

What if more theatres had a slot that was filled not by a play with several acts but two one acts, or a few ten-minute plays and a one act, or, in other words, a mixture of shorter works? I’m not familiar with contemporary playwrights writing one-act plays and assume that is because so few theatres ever produce them. Professionally produced ten-minute plays will only occur in festivals. But pairing shorter pieces can highlight elements of pieces that could be ignored if the pieces were to play separately. It can showcase ranges in performers and writers, or suggest influences or connections between pieces. It’s a curious challenge for programmers, and, on some level, it invites the audience to be curious and interested in what has been put together, too. Although there are several options when it comes to programming, for simplicity’s sake and just guessing that it’s more likely to pair two pieces, I’ll call refer to programming options as the double-bill.

The double-bill is far from a stranger to other performing art forms. Last year, I heard Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and The Monteverdi Choir perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, paired with an earlier Beethoven choral work, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt at Carnegie Hall.


Juxtaposing the two pieces invited the audience to compare them, to pick out similarities and differences in Beethoven’s work over time. Because one piece was very short, it made the evening’s length manageable. It was a very smart double-bill.

It isn’t easy to put together a satisfying double-bill. Case in point: Brian Dennehy has had a long-term love for Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play Hughie. In 2004, he performed it at Trinity Rep in Rhode Island with a comedy, A Pound on Demand by a Sean O’Casey. Whatever the logic was behind the pairing, critics didn’t buy it. “The pairing of the plays seems random.” Bob Falls hated it, and when he brought it to the Goodman, Hughie played alone.


Joe Grifasi, left, and Brian Dennehy in Goodman Theater’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Hughie,’ directed by Robert Falls.

Dennehy, however, didn’t give up. In 2008 he performed Hughie at Long Wharf. He performed both Hughie and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at the Stratford Festival, which he did again at the Goodman in 2010. Why that pairing? The directors gave their rationale: “these plays are mini-masterpieces; both are leavened by the black Irish humor that was the heritage of each author, and both offer incomparable challenges to an actor — which Brian negotiates with thrilling artistry,” wrote Bob Falls.

Krapp’s Last Tape director Jennifer Tarver spoke more directly about their similar content and themes. “These plays have real resonances together,” says Tarver… “They are both about remembrance. And in both plays there is a sense of loss and an absent central character.” The double-bill worked; at least one reviewer wrote about the two plays being billed together:  “The pairing does magnify the themes of each play, intriguingly pitting O’Neill’s verbosity and American colloqualisms against Beckett’s spare lyricism.”

Last week, I saw Opus 7 at St. Ann’s Warehouse. It was composed of two one-act plays. They were not blatantly thematically connected, but the audience could draw connections between them. To me, each piece felt complete, and both were inspiring. And I was not the only one to think it was a fantastic experience.

The double-bill doesn’t have to be seen as a dinosaur from the past. It can be very satisfying in the present.

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