Jules Munns, Jonathan Monkhouse and Alex Fradera in Cellblock

I have a pretty short attention span. Receiving a YouTube link that approaches the five minute mark gives me pause.

And movies, conferences, books and documents – pretty much anything that doesn’t heed the “brevity is the soul of wit” axiom turn me off. But push it to the extreme and I get interested again. And I’ve recently had a few instances of seriously longform performance.

First there was the London 50 hour improvathon, and more recently I dropped in on Cellblock, the Nursery Festival’s 26 hour improv show set in a prison.

Then just a couple days ago I listened in on Pat Thornton’s 24 hour stand up set as part of the Dare to Remember. I even chipped in a few jokes (and a few bucks). Feel free to do the same. (Donate here).

All of these events got me thinking about what’s engaging about extended-length performance. It’s not the calibre of the show itself (I’ve seen some pretty sloppy improv tailing off towards the end of the marathons, and the jokes from Pat’s Dare? Well, there was quality and there was quantity – but not in equal amounts).

I think what’s so compelling is the pushing of limits, and pushing through those limits; challenging your endurance levels to see what is truly possible. But that’s not it entirely.

Pat Thornton of #pats24hrs

As this recent Guardian article identified in its reference to Cellblock, it’s the exploration, and seeing what comes out of a sleep-deprived mind. There’s a lot of twisted rantings, but there is also a level of near-genius that comes from being locked into something for so long. When I’ve joined in those improv marathons I’ve felt an exhilarating energy from the other performers, working, fighting and surrendering to exhaustion. It’s a cool thing.

But I would say that, because I like extreme things in extreme measures – and being part of the action. But what about the people for whom this is all for? Is there something more to be gained from watching an epic piece of theatre, or listening to the entirety of Moby Dick?

I think so. Because at a certain point you stop feeling a like a viewer, and instead become a participant. This is especially true in the case of improv, where the audience has been known to join in during the small hours, and most definitely in the case of Pat’s Dare to Remember, where the audience tweet in jokes. Some of my finest contributions here and here.

But even in the case of Moby Dick, it becomes a thing that you are part of. An experience that transcends the watching.

It’s not the quality it’s the engagement – and the commitment to the duration – from both performers and audience. What happens in the in between time just takes care of itself.