Originally published January 26, 2016 on samgraber.com. Reprinted with permission.
Writing a 10-Minute play is easy! All you have to do is come up with an ingenious idea, figure an inventive and enthralling stage mechanism, employ riveting and tender characters, serve boiling hot action, and implant sensational dialog. And get it under 10 minutes.
No problem! That’s all there is to it. So you can stop reading now.
Oh wait, sorry, when I wrote that it was easy, I meant hard. Challenging. Baffling. Rife with the potential danger of turning you into a psychotic mess.
And if you thought writing a 10-Minute Play was all this…try teaching it! Last week I twice taught a seminar on writing the 10-Minute Play. The first seminar I taught was at The Playwrights’ Center. The second session, the reprise, occurred at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. I would gauge both sessions as not a total failure since 1) only 5 people fell asleep during my presentations, and 2) no one walked out on me. The latter maybe because there wasn’t an intermission?
Anyway, the seminar teaser copy used to entice…
The 10-Minute Play. It’s not just for breakfast anymore. The short one-act is the bolt of theatrical lightning which has become a prevalent form of theatrical expressiveness. We will explore the variations of structure, the positing of character and the emotional impact that make up a tantalizing 10 minutes. And beyond exploration…we will dabble with creation! So bring an idea, a character, or a situation you’ve always wanted to see on stage and prepare to weave your next 10-minute play.
FROM WHOM THE 10-MINUTE PLAY TOLLS
I kicked off both seminars with the same joke regarding the tribulations of a certain playwright who walked into a bar. The adult folks at The Playwrights’ Center gave me impatient glares. The youth of America at the theater festival session gave me grim, impatient glares.
I am so not hip.
But I became instantly hip once I introduced the framework of the 10-Minute Play. Because I was right in guessing that the attendees, probably like most of you reading, are not writing the 10-Minute play in an isolated vacuum. You’re not out there writing for your own literary satisfaction or sense of personal accomplishment. You’re writing the 10-Minute play to get produced by theaters. And most 10-Minute plays today are getting produced by theaters in festivals.
You are more than likely writing for acceptance into a 10-Minute play festival.
So what happens in a 10-Minute play festival?
A theater company, seeking to either expand revenue streams or grow audiences or broaden a base of artistic contributors, will decide to produce a 10-Minute play festival. They will put out calls for scripts. They will get inundated with submissions not unlikely totaling around 700. They will select around 1% of those submissions for performance. They will then get a bunch of directors to direct those selected 1% of scripts. Those directors will cast and then spend a few rehearsals before rushing and sweating through a quick, single Cue-to-Cue run by an overworked and stressed technical director all before each individual play is rushed onstage for a single performance. This is stereotypical of the fast and frenetic factory of theater fun that is the 10-Minute play festival.
So what this means is…if you’re out there writing a 10-Minute play…and you want to get it produced as a submitting playwright for an evening of multiple shorts plays…you must understand what you are writing for. A cast of 15 with lavish set required? Chance of selection: slim. Small cast and minimal props only? You just got closer to that 1%.
Again, if you are building your own personal repertoire, or looking to go straight to publication, or your name is Tony Kushner and you can have staged whatever you write, then disregard. Otherwise, understand the framework of production constraints for which you are writing. Recognize what it takes to produce a 10-Minute play festival and the difficulty of pulling together a slate of pieces for a single night’s or short run production. Understand what an audience goes through watching a variety of short plays in back-to-back fashion.
Because you are no longer getting automatically produced in the campus festival since you paid tuition. You are now aiming to be in the 1%.
Oh yes, I see the college kids are listening now.
HOW TO SCREW UP A 10-MINUTE PLAY
I believe I was asked to lead both seminars because of my small success as a Submitting Playwright in the national 10-Minute play scene. I also continue to serve as a reader on numerous selection committees. So I know just how to screw up a 10-Minute play.
Want to screw up a 10-Minute play?
The easiest way to screw up a 10-Minute play is to pen what I call the Talking Speaking play. This is the play where two people sit around an NYC apartment kitchen and drink and attempt to discuss an entire universe of backstory until one of them reveals…a secret! Folks, this is half the pile of 700 scripts coming in. Now, granted, the funniest 10-Minute play I have ever seen was two people sitting around a kitchen table drinking and one of them reveals a secret…but that’s not the point. The point is don’t listen to anything I say. Or do. Totally up to you. I’m just trying to help.
The second easiest way to screw up your Pulitzer Prize-winning 10-Minute play is to NOT ask a question. Does your play ask a question? It should. It really should. Make sure your 10-Minute play is more than just an interesting scenario with interesting characters. Let us feel the play beyond the final bows. Make it stand for something. Go as far as to try and make your play the definitive piece on a particular slice of life.
For example, a great question I once saw a play ask was: what happens to cities when they die? Another great 10-Minute play I saw will change forever how I see vultures.
But don’t necessarily ask the question as part of the literal action. In fact, and this might be the most important thing I had to offer in the seminar, recognize that what your play is about (the question) and why your audience is watching (the interest) are two completely different things. Yes. This is key. Let’s say your play might be asking: what is the effect of desultory national forestation policy on local environmental decay? Funky question. But that’s not why your audience is watching. Your audience is watching because, as a perhaps, they might want to see the romantic interest blossom (HA) between your mercurial government arboreal expert character and your demanding local industrialist character (e.g.). Are you with me? Very key. What your play is about and why the audience watches are more often than not two different things and you have to know both. Cold.
Here’s another great way to screw up your 10-Minute play. Don’t grab the audience in the opening 60 seconds. Really. Just have your characters sitting around and speaking in deflective and vague utterances, until the purpose is slowly revealed in minute six and then unfurls by the end to entomb the audience within your monument of meaning. Please don’t do this. Know why? Because during a full-length play the first 10 minutes isn’t that long of a time sequence. But ten minutes in a 10-Minute play is an eternity. Yes. Einstein proved this. Hit the audience with the where/what/why within the first 60 seconds. Or don’t. Totally up to you.
An even more phenomenal way to screw up your 10-Minute play is to be broad. Just try to answer all the questions of the universe, or cram gargantuan lineages of family history into a small hole. Actually, don’t. Focus on a single fine point. Laser focus on that point. Be relentless about hitting that point over and over. And don’t stray from that point. From the specific do we get the universal.
I almost forgot! A surefire way to screw up your 10-Minute play is to write it in a rush, to proofread for basic grammar mistakes, and then to send that baby out to the world! Now, at the risk of contradicting myself, and in the spirit of full transparency, my most successful 10-Minute play did just that…but that’s not the point. The point is: really and truly think through your setup and medium. Read your script aloud to yourself. Have others read it and comment. Push that script to new frontiers. Don’t settle. You are an artist. Be an artist. Toss and turn over that script for months. Always Be Rewriting (will be on my tombstone).
I once had a 10-Minute play, already produced and performed, become accepted to another festival, and the director assigned to my piece at that next festival told me that my script needed work and a rewrite. To which I explained the script had already been the recipient of much laughter and rave response. To which the director explained to me: Shut Up. To which I explained: Okay. And then I went ahead with that rewrite.
Oh wow, I just realized another dandy way to screw up your 10-Minute play. You ready? Have that sucker go over 10 minutes. You think I’m kidding? Not at all. People curating scripts for festivals see that thing exceed ten pages or get crammed into ten pages by wacky formatting and now possess cause for dismissal to the 99%. I don’t make the rules. I just know that ten minutes means ten minutes. News flash – you can have plays be less than ten minutes. Einstein proved this as well, I’m sure.
HOW TO WRITE A 10-MINUTE PLAY
Practice. Practice. Practice.
HOW TO WRITE A 10-MINUTE PLAY, PART II
All that stuff about characters with wants and forces blocking the want? Yes. Important. That is the basic stuff.
But that by itself will not necessarily result in a standout 10-Minute play.
You can have interesting characters in an interesting scenario, but that doesn’t mean it’s standout material.
HOW TO WRITE A 10-MINUTE PLAY, PART III
Discern between which of your astounding ideas is right for a 10-Minute play and which is better for a full-length. One of the more brilliant playwrights I’ve met here in Minneapolis once told me she can’t write a 10-Minute play because once she starts, there is a bigger story to tell and she needs to extrapolate to full-length. Hard to argue with that.
But I still offer since the 10-Minute play is a living, breathing part of American festival theater, that there are certain ideas suited better for the short form.
HOW TO WRITE A 10-MINUTE PLAY, PART IV
Always. Be. Rewriting.
Recognize the smallest tweaks to your construct can have the most profound results.
HOW TO WRITE A 10-MINUTE PLAY, PART V
Theater is such a wide and wonderful canvass of opportunity that there really are no rules for penning a sensational new work of imagination.
But be sure to follow the rules.
LIVING IN A 10-MINUTE WORLD
I do find the 10-Minute play a challenging but rewarding framework. I’ve written my share of 10-Minute plays which have been horrible. Those which have turned out to be good I feel have been worth the labor and thought.
People who lament the 10-Minute play as an outcrop of a withered or distracted attention of the American audience can certainly argue their point, but I have been in the audience when all of us, as a unit, have been blown away and taken to great places.
See you on stage. Or not. Totally up to you.