Saturday, September 8, 2007

Ten-Minute Plays

I belong to three Yahoo! Groups for playwrights. Two of them don’t have much (other than porn and Cialis offers), but the third is pretty active- at least three posts a day, every day. Since I joined last spring, there have been two really spirited, passionate discussions, one about charging fees for playwriting contests. The most recent has revolved around a theatre that had been (and has since desisted) charging a $12 fee to submit a ten-minute play. Since dialogue is approximately a minute a page, that struck some people as excessive. But in the midst of this passionate debate, an ancillary topic came up, which is the value of ten-minute plays. One member wrote that ten-minute plays are for students, and useless for anyone else, certainly for professional playwrights.
I am not sure I would go quite that far. I think ten-minute plays are reflective of how our culture has changed since the 1950s, particularly through tv. The most visible proponent of the ten-minute play has been the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Every year, playwrights from all over the country submit their ten-minute masterpieces to ATL, where a handful are produced as part of the Humana Festival. For decades, ATL has published collections of the best ten-minute plays they’ve produced. I have used several of them in playwriting classes, if one of the goals of the class (which it often is) is to have each student complete a ten-minute play.
But the truth is, writing a good ten-minute play is quite difficult. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It shouldn’t be a comedy sketch. It shouldn’t be the first scene of a much longer work. (I myself am most guilty of the latter.) Out of the ATL collections, even the “Best of” anthologies, at least half don’t fulfill those three criteria. And many that do, aren’t really ten-minutes long. The former artistic director of ATL, Jon Jory, used to say that no ten-minute play is really ten minutes long.
On the other hand, for theatres, ten-minute plays can be a godsend. They bring in new audiences (the family and friends of the actors and the directors); they’re much faster to rehearse; it’s less daunting to put amateur actors in shorter, unsustained roles, so they save money by not paying salaries or stipends. And for audiences who aren’t used to going to the theatre, it’s less intimidating because it’s more like tv. You don’t like the first piece? That’s okay. Wait ten minutes and we’ll be on to the next one.
What’s most difficult (and off-putting) to me about ten-minute plays is that the form pretty much dictates content that’s either a shallow riff about something important, or a riff on something of little importance. My friend Elaine Romero wrote a ten-minute play about Susan Smith (the woman who killed her children) which is wonderful, but ten-minute plays of that level are very rare. I have written at least ten of them myself; three are coming out in anthologies published by Smith and Kraus this year.
Of course the other problem with ten-minute festivals is they have spawned ever-shorter plays- eight-minutes, five-minutes, even down to one-page (they certainly exist). I guess I wonder when they’ll shrink to two lines of dialogue. Or maybe just one word

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