10-minute plays: Be kind to your actors

Theater is a collaborative process, of course, at the end of which everyone should be happy, not just the playwright and audience. We want to give actors interesting roles in an interesting play, not a menial chore. We can give them a head start towards success and satisfaction by following these suggestions.

Help the actor understand her character

You will probably have only one opportunity to do this, since you will not be present at rehearsals or contacted by the director.

Do it by adding a tagline on the script cover page and by providing brief information in the cast of characters. A tagline on a script’s cover page has several benefits: it might motivate the script reader to want to like your play, and then to accept your play, and it might help the theater to cast the right actor and help focus the director on your thematic intention. And then a tagline can help the actors understand their characters.
Use your Cast of Characters opportunity

Only two of these character description options would help the actor understand her character.

          KAREN: 30s.

          KAREN: 30s. Won’t trust anyone, even herself.

          KAREN: 30s. Eager for new friends.
Let the actor make acting decisions

Your script should tell the actor what to say, but not how to act. Leave those decisions to the actor and director. They enjoy making creative decisions as much as playwrights do, and have some training and experience. Even ambiguous dialog is not very risky if the director and actor know the intent of your play.
Give each character a significant role

Never include characters who are not essential. Besides complicating casting troubles and clogging the green room during festivals, insignificant roles are likely to be turned down by actors who can act. Jeff Bushnell of North Park Vaudeville rightly says that “Each actor should have a decent sized part. No actor wants to come to a bunch of rehearsals to make a very short appearance in a short play.”

Actor Joe Perignat likes 10-minute plays in part because they “tend to have few roles, with all the roles being somewhat ‘principal.’ Typically, the actors are all on stage for the duration of the performance and therefore each has an opportunity to command the stage.”
Make the dialog speakable

Unless you have a clever reason to give a speaker convoluted syntax, don’t. Avoid trying to write dialect. Long lines can cause breath problems, and lead actors into hurrying.
Make your play nine minutes, not ten

Avoid the temptation to fully pack your ten pages. Too many lines make actors hurry, depriving the production of the very important acting that goes on during quiet moment between lines. Actors act during silences, but only if there are silences. Fewer lines also allow the director more creative latitude in timing and rhythm. Leave rapid talk and dread of silence to cable news channels.

Name your characters

Your audience might never hear the names of your characters spoken during the play, but you should name your characters anyway. It might have been cool once to name characters ONE and TWO, or WOMAN and MAN, but it isn’t cool now. Your first draft Cast of Characters might simply include BARISTA and MANAGER, but don’t send out your script before actually naming the characters (e. g. MARY, a perfectionist barista, and PAT, a harried manager).

An actor is happier if she can say at a cocktail party or at an audition, or in a later playbill bio, that “she played Mary in Starbucks Memories,” not just “the barista.” A role with a name seems more important, which might also help the actor persuade casual friends to buy tickets to the festival and your play.


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