10-minute plays: Embrace minimalism
Plays happen on stage, but they also happen in the imaginations of the audience. The less there is on the stage, the more there is to imagine. Go for the great strength of the short play — a spare, intense, concentrated experience arising out of the irreducible essentials of theater: actors and dialog. Just give a theater interesting characters who speak great dialog in an interesting situation, and let that theater have the rest of the creative fun.
Write few characters
Two good actors with your good dialog can easily sustain an audience’s interest for ten minutes. Anton Chekhov wisely noted that even in a full length play “Only two should be at the center of gravity.”
Never use characters without dialog as props (e.g waitstaff, other people waiting for the bus). “Each actor should have a decent sized part,” says Jeff Bushnell, of North Park Vaudeville. “No actor wants to come to a bunch of rehearsals to make a very short appearance in a short play.”
Each additional character complicates a theater’s casting problems, and adds to the crowd in the dressing room. The only theater groups who might want scripts with supernumeraries are schools, senior center recreation programs, or others who want on-stage opportunities for an existing group.
Of course, your story might require more characters, such as when a character brings home a new love interest to meet the parents, or a first date is interrupted by an ex.
Simplify your character descriptions
When you can. Because most theaters have a significantly larger casting pool of women than men, and both pools might be small, they might decline your good script with too many male characters in favor of one that is more easily cast. They might reject a great script because they are not be able to cast a character you describe as “Male, 90, bodybuilder, an Inuit with an Italian accent.”
If the gender, age and ethnicity of a character in your play are irrelevant to the play, add a note overtly stating that on your Cast of Characters page. That offers the theater casting flexibility, and should reassure them that you share their commitment to inclusion, are open to their creative decisions about casting and directing, and are not difficult to work with.
Write for an empty set
Your play succeeds or fails on actors delivering dialog, not on sets. 10-minute plays do not need sets, they just need actors, a script, and an audience. No Shame Theatre began by offering exciting theater from the back of a pick-up truck, illuminated by motorcycle headlamps. The set for Barhoppers plays in Charlottesville is whatever bar is the venue, nothing more.
Most theater festivals have a set with two or three simple props (perhaps one chair and a box). Directors can shift the chair for their own plays, but not every festival allows items to be moved on or off stage in the 60 seconds usually allotted between the end of one 10-minute play and the beginning of the next.
A few theaters tell playwrights in their calls for submissions what props will be on stage, but most theaters just ask for plays with no set demands. That should not be a problem for a 10-minute play.
How important are your set requirements in getting your play accepted? Darlene Kersner, of Pegasus Theater, told me that “When picking 10-minute plays to produce or direct, I look first of all for pieces that have simple set requirements.”
“Imagine the stage, not the location.”
Establish the setting without a set
You might not need to establish a setting — the audience won’t demand to know where a marital argument happens, for example.
But if your setting does matter, your dialog might make the setting obvious without your even trying. Mission accomplished if your opening line is “Sorry, buddy, the bar’s closing” or “I need to return this sweater” or “The doctor will see you now.”
One simple, hand-carried prop can establish your play’s setting. In my short play Little Felicity, the audience immediately knows the play is set in a garden because one character wears a garden hat and carries a watering can — both of these props get carried on and off stage by the actor herself without involving stage crews or delaying the next play.
Your play title can identify or imply the setting, but some audience members won’t read the program. Most 10-minute play titles that I encounter say little or nothing about the play itself, which is fine because the audience has already bought tickets without caring about individual titles.
The majority of the plays in the 2019 festival staged by 4th Street Theater in Indiana are, like most 10-minute play titles, light on clues to content or genre: Frameworks, Goodbye Itzy-Bitzy, The Elimination Round, 172 Pushups, You Haven’t Changed a Bit, Budget Airlines Flight 711, About Time, and Office Hours. Not a problem.
“Emptiness in the theatre allows the imagination to fill the gaps.”
Specify only essential props and costumes
Plays without costume requirements are more likely to be accepted. Actors who are cast in more than one play during a festival performance need to be able to change swiftly and easily between plays, and dressing rooms can get crowded.
Some small, hand-carried props might be essential to the play (e.g. a letter being discussed, a gun in a holdup, car keys being argued over).
Lighting is an important, often unremarked but complex aspect of theatrical production, but your only obligation as a playwright is to write a script with no special lighting requirements. Once your play is accepted, your director and lighting designer will do the work.
The lighting design might be a simple lights-up lights-down for every play of the evening.
Leave the blocking to directors
All you need to do is make sure that the intent of the play is clear. If you think the script might be misunderstood, you can do add a tagline or one-sentence synopsis to the cover or the Cast of Characters page. The tagline on the cover of my 10-minute play What If We Did is “Some people just can’t admit they are happily married.” I thought about writing instead “Some people just can’t accept responsibility.” Those taglines might seem to be about different plays, but either one works. I believe that a director might make different decisions based on which tagline is on their script.
Leave the acting to the actors
Your script should ensure that actors know their characters, i.e. know what to act — but don’t tell them how to act. Delete gestural instructions like “rolls her eyes” or “puts his hands on his hips.”
The context should be enough for each actor to know how to deliver a line. But if a line of dialog is ambiguous, tell the actor by using a brief stage direction, e.g. (surprised) (sarcastic) (doubtful) (relieved).
But — be brief, not minimalist, in describing characters
Which of these two versions of a Cast of Characters would catch the attention of the festival script reader? Which would make casting better? Which would provide more guidance to the director? We agree, it isn’t the minimalist one.
or this version:
JANE: 30s, out of jail, out of patience
DICK: 50s, a creepy-uncle type bail bondsman
If the festival person reading your submission immediately thinks of local actors, something like “Wow, Larry would make a great creepy-uncle character,” you have a head start towards acceptance. Even if the reader does not think of a local actor, your characters look interesting. Every advantage helps when you are competing with hundreds of other scripts.