10-minute plays: What audiences want

Audiences want to be entertained

They don’t want to be lectured or hectored. They want their attention kept on something interesting that someone else is doing. As an old Hollywood hand simply advised, don’t be boring. Start with interesting characters in an interesting situation, and then keep your play moving forward. Moving forward can mean new plot elements, or getting deeper into character and theme.  Stalls can be fatal to aircraft, acrobats, and plays.

Audiences want to be moved emotionally

Short play festivals tend to emphasize comedy and variety, for audiences that want to have fun. Festival plays are usually dominated by happy emotions, like love and empathy, rather than by negative emotions, like anger and envy.

Short plays cannot easily deliver the profound emotional impact that you seek in your full-length plays. Shakespeare needed far more than 10 minutes to build to the emotional peak of King Lear. Trying to provide an intense emotional moment without adequate preparation often leads to an unconvincing and implausible sentimentality. Like advertisements and political speeches, your play should manipulate your audience’s emotions in such as way as to not make them feel manipulated.

“When the audience comes into the theatre, they disappear into the darkness with the common understanding that they are there to feel something.”

Tamara Rojo

Audiences want their beliefs and hopes affirmed

They do not want you to unleash your dogma to attack their dogma. Festival audiences want to relax in their comfy blanky of self-assurance. They enjoy edgy, but they have limits. Figuring out where this limit might be is part of the playwright’s job, even if she decides to push way past it.

Audiences do not want to be discomforted. Of course, what they want and what you want them to face might be quite opposite. Serious theater has always discomforted audiences to some extent. Find out what each festival seems to prefer by paying close attention to their submissions guidelines and to how they promote their festival. Some like hip and edgy plays, some prefer anodyne amusements. Some festivals want political contents, some do not.

Audiences want something to talk about when they leave

Good plays dramatize challenging questions rather than simple answers. Would you rather see a 10-minute play that tells you that you should floss every day, or a play that leads you to consider (and later discuss with your theater companion) why people often act against their own interests, such as by not flossing?

Of course, you’re right, flossing is not a promising subject. Your audience would rather see a play about, and talk about afterwards, something more important to them, something not yet settled. That might be a compelling contemporary social issue like homelessness, or it might be an eternally unsettled universal matter like grief — or that puzzle of why people often act against their self interest.

“The play that cannot be argued is not a serious play. The argument concerns ideas that cannot be resolved. But they can be discussed.”

Stella Adler

Audiences want to figure some stuff out for themselves

They like characters with a little mystery about them, and they like to ferret out conclusions about personality. We all do the same when we meet new people at a party, looking for clues to personality in gestures and remarks. Audiences do not need extensive backstory, which is good for playwrights, because they have very little time to provide backstory.

Audiences at short play festivals do not need to know everything about the characters’ open or secret motivations, their imperfect childhood history, or their hopes and dreams. Reveal enough for the characters and the play to make sense and to enrich the texture, but no more.

Audiences want something familiar, but new

Yes, this is a paradox. Audiences want your play, no matter how deeply its story is rooted in the familiar (like a first date, or a marital quarrel) to offer something new. That surprise might be more than the usual plot twist. It might be something far more original involving character or theme, setting or culture.

Because it is new, it will be a surprise. Because it is a surprise, it will be pleasing. Your surprise will give the audience a brief moment of light-headed disorientation, and then the fun of feeling a response to the new. This is one secret of good stand-up comedy, and it might be the secret of your 10- minute play’s success.

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