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I have noticed a lot of opportunities for ten-minute plays. This amazes me.

Who produces ten-minute plays? Who wants them? Who reads them? What is the purpose of a ten-minute play? Are requests for ten-minute plays a joke of some sort? I can't believe this is serious.

Please give me your take on them. I can't believe anyone would write or want to see or have any use for a ten-minute play.

—Dumbfounded in Duluth

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Have you stumbled upon the right institutional dramaturg here. Actors Theatre produces ten-minute plays (at least fifteen a year, between a dozen with the early-career actors in our Apprentice program and 3-4 in the Humana Festival of New American Plays). With our co-administrators, City Theatre of Miami (who produce probably three times as many as we do over the course of a year) we read 1,300 entries to the National Ten-Minute Play Contest. We want them, we read them, we produce them.

So, why? It’s a great question, and I can answer for my institution. We began the National Ten-Minute Play Contest in 1989 at the same time we changed the submission requirements for the Humana Festival of New American Plays. At the time, we were receiving some 2,000 full-length submissions, far more than we could reasonably read during our reading cycle. So the powers that were (Jon Jory and Michael Bigelow Dixon) tightened our submission guidelines (see www.actorstheatre.org/humana_submission.htm for details on our current policy) and began the contest—which has a $1,000 prize—to make sure we had a way for playwrights we don’t know to send full pieces our way. This has been tremendously useful to Actors Theatre in a couple ways:

• It has successfully introduced us to hundreds of writers whose work we go on to produce, in ten-minute or full-length form (the first piece we produced of Jordan Harrison’s, who has had two full-length plays produced here, was his ten-minute play Fit for Feet one of the scenes of Jennifer Haley's Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, which was in our most recent Humana Festival, was a finalist for the 2006 National Ten-Minute Play Festival).
• We have short, interesting plays for our young acting company to work on as a part of their season-long training with us.
• We’ve published nine volumes of ten-minute plays, getting (not always) meager royalties to playwrights, short plays onto the stages of colleges and introducing almost twenty years worth of undergrads and others to Actors Theatre’s new work.
• We have a great way to train our interns on reading plays—there’s nothing like reading a couple hundred ten-page plays to learn a lot about what works on stage, what might be less successful, and your own prejudices and taste, which are essential in making sure that scripts of all lengths are given a chance to stand on their own merits.
• And also, they’re fun—good ten-minute plays aren’t all funny, they aren’t all any given tone. In a festival, they’re a great way to showcase a variety of tones and ambitions in a short time (this year we’ve got a goofy comedy about break ups, bread and mimes; a haunting drama about the 2006 war in Lebanon; a thoughtful comedy about how lives are remembered; and a mad-cap comedy about two people with sock puppets on their hands).

That said, of course ten-minute plays aren’t for everyone, and as a writer, you know what lights your imagination, what kind of limitations are exciting and which are uninteresting. Poetry isn’t for everyone. Short stories aren’t for everyone. There’s a limit to what a writer can do in ten minutes of stage time, and speaking as someone who has read thousands of ten-minute plays, not everything people think is stage-worthy is actually interesting. Plenty of ten-minute plays I read are sketches, not plays; have punchlines instead of intriguing resolutions; are didactic or pretentious or outright boring. But at their best, a ten-minute play can be a glimpse of something vast, a slam-dunk insight into the ways of a family, the foibles of dating, the transcendence of time in the briefest of encounters.

So. I promise we’re serious about wanting ten-minute plays. And that I won’t take any playwright less seriously for not being interested in writing one.

AA —Adrien-Alice

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Courtesy of Adrien-Alice, you’ve just heard from the outstanding venue for the ten-minute play. Portland Center Stage, where I work, may be more representative of theaters in general in that we do not have production opportunities for short plays except for local writers. And even that’s a special case—we have a vibrant playwriting group here, aptly called PlayGroup, and we’ve assembled group shows out of short pieces three times now. These events are always very popular, and I recommend them to any writer’s group as a unifying and galvanizing artistic activity.

But anyway. There are venues out there for short plays. At first it may seem like it takes more work to unearth them, but it doesn’t, really. If you’ve already taken care to ensure you’re getting every playwriting newsletter out there, you’ll come across these venues as a matter of course. To mention just one exceptional publication, the Austin Script Works newsletter, edited by Christina J. Moore, is a treasure trove of intriguing submission opportunities.

So this begs the question of why you would want to write a ten-minute playlet. First of all, the sheer exercise uses a different set of creative muscles. Just as the compression of a short story differs from the profound character development possible in a novel, in a short piece you can control audience reception more precisely—and spin totally different narratives—than you can with a full-length play.

And practically speaking, a short piece can be a great entrée for you into a large sphere of awareness of your work. At PCS we get thousands of script queries a year, and we try to be disciplined about requesting only the relative few we believe could really have a life here. Occasionally, though, a writer will send a ten-minute play as a form of calling card. It’s not a formal submission, since the playwright knows we can’t produce it, but it’s a quick way to get some sense of his or her creative facility.

I’m speaking strictly for myself here—I don’t know that all literary departments appreciate the short play in this way, so don’t embark upon a scattershot mailing. But at least for me, a good ten-minute piece can be a handy introduction to a writer as well as a promising prelude of full-lengths to come.

Mead — Mead

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I read with great interest and respect Adrien-Alice’s passionate recounting of the role ten-minute plays have in the creative and institutional life of Actors Theatre of Louisville. And having attended the Humana Festival numerous times, I can say that I have vivid memories of a couple of wonderfully theatrical, well-structured, funny and/or moving ten-minute plays. And yet. I find it revelatory of the place that ten-minute plays have in the broader landscape of playwriting in America that many of the reasons Adrien-Alice gave for the instigation and support of ten-minute plays grew out of the institutional needs of ATL—too many full-length submissions to read, a way to train interns to read scripts, a way of generating work for young actors—and not because it was a form that playwrights were actually writing in.

And I guess that’s what makes me queasy about the explosion of ten-minute play “opportunities”—that they are the creation of well-meaning people at institutions who truly do love playwrights and are desperate to give opportunities and resources to artists but that they are little more than an institutional construct. I don’t really buy that they are a form on par with short stories and poetry. If they were, if playwrights really found them to be a meaningful and inspiring vessel for their thoughts and emotions, then wouldn’t we have artists who stuck with the form, created a body of work of ten-minute plays and became the Wallace Stevens or Flannery O’Conner of the ten-minute dramatic form? Now, goodness knows, some of our greatest writers have chosen to write plays in form and length shorter than a traditional two- or three-act play—Albee and Churchill and Wellman and Shepard—but the length and shape of those plays came organically from the writers—not from some imposed contest-like limit. It feels to me like the ten-minute play is more on par with the standard way we audition actors—16 bars and a three-minute monologue and if we like you we’ll let you show us what you can really do. Having sat through even more auditions than I have ten-minute plays, I get that this is an efficient way to expedite what can be an overwhelming process—whether it’s seeing 100 actors for one role or reading 2,000 submissions for 6-10 slots in a season or festival, but, for my money, neither the three-minute audition nor the ten-minute play are anything more than cursory introductions to the real thing.

Now, aside from serving as an introduction or audition to a theatre that you hope will then commission or produce your full-length plays, is there any creative reason to embark on writing a ten-minute play and having it produced? Probably. I think any kind of writing is better that not writing at all. It may generate the spark of an idea that will lead you to something larger. You might meet actors or a director that you love. Any opportunity to create something theatrical and to engage in the process of collaborating with people has worth, I think, no matter what the circumstances or the limitations of the form. But there are a lot of little projects out there that you can become involved in—writing ten-minute plays for contests, or plays to accompany museum exhibitions, or plays to be done in cars—and as an artist I think you have to judge for yourself whether those kinds of opportunities fuel your creativity and inspire you to think differently about the possibilities of live performance or become a kind of busywork that keeps you from settling in and finding your true voice and your own organic form and process. I’ve seen it happen both ways.

Elissa — Elissa

 

 

 

   


 
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