My warm-up begins with an idea to be fleshed out. One of my favorite exercises is to interview characters. The more a writer understands characters—their motivations and goals—the easier it is to sprint to the end of the play.
Step one. Write the interview questions. I have some basic questions which I include for every character and every play. Below are two questions which were shared with me during several classes lead by playwright Arthur Giron:
What is your characters biggest fear?
What is your characters biggest dream?
These questions allow you to get to the heart of the character. It is important to find something likable about every character—even the vilest. The reality is that there is no person who is all good or all bad. If you don’t find that moment, your character becomes a caricature. The same goes with finding the imperfect moments for your good character. This is a challenge in a ten-minute play and may be accomplished by one word or line. The following questions during your interview may lead you to find these moments.
- What motivates them to do everything they do in your play?
- Where are they from?
- What is their best and worst quality?
- Do they have a favorite color, book, word, pet, place, and person?
- All of these questions and others that you may pose are informative for the playwright.
- Firsts can also be helpful—a first kiss, a first love, a first job.
- Each question leads you to understand each of character.
Step two. Complete your interviews in a quiet place free of distractions. Then allow your characters to speak through you. The quicker you write the responses to the interview questions the best. This allows for the characters to speak rather than you infusing your own thoughts upon the characters. Sometimes the characters will surprise you and lead you into an unexpected direction. Other times they will tell you things you never thought to ask. Don’t worry about proper grammar and word choice. This will stifle your characters.
Interviewing characters is much like an athlete getting to know how other competitors run their race. In playwriting the responses from interviews inform the dialogue. How each character speaks and why they speak that way. You should be able to know which character is speaking without having their name next to the dialogue. You will not find two people who speak the same. In fact, when you read a play you should be able to know who is speaking without reading the character’s name. At the editing stage, you will be able to read the dialogue from each character and quickly identify when dialogue doesn’t match the character.
Your warm-up is almost complete. I find it is important to know what the play is about and what you want to say before starting to write it. Plays should have a beginning, middle, and end. When you write a ten-minute play, there isn’t much time to embrace all of this. Let your characters tell you what they want to say.
Step three. Write your first draft. Now you’re ready to step to the line and allow the words to flow through you. I tend to write a quick rough draft even to the point of leaving blanks if the right word is not readily available. I don’t worry about spelling and punctuation but allow the characters to speak through me without trying to control them. Sometimes they have a different idea and can turn the story in a direction I had not planned.
Step four. Cool down. Once the first draft is written, it is time to cool down. Put the play aside and let it rest. If you have thoughts about the play during the resting period, write them down in notes. I usually have another play I’m working on at the same time, and I allow myself to be absorbed into that other play. You will know when it is time to return to your ten-minute play. Sometimes I will edit it for days at a time. When you feel like you may be over thinking your play, it is time to stop editing.
Step five. Have a reading of your play. At this point it is helpful to gather a group of people together to read your play. I find it is most helpful if the readers don’t see the play prior to reading it. If the readers have studied it, they may be able to mask possible issues that need to be addressed. You want to know where words are awkward, where the meaning isn’t clear, or where it is overstated. Just like a runner you can overdo it.
Step six. Listen to the feedback. After the reading it is helpful to hear the responses of the readers and audience members if there are others present. Be wary of explaining your play. Your characters should be in charge of that. You won’t be on stage to fill in spots that need more or less clarification. Listen to the responses of your cast and audience. Their questions or comments may lead to breakthroughs in a script. I have found that when I work with professional actresses/actors their comments are often spot on. There may be times when audience members or readers want to rewrite your play. Remember you know more about your play and characters than anyone. If a response doesn’t ring true, don’t feel obligated to change your play.
Step seven. Cool down, again. I find it is important to allow for a cool down after the first reading. Allow yourself to mull around possible changes. When the characters won’t leave you alone, it is time to return to the play and do another edit.
Step eight. More readings? Depending on your writing style you may want to do another reading or two. As the playwright it is important for you to listen to what your characters tell you.
Step nine. Seek production opportunities. Once your characters tell you they are ready for a full audience, seek out opportunities for your play to be produced. Sometimes a self-production may be required. That is another blog in itself! Research ten-minute play contests and submit. There is an abundance of opportunities for ten-minute plays. Don’t give up if your play isn’t selected right away. If your play is not selected, remember it is not always about your play but rather about the theatre’s season or the composition of the actor company.
Step ten. Celebrate! When you get your first full production of your ten-minute play, allow yourself to enjoy it. Sit back and watch as the characters you’ve grown to love come alive right before your eyes. Just like a runner take a moment to allow yourself to celebrate the conditioning, warm-up, and creation of your ten-minute play because the next day it is back to more conditioning!
Clark, Leroy. Writing for the Stage, Pearsons, Boston, 2006.
Garrison, Gary. Perfect Ten: Writing and Producing the 10-Minute Play, Heinemann, NH, 2001.