You are at the line, ready to sprint to the end—computer, typewriter, or paper ready to capture the words as they flow from your head to the page. A play is about to be released to run free. This time you are going for the sprint (ten-minute play) versus a mid-distance race (one-act) or a marathon (full-length play), so you might think it will require less conditioning and warm-up on your part.
Hold up. Not so fast!
Prior to running a race an athlete spends hours, weeks, and months preparing and conditioning the body. Conditioning is also necessary to write a play of any length, especially a ten-minute one because there is little time to create the world and a complete story. What can you do to condition yourself to write your ten-minute play?
Many excellent writers who are well versed in fiction and nonfiction decide to write a play without first preparing their mind for the genre of plays. An important part of a playwright’s conditioning is reading plays. Reading plays of all lengths is something I overlooked when I first raced toward the genre of playwriting. For some reason I felt that viewing plays was all I really needed, and my first plays showed the omission. Once I began reading plays, I realized—as a visual person—reading plays helped me to see how the written text looks. I noticed that dialogue was often short, rather staccato in appearance, but other times the dialogue was longer. I noticed that some playwrights were controlling with regards to what and how action took place. Some playwrights seemed as if they were directing the play themselves while others wrote sparse stage directions. I found including sparse stage directions in my writing was closer to my personal style. This may be because I’ve spent most of my adult life around theatrical artists, and I have come to value each individual’s contribution to the collaborative art of theater. Reading plays helped me to better understand the craft of playwriting and to develop a personal style.
Become a Voyeur of Sort
A writer new to the craft of playwriting may have a tendency to write grammatically correct dialogue that doesn’t sound authentic. Most people don’t talk in complete sentences that follow every single rule of grammar. Just like many runners don’t have perfect form. This is why it is helpful to read and see plays and to become a voyeur of sort.
Listen to conversations in the coffee shop, in waiting rooms, at sporting events, and other places. Notice that all people don’t sound the same when they speak. Some may use a more formal style while others may have their own shorthand way of speaking. As a rule most individuals don’t talk in speeches—meaning they don’t talk in paragraphs. Sometimes they speak in sentences, other times in incomplete thoughts. Some can’t seem to follow one train of thought. They may jump around between subjects.
Watch Plays of All Lengths
Another aspect of conditioning is watching plays—ten-minute, one-act, and full-length. I have spent the bulk of my life attending theatrical productions. After each performance, it is not unusual for me to spend the next few days contemplating the production—thinking about the characters, trying to understand all the signs I might have missed during the play, reflecting on and pondering motives. Ten-minute play festivals are an ideal opportunity to see a number and variety of plays and to become better acquainted with the challenging art of this play form. For example, each year Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) premiers ten-minute plays. Read more about ATL’s Humana Festival of New Plays and check theater listings for a ten-minute play festival near you.
Ready to Sprint?
Now that you’ve listened to conversations, gone to see plays, and read a few plays, you’re ready to get to the start line and begin your sprint—write your play. After all, it’s only a ten-minute play! Right?
Hold up—again—not so fast!
Don’t Forget to Warm Up Before You Sprint!
Some people may be surprised at the amount of warm-up I do, even for a short play, prior to sitting down to write. I’ve heard numbers of times that writing a ten-minute play is akin to writing a haiku in the poetry genre. I’ve tried my hand at this “simple” form, and believe me a haiku can often be more challenging than a longer poem. So it is for the ten-minute play.
My warm-up begins with an idea which has to be fleshed out. One of my favorite warm-up exercises to flesh out a play is interviewing characters. In my next post I’ll give you a few tips to assist you with understanding and interviewing your characters.
Until then, enjoy your conditioning.