5writers.com is proud to welcome back Allen Gorney.
Allen Gorney is an author, screenwriter, actor, and script consultant living in the central Florida region. He has written several novels, screenplays, short stories, stage plays, and essays. As a screenwriter, he has earned recognition and critical praise from festivals and contests around the country. He has also written, produced, and acted in several plays, short films, and music videos, and has served as a dialogue coach on both feature and short films. As an instructor of writing, film, and literature, he has earned the prestigious National Board Certification. Allen currently serves on the faculty of the Creative Writing MFA program at Full Sail University and is a regular contributor to Marquee Magazine.
Performance as Publication: The Art of the Ten Minute Play by Allen Gorney
I wrote my first play in high school as an assignment for class. It was a short play—about ten minutes in length, and I vividly remember my drama teacher actually thinking it was good. Like, for real good. The premise wasn’t particularly groundbreaking: A guy dresses up as a woman to infiltrate his ex-girlfriend’s book club meeting and win her back. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof it was not, but it was zany, and it did have pretty decent dialogue.
And it was fun to stage.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there’s an entire subgenre of theatre that revolves around short one-acts called ten minute plays. Essentially, they’re ten-page scenes with a full story arc, and they usually take place in a single location with a minimal set. Actors and directors love them because they’re easy to stage, and they’re great for scene study classes as well as showcases.
I’ve written several of these. They’re great for that resting period between longer projects (screenplays, novels, longer plays). Best of all, if it’s not working, you can shelve it and not feel like you’ve wasted a lot of time on the idea.
So, how do you get started? Think of a hook. What’s the premise? What are you trying to say? Think theme. I am usually trying to make fun of something when I write these. They’re an outlet for my cynicism and dark sense of humor. They’re often zany, bawdy, and highly inappropriate. But they don’t have to be for you. Consider who will comprise your potential audience. Once you establish that, be sure to write with the following in mind:
Cast: Keep it small.
Set: Keep it simple.
Plot: Keep it trim.
Dialogue: Keep it crackling.
I can’t stress the importance of that last one. The theatre is a different medium than a film or a novel. It relies more on the writer’s ability to craft the sounds and rhythms of the words and to understand how to use silence as a tool to grip the audience. Good dialogue on stage has musicality. It needs to “crackle” like a bowl of Rice Crispies. If you can get it to do that, you’ll attract a lot of hungry actors. Actors have a voracious appetite for dialogue that makes them look good—so much so that plot can often take a back seat as long as the words will yield a great performance.
When you’re finished, get it staged. Several theater companies put out calls for short plays for scene study classes. Many have short play festivals. Many acting co-ops stage showcases and are looking for good, fresh material that will show off their “chops.” There are lots of ways to get your work staged so as not to let your little vignette languish on your hard drive for years to come. A great place to start your search is playsubmissionshelper.com. Some of these venues request a reading fee (usually small), and some of them even pay a royalty (again, usually small). Another way to get your material out there is to visit theaters and ask if any actors would be interested in staging a showcase. Heck, don your producer hat and stage a bunch of them yourself.
I’ve seen a few of my plays produced since that first one way back in high school. I generally don’t direct them—I don’t consider myself a director, nor do I really aspire to be one. I also don’t like to act in them. Speaking from experience, acting in your own stage play can be a nerve-wracking existentialist crisis. Imagine delivering a line you thought would get a huge, gut-busting laugh and hearing the lone chirp of a single cricket instead. It’s enough to make any actor self-conscious and any actor/playwright suicidal.
I do, however, recommend watching other actors and a great director stage your work. I personally like to show up to a performance blindly, not knowing any of the choices they’ve made, and being completely surprised. Of course, this can backfire, but when it’s working, there’s honestly no better feeling. The audience is engaged. The dialogue is crackling. And everybody’s having fun.
For you, the playwright—this is your publication. You write plays for them to be performed. If you are fortunate enough for a short play to be included in anthology, you’ll earn some cash off of royalties, but those are rare, and even rarer for a play that’s never been performed. Consider the audience seeing the performance live on stage as the equivalent of finding the spine of your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.