About 4 years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing short plays. Well, that’s not exactly true. I’d already been writing short plays (15 to 20 minutes each) for about 25 years for my touring “children’s” theatre company. I’ve cranked out about 200 of them altogether, some for live performance and some for podcast. But what I decided 4 years ago was to try my hand at writing short plays specifically for adult audiences. Prior to that, I’d written and directed 5 longer plays for adults in San Francisco and Seattle.
During the past few years, the 10-minute play has become enormously popular. There are dozens of festivals for them all over the world, more or less following the lead of the Actors Theatre Of Louisville, which more or less pioneered the format starting in 1987. With today’s short attention span public, bite-size plays are very appealing; you can see a dozen or so stories, presented in a variety of writing and performance styles, in a single evening. And like the weather in New England, if you don’t like one play, all you have to do is stick around a few minutes.
I even had a concept for a whole series of plays, all dealing with a similar theme; at this point I’ve written 6 of them, and I still have at least that many more in the works – though really, the potential number is probably somewhere between 100 and 500. My original thought was that I could write a whole string of 10-minute plays and perhaps some of them could be developed into full-length plays. In reality, I’ve begun to realize (and I’ve heard other playwrights say the same thing), that once you write a short play, you’ve generally accomplished all you wanted to with it, and adding more to it would just be padding it.
I also realized that writing a good play that doesn’t run over the 10-minute mark is a daunting challenge. You’re writing a complete play, not just a scene or a sketch. There has to be a beginning, middle and end – an arc, as we writers like to say – and the characters have to be changed or affected somehow by the events. At the same time, you have to reveal enough about the characters that the audience actually will care how they get from Point A to Point B. Accomplishing all of that in 10 minutes is not easy.
So what I’ve ended up with (so far) is a couple of plays that are approximately 10 minutes, 2 more that are somewhat longer, and 2 more that are considerably longer. Not to worry, there are also plenty of one-act festivals that don’t have such a strict time limit. So I began submitting these scripts to as many events as seemed appropriate.
The first one attracted no interest at all. I’ve substantially reworked it, and started sending it out again. The second one, The Cup and the Crossroads, was produced at the North Park Playwright festival in San Diego in 2013. (I was not able to attend.)
The third one – well, we’ll get to that in a moment. The fourth one was a finalist in one competition and a semifinalist in three others, but at this point it remains unproduced. The fifth play was selected by a one-act festival in Los Angeles in 2014, but then the production had to be scratched because the director had a conflict. (They couldn’t find another director in L.A.???) The theatre suggested that they might go ahead and produce it in the near future, but so far no dice. The sixth script, The Frost So Bitter Hung, just recently (as in about a week ago at this writing) was selected by a one-act festival in Chicago to be performed in September.
Getting back to the third one, coincidentally titled The Third Category, it was selected to be produced at the 10 By 10 in the Triangle Festival in North Carolina in July of this year. Even better, I was already scheduled to be in the area, so I’d be able to actually see it. Better still, the weekend that I would be there was the weekend they would have the playwrights’ gala. I’d be able to meet other playwrights, actors, directors and other artists, as well as members of the audience who’d have the opportunity to ask us all questions. Cool beans!
I was further delighted to hear that my director would be Susan Emshwiller, a filmmaker, artist, actor, playwright, etc. with whom I already had some familiarity. (And incidentally I recalled reading at least a couple of her mother’s stories (Carol Emshwiller) when I was a teenager obsessed with science fiction.) The production was sounding very promising indeed.
Susan contacted me a few days before opening night and said that the show was running long – the 10 By 10, as the name implies, is a festival of 10-miniute plays – and asked if I’d be okay with making a few cuts. Naturally, I’d prefer that cuts didn’t be made, but I understood the need and I was quite confident in her editing capabilities. And to tell the truth, I wasn’t surprised that the show was running a tad long; I just had no idea how long it was running.
The script was exactly 10 pages, so I felt comfortable with submitting it to a 10-minute festival, figuring that they wouldn’t object it if ran a minute or two over, since other plays probably would run shorter than 10 minutes. But Susan contacted me again later and said that even after she made some cuts, it was running 16 minutes! Holy crap, that really floored me; and I don’t know how I could have misjudged the length that much. But she made some additional cuts, she said, and got close enough to the time limit. I was beginning to feel really bad about dumping such a woolly mammoth into her lap and leaving her to transform it into a poodle.
One of the perks of attending as a playwright was that they put us (me and my wife Kimberly) up in a hotel right next to the theatre. We arrived at about noon on July 16, the day of the festival, and fortunately the venue had arranged for us to park our RV and trailer in the loading dock next to the theatre, so we were in business and could check into our room. I received another email from Susan saying that she would be unable to attend the event because of illness – a big disappointment, as I was looking forward to meeting her.
At 5:00 PM, dressed reasonably well (actually, Kimberly was dressed very well, or at least she was wearing a very well dress) we made our way to the theatre to meet the other 4 playwrights (5 of us out of the 10 represented by plays in the festival were able to come) as well as another significant other, and Jeri Lynn Schulke, the festival producer who has been our contact. And I can’t praise Jeri Lynn too highly; from day one, it was evident that she was very much on top of things, and she stayed that way.
She gave us all a tour of the facility, which was more than just a theatre. It’s called the Arts Center, and it contains a larger theatre and a smaller one, as well as classrooms and spaces for a variety of arts activities. The lobby featured some very intriguing gigantic puppets/ masks.
We then headed across the street to a popular bar and grill to have a beverage and a chit-chat. The weather was still quite stuffy, being July in North Carolina, so just the walk across the street was an ordeal for heat-intolerant moi. And when we got over there, we learned that the bar did not open until 5:30, which was still 15 long minutes away. Ouch.
When they finally opened the gate and let us in, I was more than ready for something to wet my whistle. But I’m not training to be an Olympic champion drinker these days, especially on an empty stomach. So while my thespian colleagues were boozing it up, I had a non-alcoholic beer, which turned out to be the best I’ve ever had.
One of the other playwrights was a local boy, which I understand is rather uncommon. Plays are submitted from all over the world – there were more than 1100 of them this year – and the playwrights’ names are concealed from the 30 or so readers who comb through them, so the selection process is all fair and square. The other playwrights here came from Baltimore, New York and Columbus; those who could not make it were from Los Angeles, Washington state, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and New York..
After an hour or so of jolliness, we made our way back to the Arts Center, where a buffet had been prepared in the smaller theatre, featuring some rather tasty Indian food. We were seated next to a very friendly young woman from California – she was, she said, a lawyer by trade, though she looked barely old enough to be in college – who said that she’d just happened to be in town and just happened to pass by the theatre and see what was going on, and decided to stick around. While we were sitting there, Jeri Lynn came around and handed me a generic Office Depot-type name sticker with “playwright” and “Dennis” handwritten on it, and joked, “We’ve spared no expense.” To which I said, “Wow, now I feel like an official playwright.”
Soon we went into the theatre and took our seats. We had seats reserved near the front, with a good view of the set cleverly designed to accommodate the demands of 10 very different plays, and when Jeri Lynn took the stage to welcome the audience to the festival, she had the 5 of us stand to be recognized. Then the lights dimmed, and the show began.
My play was the very last one on the schedule, which I actually preferred, especially for this particular play. Before we got to it, there were 9 more with a great deal of variety. The best of the lot (diplomatically excluding my own from the field of contenders) was The Way It Really, Truly, Almost Was by Brendan Healy (Shoreline, WA). This poignant little comedy-drama deals with a man visiting his comatose wife and imagining her reliving with him some of the highlights of their past. Except he keeps embellishing it out of regret that he didn’t make more of their time together. This richly textured little gem actually made my eyes water, which is something hard to pull off with a jaded old fart like me. Especially in 10 minutes.
Another outstanding play on the bill was Two Late by Allan Maule, the North Carolina playwright. In it, a TSA agent who has undergone setbacks because he is gay detains a frustrated passenger who has undergone setbacks because of breast cancer. Despite the initial air of hostility, they become acquainted and learn that they have more in common than they would have expected — including a propensity for bad timing.
I also rather enjoyed Cracklers by Cassie Seinuk of Brighton, MA., in which an undercover transit cop on the Fourth Of July takes notice of a suspicious passenger who keeps riding the train over and over, but learns that he is undergoing a personal ritual to cope with a tragic loss. One of the most impressive things about it is a lengthy, demanding monologue that the actor (Sean McCracken) pulled off splendidly.
Finally, the lights came up on my show. I must admit I was a little apprehensive. Susan had warned me that in making cuts she was trying to preserve the flow of the story, so some of the humor might get lost. I had the utmost confidence in her ability to make the right choices. But still…
I was immediately put at ease to a large extent when a couple of gags that appear very early in the script received a tremendous response of laughter. We had them at hello, or close to it.
The Third Category is about a successful businesswoman who returns to a pawn shop she had visited when much younger, and pawned her soul in exchange for a fast ride to success. Now she regrets the decision, and comes to reclaim her soul — only to learn that it is gone. But the good news is, she may be one of the “third category” — those individuals who are able to grow a new soul.
I have a long love affair with pawn shops — beginning in my reckless youth when I used their services far too often. I was always fascinated by the variety of enticing items on display there, each of which has a story behind it, and fancied that in some cases people who sacrificed them were pawning bits of their souls — I certainly did once or twice. So why not a pawn shop specifically for the purpose of hocking your soul?
The performers, Mary Rowland and Fred Corlett, handled the roles quite admirably. And Susan’s directing made it flow very nicely. There was only one cut that I found slightly jarring, and I realized that I was probably the only person in the house who noticed it at all; even Kimberly didn’t notice, and she’s a continuity fascist when she’s watching movies.
Unfortunately, this was the one performance that there were technical difficulties with the rear-screen projection. It worked fine for the other plays, but for mine, the audience was unable to see the image of the pawn shop, which appears in these photos taken in dress rehearsal.
My one disappointment was that the material cut included a line about Donald Trump pawning his soul, then coming back to reclaim it so he could sell it elsewhere at a higher price. When I wrote the script, Trump was a general all-purpose sleazeball rather than a specifically political sleazeball, and I was curious to see how the audience would react to the line given its newly acquired overtones. Ah well, at least my (more kindly) reference to Humphrey Bogart was still in, and it got a good laugh — not least from my wife. References to Humphrey Bogart are a bit of a running gag around our household.
The show received a warm ovation at the end, and then we adjourned to the little theatre across the hall for a question-and-answer session. I was able to meet Fred and Mary and congratulate them on a job well done. Actually, Mary didn’t enter until later, so I didn’t have much time to chat with her, but Fred was there right away, and he lavished praise on my script — the entire thing. In fact, he said “I want you to know that Mary and I still know and love every word of the full 18-minute script”. (It was that long? Holy moly.)
We playwrights were seated on the stage, and the actors and directors on hand were seated in front, and the audience members who stuck around were able to ask us questions, offer their praises, and so on. At one point, someone asked if it was difficult to cater to the 10-minute format, and I responded that I found it quite a challenge, for the reasons I’ve stated, and I mentioned that one of my “10-minute” plays was actually 45 minutes, which got an appreciative laugh.
Well, there you have it. The first time in my long career as a playwright that I’ve ever been able to sit back and watch a live performance of one of my plays that I didn’t direct myself. And a memorable first it was.
Now I’m just trying to figure out how I can work in a trip to Chicago.
(POSTSCRIPT: I didn’t make it. But director Emily Brantz sent me a video and some photos.)