Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Laura Shamas: Transformation in a Flash: The Ten-minute Play

By Laura Shamas

“Has it ever happened before that a generation of artists have embraced a new creative form with such wild energy and enthusiasm, completing whole dramatic creations in the time it takes to languorously eat a slice of pepperoni pizza? I never saw it coming. Did you?” – Gary Garrison, A MORE PERFECT 10: Writing and Producing the Ten- Minute Play [2009]

Ten-minute play festivals are becoming more and more popular in the American theater: eight, nine or ten quick shows presented in one afternoon or evening of theater. As an entertainment event, a ten-minute play festival enables a theater to expose audiences to many different playwrights in one bill.  It also gives the audience a quick-changing variety of style, theme and content.

But looking at the form more closely, a ten-minute play is the perfect vehicle for a writer in any genre (poetry, prose, playwriting or screenwriting) to explore and  hone some specific writing skills which are widely applicable.

The characteristics and limitations of a ten-minute play are clear enough from the outset: you only have 10 minutes to tell a complete story. Your props, characters, set, and technical requirements are limited, due to practical concerns; your play will most likely be produced on a bill with other ten-minute plays, so the simpler the accoutrements
the better, from a producer’s standpoint. Therefore, the show must be as technically simple (one set? two?) as possible. Cast size is usually constrained as well; some contests ask for no more than four characters in any ten-minute play.

But as writers know, limitations are often the springboard to invention. These “restrictions” challenge us to start our dramas with a bang in the middle of action; a ten-minute play should begin with a scene already in progress, in medias res
as Horace defines it in Ars Poetica.  What’s going on at the top of the show must be striking and riveting, be it image or action. It should grab our attention and hold it.

The characters and dialogue must be dynamic as well. There’s no time to “ease” into a character. The ten-minute form tests us, as writers, to present “our greatest hits,” cutting away the fat. Dialogue: there’s only time for what’s absolutely necessary, character-defining, and unique. Plot: the essence of the story. Theme: what your show is about.

What differentiates a skit from a ten-minute play? One word: transformation. At the end of a skit, characters aren’t necessarily changed. But at the end of a good ten-minute play, something has transformed, something is different.  Hopefully, a character has changed or the audience’s perspective has shifted.  In a flash, there’s been transformation.

Workshop leader Laura Shamas has written 30 plays, and is produced in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia. In the past year, she’s had four plays published: Moliere in Love, Lincoln Vacation, Pistachio Stories, and Re-Sourcing. Recently, her play Chasing Honey was workshopped and performed at The Public Theater in New York as part of the Native Theater Festival 2008. Her playwriting awards include the 2008 Five Civilized Tribes Garrard Best Play Award and a Drama-Logue. Her show Picnic at Hanging Rock will be produced at Catholic University here in D.C. from February 18-21.

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