Every so often, on Official Playwrights of Facebook, a debate erupts about the merits of the ten-minute play. Naysayers contend that there’s no such thing as a ten-minute “play”; it’s an exercise, it’s not real writing, it’s a sketch, and so on. Proponents counter that a good (and they do acknowledge that, as with full-length plays, there are many bad) ten-minute play is indeed a play with a beginning, middle, and end, and its concision requires the skill of an accomplished writer.
It doesn’t matter where you fall in this debate. If you’re a trying-to-make-it playwright—meaning anyone who plays the submission game, doesn’t have an agent, doesn’t get regular requests for their work, isn’t published, isn’t published enough, still needs to network, wants more productions—which I’d say is most of us, there are quantifiable, practical reasons for writing ten-minute plays. Even if you hate them.
1) They’re easier to get produced than full-length plays. I don’t know if I’d still be a playwright today if I hadn’t started writing ten-minute plays. In 2010, I had my first-ever production; it was a full-length play called THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, and it did very well, becoming the highest grossing world premiere in Road Less Traveled Productions’ history, and the sixth highest grossing play overall. Awesome, right? Except you all know that one success doesn’t mean anything. Especially in a small city. Especially by an unknown. I sent THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR to more than 300 theaters in the ensuing six months, and got a few nibbles, and nothing more. The play has had two—with a fourth upcoming—more productions since, but it took six years for that to happen. That’s the nature of full-length plays. It takes a lot of stamina and patience and, in the meantime, your name isn’t out in the theater universe.
On the flip side, in the wake of THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, I started writing and submitting ten-minute plays. Within months, I had my first production with “Write This Way” at Theatre Out in Santa Ana, California; the play even won the Producer’s Award. Several others followed quickly. Success! Validation! Inspiration! Confidence! For a new playwright, this was paramount in making me believe that I had abilities (and my goodness, if you don’t need those things to stay motivated, then I want some of your drink). Better? You can get lots of ten-minute play productions in a year—and many pay royalties that not only add up, but also continually create those feelings of confidence, validation, and success. Those ten-minute play hits are the bright spots that keep you going as you wait for responses on those full-lengths.
Were my ten-minute plays better than THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR? Probably not, but they had far better odds of succeeding because
2) Theaters don’t have to take big risks to produce your ten-minute plays. Most ten-minute play festivals are one or two weekends, don’t pay royalties (though, as mentioned above, some do, and we’re working on making this better), and produce in black box with low tech. And when your play is one of eight or ten, if someone doesn’t like it, the old cliché about waiting ten minutes is true. Producers don’t have to feel absolutely sure your play will make money; they can choose it just because they like it. And your chances of them choosing it are even better because
3) There is less competition. With most ten-minute playfests, you’re submitting to a call, which means you’re not competing with every ten-minute play in the universe, just those from playwrights who answered the call (which has the added bonus of meaning plays will actually be read, and some produced). But, perhaps more importantly, you’re not competing with well-known or famous playwrights, who don’t tend to write ten-minute plays unless they’re asked to, and certainly aren’t submitting them to your average ten-minute play call. That means better odds for you.
4) They’re a good yardstick. If the odds are better, and you’re not getting any response to your ten-minute plays, if you’re submitting them all over the place and not even making semi-finalist—ever—there’s probably something in your writing you need to address. Maybe it’s one of these seven common problems; some of my ten-minute plays have been produced far less than others—some only once or twice—and, if I look at those, I know why. They’re not as strong, the conflict isn’t as resonant, they’re too simple, etc. This happens with full-length plays, too, but you get faster feedback on ten-minute plays (and you also have the option of immediate feedback with Trade A Play Tuesday), which gives you the ability to figure out how you can improve, because
5) Writing good ten-minute plays will help you write better full-length plays. A great ten-minute play is a tight, economic scene, and learning to write one well yields skills that transfer well to full-length plays. I know many playwrights who became better playwrights through the writing of ten-minute plays, and, indeed, their first productions (and first royalties!) were from ten-minute plays. That doesn’t make ten-minute plays exercises, just pragmatic stepping stones.
6) Ten-minute plays free you to experiment. With so little comparative time invested in writing at ten-minute play versus a full-length, trying something new doesn’t mean a lengthy commitment to something that might not pan out. You want to try absurdism, magical realism, a solo show, anthropomorphism—do it! I don’t consider myself a comedy writer, but I’ve surprised myself by writing quite a few ten-minute comedies that have done very well!
7) Ten-minute plays can pave the way for more diverse full-length plays. When you allow yourself to stray from what you’re comfortable with, creative potential is unleashed. Two of those comedies I mentioned above? They’re now full-length plays, one of which—CHRISTMAS 2.0—was workshopped at the Hormel Festival of New Works, and the other—OPEN AND SHUT—was a commission of sorts. Because the comedic tone was already set in the ten-minute, I was able to follow that as I wrote the rest of the show; I’m positive I wouldn’t have set out to write a full-length comedy otherwise. Ten-minute plays allow you to play with an idea, and therefore expand your writing horizons. In other cases, there are characters from the ten-minute play that you just know have more to say; that might mean the ten-minute play served as an exercise, but it doesn’t mean it’s not good all on its own.
8) Ten-minute play productions keep your resume from being empty in those early years. They show that people like your work, that you’re producible. If you have multiple productions of one play, it shows you have solid work, not just a one-off. If you’ve won prizes, it demonstrates further credibility. Theater people know how hard it is to get full-length plays produced, but a solid resume of ten-minute productions might get them to take a look at one. Because
9) Ten-minute plays are a tremendous means of networking. The more productions you have—of any kind—the more your name stays current. Every time you get a production of a ten-minute play, you meet a theater, a director, and actors—something that is very difficult to do if you are not a regularly produced playwright, or not in a primary theater city. A production of a ten-minute play is better than that elusive coffee with an artistic director because the AD who produced you has already read/seen your work. Because of a ten-minute play production, my submissions to a full-length call yielded a personal exchange with the AD—just because he loved the ten-minute play they’d produced. The aforementioned OPEN AND SHUT? That was a commission from an AD who liked the ten-minute play produced at his theater, and asked for it to be expanded; we recently had a very successful reading and it has a good chance of future production. My third production of SAFE? Yep. The director who directed my short, “Jack Pork,” in another festival is the AD at Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. I asked if she takes full-lengths, she read SAFE, and bam! I did the same thing following a call for plays from Open Eye theater, and that led to my first production of FLOWERS IN THE DESERT. This aspect of writing ten-minute plays cannot be overstated: in a business where we are always clamoring to get through a door, ten-minute plays provide seamless entry.
10) Like them or not, ten-minute plays are not going away. For all the complaints about how they’re destroying playwriting, ten-minute play festivals are propagating rapidly as more and more theaters realize the value of these productions—easy sets, large casts, the ability to serve many playwrights. Probably two-fifths of my play submissions per year are for ten-minute plays, which garner me about forty productions annually. That means I nearly always have a production happening and I won’t lie—that makes me feel like I’m doing something right, and that’s a feeling that artists need to have, kind of constantly if we’re honest. I know we’d all prefer to have our full-lengths produced on a regular basis, but, in so many ways, ten-minute plays help make that happen. Arguing against them is only denying yourself opportunity.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read entries in Playwrights Living Outside New York series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.