All Too Brief

If you’ve been following along with this blog on a regular basis, Constant Reader (I mean, it’s right there in your name), then you know I have a tendency to blather on.  For the past two years of this pandemic, there’s been hardly any theatrical activity to speak of, and yet I’ve still managed to churn out a few hundred words each week on such scintillating topics as doing revisions and finding a library book.  When writing the stuff I actually write (you know, the stuff I write other than this blog, which is what I’m writing now – it’s an old joke), I favor full length forms.  I take a few months to research, then wrestle my thoughts into largish two-act structures.  Even my “short” one-acts tend to come in around half an hour; for my full length plays, it’s all I can do to hold them to the customary two hours.

So the past two months have been something of an anomaly for me.  I’ve been writing pretty steadily; a number of companies on my radar have had submission deadlines for ten minute pieces, all coming up back to back to back, and I’ve actually had viable ideas for them.  So I’ve spent these past few weeks working on three ten-minute pieces.  Actually, two of them are less than ten minutes, or at least they should be – the opportunities in question had formatting guidelines which writers had to meet, so one clocks in at eight pages, the other at seven.  It’s been a two-month intensive course of independent study in this ever-popular form, which most of my playwright friends work in with regularity.  I have friends with dozens, possibly even hundreds, of these dramatic miniatures in their portfolio.

And to them, I ask, respectfully – what the heck is wrong with you?  How on earth can you stand it?!

The maxim goes that any story cam be told in ten minutes.  The ruthless effort needed to condense the narrative, to eliminate everything extraneous, will naturally result in the most economical and compelling story possible.  And that’s true, if all you’re concerned about is story.  But it begs the question – what exactly do you consider extraneous?  Digressions that elaborate on the worldviews of the various characters?  Political and social context for their actions?  Poetic language and flights of fancy?  If you’re like me, these are the sorts of things that make you want to write in the first place, and the ten minute form – which, again, is an extraordinarily popular form in the current playwriting market – offers you precious little space for any of them.

And it’s only getting worse.  Over at New Play Exchange, I find that the most popular format these days – or at least the one that gets folks to actually read you – is the one-minute play.  One page, maybe two.  At that length, you don’t even have a chance to tell a story – you’re essentially stating a premise, and that’s it.  And the thing of it is, premises and ideas aren’t remarkable in and of themselves.  They’re rather common, dull things.  A good play is going to have several premises bouncing off of each other; it’s how they’re developed, how they interact, that generates the real meat of the work, the stuff that’s truly worthwhile.  And in a world that’s constantly catering to shortened attention spans, and the desire of producers to put up evenings of a dozen or so writers to guarantee an audience of all their friends and well-wishers, that’s precisely what we’re missing out on.

I’d say more, but I’ve already written six hundred words on this subject, and that’s probably more than anybody has any patience for.  . 

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