Saturday, November 15, 2008

What I look for in a 10-minute play

As the producer/director of the Mergatroyd Productions 10-min. Playfest, I was responsible for the final selection of plays for the show. Over 500 plays were sent in. Is it possible to read that many plays, even ten-minute plays in less then a month – especially when you have a full-time day job (technical writer) and run a theatre group (NYCPlaywrights) that meets every Friday night?

It is possible. Here’s how I did it.

First, all the improperly formatted plays were thrown out. A playwright should know enough to use standard playscript formatting. And I made a big deal, in the call for submissions, about using standard playscript formatting. I even provided a link to formatting samples. So any plays I got that were not in standard playscript formatting I took as one of two clear messages from the author to me: “screw you, I’m too big of an innovative important artiste-genius to abide by the rules of you common mortals.”


“I’m not smart enough to read submission guidelines or figure out how to format text. I should be taking classes in reading comprehension or Microsoft Word, not writing plays.”

Is that harsh? Too bad. If a play is improperly formatted, guess who will have to fix the script so that there are page numbers, a character list, and contact information for the author. Me. Not gonna happen - this is New York, Jack, I have stuff to do.

So I automatically threw out the improperly formatted plays – that took care of about 15% of all submissions.

What’s next? Well one of the things I said I wanted to see was plays in which something happens. In my opinion, far too many plays – and not just 10-minute plays – are about people sitting around bickering. So I look at the stage directions. If the stage directions consist entirely of “(pause)” then probably not much happens besides two or more people sitting around talking, bickering or arguing. Sorry but even arguing – even an argument in which people yell at each other – is not interesting drama by itself.

That’s another 20%. So 65% of the submissions remain. Now the process slows down a little, as more reading is required. Now I look at plays in which the characters don’t have names, but are just called “Woman”, “Man”, “Husband”, “Wife”, “Father” etc. I like my plays to have vivid, individualistic characters. Not giving your character a name says to me that your character isn’t an individual but some two-dimensional steotype. This is especially annoying for “Husband” and “Wife” – I don’t want to watch a play that portrays a “typical” marriage. Plays about how men and women just don't understand each other really irritate me. And have already been done to death.

OK, so that’s another 10%. Now I look for good parts for women.

It never fails to amaze me that in a time when women are astronauts and senators and serial killers and managers and soldiers and computer programmers there are still few interesting parts written for women. The thinking seems to be that unless the character is performing what is deemed a female function (sex, nurturing or needing to be rescued) it should be male, by default. I’m pretty sure that many of the plays submitted to the 10-min Playfest originally had fewer female characters, but since I made a big deal out of wanting good parts for women in the submission guidelines, some of the characters had been rewritten as female. Good. If I made one playwright realize that male is NOT the default gender for humanity I’m making the world a better place. Women are not a minority or special interest group – we make up half of all people on the planet. Theatre (of ALL places!) should reflect this. A playwright who gets that deserves extra consideration for his or her plays.

I am not looking ONLY for plays that have female characters, but female characters definitely help. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So what do we have at this point? About 40% of the submissions, or about 200 plays that are properly formatted, aren’t just bickering, have individualized characters, and have a tendency towards good roles for women.

These last 200 get close scrutiny. I read them a couple of times at least. Some more things I look for:

• Does the play get right into the action?
• Is it really funny, or really touching?
• Does it present a novel world or situation?
• Does it have solid internal logic?
• Does it have that certain je ne sais quoi?

The last one is of course the most elusive of all. Je ne sais quoi is French for "I don’t know what" – meaning some undefinable, ineffable quality. A happy synergy of factors. Which is completely subjective. And of course much of the quality of the play depends on the actors performing the roles too. A bad performance could ruin a good play, although from what I’ve seen, far more often a good performance can rescue a bad play. But even if you carefully select your material, director and actor the results might not be the happy synergy you hoped for.

This we call “the magic of the thee-aa-tah.”