I wrote a couple of weeks ago that one of my priorities, these days, is to amass a good portfolio of short plays, because that's the way to get noticed as a young writer in this town. Trouble is, I've never been particularly good at writing one-acts. Indeed, I am not even sure what makes a good one-act--what do other people look for in short plays? What do I look for in them? Most of the time, when I read or see plays, I'm reading or seeing full-lengths... I just don't have enough familiarity and comfort with the short form!
So I am trying to give myself a crash course in writing short plays. And a big part of this is going to involve frequent attendance at "ShortLived," "the nation's largest audience-judged playwriting competition," which is going on right now, sponsored by PianoFight Productions. Every two weeks, a new slate of one-act plays is produced, and the audience votes for their favorites. The top vote-getters survive until the next round; the rest are eliminated.
What better way to learn about the one-act form: to see a variety of plays, learn what works and what doesn't, and most importantly, see what the audience responds to?
I have some playwright friends whose plays will be produced in ShortLived, and I want to see their works and cheer them on, but that's not my primary reason for attending. And I'll probably run into some people I know in the audience, but I haven't actually made any plans to go to these shows with friends. I'm not there to be convivial, or to be entertained--though of course I will be grateful if I end up having an awesomely fun time. Primarily, I will be there to learn, and observe, and improve my own craft.
I know I sound a bit grim and calculating, when I put it like that. But I have always heard it said--and believed it, too--that the best way to learn is by doing, and by exposing yourself to as many different facets of an experience as possible.
A long time ago I read a sci-fi novel called The Diamond Age, and I don't remember it very well, but one element of it has stuck with me. The book is set 200 years in the future, where the most popular form of entertainment is virtual-reality interactive movies, called "ractives," and one of the characters in the novel wants to become a professional "ractor." (Some of the roles in these virtual-reality environments are taken by paying customers, average Joes, and the others are taken by professional performers.) She trains herself in the art of "racting": every night, after working a boring day job, she spends some money and takes a role in a ractive. But she doesn't spring for the high-quality, thematically sophisticated ractives, which are more expensive; she goes for the cheap, trashy ones that are geared toward the lowest common denominator. Because the important thing, for her, is to rack up hours of experience, and become completely comfortable with her chosen profession--she'll go out there, get her hands dirty, and do what she has always dreamed of doing.
For whatever reason, this moral stuck with me. Perhaps it contributed to my (somewhat neurotic) belief that I ought to see as much theater as I possibly can, every night if I could hack it, because even if it's bad or cheap theater, I will learn from it. At any rate, it's something I've been thinking about a lot, in recent weeks, as I read cheap plays from the used bookstore and make plans for doing theater in a bar. This is the time of my life to get out there and hone my skills. I can't wait for ShortLived tomorrow night.