Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Short-Play Crash Course

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.


Dr.J said...

Dear Marissa: I tried to post a comment a couple of weeks ago as I was directed to your blog when searching about Frederica potter and Briony Tallis, by the way: don´t you notice a family air between them ? Well, I write from Spain, maybe I should write in spanish as you live in Frisco but don´t know if this is an English only blog. About one acts: my favourite playwright of all times is L. Pirandello and was remembering his Sogno (ma forse no) just the other day, what do you think of him?
Did you know that vidilla goes for groove or something of the kind in spanish youth slang? so you could well be Marissa Groove, how about it. Dr.J what´s the time there it´s 18:10 in Spain, cheerio

Marissa said...

Hey, Dr. J, I saw your comment a few weeks ago and responded to it here:

My Spanish is very rusty, I'm afraid! I'm much better at French.

I need to read some more Pirandello, I only really know "6 Characters in Search of an Author." It's not easy to find good English translations of him though.

Thanks for visiting!

Dr.J said...

Thanks a lot for your kind answer, I just found your reply. My father presented me the Complete plays of Pirandello when I was 12 (quite a log time ago) the edition is from 1965 and maybe it was easier to find Pirandello in Spain because of the similarity of the languages but also because he was supossed to have supported the fascit regime of Mussolini (without much enthusiasm) and Spain was, of course a military regime in those days; but enough of prehistory (I am just 46 by the way). Sogno ma forse no (A dream but maybe not) is just 18 pages in a small format, two characters, a young man and lady and a servant (without text). Hope you find time to read it and I liked Non si sa come (Without knowing how) too. Congratulations for your blog. Dr.J

Nabi said...

I just randomly found this very interesting post while browsing! Great blog - love it! Dr.J I'm very curious to know which is the best edition in English for Sogno ma forse no (A dream but maybe not) by Pirandello. I'm going to work on a 1 act 3 hander play with not too complexed staging and I was thinking of that one. I love Pirandello! Unless you guys have something else to suggest! Thanks. Nabila

Dr.J said...

Dear Nabi, with Marissa permission:
Pirandello´s One-act plays. Translated by William Murray, you can find it at
Of course I am spanish and haven´t read Pirandello in english (or italian, for that matter). We all love Pirandello but have you found any spanish authors plays?

Best luck for you both! Dr.J

Nabi said...

Thank you Dr.J for your prompt reply! I found the English version online. I'm Swiss-Italian so the only version I know is in its original language. I love Vida es Sueno de Calderon de la Barca but if you have in mind any other good Spanish authors of 1-act 3 hander play please let me know! I'm actually traveling this week to Madrid and will have a look around my self. Thank you!! Best

Dr.J said...

Dear Nabi: as Marissa is so kind and allows self-promotion let me recommend the bookshop "los editores" calle Gurtubay 5 Madrid to look for any good books. It is owned by the publishers whi just edited my first nivel El ultimo de Cuba and will probably kniw a lot about short theatre plays in spanish. And thus is the book week so plenty of action there

Nabi said...

GREAT! I will defintely check it out. Muchas gracias y hasta la proxima. Saludos, Nabila