Start Weird, Make a Difficult Change, & Shut Up.
I recently finished reading Steve Martin’s autobiography about his years as a standup comic, Born Standing Up, in which he says that he always tries to craft every presentation—his standup, his plays and movies, even his radio and TV interviews—to contain a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s daunting to consider that much attention to form across an entire career, but it threw several points into focus for me as I sat down to write one-minute plays. And, not surprisingly (if you’ve read the blogs others have written about this process) they were playwrighting elements I should have been focusing on all along.
Beginnings: Beginnings in standard-length plays have time to start out calm or ordinary and then explode, after characters have been established and everyone has had time to let us know just how stable they think their lives are. But with a one-minute play, exposition is a luxury. Shit’s gotta be weird from the get-go. You can really move things along by starting the characters in an interesting place, instead of letting them casually wander there over the course of the first third of the play.
Middles: This is usually the part where people talk about their problems a lot in their living rooms, and/or get drunk. Most of the time, it takes me a dozen or so pages to work my characters through enough dialogue to solve, if only temporarily, the relationship conundrums they find themselves encountering. But in a one-minute play, I found that using a non-cerebral obstacle, one that didn’t rely on repartee, was an excellent way to achieve the level of stakes and struggle that I wanted. One way I implemented this was by writing a play spoken in absolutely perfect unison, and another was to set a play in space, and have the actors fighting for enough breath to deliver their lines. There must be a thousand other solutions to my tendency to over-write dialogue, but I didn’t realize I knew any really, before now.
Endings: Endings are by far the hardest thing for me to write, generally speaking. Even if I am doing an adaptation and I already know who’s going to win, I can dither about this part of the script for ages, and rewrite dozens of time. I’m annoying. I admit it. But endings seem to have to really count, don’t they? Usually there should be learning, or changing? And then a bunch of reflection on the learning and/or changing? Sure, but not if you’ve only got about twenty seconds left of stage time. What I learned during this writing process was that in order to wrap things up but still drive them home, the change that has happened to the character or their circumstances should be clear and concise, and then everyone should shut up. Let the audience do the reflecting and/or rehashing, if there is any to be done. The play is over. The essence of what the characters were put into their circumstances to accomplish, is accomplished. Fin.
I’m going to take my own advice in that last section there and conclude with a dither-free wrap-up.
- Start weird
- Make a difficult change
- Shut up
Sounds like a recipe for the best plays I’ve yet to write.
100 Plays. 50 Playwrights. 1 Minute. The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival with Victory Gardens Theater will be presented on May 15th and 16th, 2011. Tickets are available here.