All You Can Ask For (In One Minute or Less) by David Robson
All You Can Ask For (In One Minute or Less)
The idea sounded crazy: write two one-minute plays. Easy, you say? Nothing to it? All I could think of was, “Are you kidding me? I don’t know how to do that.” I’m used to working with a free and open sky, no limits. You want three acts and three hours, I can do that…I think. Ask me to weave a one-set, two-character, 90-minute play—sure, I kind of know what that looks like. But what can be said, shown, or done in 60 seconds?
I should back up and tell you how this all came to be. More than a year ago, InterAct Theatre Company’s producing artistic director Seth Rozin invited me and a gaggle of Philadelphia-area writers to participate in a meet and greet with Dominic D’Andrea, the New York-based producing artistic director of The One-Minute Play Festival.
The opportunity to spend three hours in a room full of other playwrights initially filled me with dread. Writers of plays can be a volatile lot: self-involved, envious, insecure, angry, and that’s just me. Unlike novelists and poets, even once we’ve thought of an idea, drafted it, revised it, and shown it to people we can trust, we still have to find a way to get the thing produced. And that last part of the process alone can be a minefield of bruised egos, petty jealousies, and back-bending obsequiousness.
Seth’s invitation also spoke of free snacks and beer, so I said I’d be there. Once inside the Adrienne theatre’s Skybox, I reconnected with old friends and became acquainted with new ones. I grabbed a beer, took deep breath, and prepared to give this thing a shot. Before Dominic introduced himself, we stood around making small talk for a while and, you know what, I almost kind of liked it.
Over the next 12 months, I attended all of the three or four sessions that Dominic led. His enthusiasm for one-minute plays and his interest in learning as much about the Philadelphia theatre scene put me at ease. All of us participated in exercises, brainstormed, and began a dialogue about what we most value about theater, the arts, and Philly in general.
By the last session—held this past spring—I noticed that I even looked forward to conversing again with my playwriting peers. Writing plays is not brick-laying or brain surgery, but it’s not easy either. It was enlightening and fun to talk shop, have a few laughs, and plug-in with other people doing what I’m trying to do. The more time I spent within this theater-community experience, the more my initial reluctance melted into a sense of gratitude that I’d been invited in the first place.
Still, it’s one thing to hang out and shoot the breeze with a group of artists. But how in the world was I going to tell a complete story in less than 60 seconds? In one minute you can be suggestive, hint at a larger world involving your characters, and, if you’re lucky, give the audience an intriguing experience. But beyond that, you’re limited by time; you can only do, say, and present so much in that miniscule time frame. How constricting, I thought.
After the last session, I went home and thought some more: Did writing a one-minute play mean starting with some heavy idea—death, identity, destiny—and molding it into a mind-blowing moment that would linger in the mind for days? Perhaps, I could set up a final reversal that, in the last seconds (57, 58, 59…), would shock and awe: “Granny is a serial killer! OMG!” But that seems cheap, doesn’t it? I’ve seen enough M. Night Shyamalan movies to know that after a while the surprise ending gets to be rather…unsurprising.
Between the deadline announcement and the deadline itself, I planned to write a whole host of one-minute plays. You know, write a play a day for two weeks and pick the two I liked best. (Invited playwrights were asked to submit two plays each.) Unfortunately, these best laid plans crumbled in the face of household chores, my kid’s dentist appointments, and the last three episodes of House of Cards. A minute long, I thought? No sweat. I can pump that out in, like, two minutes, right? Wrong. I avoided the work at all costs until the deadline began to loom. During those few weeks, I imagined three dozen others local playwrights sitting before their computer screens or note pads and suffering the same kind of artistic lethargy I was.
I also noticed that instead of writing I was reading a lot. At the top of my stack was a biography of Beat Generation patron saint and recovered junkie William S. Burroughs. The Beats represented a hole in my education, so I hoped to catch up. If there’s a BC/AD moment in the life of Burroughs it has to be what happened in 1951: While living in Mexico City, where his heroin/morphine addition was largely ignored by local authorities, a drunken Burroughs told a room full of party-goers that he and his wife Joan would perform a trick. He then asked his equally soused spouse to place a whiskey glass on top of her head; he’d shoot it off with his pistol. He missed. The bullet pierced Joan’s forehead, killing her instantly. This awful, tragic moment became my one minute. I revised it a few times and, along with a piece about two parents saying goodbye to their grown child, I send my entries to Dominic.
I still don’t know if I “did it right,” but that’s a feeling I’m used to as a playwright. As a comedy or drama of any length develops there is a lot of adding and subtracting. You want the thing to live and breathe in the mouths of real-life actors, and at times the sweet spot can be hard to locate. Writing a one-minute play forced me to sharpen my skills. 60 seconds, when you count out-loud, is a long time. A lot can happen, but it doesn’t have to. Characters say many things (quickly) or say almost nothing at all.
Although limited by the clock, the one-minute form opened a new world of possibilities and, ironically, provided an unexpected kind of freedom: the freedom not to too think hard or agonize too much over what comes out because there is no next moment. It begins; it’s over. The beauty of the form is just that: it asks you to reckon with a single, fleeting moment—to take a snapshot like one in your family album. And if our modest plays evoke cracked smile or a pregnant pause or a small sigh of recognition in those who see them, well, what more can you ask?
The First Philadelphia One-Minute Play Festival in Partnership with InterAct Theatre Company runs July 29-31st. Proceeds to benefit the Philadelphia New Play Initiave-a program dedicated to supporting and uplifting the voices of local Philadelphia Playwrights. Tickets are $20 and available here.