06 November 2016

One-Act Plays Festivals

by Kirk Woodward

[Now comes my friend Kirk Woodward with a new contribution to the blog he urged me to start, lo these 7½ years ago.  This time, returning the broad topic of theater, Kirk’s looking at one-act plays and one-act festivals.  I know you’ll find several truths in his thesis and possibly some thoughts that had never occurred to you before.  As a playwright himself, Kirk has had years of experience writing—and submitting—short plays and in “One-Act Plays Festivals,” he shares some of what he’s learned from that experience as well as that of a long-time theatergoer and sometime theater reviewer.]

There’s a remarkable current theatrical phenomenon that I haven’t seen much published comment about – namely, the one-act play festival or competition.

One-act plays have a long theatrical history, as curtain-raisers, as short stand-alone entertainments, and as major dramatic works in their own right. Moliere (1622-1673) gained his early fame writing one act comedies like “The Flying Doctor” and “The Rehearsal at Versailles” that followed the tragedies he and others wrote. In the late Nineteenth Century, when full-length plays formed part of longer evenings’ entertainment, important writers like George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), and Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) wrote short plays to precede the main events.

Much of the early growth of American theater in the first half of the Twentieth Century can be found in the one-act plays that Eugene O’Neill, in particular, wrote for the Washington Square Players (1914-1918) and the Provincetown Players (1915-1929), with his “sea plays” generally regarded as among his best, and as outstanding examples of the form. The professional career of Tennessee Williams began when a collection of one-act plays he submitted to a Group Theatre competition was awarded a special cash prize.

So one-act plays are an enduring presence in theater. However, the classic one-acts are old news. The words “World Premiere,” “Original Work,” and “New Plays” are assumed to have strong appeal, and the one-act play festivals and competitions I’m talking about almost all feature new work. At a minimum, they will not feature a play by, say, Eugene O’Neill.

The idea of the one-act play festival or competition got a major push when the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) began its National Ten-Minute Play Contest in 1989. This gives me a certain sense of pride because I’m from Louisville, and because I was present at the first organizational meeting of that theater, in 1964.

ATL did not invent the one-act play festival or competition, any more than it invented the one-act play. Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in New York, for example, began a notable one-act play festival in 1986, three years before ATL, which continues to this day. However, EST accepts submissions up to forty pages long. (Generally speaking, a page of a script is assumed to equal a minute of stage time.)

The genius of ATL was to impose a limit in the length of one act plays to ten minutes. (Their specific requirement is for no more than ten pages of script, not counting the title page and notes.) I have not been able to determine whether the ten-minute limit was ATL’s invention – I’d guess it was not – but they also popularized it by publishing a series of collections of the one-act plays they’ve produced. These collections have wide popularity in the theater community.

With a ten minute play limit, a full evening of one-acts can contain eleven or twelve plays without much difficulty. (ATL has experimented with even shorter time lengths of submissions in recent years, including plays to be performed as phone conversations, and plays printed on T-shirts.)

In any case, the one-act play festival phenomenon has now reached astounding proportions. A Google search for “one-act play collections” reports about 9,730,000 results. About!
One of the first listings on a recent search was titled “One Act Plays For Every Stage – Read 2,100 One Act Plays Free.” That’s a lot of one-act plays on just one website. My brain can’t hold the idea of 2,100 one-act plays existing, much less the idea of reading all of them. I don’t know if I could read 2,100 of anything. And that was among the first search item that turned up.

A web search for “one-act play competitions” turns up a couple of million fewer hits. Among the notable long-lasting festivals in Manhattan are those of the Manhattan Repertory Theatre, the Strawberry One-Act Festival, and, as noted, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s series.

In a way the term “one-act play” is something of a misnomer. It might equally well be applied to full-length plays (one or one-and-a-half to two hours long or longer) performed without an intermission, like 2016’s The Humans. Shakespeare’s plays appear to have been originally performed this way, with no breaks in the action at all. (The first division of his plays into acts was by Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) in his edition of the plays published in 1709. He created the scene divisions in the plays too.)

I admit that I have no name to substitute for the kind of play I’m talking about here. “Short one-act play” is about as close as I can come, and it is implied in this article. Very often these plays are original – that is, they’ve never been produced before. Producers love to announce premieres. Clearly this policy wastes good plays – why shouldn’t they be produced more than once? But the label “new work” has some drawing power.

There are many reasons that short one-act play festivals and competitions are currently popular, reasons that apply to producers, to actors, potentially to audiences, and definitely to playwrights as well. There are downsides too, which I will mention.

For producers, one-act play festivals and competitions offer a conceivably enticing financial prospect. If a producer puts on a program of, say, seven one-act plays, each with an average cast of three, and if each of those people, plus the writer, brings in six family members, there is already a practically guaranteed audience of 168 people, and the producer hasn’t even printed a flier yet. (I have been in more than one production of a full length play that didn’t bring in that many people over an entire run.)

Of course success still may not be guaranteed, even in a theater with a small seating capacity. But there is another possible strategic move. Call your night (or nights, or weeks, or festivals) of one-act plays a competition, offer a cash prize of a reasonable amount, and make it clear that winning the competition will depend on audience voting.

Writers in particular will pack the house with “safe” voters. More audience! If you have a smallish sized theater, you may even sell out. Meanwhile your production costs are likely to be low, since multiple set changes between plays require that items like furniture be kept to a minimum.

So presenting a festival or competition of one-act plays is a sensible financial strategy, even if the words “An Evening of One-Acts” on the marquee is by itself no guarantee of success. (It may be, of course. The one-act play competition at Actors Theatre of Louisville, for example, is extremely popular on its own. However, that theater has worked hard to build a reputation as a quality production house.)

For actors, the advantage is a significant increase in the number of available roles. True, a big role in a one-act play probably won’t be the size of a big role in a full length play. On the other hand, it could be a meatier role. In any case, it’s work. Often one-act plays are rehearsed on independent schedules, one for each play, with the whole group brought together only at the last minute. This too is an advantage for actors, who need to schedule their time efficiently.

The advantage of one-act play festivals and competitions to audiences is more problematic. As I said, the festivals at Actors Theatre of Louisville are popular, but the quality of work at that theater is high, which is not the case of the material at every one-act play festival, even in Manhattan. The odds are against any new play’s succeeding; the odds of a dozen of them succeeding at once are low.

Of course, the risks involved in one-act plays are also smaller. Some, actually, are no more than skits, which I’d define as actors in short depictions of situations that require only surface characterization. Good skits aren’t easier to write than anything else, but at least they are compact, often funny, and quickly understood.

Generally, however, I doubt that much of the general play-going public is thinking right now, “I wish I could find a good evening of one-act plays.” I was once in a rock band where, after a particularly successful string of numbers, the lead singer announced, “Now we’re going to do some original material.” The crowd fell ominously silent and he had to add that he was joking. I’m not sure that the term “one-act play festival” doesn’t have something of the same effect.

However, as noted above, many of us will go to a play for the purpose of supporting a friend or relative who’s in it or wrote it, and an evening of one-act plays offers an opportunity to include a lot of those.

One-act play festivals and competitions are also attractive to playwrights. This is in fact an element in the popularity of one-act plays for both producers and playwrights. Producers need plays to present, and playwrights write them. Producers love one-act plays because all they have to do is ask for them, and the plays come pouring in, because the playwright has a chance of getting a play produced.

What a wonder this is for a playwright, who lives a life of continual rejection. Of course there’s no guarantee a particular one-act play will be accepted for production. I have written, for example, a ten-minute play on a Christmas subject that I think is both offbeat and funny, and that has never gotten the slightest glimmer of interest from any festival of holiday plays (a sub-genre of the one-act play festival).

But the odds of having a play accepted by a one-act play festival or competition are at least greatly increased, because not only might one performance present between half a dozen and a dozen plays, but the festival might include dozens more presented on different nights, perhaps in a different order for each performance.

Also, because the producing organization actually wants to receive submissions of plays, instead of dreading to receive them (as is often the case), a playwright can have reasonable confidence that her play will really be read by somebody. (People who have not submitted plays to theaters and agents can’t begin to imagine how often plays are lost, ignored, or cursorily read.)

And it simply takes less time to write a short one-act play – say, a play ten minutes long – than it does to write a full-length play. If I have a good idea, I can write a good one-act play overnight. The demand for “original work” can easily be met.

But what if I don’t have a good idea? Shorter is not necessarily easier. In fact, shorter is much more difficult. If it weren’t, there’d be – I was going to say hundreds, but considering the Google search, I should probably say millions – of good or great one-act plays around. There aren’t.

The sentence, “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a short one,” has been attributed to many people. Whoever said it, its point is correct. It’s easy to be verbose and extraordinarily hard to be succinct.

The solution, for many one-act plays I’ve seen, is to choose a subject with impact, use that as the subject of the one-act, and rely for success on the seriousness of the issue raised – say, because I’ve seen so many of these plays, cancer. Cancer is real, it’s terrible, it’s disastrous, it’s horrible. No question.

So write a play about someone with cancer. They die – tears. Or they live – cheers! Or they struggle – drama!

What can possibly be wrong with that? I have two answers, one more or less practical and one aesthetic. The practical objection is that what you’re doing in such a play is emotional manipulation. You’re taking a subject you know will succeed in stirring an audience’s feelings, and putting it up there in the knowledge that it’s precertified as intense, stirring drama.

Emotional manipulation is difficult to avoid, but we ought to try. It’s just too easy. Shakespeare figured that out a long time ago, and he does very little emotional manipulation. He has Hamlet say:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!

What's Hecuba 
to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? 

I understand that cancer, or any other strenuous or catastrophic event, may not be “nothing” to the writer – it may in fact be real and personal. But as artists we have responsibilities to our art, and one of them, I submit, is to cheat as little as possible, and to approach subjects creatively and imaginatively, rather than using them for their predetermined value in tears and fears.

Far too often, one-act plays take a huge problem, throw it at us knowing we already have feelings about it, and leave it at that. Easy to do – one-act plays aren’t very long. Suppose a play competition’s subject is “Dogs.” Then have a play where a child’s dog is run over. Why not? It happens in life, doesn’t it? It’s terrible, isn’t it? But it’s also emotional manipulation.

And as I said, there’s also an aesthetic reason why such an approach is dubious. Aristotle in the Poetics says that tragedy – and I think this can be applied to other forms of drama as well – works when it is an “imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude.”

Although there’s plenty of argument about exactly what he means, I think it’s clear that he feels a play’s size should be proportional to its subject.

Few of us today would want to turn Aristotle’s observations (assuming they are his – some suspect the Poetics is lecture notes) into rules, as happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But the man has a point. A one-act play needs a one-act action – an action that fits the size of the play. A study of the best one-act plays points this out.

In a series of postings elsewhere on this blog, I describe several excellent examples of the genre by George Bernard Shaw, for example “The Glimpse of Reality” and “The Six of Calais.” [See the author’s series “Re-Reading Shaw,” 3 and 18 July, 8 and 23 August, and 2 September.] In both these plays Shaw does everything required by the size of his story – not less, and not more.

Contrast Shaw’s examples with a number of the one-act plays I’ve seen recently, whose subjects have included, among others, old age and dementia; cancer – there it is again;  severe mental illness; suicide; having to put animals to sleep; and my very least (but frequent) favorite, the Deceased Wife Play. Sometimes two or more of these are combined in one ten-minute episode. I suggest a firm rule: No more than one death per one-act play!

Such works make one-act plays on subjects like dating rituals seem like masterpieces. Perhaps that’s why there are so many one-act plays about dating rituals.

A friend remarked to me that many of these plays – both the tragic and the “relationship” one-acts – are “window” plays:  you look at them and you see a bit of life, as though you saw it through a window, not much changed from the way it happens in the world. My two responses are that looking through a window is not the purpose of art, and that if those things are what the window reveals, I don’t want to live in that neighborhood.

In saying all this I am also grateful for the many delightful one-act plays I’ve seen. They exist and I salute the people who write them. As a favorite example I cite “Words, Words, Words” by David Ives (1987). A riff on the idea that a million monkeys on a million typewriters will eventually write the plays of Shakespeare, it shows three monkeys (named Milton, Swift, and Kafka) banging away on the keys, comparing and criticizing their work, briefly coming close to an actual Shakespeare line, and illustrating in a charming way the difficulties of writing and the frustrations of creative work. It’s a play with both immediate and long-range implications, snugly embodied in the short play form. May its tribe increase.

Unquestionably, no one has the right to tell an artist what to create. Playwrights must write the plays that come to them. But I would love to be able to look at a sign that reads “AN EVENING OF ONE-ACT PLAYS” with anticipation rather than dread. Could evenings of one-act plays be more like festivals, and less like autopsies? May I suggest that as a goal?

[Over the time I’ve been posting play reports on ROT, I’ve included a number of one-act play evenings.  Some are not really very short plays, the way Kirk means, and several fit into the negative characterizations Kirk describes.

·   Horton Foote’s nine-play trilogy, The Orphans’ Home Cycle (reported on 25 and 28 February 2010), is an assemblage of one-act plays all telling the fictionalized story of Foote’s father’s life. 
·   Five By Tenn was a bill of one-acts by Tennessee Williams, first staged as the opening show of “Tennessee Williams Explored” (April-July 2004), the season-long celebration by Washington’s Kennedy Center of the great playwright; I posted my review of the evening, “Uninhabitable Country: Five By Tenn,” on 5 March 2011.        
·   Happy Hour, a world première staged by the Atlantic Theater Company, is a collection of three one-acts by Ethan Coen; I reported on the trilogy of bleak glimpses at human behavior with an ironic title on 29 December 2011. 
·   Early Plays, an adaptation of three one-acts from the Glencairn Plays by Eugene O’Neill, was presented at St. Ann’s Warehouse by the Wooster Group and the New York City Players.  My report was posted on 14 March 2013.
·   3 Kinds of Exile, a collection of three one-acts by John Guare connected by a common theme, was presented by the Atlantic Theater Company in June 2013.  I posted my report on 27 June 2013.
·   Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy is comprised of three connected one-acts, International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!, which premièred separately.  I saw the joint production at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and posted my report on 5 October.
·   Lee Blessing’s Flag Day is a pair of one-acts, Black Sheep and Perilous Night, also originally presented individually, that I saw at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Sheperdstown, West Virginia, in 2004; I posted my report, “Contemporary American Theatre Festival (2004),” on 8 July 2014.
·   Summer Shorts is an annual two-part festival of one-act plays, often including work by well-known authors, presented in July and August by 59E59 Theatres.  I saw one evening of the festival in 2015 and published “Summer Shorts 2015, Series A,” on 12 August.
·   Desire is another collection of one-acts by Tennessee Williams, but these six plays are all adaptations of short stories, scripted by different playwrights.  It was a production of the Acting Company, which has made something of an industry of assembling this sort of evening (Chekhov stories, Shakespeare sonnets), in 2015 and my report appeared on 29 September.
·   Last May, I caught a presentation of three Samuel Beckett one-acts, Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby, performed in a bravura production by Irish actress Lisa Dwan called “Beckett Trilogy.”  I posted my report on this experience on 1 May 2016.
·   In June, the Signature Theatre Company presented an evening of one-acts drawn from past seasons devoted to three playwrights: Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, María Irene Fornés’s Drowning, and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro.  I posted a report called “Signature Plays” on 3 June 2016.
·   My most recent one-act evening was Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.  The three connected one-acts, A NightingaleThe Dearest of FriendsSpring Dance, is running though 27 November and my report was posted on 22 October. 

[Some of these playlets were composed to be performed together, so they’re not necessarily the kind of bill of one-acts that Kirk is writing about, but the list does give some idea of the popularity of the short play on today’s theater.]

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