Ten-Minute Plays Test Theatre Skills
By Shannon Thomason
Trista Baker and Brenton Bellamy perform in "Darcie" from the 2009 Festival of Ten-Minute Plays. "Darcie" was written by Richard Taylor Campbell and directed by Mel Christian. Photo by Richard Taylor Campbell.
In playwright Lee Shackleford’s world, the script comes first. Before the actors audition or the props are selected, the script must be conceived, written, polished, and perfected.
Shackleford is the UAB Department of Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, and he teaches several scriptwriting classes at UAB. He also is the founder and director of UAB’s edgy, creative, and tremendously popular Festival of Ten-Minute Plays, now in its seventh year.
Each year the process begins in the spring semester, when Shackleford’s students learn the art and craft of writing super-short comedies and dramas. A 10-minute play, he explains, is not a skit or a scene; it must have everything that a longer play has—without the luxury of time.
The Word’s the Thing
“Sometimes that is harder than it might first appear,” Shackleford says. “The playwright has to be extremely focused about what he or she wants to say because there is no time for secondary plot lines or unnecessary characters. There won’t be scenery or special effects. The emphasis is on ideas and words.”
Shackleford often shepherds students who have never written any kind of play before. Even among those with writing experience, few have seen their work performed in public.
The key is to begin with a passion, Shackleford says. “I ask the students, if you have 10 minutes to say to a group of people anything that is on your mind, what would you say? And very often that becomes the genesis of a 10-minute play.”
Students may write as many as 25 plays before the spring term is over, “but only eight of them are going to be produced,” Shackleford says. “I liken it to a photographer taking thousands of pictures in the hopes of getting that one perfect shot. We also want each festival to offer a balance. We don’t want an evening of all comedies or all tragedies, or eight nonrealistic pieces or eight topical plays. So it can get very complicated when it comes time to choose.”
Making the Cut
By September, eight plays are being rehearsed simultaneously, each with its own cast, costumes, and lighting plans. Each aspect of all eight plays must be ready at the same time, a logistical effort that requires precise choreography. For the students, the nearly yearlong process ends with a long weekend of performances in front of an always-packed house—and the thrill of seeing and hearing their words brought to life on the stage.
“In performance we always feel confident the audience will enjoy the evening,” says Shackleford, “if only because of the variety. If they don’t like a particular play, it won’t be long before another one will begin—and that next one will be completely different.”