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How to write a 10-minute play

Sam Graber

Originally published January 26, 2016 on

( . Reprinted with permission.

Writing a 10-Minute play is easy! All you have to do is come up

with an ingenious idea, figure an inventive and enthralling stage
mechanism, employ riveting and tender characters, serve boiling
hot action, and implant sensational dialog. And get it under 10
No problem! Thats all there is to it. So you can stop reading now.
Oh wait, sorry, when I wrote that it was easy, I meant hard.
Challenging. Baffling. Rife with the potential danger of turning
you into a psychotic mess.
And if you thought writing a 10-Minute Play was all thistry
teaching it! Last week I twice taught a seminar on writing the 10Minute Play. The first seminar I taught was at The Playwrights
Center. The second session, the reprise, occurred at the Kennedy
Centers American College Theater Festival. I would gauge both
sessions as not a total failure since 1) only 5 people fell asleep
during my presentations, and 2) no one walked out on me. The
latter maybe because there wasnt an intermission?
Anyway, the seminar teaser copy used to entice

The 10-Minute Play. Its not just for breakfast anymore.

The short one-act is the bolt of theatrical lightning
which has become a prevalent form of theatrical
expressiveness. We will explore the variations of
structure, the positing of character and the emotional

impact that make up a tantalizing 10 minutes. And

beyond explorationwe will dabble with creation! So
bring an idea, a character, or a situation youve always
wanted to see on stage and prepare to weave your next
10-minute play.


I kicked off both seminars with the same joke regarding the
tribulations of a certain playwright who walked into a bar. The
adult folks at The Playwrights Center gave me impatient glares.
The youth of America at the theater festival session gave me
grim, impatient glares.
I am so not hip.
But I became instantly hip once I introduced the framework of
the 10-Minute Play. Because I was right in guessing that the
attendees, probably like most of you reading, are not writing the
10-Minute play in an isolated vacuum. Youre not out there
writing for your own literary satisfaction or sense of personal
accomplishment. Youre writing the 10-Minute play to get
produced by theaters. And most 10-Minute plays today are
getting produced by theaters in festivals.
You are more than likely writing for acceptance into a 10-Minute
play festival.
So what happens in a 10-Minute play festival?
A theater company, seeking to either expand revenue streams or
grow audiences or broaden a base of artistic contributors, will
decide to produce a 10-Minute play festival. They will put out
calls for scripts. They will get inundated with submissions not
unlikely totaling around 700. They will select around 1% of those
submissions for performance. They will then get a bunch of
directors to direct those selected 1% of scripts. Those directors
will cast and then spend a few rehearsals before rushing and
sweating through a quick, single Cue-to-Cue run by an
overworked and stressed technical director all before each
individual play is rushed onstage for a single performance. This
is stereotypical of the fast and frenetic factory of theater fun that
is the 10-Minute play festival.
So what this means isif youre out there writing a 10-Minute

playand you want to get it produced as a submitting playwright

for an evening of multiple shorts playsyou must understand
what you are writing for. A cast of 15 with lavish set required?
Chance of selection: slim. Small cast and minimal props only?
You just got closer to that 1%.
Again, if you are building your own personal repertoire, or
looking to go straight to publication, or your name is Tony
Kushner and you can have staged whatever you write, then
disregard. Otherwise, understand the framework of production
constraints for which you are writing. Recognize what it takes to
produce a 10-Minute play festival and the difficulty of pulling
together a slate of pieces for a single nights or short run
production. Understand what an audience goes through
watching a variety of short plays in back-to-back fashion.
Because you are no longer getting automatically produced in the
campus festival since you paid tuition. You are now aiming to be
in the 1%.
Oh yes, I see the college kids are listening now.


I believe I was asked to lead both seminars because of my small
success as a Submitting Playwright in the national 10-Minute
play scene. I also continue to serve as a reader on numerous
selection committees. So I know just how to screw up a 10Minute play.
Want to screw up a 10-Minute play?
The easiest way to screw up a 10-Minute play is to pen what I call
the Talking Speaking play. This is the play where two people sit
around an NYC apartment kitchen and drink and attempt to
discuss an entire universe of backstory until one of them
revealsa secret! Folks, this is half the pile of 700 scripts coming
in. Now, granted, the funniest 10-Minute play I have ever seen
was two people sitting around a kitchen table drinking and one
of them reveals a secretbut thats not the point. The point is
dont listen to anything I say. Or do. Totally up to you. Im just
trying to help.
The second easiest way to screw up your Pulitzer Prize-winning
10-Minute play is to NOT ask a question. Does your play ask a

question? It should. It really should. Make sure your 10-Minute

play is more than just an interesting scenario with interesting
characters. Let us feel the play beyond the final bows. Make it
stand for something. Go as far as to try and make your play the
definitive piece on a particular slice of life.
For example, a great question I once saw a play ask was: what
happens to cities when they die? Another great 10-Minute play I
saw will change forever how I see vultures.
But dont necessarily ask the question as part of the literal action.
In fact, and this might be the most important thing I had to offer
in the seminar, recognize that what your play is about (the
question) and why your audience is watching (the interest) are
two completely different things. Yes. This is key. Lets say your
play might be asking: what is the effect of desultory national
forestation policy on local environmental decay? Funky question.
But thats not why your audience is watching. Your audience is
watching because, as a perhaps, they might want to see the
romantic interest blossom (HA) between your mercurial
government arboreal expert character and your demanding local
industrialist character (e.g.). Are you with me? Very key. What
your play is about and why the audience watches are more often
than not two different things and you have to know both. Cold.
Heres another great way to screw up your 10-Minute play. Dont
grab the audience in the opening 60 seconds. Really. Just have
your characters sitting around and speaking in deflective and
vague utterances, until the purpose is slowly revealed in minute
six and then unfurls by the end to entomb the audience within
your monument of meaning. Please dont do this. Know why?
Because during a full-length play the first 10 minutes isnt that
long of a time sequence. But ten minutes in a 10-Minute play is
an eternity. Yes. Einstein proved this. Hit the audience with the
where/what/why within the first 60 seconds. Or dont. Totally up
to you.
An even more phenomenal way to screw up your 10-Minute play
is to be broad. Just try to answer all the questions of the universe,
or cram gargantuan lineages of family history into a small hole.
Actually, dont. Focus on a single fine point. Laser focus on that
point. Be relentless about hitting that point over and over. And
dont stray from that point. From the specific do we get the

I almost forgot! A surefire way to screw up your 10-Minute play is

to write it in a rush, to proofread for basic grammar mistakes, and
then to send that baby out to the world! Now, at the risk of
contradicting myself, and in the spirit of full transparency, my
most successful 10-Minute play did just thatbut thats not the
point. The point is: really and truly think through your setup and
medium. Read your script aloud to yourself. Have others read it
and comment. Push that script to new frontiers. Dont settle. You
are an artist. Be an artist. Toss and turn over that script for
months. Always Be Rewriting (will be on my tombstone).
I once had a 10-Minute play, already produced and performed,
become accepted to another festival, and the director assigned to
my piece at that next festival told me that my script needed work
and a rewrite. To which I explained the script had already been
the recipient of much laughter and rave response. To which the
director explained to me: Shut Up. To which I explained: Okay.
And then I went ahead with that rewrite.
Oh wow, I just realized another dandy way to screw up your 10Minute play. You ready? Have that sucker go over 10 minutes. You
think Im kidding? Not at all. People curating scripts for festivals
see that thing exceed ten pages or get crammed into ten pages by
wacky formatting and now possess cause for dismissal to the
99%. I dont make the rules. I just know that ten minutes means
ten minutes. News flash you can have plays be less than ten
minutes. Einstein proved this as well, Im sure.


Practice. Practice. Practice.


All that stuff about characters with wants and forces blocking the
want? Yes. Important. That is the basic stuff.
But that by itself will not necessarily result in a standout 10Minute play.
You can have interesting characters in an interesting scenario,
but that doesnt mean its standout material.


Discern between which of your astounding ideas is right for a 10Minute play and which is better for a full-length. One of the more
brilliant playwrights Ive met here in Minneapolis once told me
she cant write a 10-Minute play because once she starts, there is
a bigger story to tell and she needs to extrapolate to full-length.
Hard to argue with that.
But I still offer since the 10-Minute play is a living, breathing part
of American festival theater, that there are certain ideas suited
better for the short form.


Always. Be. Rewriting.
Recognize the smallest tweaks to your construct can have the
most profound results.


Theater is such a wide and wonderful canvass of opportunity that
there really are no rules for penning a sensational new work of
But be sure to follow the rules.


I do find the 10-Minute play a challenging but rewarding
framework. Ive written my share of 10-Minute plays which have
been horrible. Those which have turned out to be good I feel have
been worth the labor and thought.
People who lament the 10-Minute play as an outcrop of a
withered or distracted attention of the American audience can
certainly argue their point, but I have been in the audience when
all of us, as a unit, have been blown away and taken to great
See you on stage. Or not. Totally up to you.

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About the author

Sam Graber
Sam Graber is a member of the Playwrights Center, where
he teaches seminars for other members on playwriting
technology and other topics. More at
( .