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How do you write a good 10-minute play?

Ten-minute plays are popular these days for basic economic reasons: they are relatively cheap to produce and if you do an evening of 10-minute plays you can count on a decent attendance because most writers will invite friends and family.

But that doesn't mean a ten-minute play can't be a great work of art. I will admit I've sat through 10-minute plays that felt like an hour. But why were they bad? What went wrong? Or more importantly, for the plays that do work - what went right?

Here is a guideline I first created for a show of 10-minute plays I produced in 2008 called 10 Min Playfest

  • Does the play pull me in right away?
    There are only 10 minutes - the play has to pull you in right from the start.
  • Does the play surprise me?
    If the play is about something I've heard a hundred times already, I'll be bored. Or if it unfolds in predictable ways, I will be bored.
  • Does the play make me laugh or well up? Or both?
    Art must have an emotional impact.
  • Does the play have a dramatic struggle?
    People sitting around bickering is not a dramatic struggle. So many people don't seem to understand that.
  • Does the play have vivid characters in compelling situations?
    People sitting around bickering is not a compelling situation. Especially if the characters are called "man" and "woman." If the playwright can't be bothered to come up with a name for a character, it's usually a sign that the character is as generic as the label. This is especially true of a 10-minute play where you really don't have time for generic supporting characters.
  • Does the play show more than tell? "Show, don't tell" has been said a million times and yet maybe about 20% of all the people who write plays - including lionized, famous playwrights - seem to get this.
  • Does the play blow my mind through sheer funky originality?
    This is the Holy Grail of ten-minute plays. I've seen only a handful of ten-minute plays that have blown my mind.

Here are three 10-minute plays that I believe work very well. Each play is available to download and read. Each play is copyrighted by its respective author and may not be printed or performed without the author's permission.

All three plays have been performed in NYCPlaywrights Reading fundraisers, but other than that they have little in common. SINGERS is a comedic piece about four waiters at an Applebee's restaurant, LOVERBOY is a spooky tale about a man trying to free himself from his abusive mother, and ALMOST WATERSHEDS is a succinct yet moving look at a relationship that takes place over the course of 40-some years.

SINGERS by Thom Weidlich

SINGERS unfolds in real time, with only four characters. It's not impossible to do a good ten-minute play with more than four characters, but it isn't easy. You can get away with that for a reading, but more than four is unwieldy for a full stage performance. Of the three plays under consideration here, SINGERS is the most kinetic - the waiters run around, take orders, trade quips. The plot is simple and direct: a waiter is trying to convince other waiters to agree to sing. That is established in the very first line:

MEGAN

(to herself)

I need singers.

During Megan's quest we get to know a little about her and the other three waiters through their interactions. Her roommate Rachel also works at Applebee's. Rachel has a colorful way of expressing herself:

RACHEL

I would rather have every one of my eyelashes individually yanked out than be here tonight.

MEGAN

And who would pay the rent? Oh, I guess I would.

(MEGAN exits)

RACHEL

Two Buds, Kenny.

(Beat. To herself)

"Who would pay the rent?" Shut up.

So we know quickly that they are roommates who don't always get along. The waiter Joe appears and seems to be a jerk: his second line is a homophobic insult to waiter Bobby.

JOE

Stoli tonic, Merlot, Beck's.

(To Bobby)

Could you swish on over?

Bobby's response to the crack tells us two things - he is gay, and he's fairly tolerant.

BOBBY

I'm more man than you are. And I'm working here at the moment. Three Buds, Kenny.

Joe is also a bit of a prig:

RACHEL

(To Kenny)

Two sex on the beaches.

(To herself)

God, I'd like to have sex on the beach twice.

JOE

Don't be crude.

Megan seems to have the best relationship with Bobby and we also see that she is a determined negotiator:

MEGAN

I did. There goes my tip. You have to sing.

BOBBY

No no no.

MEGAN

How many times have I closed out your tables when you wanted to leave early? How many times?

BOBBY

I dunno. Once?

MEGAN

Try, like, three thousand times.

BOBBY

Impossible. I've only toiled in this particular corner of hell two thousand nights.

MEGAN

Well, a lot. And you know it. Plus I sang for you last night.

BOBBY

All right. When do you need this warbling done?

An interesting point - for Bobby's line "No, no, no" every actor who has performed the role of Bobby in the readings I've seen sang those words - and each "no" a different note. It isn't in the script, it was the actor's choice and it gives the line an extra punch, as well as being ironic - he is refusing to sing by singing his refusal. And then he gives in and agrees to sing for Megan.

The setup is simple but effective: will Megan succeed in convincing the others to sing with her? The play sets up the problem in the first line, and by the end of the play there is a resolution to the problem - yes, she does succeed in getting all of them to sing - and we see them singing at the end.

SINGERS' dialog is fast-paced and snappy, which works perfectly for a play about busy waiters who know each other and their jobs pretty well. It's a believable scenario. Author Thom Weidlich says the play was inspired by a real-life event:

"Singers grew from a work trip to West Virginia. I was at an Applebee's, eating alone at the bar near the service station. One of the waiters was having a tough time getting her co-workers to "sing" for her. I was a witness to her entire effort. She never said what the singing was for; it was obvious in the context. Still, it was a big surprise - a funny shock - when they disappeared from my view and 'sang' in the manner I end the play with."

It's an amusing slice-of-life, but you could look at it on another level - this is a brief glimpse into the lives of some chain-restaurant waiters and their efforts to do a job in the face of obstacles. It might even inspire sympathy in audience members the next time they go to a restaurant.

LOVERBOY by Michael Jalbert

Loverboy is a very different play from SINGERS. It is about a man who is trying to come to terms with the damage wrought by his abusive mother. Author Mike Jalbert says of his inspiration for the play:

A lifelong horror fan, I have long wanted to write a ghost story. The therapeutic exercise of repainting a room had been described to me shortly before writing this play.

Right from the top of page one it is clear how much anxiety his old bedroom causes Will - he hesitates before entering:

(Will enters with paint tray with brushes and a roller in it. Again he stops in the doorway.)

CAROL

Change your mind?

WILL

(Not moving)

No.

CAROL

Come in.

WILL

Just a second.

CAROL

Hey, I can do this alone, if you'd like.

WILL

That sort of defeats the purpose.

Not only does this establish Will's anxiety, it also reveals his relationship with Carol - she is sympathetic and wants to help. But right after, Carol calls Will "loverboy" - not a surprising thing for a woman to call her fiancee - but Will reacts strongly:

CAROL

Come here, Loverboy.

WILL

(startled)

Don't call me that!

CAROL

Sorry, I forgot

WILL

How could you forget that?

CAROL

I apologize. I don't know what made me say it.

This small accidental betrayal foreshadows the outcome of the play. Painting the room is Will's therapist's idea, but Will expresses his reservations about the idea:

CAROL

Shall we paint?

WILL

Painting the room. It feels cheesy, doesn't it?

CAROL

You think so?

WILL

Like a sort of "New Age Exorcism."

CAROL

Well, it got you to come back here for the first time in - how many years?

WILL

What I don't get is this: Paint is really just another layer covering it up. The room will still be underneath the paint.

This touch of realistic self-awareness establishes an every-day feel that contrasts with the unsettling emotional undercurrents previously established by Will's anxious behavior. This is an important anchor to reality which makes the slide into the supernatural more convincing and scary.

Jalbert then rachets up the tension through Carol's inexplicable power to envision how the room once looked - although she's never actually seen it; and then rachets up further through a brief but effective reference to the horrific abuse that occurred in the room:

CAROL

Maple headboard.

(beat)

Brown bedspread with Cowboys. Bucking broncos. Gunslingers.

(Beat)

On the head board is... are...

(CAROL covers her eyes)

WILL

Where was the bureau?

CAROL

Over there. Maple. With a mirror. A big mirror.

WILL

What was over here? By the closet door?

CAROL

A white wooden chair. From the kitchen?

WILL

Yes.

CAROL

I'm right?

WILL

About everything. And what's on the chair?

CAROL

I don't like this.

WILL

What's on the headboard?

CAROL

Please, Will.

WILL

You know.

CAROL

Rope. Rope on the chairs. Rope on the headboards... She kept you tied up.

WILL

Yes.

(beat)

Let's paint.

The supernatural element also helps Jalbert get around the exposition problem - the show-not-tell issue. The abuse that is causing Will such anxiety happened in the past, but instead of having Will tell Carol what happened, Jalbert uses the supernatural element to make Carol experience what the room was like: she describes the room to Will. And Jalbert wisely refrains from including a long description of the abuse, just a brief mention of ropes on the chairs and headboards is enough - the audience members will imagine the horrors for themselves.

The play briefly turns to the everyday again - the characters attempt to paint and discuss getting pizza. Then Jalbert brings in one more tension point - Will and Carol quarrel over Will's insecurity:

WILL

No, I just saw his name come up. When I borrowed your phone yesterday. Why did he call?

CAROL

He wanted to know if I had his tax return from last year. Look, I don't like that you're grilling me about every call I get.

WILL

One call. From your ex-boyfriend.

CAROL

This is not just about one call.

Now that the tension is established in four different ways, through anxiety, the supernatural, horror and conflict, Jalbert brings the play to a startling resolution:

(There is a loud slam. They freeze.)

WILL

She's in here.

CAROL

(points to where bureau was.)

There.

WILL

What?

CAROL

I can see her.

WILL

Where?

CAROL

In the mirror.

WILL

There is no mirror.

(Carol covers her eyes again.)

CAROL

(in Eva's voice)

Pathetic.

WILL

What's wrong?

CAROL

(in Eva's voice)

Scared, stupid, jealous.

WILL

Mother?

CAROL

(in Eva's voice)

The problem was never this room. The problem was never me. The problem is you. The problem has always been you. Scared, stupid, jealous you.

WILL

Stop it, please.

CAROL

(in Eva's voice)

Paint the house, burn the house, fuck the house. You're still mine. You'll always be mine, Lover boy. `

That is the end of the play. Now we know why Will did not want his fiancee to call him "loverboy." Will's evil mother has the last word, and ominously for Will's future marriage, she speaks through Carol. Clearly Will has not been able to paint over the pain his mother inflicted on him, and the play concludes on an unsettling, tragic note.

Although this play is very different from SINGERS they both establish a problem: Megan needs singers, Will is anxious about painting a room; and resolves the problem, happily for Megan, tragically for Will. The entire play is devoted to unfolding the problem and then finding the resolution. And since the authors tie everything together in the cause of resolving the problem, there is a real forward momentum in the plot that keeps the audience interested.

ALMOST WATERSHEDS by Micharne Cloughley

Micharne Cloughley's play ALMOST WATERSHEDS is different in many ways from the other two. It does not happen in real time but rather drops in at various points over the course of a long relationship. However, it has comedic elements like SINGERS and tragic elements like LOVERBOY.

Since the play is about the relationship between two people, Harry and Samantha (Sam), author Micharne Cloughley shows them in conflict, right away:

SAM

(Unrolls into a 'tree' shape, with complete commitment)

Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.

HARRY

I've got a cold - I can't breathe through my nose!

SAM

Breathe in through your mouth, and out through your mouth... let your arms discover what it means to be branches...

(HARRY laughs)

SAM

I'm doing it exactly how my teacher does it- why aren't you becoming a tree?

HARRY

I don't want to be a tree! I wanna be... a dog!

(HARRY gets on the ground)

SAM

Okay, let's be dogs!

(starts enthusiastically panting and twitching her 'ears' that she makes with her hands)

HARRY

I dare you to drink your dog's water.

SAM

Woof!

(she goes over to the bowl and after a slight moment of hesitation, starts lapping)

HARRY

Stop it! What are you doing?

SAM

I'm being a...

HARRY

Why can't you just be normal?

(HARRY storms off. SAM, still as a dog, ears' droop. )

But it's the use of a series of water containers that adds a whole other element to the play. According to the opening stage directions:

(On an empty stage a dog bowl, water bottle, plastic party cup, another giant sized water bottle, McDonalds disposable cup, gumboot, sauce pan, vase and watering can are lined up in the centre. They are all full of water...)

Each subsequent scene is about a significant moment in the lives of Sam and Harry as they grow up, get married, have children, grow older, and each scene involves one of the water containers described:

  1. Children and the dog's bowl
  2. As older children: Harry kisses Sam (for the first time) instead of pouring a bottle of water on her
  3. In college, Sam throws a cup of water at Harry when he suggests she looks cheap for dancing with other men.
  4. A little later they share water while locked in a closet, and confess that they love each other.
  5. Harry shares a cup of water with Sam while she has a hangover, then Sam proposes to Harry.
  6. A married couple with a child now, Harry leaves Sam's rain boot (gumboot) out in the rain and it fills up with water.
  7. Sam's father has died and the sound of a water leak dripping into a saucepan is disturbing her. Harry moves the saucepan for her.
  8. Harry is now in the hospital and Sam brings him a vase of water, without the flowers.
  9. Harry becomes a tree, Sam waters him.

Cloughley says she was inspired to write the play by the theatrical properties of water:

When I was in rehearsals for a play as a teenager, one of the actors poured water on fellow cast members. The reaction in the cast was the most real moment that was created on stage in that rehearsal. From that moment on we said we were searching for 'water moments' onstage. I was reminded of this experience while stage managing at the French Woods Festival of the Arts in New York last Summer, as in one of the plays there was a water drop from the roof and it just got a great reaction from both the cast and the audience every night. I began to think of all the different things you could have water in, and that line of thinking, combined with some general inspiration from love and life, was the start of ALMOST WATERSHEDS.

The use of the water containers makes this play a very pure expression of theater - and also makes it stage-bound. Making a movie out of this play would destroy the important physical presence - the spectacle - of the water itself.

This play has qualities similar to Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN. Both fully exploit the properties of live theater, relying on the audience's imagination to complete the circuit between the author's mind and theirs, which causes an emotional resonance. OUR TOWN and ALMOST WATERSHEDS present key moments in characters' lives, and even though the characters are distinct, well-drawn individuals, the stages of life that they go through are what all people go through. It's the universal nature of the events portrayed that give both plays their impact.

ALMOST WATERSHEDS portrays the "circle of life" aspect of living by bringing Sam and Harry's lives full circle. In the first scene Harry doesn't want to pretend to be a tree. In the last wordless scene:

(HARRY is lying in the same position as at the end of Scene 8. SAM stands behind him, she picks up the watering can. She takes a moment, before watering the ground immediately behind HARRY. HARRY starts to grow into a tree, as they both did in the first scene. HARRY grows into a full tree and outstretches his arm over SAM. She stops watering and looks out. Blackout.)

It is this scene that gives the play its sweetness and sorrow: Sam is alone now after such a long life together with Harry. ALMOST WATERSHEDS has an impact on me very close to the impact that OUR TOWN has - but Cloughley manages to do it in ten minutes. For this reason I consider ALMOST WATERSHEDS to have achieved the funky originality grail of playwriting.

What Have We Learned?

Did the play pull me in right away?

  • Why does Megan need singers?
  • Why is Will so anxious about his old bedroom?
  • Why are there all those water containers on the stage?

Did the play surprise me?

  • The fast pace of SINGERS didn't give me time to guess what was coming next.
  • I did not expect LOVERBOY to take that turn for the supernatural.
  • The emotional impact of nine brief ALMOST WATERSHEDS scenes truly suprised me.

Did the play make me laugh or well up? Or both?

  • SINGERS - laugh
  • LOVERBOY - well up
  • ALMOST WATERSHEDS - both

Did the play have a dramatic struggle?

  • Megan vs. the other waiters, Megan vs. time
  • Will against the effects of his mother's abuse
  • Sam and Harry against each other and then against the human condition

Did the play have vivid characters in compelling situations?

Yes, especially LOVERBOY

Did the play show more than tell?

Yes, especially SINGERS

Did the play blow my mind through sheer funky originality?

Yes, especially WATERSHEDS


The key to it all is emotional impact. This cannot be stressed enough. The theater seems to be going through a period of the devaluation of emotion - unless it's the anger of an angry young man. There's this fear that the expression of any other strong emotions is a sign of stupidity or weakness. Sincerity and depth of feeling are out, irony and shallow intellectualism are in. And that is a shame - it makes for self-indulgent, pointless and forgettable plays. Art is about emotion - if you want pure intellect go write a philosophical treatise, not a play. And even ten-minute plays, as I believe I've demonstrated, can have a strong emotional impact.

- Nancy McClernan

The Authors

Micharne Cloughley studied acting at The McDonald College of Performing Arts in North Strathfield, Australia and television production at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia. She worked in the television industry for four years before going back to her theatre roots and writing for the stage. This year her play DROPS OF LOVE was performed in the 'Short and Sweet' Festival in Sydney and a reading of her current work in development, 99 PHONE CALLS YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE MADE was staged at the Roxbury Hotel, Gleb
Michael Jalbert has worked as an actor and stage manager for many years in New York City and on regional tours. Several of his plays have been produced Off-off-Broadway and in Los Angeles.
Thom Weidlich is a journalist and writer in New York City. He completed a playwriting workshop with Keith Bunin (THE CREDEAUX CANVAS, THE WORLD OVER) at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School. He's done readings of his plays MICAH THE MASHER MOURNS THE RELATIONSHIP, THREE WOMEN OF WEEHAWKEN, THE HOTEL ROOM, SINGERS and others. He's a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.