The cover of Ten Minute Plays from Oxford (Mississippi, that is) is adorned with a quote from 19th-century author Jane Austen: "It was a delightful visit -- perfect, in being too short." For those who subscribe to the whole "brevity is the soul of wit" axiom, that's good stuff, but, in his attempt to pin down the true spirit of the 10-minute play, Neil White, who edited and contributed to this brand-new collection of brief but nonetheless award-winning scripts, conjures up the words of a more contemporary (if no less sassy) writer. "Somebody asks Woody Allen, 'Hey, how's that new restaurant?'" White begins. "And Woody says, 'It's not good, but the portions are small.'"
Now, White's not trying to say that the plays in his new book aren't good, though he happily reports that if a reader (or viewer) isn't absolutely 100 percent thrilled with one of the tiny theatricals -- hey, what the heck? -- they haven't invested too much time or energy in it in the first place. That's a real selling point considering the degree to which "fear of commitment" has become a national pastime, and in the last decade 10-minute-play festivals and competitions have sprung up like ephemeral toadstools all over the country.
"[When we produce an evening of 10-minute plays], we sell out and have to turn people away," White says. "A true theater scholar would probably say, 'How pitiful our society has become! Our attention spans are so short.' But I would argue differently. Because of the 10-minute plays, we have people coming to the theater who have never come before and we have people writing who haven't written before. For new writers, [the 10-minute form] brings the idea of playwriting within reach, and for established writers it's a great exercise in getting to the heart of the matter."
Ah, the heart of the matter. Now we are getting beyond the ease-of-accessibility issue and exploring the true strength of this abbreviated form. As Charles Bukowski, a master of flash fiction, once said, there are a lot of poets out there "who can't write a simple sentence like, 'The dog walked down the street.'"
"For a writer [of a 10-minute play], the hardest part is starting at the climax," says White. "That's why so many people put their characters in situations that are ripe for conflict, like the bedroom or maybe a psychiatrist's office. You have to communicate what the characters want and why they can't get it quickly and in a creative, non-clichéd manner. You really can communicate a hell of a lot in 10 minutes. With a good play and a great actor, one line can bring a character into focus. Then for the next eight minutes the audience will go anywhere in the world with him."
As an example, White refers to one of the plays in his collection, titled Do Not Collect $200, in which Hitler, Lenin, Napoleon, and James Joyce have gathered together to play a game of Monopoly. "When the lights come up [on this group] sitting around a Monopoly board, nobody has to say anything. You can sense the possibilities of the situation."
If you are the least bit sensitive to such things, you can also sense from White's example one of the short form's greatest pitfalls: the urge to write skits and sketch comedy. Do Not Collect $200, like White's own dramatic contribution Symmetry, a tragic farce about a man whose marriage is falling apart because of his obsession with balance, approaches something you might encounter on Saturday Night Live. Of the 11 plays contained in Ten Minute Plays from Oxford, about half fall into this category (not that there is anything wrong with that). The remaining plays run the gamut, from Jenni Gunn's Death Pass Me By, a Sam Shepard-esque drama scaled to fit inside a doll house, to the Twilight Zone-meets-Zoo Story encounter of Anne Buck's Going Up?.
What they all have in common might best be summed up by the man who first popularized the 10-minute play, Jon Jory of Actors Theatre of Louisville. In an attempt to essay the form, he once said, "They stick like glue in the mind because the viewer remembers the whole play." They are also refreshing, like short power-pop anthems in a world of ponderous symphonies.
Still have your doubts? White will be showing filmed excerpts from the best productions when he signs copies of Ten Minute Plays from Oxford at Off Square Books in Oxford, Tuesday, December 3rd, at 5 p.m.
For further information, log on to TenMinutePlays.com.