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The prominent place of the one-act play in the contemporary theatre.

From the Green Room: A Word About the One-Act Play

After two weeks of staged readings, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival begins its 19th year on September 10. The festival runs four weeks, Thursday through Sunday. Each week three new one-act plays are produced by different local theatre companies from Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. The plays are chosen from submissions by playwrights throughout the country. Of the first set of plays, two are by Californians and one comes from Florida. A complete schedule is available on the festival website.

These kinds of one-act play festivals have become a prominent feature of theatre seasons all over the country. There are those, like the Humana Festival in Louisville and the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, that provide venues for the work of some of the most important playwrights working today as well as offering an opportunity for lesser lights. Then there are those festivals more open to the work of aspiring dramatists: the Gallery Players in Brooklyn, Pulse Ensemble in Manhattan. There are festivals for playwrights from specific areas of the country, for specific genders, for a variety of lengths (ten minutes, under 30 minutes). There was, would you believe it, a one-minute play festival sponsored by Brooklyn College in the US and the University of Leeds in England. Even a cursory examination of the Dramatist’s Sourcebook will list a slew of opportunities for playwrights with one-acts of almost any length to peddle.

In an environment where theatre audiences are often hard to come by, the one-act play is often seen as an effective way to attract customers. More often than not, theatre audiences, especially off-off-Broadway and far-far-off-Broadway (Pittsburgh for example), are made up of friends and relatives of those directly involved in the production on view. The advantage of an evening of one-acts is that there are usually a lot of people involved in the production. A typical program of three longer one-acts may involve three sets of actors, three different directors, three different stage managers, not to mention designers, costumers, backstage help, etc., and all these people have friends and relatives. Think about the possibilities of five or so ten-minute plays.

I remember one evening at the Pulse Ensemble where the theatre was so crowded playwrights and family were asked to leave after their play was presented to make room for the next play’s entourage. At the first set of productions of Pittsburgh’s Future Ten several years ago, there was standing room only over two weekends. If you build it, they will come.

These one-acts are also usually cheap to produce. Sets are minimal. Lighting is more often than not lights-on, lights-off. Costumes are likely to come directly from the closets of the actors or the neighborhood Goodwill outlet. In the great theatre centers like New York, non-union actors work for the exposure, as do often the directors and technical staff. Out in the hinterlands, working for love, at least for actors, is the rule. Playwrights are thrilled to get their work on stage; money is not a consideration. In fact many of the theatres hosting such events require entry fees from playwrights.

What we have, then, is a win-win situation for almost everyone involved. The sponsoring theatre or organization makes a buck. Actors, artists, and writers get their work in front of the public. The only loser is the playwright who pays a fee to have his work considered and doesn’t get chosen. But even for her there is some solace. At least she hasn’t spent years at work on a full-length play that never sees the footlights of day.

Audiences win as well. They get to see new work from all over the world. And if that work is not always as compelling as they would like, well, it’s only a half an hour or so, maybe only ten minutes, until there will be another one that they might like better.

About Jack Goodstein

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