Looking for a show with great writing, compelling themes, and inexpensive production value that will challenge your actors and hold your audience's attention in a digital format? Consider the one act!
Let's be real: drama teachers tend to think of one-acts as starter material. But, while everything else about teaching and producing theatre is in a state of flux, why not rethink those assumptions, too? In this time of social distancing and limited resources, the humble short play might just be the theatrical unicorn you've been hoping for.
Here are some of the reasons why, plus how to make the most of this often overlooked form.
1. There are So Many great scripts to choose from.
Many brilliant playwrights have invested their time and talents in writing one-act plays:
- Edward Albee
- Alan Ayckbourn
- J.M. Barrie
- Samuel Beckett
- Joseph Bologna & Renee Taylor
- Anton Chekhov
- Agatha Christie
- Caryl Churchill
- Noel Coward
- Christopher Durang
- John Guare
- A.R. Gurney
- Lorraine Hansberry
- Beth Henley
- Israel Horowitz
- Tina Howe
- William Inge
- David Ives
- George S. Kaufman
- John Kirkpatrick
- Arthur Kopit
- Howard Korder
- Romulus Linney
- David Mamet
- Jane Martin
- Leonard Melfi
- Arthur Miller
- Luigi Pirandello
- Don Nigro
- Eugene O’Neill
- Joyce Carol Oates
- John Patrick
- Harold Pinter
- Theresa Rebeck
- William Saroyan
- Murray Schisgal
- Bernard Shaw
- Sam Shepherd
- Neil Simon
- Tom Stoppard
- Jules Tasca
- Thornton Wilder
- Tennessee Williams
- Steve Yockey
- And many more!
If they valued the form, why shouldn’t we?
These works represent a wide range of styles, viewpoints, and eras, and provide directors and actors with great material to work with.
2. They're easy to produce
One-act plays are written specifically to be simple. This limits the need for complicated sets and other technical demands, allowing you as a Director to focus on what’s most important: the acting!
The one-act's stripped down form also makes it perfect for production on a limited budget.
3. They're inherently virtual-friendly
Short plays are a great solution for anyone who is producing theatre online, but especially for drama teachers working with students in virtual rehearsal and performance spaces. To accommodate a larger group, select several one-acts with small casts (perhaps grouped thematically, by playwright, or by era). It's easier for you to manage, and each actor gets time in the spotlight.
Streamability also makes one-acts a great choice for competitions, many of which are likely to take place online until the pandemic is over.
4. More isn't always better
How often do directors hear lobby feedback along the lines of, “It was really good, but long!”?
Like it or not, today's audiences are trained to have short attention span. They may even prefer shorter plays—especially in a streaming format. But that doesn't mean you have to produce shallow material! A well-written short play can be very powerful, as playwrights focus on their most compelling ideas.
5. They're the perfect teaching tool
One-act plays provide great material for acting classes (all levels) that focus on script and character analysis. Because they are so tightly focused, actors can build confidence by completing their character's arc in a more manageable number of scenes.
One-acts are also excellent teaching tools for student playwrights and directors, for the very same reason!
Production Pro tips
When producing a program of one-acts, be sure to consider the following:
Are you presenting more than one piece together in a single program? If so, you'll most likely want to select your material around a common theme. This could be as straightforward as one-acts written by the same playwright, in the same era, or by playwrights from the same background, for example. Or, you could build your theme from the topics and ideas explored in the works themselves.
There is no right or wrong way to program a selection of one-acts, as long as your decision is informed by your creative vision and audience impact goals.
While you're making programming decisions, keep each play's technical needs in mind. It’s usually best to design a somewhat neutral setting that can be easily adjusted in between pieces.
Of course, if you're producing virtually it becomes much easier to change up your set from play to play with the use of virtual backgrounds. Just remember that you're still going for an overall experience that is cohesive enough to feel like a satisfying whole and not just a collection of assorted parts.
In a traditional production setting, it's typical to see an evening of one acts on the same bill. In a virtual or streamed setting, however, there is no obligation to present all of your pieces together. How about producing a series of short performances spread out over time? Or, produce your one-acts in repertory to give your actors a taste of that unique challenge. Get creative and don't be afraid to try new things. We're all making the new rules up together as we go, anyway!
Directing a collection of one-act plays in a school setting? Be sure to plan rehearsal time accordingly! You'll only be able to work with one group of actors at a time, so you’ll need to adjust your schedule and plan additional activities for students who aren't working onstage at any given time. (This is even more relevant when producing a program like this virtually.)
Another option is to spread the directing around: Do you have colleagues in or out of your department who might like to take on one of the pieces? How about students who might be ready to direct?
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