Upon entering the Creative Writing Department at SOTA, I was surprised to learn that, aside from the expected Fiction and Poetry units, there would also be a Playwriting unit taught by a real playwright. I had avoided the choice to write a play for my audition portfolio—the thought of creating a whole, live scene on paper was far too daunting. I had never even considered plays to be included in creative writing. To me, they bordered film and entertainment—I never considered the fact that someone was behind the show, putting these characters into existence, and I certainly didn’t believe I was ready to do that myself.
It took me a year to realize what made a good ten minute play. Through countless exercises, examples of groundbreaking plays, and even attending live performances, I still couldn’t grasp what it was that made a short play. I wrote a mess of a play my freshman year, complete with strange characters with weak motivations in an odd setting. Here is an excerpt from my freshman year play, “To Reno,” which follows a couple on their way home from Burning Man who are bombarded by Ivan, a criminal:
POPPY: So, Ivan, tell us more about yourself. Where are you headed?
IVAN: I have to visit my parole officer, Vicky, in Reno. I fucking hate Vicky. She’s pale… so pale. And her hair is greasy and gray. Thinking about her makes me want to vomit.
ARLO: Why are you on parole?
IVAN: A few months ago I was in Reno, minding my own business. And then I had to piss, so I went over to a Chuck E. Cheese’s and asked if I could use their bathroom, as any gentleman would. They said no, the bathroom was “customers only.” What kind of bullshit is that? So I took a piss right on their building. Turns out Sharon and some other tight-ass mothers had an issue with that and I landed myself a week in jail. Now I’m on parole for the next three months and I have to visit Vicky each week. Honest to God, I’d rather be in jail than have to see that bitch every week.
POPPY: I’m sure Vicky isn’t that bad…
IVAN: Oh, she is! She tried to get me to interview for the position of a secretary at a law firm! Who does she think I am? Some delicate housewife? Give me a break!
While “To Reno” had a good back-and-forth between the characters, there was no movement on stage and the situation itself was unbelievable. The Burning Man couple, although self-proclaimed “open-minded” people, would never have been able to understand Ivan as well as I wrote them to. Looking back, I think this scene would’ve been more appropriate for a short story, where the audience is not so concerned with what it looks like, but rather how the characters are speaking to one another.
My sophomore year I was determined to write a play that was undeniably better for the stage than the page. I began to think of what I felt was missing when I read a story: the characters’ actual voices, how they physically interacted with each other, and the power of props.
The result of this list was “The Lord Provides,” which focused on an isolated, Mormon-like family who discovers a yam among their potato crops. Here is an excerpt:
GERSHOM: When I went to the well with Mother last week, she said that Gilead isn’t going to return home.
GIDEON: She speaks the truth. Gilead made the decision to leave and he knew that meant he was cutting contact with us and the rest of the community.
GERSHOM: Where is he?
GERSHOM: Where’s that?
GIDEON: We took you to see horses there when you were younger. It’s hard to explain, but your mother and I knew your brother would not fit in from the beginning. He asked too many questions. I remember when Gilead was very young we took him to The Holy Rocks–– remember The Holy Rocks, Gershom? Well, Gilead ended up finding some kind of toy witch from the Outside, left behind from an Outside child and Gilead refused to give it up! A real Godly child would have obeyed us. Your mother and I had to put up with a lot of egregious behavior from your brother. He was a little too headstrong, you know? But God smiles on you, Son.
GERSHOM: This isn’t a potato.
What made “The Lord Provides” superior to “To Reno” were the characters. Not only were their names very unusual, but so was their way of speaking. They addressed each other formally at all times, the son always the one asking the questions, the father always answering. The rigidity of their dialogue showed more onstage than it did when read, and revealed how strict the made-up society really was. Beyond the dialogue the usage of a prop, a yam, also strengthened this play. In “The Lord Provides,” the yam symbolizes the brother, Gilead, who is the first person to ever have dared to leave this tight religious community. I used the prop as a means of showing how each character felt about Gilead’s departure—the son is curious and accepting, the mother more cautious but still interested, and the father completely rejecting it. It was also helpful as a playwright to have one, solid object that I could keep returning to. This was the first play I got into the annual playwriting show.
Finally, this year I knew I wanted to take a more humorous route with my play. I had to write a serious play in sophomore year in order to understand how a short play works. Adding humor on top is another large step that, at least in my case, had to be worked up to. From what I learned through writing and producing “The Lord Provides,” I now knew that dynamic, slightly unbelievable characters were a must, as well as keeping a quick pace, and having delivery that characterizes the speaker. With this new checklist, I produced “What’s Going On in Colchester, Illinois,” which centers on a town meeting where the kooky, small-town people politely testify against naming their park “Hugh Janus Monument Park” after the richest man from their town who was given an unfortunately vulgar-sounding name:
VIVIAN: Hi, I’m Vivian, and I’m real big on tennis. I go to the park every day and just hit balls against the wall because no one else in Colchester likes tennis. You see, I had this one friend, Alice, who liked tennis, but she got real good and now plays in Springfield with the big guys. I’m not that good at tennis, but I’m pretty good, you know?
MODERATOR: Vivian, let’s get to the point, okay?
VIVIAN: Yeah, yeah, I know. Basically what I’m saying is that “Hugh Janus Monument Park” just doesn’t sound athletic, you know? Not your name, you look very fit, Mr. Janus, but as a park name, I wouldn’t be drawn to play tennis there. But if you ever want to have a match, just let me know, Sir.
MODERATOR: That’s enough, Vivian.
I was aware of the danger that came with centering an entire ten-minute play on one joke, so I was sure not to reveal the joke for about three minutes. As I watched the play be performed in front of its actual audience, I could feel everyone growing bored, believing that they were about to watch a normal town meeting for the next ten minutes. I felt that this initial boredom actually strengthened the reaction to the first time Hugh Janus’s name is said aloud. After Frances, the town’s nervous historian, gave a painfully long introduction on Mr. Janus, the moderator thanks her by saying, “Thank you for that eloquent speech, Frances…I wholeheartedly agree with this name change. I cannot see why anyone would object to the ‘Hugh Janus Monument Park.’” I then reinforced the joke by having every character repeat his name when they went up to testify; it would’ve been impossible to miss the joke. I thought that this play’s quick pace also kept it interesting to the audience, as there were about fifteen moving characters onstage, each with similar but slightly differing motivations.
It was so gratifying to sit backstage and hear the audience actually laugh at lines I had written to be funny. Unlike “The Lord Provides,” which relied on symbolism that likely went over much of the audience’s heads, “What’s Going On in Colchester, Illinois” centered on such a low-level joke that anyone could find some humor in it. I certainly have quite a ways from mastering the ten-minute play, but each year I see so much growth in both my own and my peers’ work that I have motivation to continue the search for the perfect short play.
Eva Whitney, class of 2020