Tag Archives: short plays

Things I wish I’d known when starting out: the difference between a ‘sketch’ and a short play

I recently was acting as mentor for a group of emerging playwrights. I read individual sample scripts and fed back to them in one to one sessions on how to develop the work and identify the weaker elements that needed enhancing. I believe in the old adage ‘good writers work on their strengths, but great writers work on their weaknesses.’ When I’m in a similar position, getting feedback and responses to new work I’m developing, I far prefer to have what isn’t clear or not working pointed out to me than be soothed with compliments, and so assume the same of those who have sought out my opinion on their draft.

During the day of feedback, I kept hearing the same phrases coming out of my mouth. ‘This isn’t working as a short play; this isn’t drama per se.’ My lovely enthusiastic writers were putting in the hours, but as novices they were still unfamiliar with the basics.

Several chose to write what could be defined as ‘sketches’ – short, sometimes whimsical pieces that revealed an idiosyncrasy or linguistic misunderstanding, usually at the expense of one of the (invariably naïve) characters. Others were comedy sketches, complete with an imagined drumroll and sardonic ‘wah-wah-wah’.

Now, there is nothing wrong with writing sketches. They require skill, timing, good pace and tempo-rhythm and an often quirky, fresh way of viewing the world. The short pieces I was given to critique showed promise and potential, but the writers wanted to move on to longer, fuller length pieces, and this is where their inexperience showed. None felt confident they could ‘stretch’ their material to cover a longer time frame than ten minutes.

The pieces they were writing were ‘sketches’ as the material was ‘thin’ – they had ‘sketched in’ mouthpieces, comedy stereotypes to deliver the material, which only existed to serve the punch line. They hadn’t yet created complex, three-dimensional characters who could be imagined to exist beyond the given scenario. The locations were often generic: ‘a shop’ – but where? Windsor, Isle of Snark, Barbados, Llantwit Major…? And what kind of shop, serving what kind of people, with what kind of life experience, aspirations, hopes, fears, antipathies, fatal flaws, intricate pasts?

But what of the material itself, the nub of an idea that a short play might be built around? We discussed the necessity of selecting material carefully, and identifying what might be rich rather than ‘thin’.

Many years ago I was at a masterclass Arnold Wesker gave on playwriting and one piece of advice always stayed with me. He said we needed to understand the difference between an anecdote and dramatic material. An anecdote he identified as something we tell across a dinner table. It is specific and engaging, but is gone the moment it is told. The stuff of dramatic material is something less definable – it is identifying what can be made powerful on stage.

Distinguish between… material that is anecdotal and material which resonates, carries meaning into other people’s lives across time and frontiers.’

From ‘Wesker on Theatre.’ Arnold Wesker.

The participants said they’d go away and think more about this and to take time with dreaming, compiling, selecting and distinguishing different kinds of raw material and its potential, rather than settling for the first possibility which presented itself.

I wish them joy and good luck.

So how short can a play be?






So my friend and long term collaborator Andrew Loretto, Creative Producer of Sheffield Theatres, emailed me, asking me if I’d like to write a play for him. A very small play. Tiny in fact. Five minutes long. One of twenty other tiny plays to be performed by Sheffield Peoples’ Theatre, for a cast of fifty, from teenagers to octogenarians. Of course I said yes.

Short plays are increasingly the thing. They’re cheap, quick and easy – appropriate for our cash-strapped times, perhaps, utilising the vast numbers of workshop graduates – be that from Faber Academy, university post-grad’, or a plethora of other courses currently crowding the market. I think we’ve never had a time when there was so much trained playwriting talent about – and so few opportunities. Our current situation seems even more precarious with Arts Council and city council cuts threatening our libraries, theatres, and  community cultural engagement projects (Harriet Harman stopping Newcastle from cutting their arts budget by 100% is a recent case in point).  I dearly hope that the small self-producing companies and festivals I’ve seen mushrooming up over the past few years survive. So many offer rehearsed readings, or an evening of short plays, which can be efficient in showcasing the talents of several.

In the case of Sheffield Peoples’ Theatre, it is twenty writers – from absolute beginners through to invited professionals like me. It is a typical Andrew Loretto project – creative, conceptual, fun, and throwing open the doors of  what can sometimes feel like the fortress of establishment theatre. Andrew has a massive cast in Sheffield Peoples’ Theatre, and is always up for a challenge. The forthcoming production will present twenty 5 minute plays, from music theatre to monologues, all focusing on contemporary Sheffield, creating a mosaic of snapshot experiences which together may well reflect the many faces and concerns of the city.

I was at University at Sheffield during the Miners’ Strike in the 80’s and got to know the city again well last year, when Andrew directed LeanerFasterStronger, a play I was commissioned by Chol theatre to write, and a co-production between Sheffield Theatres and Chol, part of imove, the cultural Olympiad. Andrew suggested we keep to the sporting theme, so I sat back and asked myself: what could I do in five minutes?

What follows are some of my thoughts:

The very short play has many pitfalls. It’s very easy to fall into comedy sketch routines, or blunt three act structures, where a crisis is manufactured and then magically resolved within a few unbelievable minutes. There can be a tendency towards melodrama, skits, or Victoria Wood soliloquys. This is fine if that’s your intention, but disconcerting if you find your tone, creativity and form suddenly mutating into something alien to your usual work simply because of time.

Trying to write a play which fits into a short span of time can end up too thin, or predictable, formulaic, horribly arch, and incomprehensible. It can also be one of the most marvellous tasks to take on – to be concise, imaginative, brief and yet satisfying. It is a haiku in dramatic form.

So how short can a play be? How much can we conceivably and coherently pack into a handful of minutes? Do we have to give a beginning, middle, or end – or can it be a trace of a moment, a fragment of life – or would that simply be infuriating for the audience? Surely a short play invites experimentation – exploring a different voice, or form? The question of narrative is also tantalising: Do we create something full and complete, or is this an opportunity to play with chronology and content? And how individual and complete should each bead of five minutes be when we know it will be preceded and succeeded by other beads of five minutes? I am tantalised by the notion of what dramaturgy Andrew will use when creating the running order for the twenty shorts – he has deliberately kept us in the dark as to other contributors’ content – what unites us is the city of Sheffield, now.

After my many deliberations about how to approach this project and what to write (and yes, the shorter something is, the longer the thought process behind it, it seems…) I decided to seize this as a wonderful opportunity to write a choral piece for fifty inter-generational voices – a chance I will probably never have again in my career, to write for such a large and diverse company. It is an interweaving of several texts and choruses, with a nod towards local Olympic golden girl Jessica Ennis. It’s rich in dialogue and dialect, with a deliberately absurd title which will probably never be seen beyond the script in rehearsals and  on this blog: Shim-shams for blind hummer birds. And it’s been a blast.

20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield

Mon 8 – Sat 13 Apri

20 Tiny Plays. 1 big city. A theatrical experience unique to Sheffield.

After the success of their inaugural production, Lives in ArtSheffield People’s Theatrepresents a compilation of five-minute plays, written by twenty writers, old and new, spanning a range of performance genres.

Full of dramatic, quirky and surprising perceptions of Sheffield in the twenty-first century,20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield is an eclectic mix of what we all love… or hate about our seven hills and the people that know them.