The Gay Third Rail

Last Thursday, I received an email from a high school teacher in Texas. She was considering producing a one-act play of mine called Small Actors but, she explained, her community was conservative. She wanted permission to cut some lines.

I get this request—for the same section of this play—a dozen or so times a year, clustered in September and January, the months when school one acts are chosen.  Normally, I’m easy about change requests. I almost never say no. I allow people to cut for length, or to alter lines to accommodate casting requirements. Recently—this is true—I allowed a Catholic school in Newfoundland to change the word “sex” to the word “bacon.”

But I always say no to this: the most-requested change (by far) to any of my plays. The cut has to do with what this teacher called “the gay digression.”  She attached a PDF of page 23 of the script with the offending lines blacked out with a magic marker, making it look vaguely Soviet.

In Small Actors, the protagonist, Emily, desperately wants to play Juliet in her school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Instead, she gets a four-line role. When she learns that her parents will be on vacation on the night of the performance, she lies and tells them that she’s playing Juliet. Alas, they cancel their vacation. As Emily is being driven by her still-unsuspecting parents to the performance, she’s attempted to will herself into confessing by telling her mother that she’d been sad two months ago. Here are the controversial lines:

Laura (the mother): Well, honey, that’s going to drive me crazy. I don’t like to think of you as sad. So sad and I didn’t even know about it. Two months ago. What was two months ago? Was it a boy?

Emily: No.

Laura: Of course it was. It must have been.  What happened?

Emily: Mom, it wasn’t a boy.

Laura: You’re sure?

Emily: I’m sure.

Laura: Oh. Was it a girl?

That’s it. That’s the entire gay digression. Note that these lines don’t mention a kiss. They don’t suggest that Emily pines for another girl. They just acknowledge that same-sex attraction exists.

When I write to the teachers, I explain that it would send a terrible message to her gay students—to all her students—if the words “Was it a girl?” were removed from a 20-year-old play. I generally refrain from pointing out that the family in Small Actors is on their way to see a play about two Italian 14-year olds who meet at a party and have sex on their second date.


When it comes to gay characters, high school theatre has a problem. There are no widely produced plays that depict gay or lesbian characters, and that matters. Love scenes are the heart, so to speak, of high school theatre. They’re at the core of and Romeo and Juliet and Our Town. They comprise the entirety of the two plays that have dominated the EdTA most-produced list over the last decade—John Cariani’s Almost, Maine and Jonathan Rand’s Check, Please.

Love scenes are perfect teaching scenes: high stakes and a clear objective—an objective that allows the actor to flirt and dissemble, to charm and use their awkwardness in strategic ways.

Young gay actors start at an emotional remove, playing characters who attempt to woo those who they wouldn’t woo in real life. Of course, that barely counts as a problem; they’re also regularly asked to play vampires or middle-aged doctors. But, the absence tells closeted students that their choice to hide in plain sight is proper, that homosexuality will be noted and erased.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve. Adult theatre pushes the boundaries of societal norms but school theatre far trails them. High school theatre is risk averse. Teachers fear upsetting their principals. Principals fear upsetting the audience. In the world beyond school,  theatre is opt-in. We pay to see the plays that we want to see, and we leave if we’re offended or bored. But school theatre is all but mandatory. You’re required to see your kid’s play, and you’re not allowed to leave. As a result, the taste of the most conservative audience member wins.

Likewise, playwrights who write for schools are hamstrung, subject to the least progressive denominator. Writing scripts for high schools is a volume business. A one-act that gets fewer than 20 productions a year doesn’t generate meaningful income; a play that includes gay characters might, optimistically, get five.

Of course, as anyone familiar with school theatre knows, there’s one big exception to the no-gay themes policy. Almost, Maine contains a scene in which two men fall, literally fall, for each other. Part of the genius of the scene is that a six-year-old finds it hilarious without quite understanding it. Still, even though the relationship is presented metaphorically, high school productions of the play have been challenged. To his credit, Cariani has refused to allow productions that don’t include the scene. And he’s done more than that. Recently he gave permission to stage an all-female Almost, Maine.

That he did so might point the way to a stop-gap measure to allow LBGTQ representation.

Most teachers are scrupulous about not making changes not approved by the playwright. So let’s give them permission up front. We’re entering a kind of golden age of high school playwriting. The last dozen years have seen an explosion of dramatic (and, more often, comedic) writing for high schools stages.

Here’s my thought for my fellow high school playwrights. Yes, I’m addressing you, Lindsay Price and Jonathan Rand and Don Zolidis and Jonathan Dorf. I’m addressing the hundreds of other playwrights out there who are out there writing terrific school plays. If your play contains a heterosexual relationship, consider adding an Author’s Note.  My own reads: “You’re free to change the genders and/or preferences of the characters. Change the names as necessary. Make small changes as appropriate.”

That way, teachers can buy scripts designed for straight couples but choose to cast two boys if they desire. There won’t be a torrent of Adam and Steve productions, but there’ll be some: some schools that will do it, some students who’d volunteer for it. Those productions will travel to festivals, allow other students to see that there are places where two girls might fall in love in full view of the public.

The note itself might be more important than the productions it allows. Students in conservative schools will see an acknowledgement, in print, that same gender relationships are possible, if not at their own school, then elsewhere.

Think of your scripts as little gay Trojan horses. Until we have have school theatre that acknowledges all preferences, LBGTQ actors will continue to play straight characters, which is, of course, the role that many of them play every day.

Portia Has Missed Her Entrance

It was a failed play.

It had taken too long to write, and it only ever got a few productions. But one of those productions was at an elite Southern school that had the resources to fly me out to see it and to work with the cast.

The theatre space had been described as a black box, but that was one serious black box. The play—Nowhere—was mostly set in an alternate universe, and the longtime tech director had outdone herself in creating it. Characters flew in. They climbed up ladders or emerged from entrances one hadn’t realized were there.

The director had staged it in the round—the square, actually– and had done so wonderfully. Each night, the two of us watched from a different side, and the square did exactly what arena staging is supposed to do: it gave the same story but differently nuanced depending on the vantage point

On the final night, fifteen minutes in, something was off, but I couldn’t tell what it was. The director whispered to me, “Portia missed her entrance.” A few days earlier, Portia had landed wrong while rehearsing on the zipline that flew her in. She’d fallen and suffered a concussion, plausibly the reason she’d missed her entrance.

Unfortunately, Portia was an Otherworld guide. She had an enormous amount of exposition that she spouted, unbidden, without which the next hour and a half were not going to make any sense. (Like I said: a failed play.) As sometimes happens in a crisis, a leader emerged, self-appointed.  He was small and, by the standard of theatre kids, shy But he took control.

Portia hovered at an entrance, waiting to fix the problem. But he locked eyes with her and shook his head in a way that made it look like he was stretching: it was too late.

His character had no way to know the information and so, again disguising a gesture,  he signaled to a character who could exposit the world. She channeled her inner Glinda and explained the rules of the world to the newcomer.

At the end of her monologue, she became a little grand and said to another character: “And what else should I tell you?” (To this day I’m not certain if she didn’t remember everything or if she simply wanted to parse it out it out in a way more expert than I had.)

That character took the baton, filled in the gaps, and the play moved on. Only two members of the audience knew what had just happened, and one of them had sweat covering his entire face.

Later, it occurred to me that I’d seen this situation before, but only ever in theatre. Only during a play can a group be called upon to confront a crisis in front of two hundred people without those people ever knowing that there is a crisis. Some combination of training, quick thinking and attentiveness to the other actors come together and the problem is solved.

After the show, I was watching the delightful ritual in which young performers enter the lobby, usually still wearing a bit of make-up, and get flowers and hugs. I was near the near the back of the lobby because I wanted to congratulate the beloved tech director, who I still hadn’t met. I’d seen her hovering backstage.

But she slipped out a side door. The rehearsal accident that had injured Portia had been deemed her fault and she’d been quietly let go.  At that point, only the director knew. The students would be told the next day.

It was a reminder— if one needed one—that theatre sometimes creates real problems as well as pretend ones, and that those problems can’t always be fixed.

Why I Love Theatre Teachers

I love theatre teachers.

There are obvious reasons. I love their enthusiasm as they do a really hard and really important job. I love that they’re invariably easy to talk to, and funny. But there’s a bigger reason that I love theatre teachers, and to explain it I’m going to talk about a play that I wrote a long time ago.

In the late ‘80s, I had submitted a play called Sex Lives of Superheroes to a program called Plays in Process. I have no idea what Plays in Process was. You can’t even Google it. It’s gone from the earth. All I know is that at the time it was the most important thing in the world, and I was checking the mail every day. And when the decision arrived, the envelope was tellingly thin, a form letter probably containing the words “wish you luck.” But along with the letter, out slipped a short, handwritten note. It said, in its entirety:


Dear Mr. Gregg

Just a personal note—I loved the script, and even though it’s corny to say it, I laughed out loud about fifty times while reading it – I stopped to call several friends to read them the Maji speech. I plan to tell people about the script. Keep me informed about future work.


It was signed, Tony K. And the K was for Kushner.

Over the years, I’ve had fantasies about running into Mr. Kushner at a cocktail party, mentioning my name, and him saying, “Steve! I’m so glad to finally meet you! “

I have no idea what I was reading or watching in my mid-twenties that made me think that cocktail parties would be a part of my later life.    But to explain the bigger problem with my cocktail party fantasy, I need to tell a different anecdote, a story within my story.


About four months ago, I was working with a high school that was producing my new play, Crush. I was only going to be at the school for a couple of days and so on this day I was the de facto director while the real director sat to the side.

After we ran a scene, I asked an actor a question, the way one does. I thought I had made it clear that I was asking the question of the character but, somewhat unforgivably, I had not. In front of the entire cast and crew, the young man answered my question not as the character might, but as himself. The question was, “when you arrive places, are people glad to see you, do you think? “ And his answer was, “… I’m not sure. Maybe not that much.”

That night, I was having dinner with the director‑—David Hastings, who teaches at Olathe South, in Kansas —and he told me that after the rehearsal, he had taken the actor aside, and told him that he was glad he was there, that everyone in the play was, and that he was doing a great job.

David’s low-key intervention reminded me of the real reason we love theatre teachers. It’s because of the encouragement that they give to young artists or, bless them, to young people brave enough to attempt an unfamiliar art form in public.


Which brings me back to Tony Kushner and the note he slid into that envelope. The note is dated April 29h, 1989. That’s four years before Angels in America. I hadn’t heard of Tony Kushner. I don’t think most people had. He was in that phase of a playwright’s career when you work for a nonprofit and part of your job is to send sad letters to other playwrights

The story of the note he wrote to me isn’t a story about me at all. It’s a story about Tony Kushner and the generosity of spirit that infuses his plays. Kushner would not remember me today in part because, I guarantee you, he has written many, many of those notes.

I didn’t save that note because it came from Tony Kushner. In a way, it didn’t. I didn’t realize that until years later what I had.

But I did save it. It meant a huge amount to me.

It’s easy to underestimate the asymmetry of encouragement. Praise is a lever; you push and the other person rises disproportionately.

I still remember my own theatre teacher’s reaction to the first play that I wrote. Mickey Prokopiak had had his Acting II class read the one-act without telling them who’d written it. Then he told me how they’d reacted. I don’t remember the conversation well; I was too excited. But I remember that he used the phrase “incredibly enthusiastic,” and that two-word phrase has stayed with me for thirty five years. It’s part of why I’m a playwright.

Creative life, like life in general, is full of thin envelopes. You’re constantly being wished luck in your future. You have to be resilient, and part of what gives you resilience is having those people in your past who promised you that you could do this.

Often, those people are theatre teachers, the people who taught you the craft in the first place.

And by the way, the Crush story ends happily. That young man is the lead in the play, and the play’s going to be on the main stage at the International Thespian Festival this summer. So if you’re at Lincoln and you see him, don’t tell him that I told you this story. But do tell him that you were glad to have seen him.

An Apology

Playwrights almost always owe other playwrights debts. Usually, the debts are in the form of influence. But there’s karmic debt as well. And I owe some of that to the playwright Jose Rivera.

In the late Eighties, I was an intern at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. I served as the assistant stage manager on Jose Rivera’s play, The Promise.

The Promise is full of magic and spectacle. Flowers fall from the sky. A man’s soul rises out of his body. A dead woman materializes holding a bloody heart. When the play was performed in Los Angeles, the spectacle was accomplished through the use of wires and pyrotechnics. For the act one finale, a real bulldozer plowed onto the stage. When it was performed in New York, at the underwhelmingly equipped EST, the magic was mostly me, the sound of a bulldozer (on a sound system like a really good clock radio), and two spirits: Earth Spirit and Sky Spirit.

The spirits were the director’s idea: a terrible idea, actually. They were onstage during the entire play. Sky Spirit wore a blue leotard. Earth Spirit wore a brown leotard. For the most part, they had nothing to do except crouch and look mysterious. It was as though a pair of Solid Gold dancers had wandered into the middle of the Long Island backyard where the play was set.

But the spirits may have been the only thing wrong with the show that wasn’t my fault. Early in the run, it became clear that I was not up to the task of assistant stage managing.

First, there was the Balloon Incident. In the play, a backyard wedding is decorated with a bunch of helium balloons. The spirit world is not happy about the wedding and lets its displeasure be known by suddenly popping all the balloons. I have no idea how this effect was accomplished in Los Angeles. At EST, the spirits used the ends of artificial flowers to pop the balloons as quickly as they could.

During the last preview performance, for no clear reason, the balloons would not pop. Bam bam bam! The Spirits whacked those balloons again and again. Nothing happened.

It must have appeared to the audience as though the Spirits, trapped onstage with nothing to do, had gone insane and started to attack the set. Relatively soon, Sky Spirit realized it was futile and backed off. But Earth Spirit was on a mission. She appeared to think that the theatre had become infested with balloons and only she could save us. She jumped on them, twisted them, kneaded them, and when she finally did manage to pop one, she’d leap on the next.

It was strange, jaw-dropping performance. It was also, apparently, my fault.

After the show, Earth Spirit let everyone know that they had not been able to pop the balloons because the assistant stage manager had not filled them full enough.

Whether or not she was right, what happened the next night certainly was my fault. The first bit of magic in The Promise is that a flower blooms, suddenly, when two lovers kiss. This was my job, and it was simple. All I had to do was stand behind a fence and push on a piece of wire. In my opening-night excitement, I pulled instead of pushed, jamming the flower into the tube that held it. Panicked, I tried desperately to jar it loose, not realizing that my hands were visible. Instead of a flower blooming, the audience saw a pair of hands, writhing and twisting, a strange portent from the netherworld.

The stage manager screamed into the headsets to leave it alone, so I ran to the other side of the stage (at EST this meant running behind the audience) and got in place for my next job, which was to hand a bloody heart to an actress who waited behind a scrim. I pulled a black mask over my head to keep the audience from seeing me behind the scrim. But alas, I forgot the gloves.The same audience that had just seen a pair of hands squirming above a fence now saw the same hands floating mysteriously backstage, gesturing, then giving a little thumbs-up sign. Surely this was a motif.

While it would be comforting to attribute the mistake to opening-night jitters, the truth is, I never really settled into the production. It was rare that a performance wasn’t somehow marred by something I did or failed to do. Worse, the mistakes didn’t seem to get smaller. For spectacle, nothing surpassed what happened on the second-to-last night.

The quite spooky, oddly lovely final image of The Promise is that a row of corn plants planted in the backyard start to bleed. This was also my job, also quite simple. Backstage, I’d flip a lever, stage blood would flow from a pressurized tank, through some tubes and down the ears of corn.

One night, the corn bled too slowly. The audience couldn’t even tell it was happening.

By this point in the run, everyone knew who to look at when something went wrong. The stage manager screamed at me to make sure that next time there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Now a confession. It may be that there was a touch of passive-aggressive zeal in me as I pumped up the tank the next night. It may be that I was thinking about all the other times I had been yelled at: The Sign Incident (which was, in fact, my fault), the Cooking Disaster (also my fault), the Pocket Watch mishap (actually, no), the Coffin Debacle (yes). I hope that is not the case.

At any rate, there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Did you ever see the movie Carrie? Imagine that the title character is a telekinetic ear of corn, and you have a pretty good idea of what happened

The poetic final moment of the play became a gore-fest. The corn stalks whipped back and forth as blood spurted into the air, soaking the stage and cast members. As I recall, it got a round of applause.

So, Mr. Rivera, I apologize. It’s clear that I did not hinder your career.

Still, you deserved better.

Skin-head Wig

When I was six I wanted a skin-head wig. I’d seen the ads in the back of comic books; the man wearing the skin-head wig was as bald as a mannequin.

I got my mother to help me send in the money and then I’m pretty sure I forgot all about it. Still, when it arrived three weeks later I was excited. I ripped off the brown outer mailing cover and, even through the plastic pouch, it was disappointing.

The color was what a Crayon company might call Flesh Yellow. Also, it didn’t fit. There was nothing to secure the sideburns, so they hung down like extra-long earlobes.

Nonetheless I tromped around the neighborhood and approached groups of kids, announcing that I was now bald. The other first graders laughed or rolled their eyes or just said “No, you’re not.”

But there was one strange thing. Even though the swim cap on my head fooled none of my peers, it fooled all of the fourth graders. They were baffled, curious about how and when this phenomenon had manifested.

Even at six-years old I understood what was happening but I wasn’t going to say it, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t either. The wig was my entree’ into the world of fourth graders, who were hilarious and always glad to see me. I remember that one of them invited me on a scavenger hunt.

In theatre, we talk about suspension of disbelief, but the dynamics of watching a play are more complicated than that. It’s rare that we’re really transported. If we’re supposed to be in Denmark we don’t see the battlefield or notice that the invisible castle walls need whitewashing.

A play is a skin-head wig. The actors are pretending for us and we’re pretending that we believe their pretending. This is part of the reason that the Would-You-Please-Stop-Whispering moment is so fraught. The offended audience member is annoyed for himself, yes; but he’s also protecting the actors, worried that they’ll hear that the audience isn’t being swept away.

The play is a performance but it’s also a contract, and a fantastic one: not binding (on the audience side) based solely on goodwill. The contract is simple and generous: The actors don’t hear the whispering. The audience doesn’t notice the lobes.



Deep Blue Scene

We were in a motorboat, on our way to snorkel, when we came upon a pod of dolphins.

The captain stopped the boat so that we could watch them.

A guidebook I’d read had said not to do that, because it terrorized the dolphins. But they didn’t seem terrorized. They stayed near the boat. Had they left, we wouldn’t have chased them.

Todd made fun of me because I said that I thought the dolphins actually liked having us around, that the ocean must be sort of boring for animals so smart.

Water water water water fish water fish water water kelp water water.

Any regular theatergoer knows an entire ecosystem of boredom.

There’s Head-bob Boredom: your chin touches your chest and you snap it back up (“Still awake!”) There’s Anxiety Boredom (“Why is there a bump on my tongue?”) and the always-painful Rictus Boredom: the boredom that requires you to smile because you’re one of twelve people in the audience of your friend’s play.

Which armrest is mine? Count the audience. Cuticle cuticle cuticle cuticle  cuticle cuticle cuticle leave.

Art that takes place over time has an ethical obligation to try to engage its spectators. Boredom is a form of torture. Studies link short-term boredom to anxiety and longterm boredom to clinical depression. I’ve known two people—sensible, strong people, one man and one woman—who’ve told me that when they get really bored they start to cry.

As playwrights, let’s make sure to stop the boat. Let’s fill our plays with story and spectacle and surprises.

Given the option to terrorize the dolphins or bore them to tears, let’s err on the side of fear.

Happy 1016!

You Should Write a Play

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Dramatics magazine.

You should write a play.

You. The person reading this article.

You know it’s crossed your mind. It was probably one of those stray thoughts you had the last time you got bored while sitting in a theatre. You were sitting there trying to stay engaged with what was happening on stage and wondering which armrest was yours and you thought: I could do better than this. I should write a play.

And you were right.

But you haven’t done it. When was that resolution? Was it last week or last year? Why haven’t you written something?

If you’ve thought to yourself that you should write a play but you haven’t done it, then it’s likely that one of three things happened: you got too busy; you started but didn’t get very far; or, after thinking about it some more, you realized you didn’t have anything to write about.

Let’s look at each of those reasons for not having written and demolish them.


You haven’t written your play because you were too busy

It’s true. You are busy. You’re balancing classes, work, family and friends just for starters. It’s plausible that you don’t have time to write a play. But it’s not true.

You know from observation that the relationship between time and accomplishment is not straightforward. You’ve probably noticed, for example, that the times when you’re the busiest are also the times when you’re the most productive. And, as you know from cramming for your tests at the last minute, the most urgent task commands the most attention.

What you need isn’t more time. What you need is a deadline: so let’s give you one. A great deadline for a ten-minute play, which is what I’m going to suggest that you write, is Actors Theatre of Louisville’s ten-minute play program. Their deadline starts on September first and ends on December first, but they only take the first five hundred plays.

If you’re reading this when I’m first publishing it—late 2015— that deadline is too far away anyway. Go to . They have monthly listings of the upcoming deadlines so you can find one an appropriate amount of time in the future.

Don’t’ worry too much about the numbers. If you’re one of the 500 writers who submit to Actors Theatre your odds of winning are .2 percent.

499 plays are not going to win that contest. But some of those plays will get rewritten and then produced or published or both. And some of those playwrights put that play aside and think: now I know how to do it better. In other words, the value of the deadline isn’t just in the plays that were developed for it; it’s also in the writers who were inspired to try something that they might otherwise not have.

You started but didn’t get very far

Maybe you’re one of those writers who did carve out the time to write a play and then, as you typed, you felt your head get light. Your chest tightened, like you’d just jumped into cold water, as you thought: What I’m writing isn’t good.

You stopped.

What happened to you is a classic case of writer’s block. And you’re in luck, because writer’s block is one of the most famously studied creative problems there is. Writer’s block is almost always a case of your internal editor stepping in too early. You start to write something, but a voice in your head says, “No, this isn’t good enough.” The gap between the quality of what you’re producing and the quality of what you want to produce is too great and so you stop.

It can help to think differently about what it means to write a play. If you want to stump four out of five of your friends (and nine out of ten of your non-theatre friends) ask them to spell both “playwright” and “playwriting.”

If you want to stump everyone, including your teacher, ask them why playwright has a gh and playwriting doesn’t. Playwright comes from the old English verb “to make.” A playwright was someone who shaped plays, the way an ironwright shaped metal. Over time, the verb was misspelled as its homonym and the two words diverged.

But it’s useful to remember that the Elizabethans thought of a playwright as someone who shaped a play rather than someone who wrote it.

To begin with, that means that you can write a good play even if you don’t think of yourself as a good writer. You might have an ear for dialogue or—better—a sense of theatricality that doesn’t manifest in those C-minus English compositions you dread writing.

More important, knowing that a play is something to be shaped can you as try to force out that crappy first draft.

And that’s what you need to do: force it. You have to get that first draft down so you can shape it. You’re a wright as much as a writer. A playwright is a sculptor who has to first create her own clay.


You don’t have anything to write about

You feel like you have no ideas.

One of the things you’ll find over time is that, counterintuitively, creativity thrives when it’s limited.

In his documentary The Five Obstructions, the director Lars von Trier challenges his filmmaking mentor, Jorgen Leth, to remake Leth’s short film The Perfect Human five times, each time with different conditions imposed by von Trier. He has to shoot it in Cuba with no shot longer than twelve frames, for example. Or make it as a cartoon. The resulting short films are each thoughtful, compelling takes on the original, except one. Leth struggles with the last assignment, which is that there is no assignment. He’s allowed complete freedom and the result isn’t very good.

That’s an instructive result. If someone says: “Write a play. Go!” you might find yourself paralyzed. But constraints—obstructions—are springboards. If someone tells you to write a two-character play about an astronaut who’s returned to earth after fifty having aged only three days, you’ll have an idea. It might be an idea you reject for a better one, but either way your playwright mind is working.

So here is your assignment, full of obstructions:

Write a two-character, ten-minute play in which one character has a secret from the other character, and that includes something that’s impossible to show realistically.

Why these constraints? Let’s look at them one by one.

     Two characters

The two-character scene is the proton of playwriting, the basic unit.

In a two-character scene one character wants something and the other character wants her not to have it. That’s all there is to it. At some point, probably early, Cora declares what she wants and Abba opposes her. They use verbal tactics (charm, deception, intimidation) and physical ones (punches or kisses, for example) to get what they want. The scene is over when one of them wins.

The two-character scene is simple but powerful. There are lots of full-length plays that use only two characters or only two-character scenes.

And learning to write a two-character scene teaches you the basic model for any story: a character wants something but things get in his way.

     Ten minutes

You want to start small. You wouldn’t start learning to paint by trying to create a mural, and you shouldn’t start writing plays by attempting an evening-length work.

That’s actually a bad analogy, because if you were to decide to teach yourself by painting a (let’s assume) bad mural, most people would walk by, glance at it, think “eh” and walk on.

But theatre is an art form that takes place over time. Other people’s time. You must not subject innocent audience members to your learning curve. Even ten minutes seems long if the play’s not working right.

As a playwright, you’re making a contract with the audience. They leave their homes and pay to be trapped in their seats for a certain amount of time. Your responsibility, as the playwright, is to entrance. For now, that’s easier to do in short form. It would be ironic if that long-ago moment when you were bored at the theatre had inspired you to write a too-long play.

One character has a secret from the other

A lot of playwriting is information management. When does a character know something? And when does know the audience know things?

Giving a character a secret makes information a currency in your play. How much is the information worth? What will the other character to do get it? And you’ll find you have to make a choice between whether the audience knows the secret—dramatic irony—or not.

     Your play has to show something that’s impossible to show realistically

Even though you’re starting small, you want to think big.

Just because you’re writing your story for the stage doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to writing things that could actually happen in that space. In fact, you shouldn’t.

One of the best ways to entrance an audience is to show them something that they couldn’t possibly have expected to see onstage.

Think about Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods A cow dies. Birds peck out the evil stepsisters’ eyes. A giant strides across the land. Part of the delight of the play is seeing how those events are brought to life. (For a sample of how it’s done, check out the hilarious, ever-growing Milky White Tumblr, filled with pictures of all the ways that theatre folk have put Milky White onstage, and then killed him.)

When you show an audience something that it would be impossible to show realistically, you do more than delight them. You put them to work. It takes mental energy to turn say, a stretch of blue cloth into a river, but audiences love expending that energy. There’s no better way to pull an audience into your play than by making them conspire in the telling of it.

And if you’ve pulled your audience into the play, then it’s guaranteed that they’ re not worrying about which armrest is theirs.

Now go write your play.

To recap: your assignment is to write two-character, ten-minute play in which one character has a secret from the other and in which something must happen that can’t be depicted in a realistic way.

Your deadline is September 1, 2016, unless you find a better one. And by better, I mean earlier.