A THREE-MINUTE play, written in about an hour. Is that even possible — and would the results be worth anything? After leading many groups of student playwrights through just such an exercise, I can answer with authority: yes, and yes. And really, guys, yes.

Any good playwriting exercise — and I hope you’ve tried a few — should get your creative juices flowing and filling up pages. But is that enough? Sometimes you need a sense of completion, an actual product of your creativity, something to brag (humbly) about: I wrote a play, Mom! It’s short — okay, very short: three minutes. But it is a play. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, as that ancient guy Aristotle insisted every play needs. It has an inciting event, developing circumstances, a climax, a resolution, maybe even a reversal … all the foundations of dramatic writing are embedded there, in the two or three pages of your awesome little play.

Even better: You don’t need to work alone. In fact, this exercise requires that you escape your self-imposed writer’s exile, come down from the attic, and team up with other tortured creative types — or anyone with paper, pen, and an hour to kill. Invite your friends over for a playwriting session in your kitchen, while munching on healthy snacks. Or hand this article to your theatre or English teacher and see if your whole class might try this process of creating three-minute plays. Who could say no?

Okay, you won’t write a masterpiece. Don’t start with impossible standards. It’s just fun to see what you can come up with in such a short time — perhaps a first draft that you can revise in the future. As any working playwright will tell you, writing means rewriting. But today you don’t have to worry about that.

Moreover, this exercise reveals fascinating differences and similarities in people’s creative voices. It helps you learn how to make critical dramatic choices, focus on a specific dramatic situation, and take your protagonist on a small but complete dramatic journey. Keyword here: dramatic.

Now get ready to embark on your own dramatic journey of writing and discovery with passion, joy, and faith in yourself.

THE SET-UP

A group of four to fifteen aspiring writers sit around a table or in a circle of classroom desks. One of them, maybe you or an instructor/teacher, facilitates the session; have a clock or timer handy to keep things moving, and make sure everyone has writing materials (old school or high tech). It’s the facilitator’s job to make sure that within the allotted time, all the writers are able to read their pages and get appropriate feedback — otherwise frustration sets in. Maintain a creative environment that’s fun and inspiring, lacking pressure and competition. Suggested mantra: “Write and play. Write a play.”

STEP 1: MONOLOGUE

Write a half-page monologue that starts with one of the following prompts:

  • When I opened the window this morning …
  • How could you say that …
  • I never wanted to hurt you …
  • Please, don’t …
  • After s/he left the room …
  • Nothing is going to be the same …

You might notice that the sentences above insinuate a dramatic conflict. That’s by design.
(Writing time: 5-10 minutes.)

STEP 2: FEEDBACK

Each writer reads his or her monologue aloud. Give and get feedback; here’s a suggested format, adapted from the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process used by professional theatres such as New York Theatre Workshop.

  1. Affirmations. What was special/unique/memorable/remarkable in that monologue/play? Try to offer only positive feedback.
  2. Questions (structure). What is the inciting event in this monologue/play? Developing circumstances? Climax? Any reversal? Resolution?
  3. Questions (clarity). Is the dramatic journey of the protagonist clear? How has s/he changed? Any other questions regarding plot, characters, language, concept?
  4. Suggestions. Any critical/negative comments need to be turned into positive, inspiring suggestions.

STEP 3: CROSS-POLLINATION

Pass your monologue to the colleague on your right. Give a location prompt to the colleague on your left. Examples (from realistic to absurdist): a barbershop, a college campus, a living room, a parking lot, a classroom, a kitchen, a street corner, an airport, a car, a café, a lawn, a closet, a tree, a human brain cell, a whale’s stomach, Mars, a cloud, an ant colony, a dreamer’s pillow, etc.

Now write a three-minute play (two to three pages) whose protagonist is based on the speaker of your colleague’s monologue, set in the location given by your other colleague. Don’t insert the monologue written by your colleague in your text; make the character your own. Resist adding more than one or two other characters; it’s too hard to develop them in a very short play.
(Writing time: 20-25 minutes.)

STEP 4: READINGS AND MORE FEEDBACK

Cast your three-minute play from your colleagues. The plays are read aloud. (You may read your stage directions.) Pay attention to the reading and make notes for possible revisions. Give and get feedback, following the same four-step process detailed above.

Yay, you have a three-minute play! Humblebrag!

This story appeared in the December 2015 print issue of DramaticsSubscribe today to our print magazine.

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