Mary Steelsmith – Part Two – The Ten Minute Play

     by Diane Grant

The ten minute play is still a relatively new phenomenon. Jon Jory of the Humana Festival of Actors Theatre of Louisville started the trend in the eighties, as a way to showcase many different plays at the festival. It made sense. The performances could address a variety of themes, could present different voices, and, if the audience didn’t like a play, it just had to wait for ten minutes to hear another one.

Now every playwright alive is trying her hand at it and there are Ten Minute Festivals all over the world.

The ten minute isn’t easy to write – often playwrights end up with a sketch or a character piece – but Mary is a whiz at it.   She says, “I like the immediacy of it, although I just cottoned on to it, as you say up in Boise.” “The ten minute play is just my friend…it seems to be my place in the world.”

She thinks it is a discipline in itself and says, “You have to say what you mean very quickly,” and start the conflict right away. “You don’t have time to go, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ ‘Oh, fine,’ ‘Hey, what did you do today?’ ‘Well, let me see…’”

Even the setting has to be in the dialogue. You have to catch someone in a moment and that moment has to very important.

Happy and Gay, which was part of this year’s Hollywood Fringe, captures that moment with the first line – Straight or kinky? The play is about two church ladies in the church basement decorating for the church’s first same sex marriage. Mary was originally going to write about two mothers trying to deal with the marriage but the characters spoke to her. She said, “Oh, my God, what’s going on with these ladies?” then realized that they were stringing up crepe paper. They didn’t know how to decorate for this new thing. It wasn’t a funeral or a shower or an ordinary wedding and they are having a stressful moment.

As with Happy and Gay, one of the virtues of the ten minute is that is allows the playwright to open a window into contemporary issues, or to catch a fleeting moment.

Behold A Pale Bronco came out of the pursuit of O.J. Simpson on the 405 Freeway. Mary and a friend were watching a basketball game when the chase appeared in the corner of the screen. Before the game was over, it was in the corner and pursuit was full screen.

Mary, who had previously seen actors auditioning for the part of O.J. Simpson in a movie, was struck by our fascination with celebrity.

Then she thought about a man who was living across from the 405 and wrote about his dilemma. What if this character liked television a lot and what if he has a choice of going out on the balcony and maybe being on CNN? However, if he were on CNN, he wouldn’t be able to see himself live. He’s taping over his girlfriend’s copy of Beauty and The Beast, putting it on VHS. But that’s still not the same. He has to make this moral decision – TV, real life? TV, real life? What would be better – to look at it or look at himself looking at it?

The Miraculous Day Quartet” was written immediately after September 11, 2001. Wordsmiths was meeting on 9/11 but the city buildings were closed that night. Mary called all the playwrights and said, “Hey, you know what? This is terrible so why don’t we all write a play about 9/11 and bring it next week?” She procrastinated until an hour or two before the meeting but knew she had to write something. Then, she said, “I had one of these moments when the universe sang to me.”

She was listening to KUSC when The Bells of Saint Genevieve, a baroque piece by Marin Marais, started playing. “And I heard, ‘I screwed up. I stayed in bed instead of going to work. I screwed up. The apartment wouldn’t let me out.  I screwed up.  My assistants screwed because they gave me the wrong time of the airplane.’

And I was suddenly writing these stories, not about the people in the building or in the plane but the ones who were late. They were late and they survived, including one of the terrorists who prayed too long that morning and did not catch the plane. That was really creepy because I found out later that there was one of the twenty who didn’t make it. So…that made it all the more chilling.”

Mary has many more ten minute plays and says that she now has a hard time writing full plays with any conviction.

However, the church ladies continue to interest her and she’s written about one of them in Dancing With Miss Liza. Perhaps there is a series of plays about Veronica and Betty or perhaps an evening of ten minute plays strung together like a pearl necklace – one of those necklaces in which pearls can be removed or added.

She’s working on it.
























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