Judge’s Report – July 2017 – One-act Stage Play

Judge’s General Report – Playwriting/Drama Competition 2017

Let’s start, as always, with the specifications:

One-act stage play, 30 minutes max:  this means, not a 3-act play, not a radio play, not a TV play.  Then, we were given some specs on the plot, such as a wallet found, and a bad neighbour (‘from hell’). This was not an easy competition to enter. Only eight people did.

In some ways a one-act stage play is like a short story. (a) It is short. So, every word must count. (b) The plot and action must be kept tight. There’s no room to ruminate or ‘describe’ at length. (c) There should be only a few characters, strong ones at that. (d)  Conflict is needed. (e) Ideally it should start with a hook, and end with a twist. (f) The action usually takes place in one time-frame, without pauses, or flashbacks, or intervals of time. (g) So, ideally, one scene and one set are all that are used.

But how is a one-act stage play UNLIKE a short story? The answers lie in the craft of writing it:

  1. The physical confines of the stage. One-act plays are not usually performed on huge stages with revolving sets. By their very nature their sets are small and economical of space. Huge crowd scenes are therefore verboden. In fact, even having two or more groups of people onstage at the same time will cause problems.
  2. Dialogue rules, okay? What is said out loud carries the play. Lengthy action or ‘business’ without any words is usually unsuccessful because it breaks up the flow and the audience’s attention.
  3. Any action must take place onstage. Audience must see and hear all. Offstage happenings just don’t happen.

From the general to the particular:   The entries for this competition covered a wide variety of styles and plots, so were most intriguing to read and evaluate. What was obvious for me was that some entrants had had practical experience of one-act stage plays, whether on-stage or back-stage or by extensive reading of them. Likewise, it was easy to see that some had not had these advantages. Some knew instinctively that one set and one scene, or at the most two, were all that were needed. They also knew that they should restrict their list of characters to a few. Remember, I know only their pen-names. Derek and Fran may insert their real names if they wish.

Winners:  First Place was awarded to ‘Jumping to Conclusions’ by ‘Sarah Jenkins’. This entry had only one set, and the layout was practical. Only four characters, with a radio announcer as an interesting addition. But where this play shone was in the characterization and the plot. There was great contrast between the characters, therefore natural conflict, and an absorbing, convincing, and at times quite touching story-line shone out as a class act. I had a few criticisms which though did not prevent this play from sailing through.

Second Place went to ‘Neighbours’ by ‘John Dunne’. Despite having 2 men and 3 women, this play was taut, in a simple setting, with excellent dialogue, and dramatic use of entrances. A play in possibly, er,   traditional style, but which was nevertheless pleasing with its continual movement and action.

Third Place went to ‘Double Trouble’ by ‘Charles’. Though being sorely handicapped by a list of eight characters, and two scenes, this play pleased by its practical stage directions, excellent dialogue, and clever use of the ‘neighbour from hell’ plot as specified.

I gave a ‘Highly Commended’ award to ‘Horace from Hell’ by ‘Greek’.

My compliments not only to the worthy winners, but also to all the entrants for their initiative in having a go at this difficult but very worthwhile competition.

Patrick Coyne

11 January 2018