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Features Published 4 September 2014

Distillations, Sucker-Punches, Sugar Hits

"There’s no reason a short play can’t be huge and voluptuous." Samantha Ellis discusses the art of the short play as her collection of shorts, Starlore for Beginners, opens at London's Theatre 503.
Samantha Ellis

I once dated a man who, when we went to the theatre, would always ask how long the play was. “I just like to know what I’m in for,” he’d say. Which made me fear he didn’t want to be at the theatre with me (or, in fact, with me). But now I reluctantly admit he had a point; the experience of a long play is very different to a short, and part of “knowing what you’re in for” is knowing whether you’re strapping in for the ferris wheel or the roller coaster.

Rehearsing Starlore for Beginners and other plays, a run of my shorts at Theatre 503, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Like every working playwright I’ve written lots of short plays, for festivals, for one-offs, for mixed-bag evenings, ranging from seven- to forty-minutes long. I’m on a deadline right now to write a ten-minute monologue for Agent 160’s Fun Palace in Cardiff. And while I loved the sheer maximalism of writing a book (75,000 words! No set or cast or budget constraints! Unlimited adjectives!), there’s something very special about a short.

Shorts can have a freshness that full-lengths lose as they are worked over; Suzan Lori-Parks wrote a play a day in 2002, specifically to make herself write without getting over-serious or reverent. Her 365 Days/365 Plays are raw and throwaway and sometimes dazzling. I’ve sometimes dashed off shorts too, trying to evade my inner censor, to experiment, to challenge myself. I once wrote a ten-minute play called Postfeminism just to see if I could tackle such a perplexing, unwieldy subject in such a short space of time, and whether I could give a tiny play such a monolithic title. In fact, I ended up expanding it into a full-length because I liked the characters too much to let them go.

But I almost didn’t say that because a persistent view is that shorts would be full-lengths if the playwright could only be bothered. The same accusation dogs short story writers; Lydia Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize last year, began the title story of her latest collection Can’t and Won’t with “I was recently denied a writing prize because they said I was lazy”. The whole story weighs in at a featherlight 48 words. But is it lazy? For every short I’ve written fast, there’s another I’ve gone to hell and back for—and didn’t Blaise Pascal say, of letter-writing, that he would be brief, if he only had the time?

Jim Russell, who is directing my plays at 503, thinks short plays are “too often viewed as phantom ideas, wannabe full-lengths, are under-produced or under-published. They are pariahs”. He set up his company Urgent Theatre to celebrate the short form and Davis’s Booker win makes him think there’s “an appetite for brevity, for digestible complexity. Let’s get short plays in the sun!”

Some shorts are skits or one-joke-wonders, but a lot of the playwrights who write for The Miniaturists (and I’m proud to be one of them) are Monsterists at heart, and so are our plays. There’s no reason a short play can’t be huge and voluptuous and intellectually rangy, at the same time as being lean and punchy, taut and fleet. The best shorts are distillations, sucker-punches, adrenalin-shots, sugar hits.

They startle, shimmer, they’re gone…and hopefully they bloom in the mind. I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about Sam Shepard’s Killer’s Head. Just two and a half pages long, it’s a monologue by a man in an electric chair, mostly about horses and pick up trucks. Then the lights start to dim and as they hit black, the chair ignites with an electric charge that lights up his body. We see him illuminated, caught in that moment of dying, then the lights go back to black. Shocking and unforgettable, it’s hard to imagine what it would gain from being even a second longer.

Images by Kate Parkes

Images by Kate Parkes

When Jim and I first started talking about doing a run of my shorts, he talked about how seeing a whole evening of short plays by one playwright revealed the depth and diversity of her concerns, what she really cared about. At first I couldn’t see it. The three plays we chose didn’t seem to make sense like, say, Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat; in those shorts, characters proliferate and phrases and leitmotifs repeat, forming an epic cycle that honours the confusion of our feelings about war.

My plays are about bellydancing and witchcraft, dybbuks and my deep and abiding love for the 1980s David Essex musical Mutiny! They didn’t seem to have anything in common at all. Eventually I worked out they are really all about magical thinking, and the magic of theatre. And I found myself emailing Jim to ask if there was room for just one more, a little one. I felt invigorated by thinking properly about the short form. I wanted to have another go at writing a play an audience could encounter briefly, and linger over later. Starlore for Beginners is seven minutes long but in some ways it feels like the biggest play I’ve ever written.

Samantha Ellis’s Starlore for Beginners and other plays is at Theatre 503, until 20th September. Her other plays include Cling to me Like Ivy (Nick Hern Books) and her non-fiction book, How to be a Heroine, is out now from Chatto & Windus.

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Samantha Ellis is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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