Backstage: You can say a lot in a 10-minute play

Mark Saunders’ 10-minute play “Sitcom” will be featured in Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s next offering, “Moonlighting 2018: Home for the Holidays.” Saunders is a former cartoonist and English teacher, who then found work in the computer industry and early retirement. Saunders was introduced to playwriting through stand-up comedy. We met at Boulevard Coffee.

EH: How did you get started in stand-up comedy?

MS: I’m so shy. I thought to get over this I can do one of two things — I can either get into Toastmasters, or take up stand-up comedy. I thought: “Well I like humor, plus I don’t like to eat breakfast with strangers.” So I opted for stand up.

EH: Tell me about cartooning.

MS: There are some big decisions a cartoonist has to make. For example: What pen to use? Should I make his nose bigger? If they publish this, am I going to end up in prison?

The biggest challenge for a humorist is that everyday stuff stops you for a moment. You make these connections that most people don’t. For example: I’m passing this cemetery, and on the reader board, they’re promoting “Full cremation services.” That implies that they have partial cremation services — “Hey buddy, we can crisp him up to the torso; then you have to decide what to do with the rest of him.”

EH: Tell me about short plays.

MS: There’s a genre called the 10-minute play. In the 1970s, Director Jon Jory at the Actors Theatre of Louisville Kentucky, came up with this concept of 10-minute plays. It’s not a scene from a larger play. It has a beginning, middle and end. It’s an entity, typically in real time, limited set and limited cast. It’s very popular around the country. Jory called it the American theater’s haiku.

Come up with a good title, because titles drive interest. I did one titled “Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar.” Two guys named Ed and Ham, two Southern guys in a big city in a bar. And they get in an argument over women, basically. They both have mommy issues. I think 10-minute plays are a lot of fun. If nothing else, it’s a good exercise.

EH: What are major elements of a good play?

MS: Conflict. Somebody wants something, and someone or something stands in the way. It could be fear that stands in the way or one’s own problems. There is also character transformation: Somebody has to change. In “A Christmas Carol” Ebenezer Scrooge has this great character arc, because he is a changed man at the end. That works for full-length plays but not for 10-minute plays. Ten-minute plays can just have a twist or a dramatic question at the end. I write comedies. I’m not trying to change the world; I’m just trying to change the mood in the room. If I get laughs, I did my job.

EH: What is it that keeps you writing?

MS: We’re storytellers; that’s who we are. It doesn’t matter if it’s a play. A play is just a story on the stage. You think about the old cave paintings in France, wonderful almost abstract paintings, of bison, horses and whatnot. And then there’s always a handprint — almost as if to say “I was here.” My writing is my handprint, “I was here.”

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