How to set up your short play for scratch night success

Me with the cast and crew of my short play ‘Bodkin’s Beans’ before Aktualise Theatre’s Scratch night in November 2019.

The pandemic proved that scratch nights are indestructible.

While the fringe venues and pub theatres that typically hosted them went dark and the future of theatre looked bleak, scratch nights simply moved online.

Braving through the threat of technical troubles and low wifi-speeds, new writing nights showcased short plays via Zoom. It was a brave new world for new short plays.

While perhaps Zoom theatre is no substitute for live ‘in-person’ theatre I think this pandemic-led transition shows the enduring power of new writing scratch nights. And that they’ll probably always be around, in some way or other.

But most importantly they remain a great way to showcase your writing as an emerging playwright. I’ve been lucky enough to have my plays performed collectively at over 20 scratch nights and for me there’s no substitute for having your writing up in front of an audience.

And scratch nights are the easiest and most accessible way to make that a reality.

That’s why it’s always worth having a few short plays up your sleeve should the opportunity to submit arise. But how do you write a short play that’s set for scratch night success? Here’s a few tips that might be helpful:

Keep it short

Sadly scratch nights are not the place for your 3 hour magnum opus with 2 intervals.

The shorter your play the more other pieces can be showcased so briefer submissions will usually be favoured by producers of new writing nights.

I would say 10 minute plays or shorter are the ideal lengths (roughly ten pages for 2+ cast plays and 5 pages for a monologue), so while some scratch nights accept up to 15 minutes, typically you give yourself a better chance with a shorter play so err toward 10 minutes if you can. So if you’re looking to submit a play that runs at nearer to 20 minutes than 10… it may be worth a trim!

Above all make sure you submit what they’re looking for. If they specify that they’re looking for 5 minute plays it doesn’t matter how good your 15 minute play is, it simply won’t get picked.

Start well – Keep us hooked with conflict

When submitting to a scratch night you have 2 audiences, first the reader and then (if you’re lucky) the audience watching.

So it’s important you start with some intrigue, how can you surprise the audience in the opening pages? Resist the need to impose exposition and explain the situation of the play early, leave the audience with questions that aren’t answered immediately.

Make sure your characters want something and face obstacles when they try to get what they want. It sounds basic but without conflict you don’t have drama.

And who wants to watch people agreeing about things anyway?

Less is more – characters that is

Scratch nights are usually hosted by small theatre companies with limited venue and stage sizes. Plus it’s much easier to coordinate small cast plays, so as with length – less is more.

Monologues and 2-handers are usually the bread and butter of scratch nights – and while its possible to see 4 character plays staged – again you give yourself the best possible chance by cutting any unnecessary characters.

Think about how you can merge characters that fulfill similar functions or cut characters that don’t do anything major plot-wise to further streamline your piece and give them a tighter, more economical script to work with.

Cut the big set – No revolving stage!

I’d love to see a revolving stage in a scratch night, but sadly I don’t think I’ll live to see it.

Never specify an elaborate set when writing a short play for a scratch night. Anything more than a few chairs and a table is probably going to be a stretch.

That’s not to say you can’t be creative, by all means set your play in weird and wonderful places. I set my short play ‘Champagne’ in a gothic castle in a made up Eastern European country called ‘Bolgorvia’. But despite the bizarre setting I resisted the urge to specify suits of armour or a moat in my stage directions (though I did have a vampire involved).

Try wherever possible to have your whole short play set in one specific place – it’s much easier to evoke that sense of place and less of a headache for the organisers. Also as you’re obeying Aristotle’s rule about the unity of place you can pass yourself off as a classical playwright!

Get writing or get feedback?

So there we have it – keep your plays short, hook your audiences, cut out superfluous characters, while keeping your set simple and who knows? You could be on to a winner!

And if you’re looking to hone one of your short plays why not get some free feedback? Send me your script as an attachment to syoungerwriting@outlook.com and I’ll give you free feedback on any 10 page play (or shorter) you send over.

As theatres continue to open up after the pandemic you can expect in-person scratch night submission opportunities to have a resurgence. So get writing and best of luck!

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