What is so fascinating about short plays? I ask myself this question after just taking in a lovely read of two short plays by Trish Ayers. Over the years, I have attended one act festivals and contests and I absolutely delight in seeing a series of short plays back to back in a night of theater.
Some may be mistaken in thinking it might be “easier” to write a short play than a standard three or five act play, but I would disagree. Theater is meant to be experienced as an arc, with an unfolding of character and story development. There is more room to breathe in a standard format, but fitting a complete story structure with a beginning, middle, and end in a short play format requires a different kind of focus.
I have seen short plays fail, but I have also seen them take the audience’s breath away. I think the short plays that typically fail are those that try to paint too much of a brush stroke in a limited amount of space and time.
A scene that attempts to say too much about what happened before, what’s going to happen, and has a monologue worth of exposition just to get the scene going: it’s going to lose the audience.
However, when a playwright allows the reader or viewer some room to figure it out: the who, the what, the where in the very beginning; it keeps the audience awake. Part of the enjoyment of watching the one act is being surprised. You are given a limited amount of time, say ten minutes, to piece together the who, the what and the where, quickly followed by the why and the how. By the time a good short play is over, you have had a complete experience.
It’s a fine balancing act to trust your writing and the audience’s intelligence.
“No Reservation” by Trish Ayers
If you had access to the “other side” and could bring back the dead for an activist cause, who would you bring back?
In this case, a young idealistic feminist, Helen, has an opportunity to bring back the first woman Chief of the Cherokee Nation for a Woman’s Initiative Project to usher in gender equality. The historical figure, Wilma Mankiller, is confused as to why she was chosen to come back and why exactly she is needed.
What I enjoyed most about this play was the acute use of assumptions and the breaking of them. Oddly enough, when I read the description, I thought I would be reading about feminism, but that’s not the whole story. Really, it’s about labels and what we assume we know about different people and how we choose to put certain people in certain groups because it benefits us in the long run.
Feminism itself has become such a loaded word precisely because everyone has a different opinion about what it really means. Not only that, but more recently there are consistent labels of what makes a “good” feminist or a “bad feminist.”
Bringing it full circle, we like to rewrite history at times and say things like “President Nixon would agree with this!” or “Amelia Earhart would think this is so cool!” or “Martin Luther King Jr. would never put up with this!” But what do we really know? Every individual is a product of their individual times and fought particular causes based on their experiences.
In this show, Helen assumes that Wilma will automatically be interested in working on her initiative because she was a strong female leader. However, Wilma is more interested in getting back to the Spirit World, unsure of what exactly the Initiative entails. She’s interested in her own work.
I think this is an interesting dynamic to think about when it comes to feminism and social justice groups in general. Oftentimes, groups are formed without always having a clear initiative, which ultimately leads to not much change occurring. Wilma is more interested in the bullet points of the initiative, which Helen points out can’t be formed until the participants are gathered.
One of my favorite personality traits of Wilma is her focus on work. She consistently talks about her work. How did she overcome gender inequality? “I focused on my work,” she says. I love this aspect of feminist thought. Instead of always fighting the tide of resistance, perhaps if individuals strived to be excellent at their work, the resistance would slowly dissipate. It’s a controversial idea, but I find it exciting.
Another assumption in this play that is quickly smashed is Helen’s assumption that Wilma will identify mostly with being a woman. But as their conversation goes on, Wilma talks about her Native American identity too. It’s a nice reminder for the audience that each person is very complex, and oftentimes labels are troublesome simply because they don’t encompass the entire person.
Helen then tries to win Wilma over to the Initiative by pointing out that they have a diverse group of women joining. Still, it’s not enough for Wilma.
It’s not until Helen tells her own story of struggle that Wilma finally agrees. Specificity is key. What is a cause without specific goals? It’s just a petition, just another like on Facebook, just another empty proclamation.
On a personal note, this play drove me to the internet to do research on Wilma Mankiller. The playwright, Trish Ayers, has upheld her end of the bargain on the Women’s Initiative..by educating the audience with a real life grounded role model who did excellent work while she was alive.
The Cypress Tree by Trish Ayers
This is my favorite kind of short play. The way you would see it performed would just be a woman sitting on a bench delivering a monologue. She is having a conversation with a security guard at a gallery.
The reason I enjoy pieces like this so much is because it relies heavily on the words of the playwright, and the strength and charisma of the actor onstage. Not only that, but to carve out a strong beginning, middle, and end, where the character experiences a change in ten minutes is no easy feat either.
Trish Ayers does a beautiful job with this as her words are so bright and colorful, that you can easily imagine the art on the walls around Fern. Even her name evokes an immediate feeling! The title itself, “The Cypress Tree” is brought up during the play, where Fern describes the tree as something that grows so beautifully it looks as though it was trimmed and sculpted by hand. Ironically, Fern doesn’t see that she is the beauty of The Cypress Tree herself.
She goes on to explain that she’s taller than her peers, which she finds to be an inconvenience. However, if she embraces her height, she will be embracing her beauty.
Some readers might wonder why there is another character at all, when he doesn’t even appear onstage. However, it usually takes a catalyst to evoke big change in other people’s lives. The more Fern talks it out with the security guard, the more inspired she becomes to make a change.
This play is beautiful because it can speak as a feminist work, but also as an inspirational piece to anyone who is afraid of following their dreams. Oftentimes I hear people say “Oh, I’ll start this dream when such and such happens or when I’m ready.” A beautiful metaphor for this is how Fern carries a beautiful green scarf with her that she never wore for years. She bought it on impulse and yet always has it tucked away. When she finally takes it out the gallery, her impulsive nature returns and she feels inspired to “pick up paint” on the way home from the gallery.
The sad aspect to this is many people tuck away their gifts, afraid to use them. If they would just let their light shine, they would not only be happier, but find that the entire world of inspiration would be open to them. I see this play as a gift to an audience to remind them that they each are their own gifts. Sometimes it can be hard to see and the help of a friend, or in this case, a stranger, is the precise tipping point for a breakthrough to occur.
For the radio performance and review, check out the On Air Players!