Selecting America’s Best Short Plays

For years now, Bill Demastes has been selecting and editing together the best short plays in the U.S. for the long-running series, The Best American Short Plays. The newest volume in the series, The Best American Short Plays 2012-2013, includes works from a wide variety of writers, from seasoned playwrights to college students. Many ask, how exactly does Bill pick the “best” plays out of such a huge selection of eager voices? Mr. Demastes has been so kind as to write us a post giving us some insight into his quest to find the best plays in America.

 

First, let me say that I love this job. I get to read hundreds of plays from some of the best new talents in the country, and I get teasingly exciting submissions from many of the most established writers today. Judging from the number of high quality submissions I receive from year to year, I can say that

Bill Demastes taking a break in his Baton Rouge office.

Bill Demastes taking a break in his Baton Rouge office.

creative talent in New York City is definitely alive and well.  (That might actually be an understatement.) What’s equally exciting to me is that talent exists across the country, in Baltimore, Atlanta, Knoxville, Athens, New Orleans, Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Southern and Northern California, and even up there in Alaska. Where next?

People often ask me how I pick the plays for each volume. It is a very difficult decision, and there are no real rules to this procedure. I read for fresh writing, stuff that reads like spoken language. Neat ideas certainly help, but well-done, quiet vignettes and reminiscences work well, too. I’m a sucker for surprise endings and good jokes. Political messages are not what I look for, but well put together and heartfelt pieces often catch my eye. I love comic word play when I see it. Not a big fan of gratuitous profanity–can’t the effect be better generated through wit rather than coarse bludgeoning? 

After I pull together a large list of plays that I like, I look to see what common threads course through most of the works and try to string together something of a theme for the volume. This is a difficult task. However, if you look hard enough, common threads do surface among good writing since all really good work deals somehow with the common experiences of love, hate, loss, regret–the things that occupy those moments in our lives beyond the empty hurlyburly of simply making a living.

I frequently hear from authors included in these volumes that their works find their ways onto the stage thanks to the exposure from these volumes. That’s a very gratifying thing. In a world where being a playwright is no easy occupation, it is a good thing to be able to help in some small way.

I look forward to the publication of this new volume, certain the playwrights and plays I’ve included will not disappoint. And I welcome submissions of scripts that have been produced over the past theatre season from any and all–including recommendations from discriminating theatregoers.

Seeming is Believing

Guest Blogger: William Demastes is the editor of The Best American Short Plays 2011-2012, as well as the 2010-2011 volume. Below are some of his musings on the importance of theatre.

Seeming is Believing: The Best American Short Plays, 2011-2012

Sometimes an idea just has to be made into a play. It won’t work as a short story or novel. Poetry won’t do it justice. And making a film or video doesn’t do it, either.

Theatre does something no other medium does: it puts live (not virtual), three-dimensional (no need for glasses) human beings in front of a group of live, three-dimensional fellow humans beings. By itself, this action is pretty unique. But then the really unique thing happens: this gathering of humans play a game of make-believe. One group watches as the other group pretends to be people they aren’t, in locations where they aren’t, doing things that they really aren’t doing. Unlike poetry or fiction, we get to deal with real bodies and real voices. Unlike film, we can’t really be duped into thinking somehow we’re seeing “reality.” After all, we’re in a theatre, and that alone announces we’re in a make-believe world.

I point out the above as a sort of invitation to look into Applause’s Best American Short Plays series, of which I collected and edited the last two volumes. They offer a change of pace to the fiction and non-fiction we typically read in our free time on a number of levels. At the most basic, they’re “short”! Each can be read in those creases of free time that occur between the blocks of time that occupy the larger portions of our day. But they certainly do more than merely fill those ends and odds of free time with “something to do”: they exercise a part of our brain that other readings (or viewings) don’t exercise because they ask us to be active in what we’re doing. We are invited and encouraged to become directors in that theatre of our mind’s eye. There’s no narrator telling us what to think, no poet’s vision that we’re running after, and no camera’s-eye view telling us where to look. No, it becomes the reader’s task—our task–to envision set and characters; we need to imagine vocal intonations as we read the words on the page; we need to decide upon motivation, irony, tone. We need to create a make-believe world and populate it with characters of our own imaginings. We the readers become we the directors—we become imaginative collaborators with the playwrights who have so generously begun the process by putting words down on paper. When a playwright publishes her work, she is invited us to partner up and bring her words to life. Being a playwright is, of course, no small task, but neither is reading a playwright’s work. WE get to do so much more than other readerships get to do. We get to collaborate.

And in that act of collaboration, we work hand-in-hand with the playwright in creating a reality that is alive and breathing and teaches us just a little bit about living an active life of engagement rather than a passive one of observation. So, go ahead and give a short play a try. See if it really is any different than reading a short story or going to a movie. See what it does to the director, actor, set designer, costumer, techie in you. And see if playing with these plays changes your outlook on life, even just a little bit. I hear that it does.

The Best American Short Plays 2011-2012

Applause is proud to continue the series that for over 70 years has been the standard of excellence for one-act plays in America. From its inception, The Best American Short Plays has identified new, cutting-edge playwrights who have gone on to establish award-winning careers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, David Mamet, and Horton Foote.

William W. Demastes made his debut as series editor with the well-received 2010-2011 volume, a diverse collection revolving around the multidimensional theme of love. Blogcritics said of the anthology: “This collection is a bountiful of pleasing oddities. Each work offers something worthwhile…. The collection runs the gamut of the most serious drama to the most irreverent topical mental trinkets….”

Demastes returns and once again draws from works produced by some of America’s finest theater companies in an effort to capture the wide range of styles, topics, and regional tastes that typifies American theater. The compilation is slated to include works by John Guare, Neil LaBute, and A. R. Gurney, as well as contributions from a plethora of gifted, emerging playwrights.

Event: Best American Short Plays (NYC)

Join us for…
The Annual Best American Short Plays Performances 

In celebration of the release of The Best American Short Plays 2009-2010 (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books), editor Barbara Parisi will be hosting the annual event at the Nuyorican Poets Café on October 10th. Guests include playwrights Daniel Gallant, Charlene A. Donaghy, Samuel Brett Williams, and more! Join us for readings and performances of excerpts from the plays in this new volume.

October 10th
6:30-8:30pm
Nuyorican Poets Cafe
236 E. 3rd Street
(between Ave. B & C)
New York City

 The Best American Short Plays identifies new, cutting-edge playwrights each year and collects the best of their plays into these anthologies. This series has been the standard of excellence for one-act plays in America, and many of the playwrights spotlighted have gone on to establish award winning careers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, David Mamet, and Horton Foote. This new volume includes plays from Murray Schisgal, Adam Kraar, Theodore Mann, Anthony Rapp, and many others.