Steve Waters in the Guardian sings the praises of the short play:
So what is a short play, exactly? Is it simply defined by its length? I ask because as a form it's under-discussed and under-valued. . . a fugitive form, lacking a permanent home, rarely available on the page. Yet for all that it seems to me a very good way into any writer's work – released from the armature of plot, the playwright is compelled to invest the moment with intense theatrical energy. In those precious minutes the dramatist's toolkit of rhythm, voice and image is ruthlessly exposed. It's a place for encounters not journeys, epiphanies not ideologies. Describing the short story of which he was a master, VS Pritchett characterizes it usefully as a "glancing form of fiction (…) right for the restlessness and nervousness of contemporary life".The comparison to the short story is instructive. Imagine what contemporary fiction writers would do if they could not avail themselves of the form of the short-story--which gets them in magazines and allows them to published "collected stories" as first books. One-acts hardly give playwrights the same advantage.
For the writer too, there's a different pleasure in the short form which is well caught by the American novelist Russell Banks, who speaks of the stamina necessary to pull off full-length work necessitating a kind of "bourgeois" commitment; whereas the short story or play, is a place to experiment with form and defect from territory, where writing can be enjoyed for its own sake.
The problem with one-acts, as Walker illustrates, is the current practice of theatergoing has no suitable forum for them:
So why is the fragment so rarely seen and, like the short story, deemed commercial poison? Well, I would be the first to admit that I wouldn't venture out simply for Come and Go by Beckett – my bourgeois need for an uneven evening's entertainment rather than ten minutes of perfection is probably not uncommon. Yes, you can round up a miscellany of works under the umbrella of one event. But as a mode of theatre-going the sheer effort required in investing in multiple disconnected narratives can take its toll – not least because intensity is integral to the form and back-to-back intensity can pall.Indeed, "omnibus" evenings can be hard to sit through. (And hard to sell: Come pay full price to sit through one really good one-act, preceded by one awful one and a few so-so's. And, no, you can't sneak in at intermission.)
I've mused about various options before here. But Walker reminds us that theatre festivals--where audiences hop from one show to another over the course of a day or more--offer a prime opportunity. At the Shaw Festival in Ontario, for instance, one one-act is always programmed each season that runs on its own as a "lunchtime matinee" (12 noon) for a reduced price. (It's always sold out.) And in the New York Fringe Fest, many shows are certainly, um, short. But rather than charge one standard price and schedule every show in the same fashion, how about a separate venue for shorts that audiences can just pop in and out of on a kind of rotating basis, where the performers do the show on a continuous loop? Or something like that.
In the age of ITunes for songs and movies (and even Funny or Die) and Kindle Singles for fiction, theatre must simply keep up.