One Act Plays have a basic set of rules and a basic structure that have to be followed that have nothing to do with the writing. Great writing can be torpedoed in a one act play by a flaw in play construction. While a set might be held together by tacs and twine, a script needs solid construction. In this article we will look at scene changes.
One Act Plays are different than multi-act plays because they are uninterrupted by intermission. They flow from the beginning to the end in sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes 15, and sometimes much longer, stretching to an hour or an hour and a half. The uninterrupted time flow is an important consideration when writing your one act. It is easy to take an audience out of a play with scene changes and especially with scene changes that are not integrated into the action on stage.
For example, if a dramatic scene occurs and the audience is waiting with baited breath to see what will happen next and then suddenly, a backstage crew in blacks interrupts by marching onstage and dragging set pieces around, it naturally takes the audience out of the play. Incorporating any scene changes with actors or backstage crew dressed in costume keeps the audience in the play, particularly if the actors changing the set are in character, if they appear to be part of the play. It is better though to have no scene changes, to have one set.
If your play requires scene changes, think of what is going on in the scene changes, how these changes are to be achieved. Many new playwrights write as if their one act is actually a television episode where the set is magically changed during commercial timeouts. The less thought given to the logistics of your scene changes, the less saleable your play.
What would be ideal from my experience is to have one set representing a specific place or one set representing many different places with a minimum of changes to suggest a different time and place. In Shakespeare's time, they had one set for all the action with the actor's words effectively changing the set.The words in a play do more to convey location than any clunky set changes can.
If you are writing a one-act play, you have to think that it will likely be placed in an evening of other one act plays and if that is the case (ie festivals and showcases) the less stuff to lug in and out of the theatre so the next play can be loaded in the better. There will also be time constraints for getting your set on and off stage. In many competitions, if you can't set up in ten minutes and take down in five, your play will be disqualified.
Miss Julie; by Scandanavian playwright August Strindberg, which is a long one act, has a very effective scene change to suggest time passing and to rough up the set. Local people come onto the stage forcing Miss Julie and her valet to flee into a bedroom. The local people are partying and play music and make a mess. When the partiers leave, and Miss Julie and her valet come back out, the suggestion of time passing is made believeable to the audience. This scene change which can also be an intermission of sorts is very engaging and is integrated seemlessly into the play.
Tenessee Williams in writing The Glass Menagerie had the idea of projections from a projector that would herald scene changes. He wanted to keep it interesting for the audience. I am sure most directors don't use that device but as a writer he was conscious of how things would look when changing scenes, and he wanted to confirm the audience's interest by giving them something to look at.
Music, a character giving narration, a choreographed action can all add something to the flow of your one act play, can sew the different scenes together. It is never a good idea to think that you are only the writer. The writer is creating a world. This world needs nurturing by paying attention to details. You can't hide your writing in a fancy set, and if the audience is looking at your fancy set and not the action onstage then your play is in trouble.
If you are writing a one act and have never been involved in a play, join your local theatre company, help out backstage or audition for a role in a play, offer to direct or assistant direct. Practical experience in the theatre should iron out any delusions a playwright might have about set changes and scene changes.
Imagine that you are taking your audience on a journey. Let it flow from beginning to end, instead of being interrupted by a succession of annoying pit stops.