6 Things You Should Know About Performing in One-Act Plays

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Imagine performing in a full play that’s compressed down into just one act. This performance is a shorter version of a full theater piece, but one that still allows you to showcase your range, hone your craft, and improve your presence. One-act plays such as Anton Chekhov’s “The Bear” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” push actors to rapidly navigate through emotions from hostility to affection, and from curiosity to revelation. Performing in this type of play can sharpen your skills, allow you to explore a wide range of characters, and help you gain more experience in front of audiences.

What is a one-act play?

At its core, a one-act play is a story that takes place in a single act. An entire one-act play typically lasts anywhere from 10 minutes up to an hour, and there is almost never an intermission.

The plots of one-act plays usually focus on a single storyline or problem, often in one setting. They demand great writing, directing, and acting in order to keep the audience engaged. Compact yet full of emotion, these pithy plays offer a unique challenge for actors to improve their craft and develop new skills.

10 famous one-act plays

1. “The Bear” by Anton Chekhov (1888)

This one-act play, a comedic tale about a widow and a debtor who unexpectedly fall in love, is especially memorable for pioneering a more realistic type of acting that greatly influenced modern theater.

2. “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell (1916)

First performed by the Provincetown Players with Glaspell herself acting in it, “Trifles” is a powerful commentary on gender roles, telling the story of women discovering a crime scene that had been overlooked by men.

3. “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee (1958)

This play, which debuted in Berlin in 1959, focuses on a deep conversation about isolation and human connection between two men in a park. “The Zoo Story” was Albee’s first play, marking his entrance into European theater.

4. “Krapp’s Last Tape” by Samuel Beckett (1958)

Patrick Magee’s performance at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1958, brought to life Beckett’s story of an old man reflecting on his past with regret. Beckett was known for minimalist stage directions, which famously allowed the audience to create their own interpretations of the story in their mind.

5. “The Dumb Waiter” by Harold Pinter (1957)

First staged in London in 1960, this is a tense, darkly comedic play about two hitmen in a basement room who receive mysterious orders through a dumbwaiter. 

6. “A Marriage Proposal” by Anton Chekhov (1890)

A comedic classic still running to this day, “A Marriage Proposal” is a hilarious depiction of a proposal gone wrong over a land dispute.

7. “The Lesson” by Eugène Ionesco (1951)

Performed as part of the Theatre of the Absurd in Paris in 1951, this is a surreal story of a professor’s seemingly simple lesson becoming increasingly absurd and violent, all culminating in a dramatic and dark conclusion.

8. “Riders to the Sea” by J.M. Synge (1904)

Originating from Molesworth Hall, Dublin, in 1904, this tragic play portrays a mother’s loss of both of her sons to the sea. It’s a very moving piece on resilience in the face of despair.

9. “The Sandbox” by Edward Albee (1959)

A mixture of comedy and drama, this play debuted in New York City in 1960. In it, Albee critiques the American family and how they often neglect the elderly.

10. “No Exit” by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

First staged in Paris during the German occupation in 1944, this play presents three characters who are in hell, stuck in a single room together for eternity. The most famous line is, “Hell is other people.”

What should I consider when performing in a one-act play?

Actor on stage


Here are the many benefits, and some possible pitfalls, of performing in a one-act play.

Typecasting: If you only perform in one-act plays, casting directors and agents might assume you’re unable to do anything else. It’s great to have at least a few one-act dramas under your belt, but try to avoid focusing on them exclusively to show that you’re capable of other, bigger things. Otherwise, you might find yourself getting typecast as a “one-act play actor”—especially if you find yourself playing the same character types and roles over and over again.

Lower pay: Many one-act plays have limited budgets, meaning actors might not be paid as well. It’s generally a good idea to focus on building credits, experience, and skills before focusing on pay, but at a certain point, money talks, and larger productions typically have bigger budgets.

Skill development: Due to the short timeframe of one-act plays, you need to quickly establish your characters and storylines. Since there isn’t enough time for audiences to get in-depth backstories and deeply understand who the characters are, you instead must quickly establish stage presence and get the audience to feel invested. Developing this skill is a challenge but worth it in the long run: The more you’re able to quickly build rapport with an audience (that is, to become likable), the more opportunities you may open down the line (in the form of bookings). At the extreme, a one-act play can almost be seen as a big, long audition done in front of an audience.

Expanding range and versatility: Not only do one-act plays help improve your ability to audition and build rapport with audiences, they’ll also force you to expand your range, since you’ll need to portray a variety of emotional states in a short amount of time. Unlike a full-length play, which stretches character development and emotional change over a long period of time and multiple scenes, many one-act plays demand numerous emotional states within minutes or even seconds. And since it doesn’t take as long to memorize lines, rehearse, and perform, some actors perform in numerous one-act plays over a short period of time. This provides the opportunity to experiment with new acting and movement techniques, and it can even lead to personal breakthroughs. 

Résumé building and networking: The reduced time commitment means that you can build your résumé quicker than if you only performed in full-length plays. Casting directors often view one-act plays positively because they understand the skills required to successfully pull one off. Plus, these plays are frequently seen in drama festivals and many are submitted for competitions, so performers are often seen by a wider variety of industry people. This can lead to more opportunities from networking and even by sheer happenstance, like if an agent sees you and offers to represent you unexpectedly. If you keep in touch with the many people you’ll meet, you may just find yourself working on projects with them in the future.

Opportunity for lead roles: Another major advantage with these productions is that they typically have smaller casts, meaning more opportunities to book the lead role. This can be great for your résumé and help you build confidence onstage.

At the end of the day, getting into one-act plays is not just about building your résumé faster. It’s a chance to meet new people, gain new skills, and take on roles that might not normally cross your path. Who knows, a one-act play could open the door to something much bigger for your career further down the road!

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