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What Is a Straight Play?

A straight play is a form of theater that focuses on dramatic storytelling without the use of music or lyrics found in musicals. It relies on dialogue and performance to convey its narrative, offering audiences a raw and immersive experience. Discover the captivating world of straight plays and how they bring stories to life on stage. Ready to explore their emotional depth?
Norma Jean Howland
Norma Jean Howland

The term straight play is used to differentiate between two kinds of theatrical productions, a musical and a non-musical. A straight play is a piece of theater that is not a musical but relies on the spoken word to tell the story. This kind of play moves the story along through spoken dialogue, as opposed to song and dance. These two art forms are both considered plays, but are usually presented in completely different styles. In a straight play, the drama or comedy often unfolds primarily through conversations between characters while a musical may have no dialogue at all.

There are many types of straight plays, they can be full length, usually two or three acts, or shorter — a one-act. In a full length play, the action is broken down into acts, and there may be an intermission. A one-act play tends to be much shorter and is often performed as part of a festival or night of short plays. There are even mini plays, which can be five or ten minutes long that fall into this category.

A one-act straight play is often performed as part of a festival or night of short plays.
A one-act straight play is often performed as part of a festival or night of short plays.

This type of play can also fall into two different categories: a comedy or drama, but there are variations too, such as comedic dramas. A comedy will tell a light-hearted story while a drama will usually take on a more serious topic. Although sometimes a playwright will fuse the two genres to create a theater piece that may evoke strong emotions in the audience, alternating with waves of laughter. There are also experimental plays that are considered straight plays. They may contain unusual language, characters, or special effects to tell the story.

Straight plays can be performed on stages of all sizes.
Straight plays can be performed on stages of all sizes.

Some examples of straight plays are: "A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Eugene O'Neill and "A Lie of the Mind" by Sam Shepard. Straight plays can be harder to get produced, especially on Broadway, because they tend to be more difficult to market to an audience. Often theatergoers gravitate towards pure entertainment, making musicals more lucrative at the box office. Although a straight play may have music in it, the music is more of a device to create mood or atmosphere, instead of a way of telling the story. This kind of play often challenges audiences, and demands more listening and thinking, as opposed to being entertaining for a few hours.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a straight play in theater?

A straight play, in theatrical terms, refers to a dramatic performance that focuses on dialogue and storytelling without the use of musical numbers or extensive choreography. Unlike musicals, straight plays rely solely on the script, actors' performances, and technical elements like set design and lighting to convey the story and evoke emotions. This form of theater can encompass a wide range of genres, including comedy, drama, and tragedy.

How does a straight play differ from a musical?

The primary difference between a straight play and a musical lies in the use of song and dance. In a musical, the narrative is often advanced through musical numbers and choreographed performances, which are integral to the storytelling and character development. Conversely, a straight play depends entirely on spoken dialogue and dramatic action. While a musical may require performers with singing and dancing skills, a straight play typically demands strong acting abilities.

What are some famous examples of straight plays?

Famous examples of straight plays include classics like William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet," Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." These plays have been celebrated for their compelling narratives, complex characters, and significant impact on the world of theater and literature.

Can straight plays include any music or dance at all?

While straight plays are characterized by their non-musical format, they can occasionally include music or dance elements. However, these are not central to the plot or character development as they are in musicals. Music might be used to set the mood or underscore a scene, and incidental dance might occur, but these elements are supplementary rather than foundational to the storytelling.

What skills are particularly important for actors in a straight play?

Actors in a straight play must possess strong dramatic skills, including the ability to deliver dialogue with nuance and emotional depth. They need to create believable characters and relationships through their performances. Mastery of timing, voice modulation, and body language is crucial, as is the ability to connect with fellow actors and the audience without the support of musical interludes.

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Discussion Comments


I have a question: what are the similarities between a musical and straight play? And please, nobody give me the obvious answer that "They both are plays."


I performed in both "straight plays" and musicals for years, but I never knew that non-musicals were referred to as such. I suppose straight plays often start "off Broadway" and then move to Broadway once they become a hit? Do straight plays usually run as long as musicals do?

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    • A one-act straight play is often performed as part of a festival or night of short plays.
      By: s2artstudio
      A one-act straight play is often performed as part of a festival or night of short plays.
    • Straight plays can be performed on stages of all sizes.
      By: adimas
      Straight plays can be performed on stages of all sizes.