Wham, Bam, Thank You, Folks

Aside from drawing playwrights, the producers believe they've hit on a way to lure unsuspecting nontheatergoers as well. Even in Florida not every company invites the public to attend a theater festival wearing, well, shorts. For audience comfort the festival is split into two programs -- A and B -- which are separated by dinner served in the theater courtyard. Each program offers seven or eight plays and runs about an hour and a half. "What we've done is said, 'It's summertime. Let's give everyone a break,'" explains Westfall. "We're not asking for tuxedos. We're putting together picnic baskets." Citing tales of strangers who've met at Summer Shorts and are now friends, she adds, "We like the aspect of community that happens during the dinner period."

Sure, Summer Shorts is easy to sit through, but that doesn't mean the producers are cutting any corners artistically. In fact, they say, the opposite is true. "The risk factor is different than what artistic directors at other theaters have to think about," says Westfall, whose play Con la Paciencia de Angeles (With the Patience of Angels) is part of the lineup. "It's not the same as doing an entire season of only full-length plays. I hate to do a Forrest Gump metaphor, but when you have a box of chocolate, you can have your caramels and your nougats."

And you can have a play about racist child-murderer Susan Smith. Or a Rich Orloff comedy intriguingly titled Stevie Goldstein Faces the Day of Atonement Unprepared. "We want to take the risk. We want to put it on the stage," Garrisan says of a work like Goldberg and Zelivanksy's X Short Plays About Death, in which the Grim Reaper is a henpecked suburban husband. What it often comes down to, admits Norman, is, "We can go out on a limb because it's only ten minutes. We hope they won't leave their seats."

If that's the case, why didn't City Theatre pick the plays submitted by Kushner and Durang? "Christopher Durang sent us a play called The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From," says Norman. "We thought it would be better filmed than staged. It really is a remake of The Hardy Boys." As for Kushner, he faced the fate of many of the 500-plus submissions. "We turn down scripts because they just don't fit into the puzzle," says Norman. "Or they were too similar to pieces we had."

In putting together this year's roster, the producers read plays from as far away as China and France. "We're thinking about what we haven't done before," says Westfall. "We ask ourselves, 'What is another take on the two-character relationship play with a husband and wife?' There might have been six plays that came in that we liked that dealt with that, but what writer is going about it in the most interesting way?"

As you might expect with any active three-year-old, City Theatre is experiencing growing pains. In addition to the annual summer festival, the producers sponsor a year-round reading series, as well as a performance series that travels to schools and community centers. New this year is the KidShorts Project, which nurtures high school playwrights with readings and workshops.

What's next? The producers say they're thinking about taking the festival north to Broward and Palm Beach. According to Norman, "People keep saying, 'When are you going to do something longer than ten minutes?' It's an exciting problem to have."

Summer Shorts '98 continues through June 28 at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, University of Miami, 1380 Miller Dr, Coral Gables, 305-284-3605. Check Stage Listings for program times.

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