Wham, Bam, Thank You, Folks
By June 28, the end of its third season, City Theatre's Summer Shorts festival will have put on 48 new plays on its main stage, about three times the number of productions of your average professional company. In fact, as you read this, fifteen premieres of blackout sketches, comic monologues, and oddball slices of life are unfolding in rapid succession in the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. This year alone, those works tackle death, baseball, and airline reservations, among other subjects. (There's even an edgy reworking of The Taming of the Shrew.) Each weekend, the festival sells dozens of picnic dinners to shorts-clad theatergoers who want to eat pasta between programs. But, in the end, how will the 1998 season be remembered? Call it the year that City Theatre producers turned down plays by Tony Kushner and Christopher Durang.
Not that the festival producers aren't looking for big names. In place of works by the illustrious playwrights behind Angels in America and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, this year's roster features short plays -- clocking in at five to twenty minutes -- by veteran playwright Michael Weller (Moonchildren); Obie winner and TV writer Jose Rivera (Eerie, Indiana); and Neena Beber, a Miami native and Humana Festival participant whose latest output includes scripts for the hip, animated MTV sitcom Daria.
What's happened over the past three summers, says Westchester, New York-based playwright Staci Swedeen -- whose comedy Final Fitting is the third of her works produced by Summer Shorts -- is that word of mouth about the little theater festival in Coral Gables is spreading. "If you talk to [the producers]," she says, "the first year they were saying, 'Please send us something.' Now, they're inundated." Indeed, the number of submissions has grown from about 300 in 1996 to more than 500 this year. (Almost 50 works have already been submitted for next year's season.)
This year's windfall includes the drama If Susan Smith Could Talk by Elaine Romero, a recent recipient of the TCG/Pew National Theatre Arts fellowship, and a play by Adam Goldberg and Ben Zelivanksy, a comedy team whose credits include participation in the Sundance Playwrights Lab (Goldberg) and a stint writing for Late Night With David Letterman (Zelivansky).
City Theatre got its start in 1996 when playwright Susan Westfall, Colony Theater manager Stephanie Norman, and actor-director Elena Wohl wanted an alternative to the strictures of working in a conventional theater setting. "We didn't want to get locked into a season or a space. We wanted our mission to be the discovery of new work and a new audience," says Norman. The trio -- freelance director Gail Garrisan came aboard as artistic director last year, after Wohl departed -- enlists the resources of the University of Miami theater department along with a phalanx of South Florida actors, directors, and technical people, all of whom get together for four weeks each summer to produce a passel of short but fully staged plays.
Why short plays? Originally, City Theatre wanted to showcase as many world and Florida premieres as it could in a limited period of time. By happy coincidence -- not to mention keen marketing savvy -- the group found itself in the middle of a craze for ten-minute plays. "It's a national trend," says playwright Swedeen. "It's a way that writers get to work and actors get to work, and audiences love it."
Most pundits point to the success of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Ten-Minute Play Contest as the starting point for the shorts trend. Playwright Rivera, whose play Cloud Tectonics is currently running at the New Theatre in Coral Gables -- concurs. "Since the Louisville festival is at such a prominent theater, [the ten-minute idea] catches on," he says. New York's Ensemble Theatre, Los Angeles' MET Theatre, and the Source Theatre in Washington, D.C., are just a few places that also offer one-act or shorts festivals.
"People seem interested in the form right now," says playwright Beeber. "I don't know if it's shorter attention spans or the variety they provide." Noting that shorts are popular with playwrights, too, Beeber points out, "There's something very economical about the form. They're fun to write." For one thing, "It's more like a poem. You don't have to sustain it."
Rivera agrees, adding, "Sketch comedy is big in this country because of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color. One-acts come from a long tradition." Not all the works in Summer Shorts are comic, admits Rivera, who also likes the writing challenge associated with pintsize plays. He says they have writers asking themselves: "'Can I tell a full story in ten minutes? Can I demonstrate the depth of character?' It forces you to use muscles you wouldn't use [in a longer piece]."
As short plays earn more cachet and City Theatre is able to get choosier each year, playwrights are starting to look at the South Florida festival as a legitimate outfit. "What's interesting," says Norman, "is that the playwrights are starting to get us. A lot of their plays have an initial life at the Actors Theatre [of Louisville]. Then they have a half-life as staged readings. When these playwrights come in from New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, they see what we do and that we're not in a storefront. These are [productions with] Equity actors. [The playwrights] get a royalty -- not only when we do it in the theater, but when we bring it to the schools. And what happens is they start sending us stuff."
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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