Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Inspiration and the Pulse behind the One-Minute Play Festival

"The collective voice is the thing we’re really trying to get to the core of

So how did you come
to create the One-Minute Play Festival?

I worked with a theater company in Brooklyn, which I’m a still a member of, and we were asked to be part of a national short form theater festival at a big institutional theater in New York, which I respect very much. The idea was that everybody was going to come in from different places to collaborate, and it was sort of about this idea of radical inclusion, the idea that people were going to collaborate and be in this uncomfortable environment and force conversation and see each other work from boldly, wildly different perspectives, and I felt like it was a great idea.

And I felt like the reality of it for me, as I spent a lot of time working on this short form theater festival and getting to work at an institution that I’ve always loved, was that I didn’t learn anything. I didn’t meet anybody. I didn’t have any mind-blowing conversations. I didn’t see anybody’s work that inspired me. It was kind of disappointing. It was more of a PR stunt than an actual community event. Maybe that was my experience and other people didn’t feel that way, clearly other people didn’t, but I felt cheated out of what I had invested in. And I thought, ‘man, I think I can do a better job of creating a sense of community and I’m just this nobody kid’.

That was five years ago. Around that time, there was a class being offered called, ‘How to Make a Well Made Ten-Minute Play’, and a bunch of us were kind of married to this conversation that the culture of ten-minute play festivals kind of sucked. Most of the time, you’re either asked to write something, or as a director, someone will ask you to direct this random festival, and email you somebody’s random play, and you go off and find people and rehearse it, and bring it in, and the room is a culture of people that don’t know each other necessarily. Or, above and beyond that, they don’t have a clear goal for why they’re in that space together, and the culture of it ends up feeling like whose play is the better ten-minute play.

It also feels like a redundant process for young artists to be caught in again and again, and somebody was saying you’re watching ten ten-minute plays, or basically a hundred minutes of work, and there’s only a minute of those plays that are the thing that you’re waiting to see, and I kind of had a light-bulb (moment) based on that earlier experience being part of that festival and this conversation, and I was like, ‘oh, I get it. Why don’t we try to make a festival about those minutes of a ten-minute play?’

Cut to a month later, we were asking every playwright who we thought was good to experiment, and to look at the ten-minute play form, and distill it down to a single moment. I had no idea what was going to happen. It was a total experiment. We had no idea if anyone was going to show up, or what the deal was, and it ended up being so successful that year.

This was at the Brick?

Yeah, 2007 – we came in and there were so many actors that we literally had to keep the actors for the second part of the evening in the bar across the street and in intermission do a switch-over. Most of the playwrights showed up because they were curious. Some people thought it was a great idea. Some people thought it was a terrible idea, but everyone wanted to see what it was about, and we had seven or eight really good directors.

It really was a community event, and there was nothing at stake other than the possibility of seeing what this was. And that year not every play was admitted. We were new to the form so we didn’t have any examples of it, but it really was an inspiring event that brought people together. Everybody hung out and drank, and it really felt like a strong sense of community, and that day we decided we were going to do it again, so immediately it became an annual tradition.

Cut to a few years later, it started to get really popular. After the third incarnation, we kept moving to bigger theaters and after the third year at Here Arts Center, Kristin Marting (pictured left) from Here gave us a grant so we could be a part of their programming, which was really lovely, and was sort of like a step up from being an independent thing to part of a more legitimate structure, and it was really great for the festival.

Then I started getting interest from regional theater companies, and this one theater in particular was like, ‘pick fifty of your best plays and come up here and do like a month-long run under a LORT contract’, and I was like, ‘that’s really exciting’. It sort of became legitimate and I started planning it but it didn’t feel right, and so again, all the stuff I learned from the Lark and from other things I’ve been a part of - and I went back and thought, ‘ok, what’s the goal? Why do I do this and what’s exciting?’

I sort of went back to the basic idea of why we started this event which was to create a really inclusive community event, and if we’re not creating a community event, then what are we doing? We’re not in it to make productions, so it dawned on me that if I was to go around and tour these works, I would have to sort of bottle the lightening of what made it exciting and make this work with the artists and the playwrights in that particular town so that they have an opportunity to have a creative center.

So I started working on a unique partnership model where I started partnering with theaters, and right away people at the Playwrights Foundation were like, ‘you gotta come here!’ and a theater in L.A. that I was affiliated with was like, ‘you gotta come here and do this’. So I started partnering with theaters that either had a community-specific mission or a playwrights-based mission, or institutional theaters that have programming that specifically supported playwrights.

I started switching to this model where these theaters would hire me as a conceptual artist to come in and create a festival with their community to benefit these specific programs that immediately gave back to their communities.

So we’re saying to the playwright, ‘hey you’re writing a play for us, and you’re gifting your time, and the money and the energy and the scope of the festival is about the efficacy of what this group does and the proceeds are going – minus what it costs to produce the festival – back to their programs, so it feeds their community’.

I started in Los Angeles last year, with a company called East L.A. Rep, and I’ll tack on to that another company that I worked with which was Cornerstone and Michael Garces – they are the largest, quote unquote, community-based theater in the country, and they are an amazing organization that has an entire methodology devoted to what it means to work with people in communities.

That festival was about working in Boyle Heights in East LA, a very sort of under-served but vibrant community, that doesn’t have a lot of arts organizations and this one company was granted a space from the city and it was taken away from them, and they had to go to court to fight to get this space back, and I thought wouldn’t it be a great idea to do the festival as a kick-off for their community space, so we did.

The result of that was about ninety plays by sixty playwrights in LA; at least half of those plays were by Latino playwrights; a good quarter of those plays were in Spanish; and we had 65 actors; more than half of them were over the age of forty; more than half of them weren’t white, and it was a completely different experience than what we did in New York. It had a local identity and it sold out.

It was exactly like what happened in the first year of the festival. It was kinda sloppy, like the first year in New York, but you have to remember that these theaters haven’t done it before, so every time you ask someone to make a one-minute play for the first time, or write it for the first time, it’s like starting from square one back in 2007, but that’s ok because you have to let every theater that wants to invest in this project sort of discover what it is, and give them a chance to grow it in their way, so it’s a lot of patience in that regard.

Immediately the next weekend, we went to San Francisco and partnered with the Playwrights Foundation which is a really similar organization to the Lark. It’s a playwrights’ service organization, and we did the festival to benefit their member programming so it supported their core playwrights and their community playwrights that are a part of their theater initiative, and that was about forty playwrights, and that festival was really, really unique. They’ve already committed to having the festival back for years to come, as is L.A., so those festivals are going to be continuing.

The third festival, I did was in New Jersey with the New Brunswick Theater Festival, which is a small organization that works with youth communities and prison communities and does Shakespeare and educational programming with populations of people that may not have access to that kind of education or opportunity in that region of New Jersey.

The festival was also very different than the one in New York. I was concerned that it would be too similar to New York because its close proximity, but New Jersey has its own culture, and a lot of this work is about discovering the culture of what every city is.

After that, we did Victory Gardens in Chicago which was our biggest festival. We did a hundred and one plays by close to seventy playwrights on the main stage of the Biograph and to me, Chicago, as a jaded New Yorker, is the best theater city in the United States. They were so enthusiastic. The festival was awesome. They just got it. And this year we’re going back to all of those places and a bunch of new places too. So the festival has almost doubled in size a year – including this year which is benefiting the Einhorn School of Performing Arts.

How did the collaboration between Espa/Primary Stages and the One-Minute Play Festival come about?

Tessa and I just talked. I know the staff pretty well and she wanted to do it. I think ESPA is the most unique theater school in New York. Tessa LaNeve has taken a bunch of random classes and turned it into an institution within an institution, and I get the sense that people that are buying in there really feel like they have a home, and they serve their community in the way that other organizations I’ve partnered with have, and they’re growing, and they have really clear goals, and it just seemed like the natural place to partner.

The culture of that theater is very friendly, and I will say that top to bottom, including their artistic director Andrew Leynse, who is directing for it, and Elliot Fox, who is really exciting about it, and the whole staff, has really taken ownership of the project as much as I have. They’ve supported this project as part of their programming and it’s exactly what I had hoped to do with the festival, which is not to impose but to absorb.


I want to absorb the culture of the institution and the community that I’m working in. So just being careful in the way you program, and the way you word things, and who you think about including and why you’re including people. And to listen, a lot of listening to their concerns about what the institution and the artists want to say about the festival.

It’s also important to know that I don’t give the writers any thematic guidelines whatsoever. I think about the festival as kind of like an artistic core sample, like I ask everyone to write from this place of structure so the idea is that the plays will allow themselves to build, so the esthetic of the evening is ninety - or however many plays there are - little pulses of story-telling, but the collective voice is the thing we’re really trying to get to the core of, and every single time, many, many themes emerge.

So what I try to do is look at the landscape of the plays and group them, or clump them based on what’s being said or not. I’m trying to honor or respect what the collective voice is, if at all - and sometimes it’s very hard - and sometimes it’s very apparent, but what I’ve noticed is that the themes that have emerged in every city and in every theater culture around the country have never repeated themselves, so every incarnation of the festival is about something else, and that to me says a lot about the nature of local theater making and what is happening city to city.

My theory is that instead of theater sort of thinking about reaching far, I think theater needs to act and think locally. Someone said to me the other day, ‘you’re kind of like a theatrical localvore’ and I do think that theater has to serve your immediate community. I think if you want to be very broad, you should go to film and television. I think that people are starting to get it, that theater is about what is happening in that place and in that moment and the festival is certainly a snapshot of ideas that are about that place and that moment and that’s just what it is.

The One-Minute Play Festival is Sunday October 16th at 2 and 7pm at 59E59. For information and tickets, come hither. In honor of the 5th Annual New York One-Minute Play Festival, the OMPF asked some of its favorite alumni playwrights to "live-write" several short plays over the course of the evening, which will be performed by actors in real time at the Brick, Friday Oct 14th.

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