For theatre folk, five-, four-, and three-act plays are terrific to read, ponder, and discuss, but given the economic climate, hard to produce, especially Off-Off-Broadway and beyond. This explains the growing appeal of one-act play festivals and why playwrights—and actors, directors, and artistic directors—are mining the form for everything it's got.
Economically, there are obvious advantages to such festivals. From Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon series to the Actors Theatre of Louisville's National Ten-Minute Play Contest, from the Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Original Short Play Festival to groups commissioning short, theme-based plays, they are cheaper (if still logistically challenging) to produce. But there's more at work here than dollars and sense; there's the content of one-acts and their enduring appeal.
More and more companies, in fact, are mounting one-act festivals due to their content, not their cost. Circle East, the not-for-profit successor to the Circle Rep Lab, is presenting seven world premieres in its 11-play "First Light" festival, with subjects ranging from politics to murder to the flapdoodles of the rich and fancy. Tangent Theatre Company is pulling out all the stops with its six-play "Subway Series," which uses the world of the underground for inspiration, not gimmickry. Looking westward, the Chicago-based Bailiwick's 15th annual Directors Festival may be showcasing one-acts about the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience, but the works are aiming for universality.
Artistic directors, moreover, are keenly aware of the pitfalls of theme-based one-act festivals and are working to ensure audiences can enjoy a theatrical smorgasbord.
"I never thought we'd produce a one-act festival like 'Subway Series' because I thought there had to be a sense of connection between each play," says Michael Rhodes, co-artistic director of Tangent Theatre Company. "To me, 'theme plays' run the risk of self-consciousness—this year, one-acts about the subway; next year, one-acts about buses. Gimmicks don't work, and our goal has been to make theatre that's wholly original."
And all the plays in "Subway Series"—running May 28-June 14 at the WorkShop Theater Company—are, in fact, quite distinct. In Craig Pospisil's "The Subway," a tourist asks for downtown directions and a gaggle of Gotham's most garrulous offer an earful. Contrast that with P. Seth Bauer's "Silent Piece," a dialogueless work in which the story is told only through body language and physical suggestion.
"The tone is the thing," says Rhodes. "As opposed to, 'oh look at the wacky things that happen on the subway.' The only thing that binds these plays is, maybe, a yearning for connections between people—or maybe the disconnections."
There's even less in common between the plays in Circle East's "First Light," running June 12-29 at Chashama.
"When we were still Circle Rep Lab," recalls Artistic Director Michael Warren Powell, "we always received criticism for our selection of materials—basically, we tried producing three times the number of plays an audience or a company can reasonably do. This time, we asked our directors to select the plays, asking only that they have what I call a 'truthfulness of characterization.' Beyond that, they're not thematically linked."
Which is an understatement: The 11 plays run in a two-program rep, and are all over the map in terms of subject matter. The result is that each evening sports highs and lows, from Craig Lucas' "Your Call Is Important to Me," about "spiritual enlightening achieved through road rage," to Anastasia Traina's "Mermaids on the Hudson" with its bevy of cultural references. The one-act, Powell says, allows quirky writing styles to flourish—like Lawrence Harvey Schulman's "The Fuqua, Slone, Reisenglass Appraisal," in which a man questions his sanity while visiting a psychiatrist.
The influence of directors on the play selection process isn't an anomaly, either, it seems. Just ask David Zak, artistic director of Bailiwick Repertory.
"Our Directors Festival has always been a great place for new voices to be discovered, but that's the director's voice," Zak says. "This year, we chose themes for our series, shifting the focus slightly to the playwright." Bailiwick, for example, created the "With Music or Without Words" series, devoted to short musical or movement-based works. The Directors Festival, meanwhile, is embedded with "Chicago Works," which ran in January and February and celebrates Windy City writers, and the "Translations/Adaptations" series, which ran in April. The final segment of the Directors Festival—15 short plays called "GLBT Briefs"—runs July 7-30.
"For the last part of the Directors Festival we wanted one-acts about the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender world—it's one of our main missions and we have a huge stack of scripts. We wanted directors familiar with what's coming in—to use those stacks like a library and to let them discover the one-acts they most want to do." (Zak says playwrights can still submit to Bailiwick, but their work will more likely be slotted with a director "attached.")
Yet even with the one-acts sharing sensibilities, Zak strongly maintains the works transcend sexuality as a subject. "No one wanted a festival about boys in their underwear…and I think these plays have moved well beyond that." The works range from Inge and Albee classics to a new take on Molière to plays by regionally recognized dramatists, such as Linda Eisenstein and Ron Nyswaner.
"One-acts let you see how much talent there is, how well crafted something is, even if it's 10 minutes long," Zak concludes. "Even if it's your only shot as a playwright or director, if it's a perfect 10 minutes, it's better than 45 minutes that never gets anywhere. It's the magic that is the one-act play."
For a listing of where to send one-acts, see page 34.