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Short Stack The Summer Shorts Festival Piles on the Plays
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

They might seem slight next to four-hour epics or ten-part cycles, but short plays can be exhilarating. Before he wrote Our Town, for instance, Thornton Wilder perfected his experimental style with brief, brilliant pieces like Pullman Car Hiawatha, and for every Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett wrote a miniature masterpiece like Footfalls. And then there are playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy (Funnyhouse of a Negro), who have built their entire careers on one-acters, demonstrating that a show can be unforgettable in no time at all.

Still, it rarely makes sense to produce a short work by itself. Why go through the trouble for a quarter evening of theater? That's why short play festivals are such a boon: They not only support an important dramatic form, but also let audiences discover multiple works in one sitting.

Take Summer Shorts 3, the third annual short play festival mounted by producers J.J. Kandel and John McCormack. Opening on July 24 at 59E59 Theaters, the festival will alternate two evenings of four pieces each, and the featured writers will range from established pros like Neil LaBute to promising upstarts like solo performance artist Nancy Giles.

The work itself is just as diverse. The Eternal Anniversary, a romantic musical about a hotel chef in 1913, plays on the same bill (Series A) as LaBute's dark drama A Second of Pleasure. Meanwhile, Series B features a romantic comedy, a revenge tragedy, and a little-known drama by William Inge.

"As an audience member, it's liberating," says McCormack. "I love seeing something from a writer that's different from what I expect, and if I don't like what I'm seeing, then I just have to wait a few minutes for the next play to start."

He adds, "You try to present things that are complementary to each other without being repetitive. We're trying to give the audience a wide sampling. We want them to feel like they've gotten a full evening of entertainment and that maybe they've gotten a broad look at what's happening in the theater right now."

Short plays aren't only enticing for audiences, however. "I hear from writers all the time that the form is difficult," McCormack says. "They have to solve a lot of problems---all the problems that you have in a full-length play, really, about storytelling and relationships---but they have to do it in such a brief time. It can be really exciting, and it can free a writer to experiment and take more chances, because you don't have the pressure of crafting a massive play."

McCormack is arguably a leading expert on mounting short plays in New York. Along with producing Summer Shorts, he also serves as vice chairman of the board for Ensemble Studio Theatre, which has been producing an annual marathon of one acts for over thirty years. That experience led to his philosophy on how to design a successful festival. "You don't want to create an environment where people are in competition," he says. "You don't want everyone saying, 'Mine's better.' You want people to root for each other, and making that happen is an attitude thing from the top down. You don't want to put too much pressure on anyone, and you want people to know that getting out there and trying something new should actually feel easier because there are all these other artists around to support you."

Ideally, of course, artists won't feel competitive during a festival like Summer Shorts, since they're all getting their work seen. McCormack notes, "In an era of diminished opportunity, it's nice when you can support eight playwrights with your dough instead of just one."
Author: Mark Blankenship
Mark Blankenship has written for The New York Times, Variety, The Village Voice, and many others. He also edits The Critical Condition, an award-winning pop-culture criticism blog. (www.thecriticalcondition.com)