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April 27, 2006

From Page to Stage: The Ten Minute Year


As the academic year ends, students at area high schools, Dell'Arte, CR and Humboldt State are presenting the fruits of their learning in theatre, music and dance on public stages. Perhaps the most complete exercise in creating new theatre will be the culmination of a year-long process, when the eighth annual Festival of Ten Minute Plays at HSU begins this weekend.

I am now honor-bound to say that Margaret Thomas Kelso, the originator and coordinator of this event, and the head of the HSU Dramatic Writing Program, is also my partner. But that's just scratching the surface of journalistic disclosure. We actually met at a theatre conference held in conjunction with the Carnegie Mellon Showcase of New Plays. We both had ten-minute plays produced as members of a playwrights group in Pittsburgh, and Margaret directed a short play I wrote, with two wonderful CMU student actors (including Maduka Steady, who's since had a New York theatre career and a prominent role in the feature film Lorenzo's Oil).

Here's how the process works at HSU: Students in advanced and beginning playwriting courses in the fall term write ten-minute plays, talk about them, and rewrite them several times. Around Thanksgiving, faculty members select scripts for the festival (nine this year) and those students continue working on them in the spring term. In the middle of the semester, directors are matched with scripts and actors audition, and writers keep working on scripts through rehearsals. There is some staging and lighting for performance, but only what's essential to express the material.

This playwright-centered process was pioneered at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut. One of the great experiences of my life was observing how it worked for several weeks one summer, and becoming part of that temporary yet recurrent and close-knit community. Spending hours talking and hanging out with August Wilson, one of the greatest of American playwrights, and Lloyd Richards, a legendary director and the Zen Master of the O'Neill Center, as well as meeting young playwrights who have since become important figures in theatre, television and film, only begins to suggest the privilege of that experience. But I definitely learned the value and integrity of a process that's centered on the playwright and the play, but with contributions from everyone.

Because plays are not meant to stay on the page. It takes many people with different skills to make the leap: the director, searching for a shape and structure, designers who need to know how it should look and actors who have to be those words and actions. At its best, the questions confronting the playwright lead to moments like this: August Wilson had a character, a white Chicago cop, say something the actor playing him didn't think a Chicago cop would say. "What would he say?" August asked him. "Something like, `Look buddy, if you want it in a nutshell... '" Check the printed text of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and that line is there.

At HSU, the festival playwrights go through a similar process. "They have the opportunity to see their plays in three dimensions. They see their characters actually embodied," Kelso said. But the emphasis at all times is on the script: How it works to make the magic. "This is the heart of the process, and why it is so important. These are the essential skills that are needed to keep theatre alive. We need theatre that is still growing and reflecting our lives."

The final step is performance and the response of audiences, who get to participate in the creation of something new, and see what's on the minds of students this year. And if they don't like the one they're watching, they can wait ten minutes for another.

There's usually a mix of comedy and drama, realism and fantasy, as there appears to be this spring. Even the styles can say something different each year: the festival a few years back featured some dull dramas but exhilarating comedies -- that class had a real feel for comedy in performance as well as writing.

The ten minute play is a fairly new and still evolving form, which at its best "captures a peak moment," Kelso said. "It's usually the moment of change in a story." She uses this form for teaching purposes because all the reexamining and rewriting would be too unwieldy with plays of greater length. "But it's an excellent way for students to really work through the process," Kelso said. "A lot of universities don't teach these skills."

One of this year's writers showed me several drafts of his play, and it's fascinating to see how much can be improved in such a short form. Writers also don't get this kind of respect for their work very often, which is why even established playwrights loved the O'Neill. Margaret is proud of this program at HSU, and so am I.

The HSU Festival of Ten Minute Plays runs April 27-29 and May 4-6 at 8 p.m. in the Gist Theatre. It's free. Also coming up: Humboldt Light Opera Company and College of the Redwoods present the musical drama Jane Eyre, April 28-May 13, at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees on May 7 and 14 at 2 p.m. at the CR Forum Theater. (445-4310.) Laughter, the clown performance by Dell'Arte's first year students, runs April 28-29 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre (668-5663.) A benefit for Clowns Without Borders, ("sending expeditions of laughter to children worldwide") by Rudi Galindo and a host of other local performers, rollicks at the Arcata Dancenter on Saturday, May 6, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. (845-5842). The Klamath Theatre Project, a group with Native and non-Native participants, presents a workshop production of their docudrama Salmon is Forever, on May 5, 6, and 7 at 7 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at HSU. It's free, with discussion afterwards.


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