Friday, August 22, 2003

So little time: And so much to do

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This year, maybe there won’t be a car accident. Leaving town after last year’s ≤15 Minute Festival, host, headliner, and general name-recognition-lender Margot Kidder broke her pelvis when her SUV rolled over after hitting some rough pavement.

But Kidder, who still struggles to overcome the fact that she is best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman movies, will be back this year to host the second annual festival, to be held in Belfast next Thursday through Saturday, August 21 through 23.

This year’s seven winners, whose short plays will be performed as the main portion of the festival, include two repeats from last year, Bill Lattanzi of Brandeis University, and Tim Collins, who lives in Belfast but will soon be moving to Portland. Two Mainers, J. Emrich Sharks of Brewer and Amy Robbins of Belfast, also were among the 12 runners-up, and will have their plays performed in staged readings on August 23 during the day.

There is also a new festival overture, composed by Blue Hill resident and world-renowned musician Paul Sullivan.

It is the theater, however, and not the music or the star power, that really drives the festival. "We got so many more scripts, and the quality of the scripts was so much higher" this year than last, says David Patrick Stucky, one of the festival’s founders and mainstays. In fact, the number of submissions, 220, was three times more than last year. Grants and donations were enough to pay the actors and give each winning playwright a check for $100. Stucky knows it’s not much, but says it’s a start.

This year’s theme, "Unstill Life: Moments of Change and Transformation," is a fitting topic for today’s world. The winning plays include a monologue about a woman facing a "death sentence" medical diagnosis, a film noir–style piece, one based on a short story, and an Armageddon-type play. The length constraint means they represent inklings of "life with all the boring bits taken out," Stucky says.

This includes Collins’ work, Puzzles, based on an experience he had in downtown Belfast, where he works part-time in a toy store. He was at work when the Iraq war started, and he was trying to gather as much news as he could, switching from radio station to radio station, tuning in the TV, and trying to be an information sponge, all the while selling children’s toys. This was complicated, he says, by the fact that there was a protest going on outside.

Antiwar and anti-antiwar protestors would stop into the store, injecting their political moods into an environment where Collins was ringing up Thomas the Tank Engine sets on the cash register. "There was so much incongruity, so much weirdness," Collins says.

The antiwar crowd would talk about war as a silly way to stop violence, while others would suggest that those leftist folks had driven to the rally using Middle Eastern oil. "Everyone has a point, but everyone’s a little absurd," Collins says. And he started taking notes, which have turned into Puzzles.

"There’s a huge range of subject matter," Stucky says. The theme of change is the limiting factor this year, drawing some focus into what could be a colossally diverse set of pieces.

The actors now rehearsing for their, well, 15 minutes of festival fame, include not only the over-busy Stucky, but also two disabled actors, who will play disabled characters. The festival’s evening shows will be staged at the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped. The organization advocates that disabled characters be played by disabled people, and when two of the winning scripts fit the bill, it seemed like a perfect match, Stucky says.

The runners-up aren’t being ignored, either: The Newburyport Players are rehearsing some of them for the staged readings; other groups will perform the rest. "They’re getting the kind of attention that they deserve," Stucky says.

What’s more, most of the authors of these glimpses of life will be at the festival to see their work performed. They will be among the beneficiaries of what Stucky laughingly terms the festival’s efforts toward "saving the theater audience" from over-extended performances. Some playwrights put together a great 15-minute piece, but then write more, to fit the more conventional molds of one-acts or full shows, he says.

Collins agrees. "Some pieces just are what they are," he says. "I think the piece finds its own length." They can be made to "fit in" a bit better, though: Collins’ winning piece last year, Dateline, was incorporated into a solo show made up of several monologues.

The festival itself is in the process of being reworked slightly, to "fit in" better with the lives of the people who run it.

The timetable will be accelerated — next year’s theme will be announced during this year’s festival, and the deadline for script submissions will be February 15, 2004 — and there is a fundraising drive on to allow Stucky and Brown to take time off from their regular jobs next summer to coordinate the festival, instead of fitting it around their existing responsibilities. "We were racing to keep up the whole time, and we still are," Stucky says.

They want to raise enough to hire professional Equity actors to headline the show, though most parts will still be cast locally. Being with top-caliber actors "raises your own awareness of what your own potential is," Stucky says.

Stucky says, "I’d like this to be inspirational for anybody who gets involved."

Collins is already there: "I want to be involved as long as it’s in existence."

The ≤15 Minute Festival runs Aug. 21 through 23 at the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, in Belfast. Winning plays are performed in the evenings (tickets $15); runners-up get staged readings (free admission) during the day on Saturday at the Belfast Maskers Theatre on the waterfront. Call (207) 338-1615 or visit


• Mad Horse Theatre Company has two new members: actor Craig Bowden and stage manager/production manager Darci LaFayette. Both have worked on a number of Mad Horse productions in the past couple of years and are now part of the full team.

• Attention ACAT, PSC Studio Theater, and anybody else whose furniture makes audiences feel the pain: Free theater seats are available from Arts Conservatory Theater and Studio (100+ seats, and 20 mounting platforms, (207) 761-2465), and Penobscot Theatre Company (132 seats, (207) 947-6618).