Dallas — When people hear the title One-Minute Play Festival, a first reaction might be that it sounds gimmicky. But if you talk to the event’s founder, Dominic D’Andrea, and read about how the festival has affected communities in the cities where it has appeared, it becomes clearer.
Kitchen Dog Theater is co-presenting the first Dallas One-Minute Play Festival, happening Aug. 16-18 (8 p.m. Saturday-Monday) at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. There will be nearly 60 plays—each running no longer than 60 seconds—by about 30 local playwrights.
The writers include Robin Armstrong, Robert Askins, Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Bruce R. Coleman, Michael Federico, John M. Flores, Lina Gallegos, Blake Hackler, William Jackson Harper, Isabella Russell Ides, Crystal Jackson, Jason Johnson-Spinos, Tim Johnson, Jim Kuenzer, Joshua Kumler, Jenny Ledel, Cody Lucas, Matt Lyle, Nico Martini, Brad McEntire, Jonathan Norton, Samantha Rios, Marco Antonio Rodriguez, Tom Sime, Jared Strange, Jeff Swearingen, Alia Tavakolian, Lee Trull and Angela Wilson. The directors include Spencer Driggers, Kelsey Head, Tim Johnson, Dylan Key, Nico Martini and Lee Trull, with about 50 actors involved.
The Saturday performance will be live-streamed on the website HowlRound.
D’Andrea, originally from the Washington, D.C. area, is a writer, director and dramaturg who founded the One-Minute Play Festival (#1MPF) nine years ago. It quickly became popular and expanded into other cities. There are now 22 cities presenting a festival throughout the year, with D’Andrea coming to each community to work with the local theater and the artists.
Cities that have had their first 1MPF in 2014 include Seattle, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and Anchorage, Alaska. After Dallas, Austin joins in.
D'Andrea considers himself a “community-engaged artist,” working as a producer in each city. “I feel like I have 20 co-workers with me in any given city,” he says. We chatted with him about the concept of the One-Minute Play Festival, its history and evolution, and the community impact.
TheaterJones: How did the One-Minute Play Festival become a national event?
Dominic D’Andrea: It’s a nine-year old organization; we’re going into our fifth year nationally. It was created as an annual event in New York, really just for fun. It became an artistic challenge for a community. When it got really popular in 2007 or ’08, we were asked to do a national tour where we would take about 50 plays and a company of actors around. We realized that one of the things that was not quite right about [touring the New York festival] was that it took the community element out of it.
I realized in that moment that what makes it special and important is that it’s by and about our community. We recalibrated. I wanted to go around and make it outside of my community, using writers, actors and directors in other cities. Then we started getting invited into other communities. It went from one to six to 10 cities, and now we’re at 22 national partnerships. When I started this it was for fun and we didn’t have any ambitions of what we’re doing now, so it grew organically.
10-minute plays have been around for a long time, but to your knowledge, had anyone done one-minute plays before as an event?
When I started it I didn’t know of anything like it, but years later we learned in the ‘70s it was played with in an academic setting. But our work isn’t based on that tradition. We looked at distilling it down to the moment of deep impact or change, but we learned over time that that is wrong. Our methodology now is about building up to that moment.
I think the main difference between this work and other types of work, and probably the reason why we’re so popular is that, yes, the plays are a minute long, but unlike 10-minute plays and one-acts and other forms where it’s very much about an individual writer, this work is so much about the group and what the group has to say.
How do you select the writers?
[Representatives from the organization co-presenting in each city] send a list of suggested playwrights. We ask them to think about the voices you think we should hear from, the important and diverse voices, the voices that are strong and indicative of your city. Especially in the first year we’re very reliant on our partners. Thirteen of the theaters we work with are National New Play Network (NNPN) theaters, like Kitchen Dog.
Do you give the writers guidelines for what to write about?
When we’re engaging these playwrights in Dallas and every city we go to, we don’t tell them what to write about. We look at the emerging scene and ideas and styles and trends that bubble up to the surface. We call this “The Barometer Project,” it’s about taking the community temperature. It’s also about investigating what’s in our zeitgeist.
What’s amazing is that in every city, in every year, many themes and ideas emerge that are connected. There are always five or six or 10 writers writing about one thing. Or four or five or seven different topics that are really unique to that place and time.
I ask them to consider the world around them, their city, their community, their neighborhood and the spheres they belong to and the lenses through which they view the world. We ask them to write moments that are relevant to them, to write whatever they want but consider where we are in your city. That way we get them thinking about the world rather than focus on being clever. We aim to be more topical than clever.
Are the themes that pop up usually related to local politics, or are there more universal themes?
It’s interesting what is and what isn’t. One theme that has come up in every city for the last two years, and it’s not one you might think of, is this idea of technology—the ways in which we communicate and our reliance on technology.
There are some universal themes: love, relationships and things of that nature. What’s so interesting is that more times than not the themes in the news and the trends that emerge are totally unique to that city and that place and time. Sometimes I have to do some research to see why these themes are emerging.
We just closed the second Philadelphia festival. Education funding was a big theme. Fifteen of the 90 plays in Philly were on the education topic, funding cuts and what the impact is on our youth. Some were humorous, some were serious. They all got to that topic in a different way.
What are some of the themes emerging from the Dallas writers?
In Dallas, there’s a lot of talk about race, about Spanish-speaking culture, about traffic. There’s stuff about love and marriage and particularly gay marriage and equal rights. There’s stuff about technology. There’s a little bit of focus on religion, which we don’t see in a lot of cities.
It’s interesting to see it on paper and even more so when we get there and dig into what it says about who we are. Also, what we’re not saying. What didn’t come up and what we’re not talking about can say something about who we are as well.
Do you give them pointers on how to structure a work this short, especially for writers who haven’t done this before?
Start with a word or idea or phrase or an image, some kind or core seed, and it’s about growing [that] up as opposed to saying every possible thing about it. Practice economy, make sure that your actions mean something, the direction means something, every word means something. It’s not about page counts. It’s not a literary challenge, it’s a theatrical challenge; the challenge to try to say something bigger with as few elements as possible.
Sometimes that’s accomplished on the page, sometimes the page is the starting point and where they get to in the creative or rehearsal process is where they land. Sometimes they can go through six drafts by the end of it. It’s harder than writing a 10-minute play where they have more freedom in terms of time. The whole thing is not a time challenge as much as it is a means to say something.
The methodology we have is about building up, not about cramming in. It’s not about hitting the clock at 60 seconds and rushing through this thing, it’s about including only what is necessary to make this suggestion about the world. How do we do it in a way that feels relaxed so the actors can craft it and we understand it so it creates a moment of impact. It might say something about the wider world that’s beyond the framework of the play itself.
Are there specifics about number of cast members, or use of set pieces, costumes and props?
Demands are simple. Four chairs, some props and costumes. That’s logistics. It’s more about what’s in the zeitgeist and the bigger challenges.
I’d guess you see a range of styles, with some that don’t use dialogue at all.
Yes, but the ones [in Dallas] are pretty dialogue-heavy. Also, and I don’t know what this says, but Dallas has some of the shortest plays we’ve ever received, like four or five words. Like really short.
What is the transition between each play, like one or two seconds?
Yes. It’s a little blink-out; a bump of a light is the changeover. The aesthetic of this work is like 60 pulses of storytelling, like a pulse or heartbeat. It’s about establishing a rhythm.
For cities and playwrights that have done this before, does it get easier to learn in the second and subsequent years?
Oh hell yes. It’s a different way of working, and what’s interesting about it is it’s an ultimate leveling of the playing field artistically. No one has done this, so no one can be an expert. Whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned writer, everyone has the same set of circumstances to achieve success. And that’s really cool. Ultimately I think if you’re a good writer, your work is going to shine whether it’s a minute or 10 minutes. I used to think it would be different, like maybe a really good writer could suck at this, but that’s not true. If you’re good, you’re good.
Do most theaters, once they have done it once, want to do it again?
Yes. The value of this is evident. Theaters have limited resources, with four or five productions a year. In any given city, there are 10 times as many local playwrights as there are means for production and engagement. We get to engage 30 to 50 playwrights, sometimes as much as 60 playwrights. Most of these writers wouldn’t get a chance to work with these theaters under other circumstances. It’s a chance for these artists to occupy the space, to cross-pollinate with other artists, to show their work. Sometimes we see playwrights who find each other and work with each other later [on other projects]. That’s something we’re immensely proud of.
Also, part of the money goes toward community engagement. Kitchen Dog is using this money to fund their PUP [Playwrights Under Progress, seen each year at the New Works Festival in collaboration with Junior Players] program. In Philly we help fund the Philadelphia New Play Initiative. In those ways we leave room for artists to engage throughout the year.