The Minnesota Shorts Play Festival drew about 50 submissions its first year.
Last year, organizers received 123 short play submissions. This year, more than 400 submissions came in from around the country, Australia and Israel.
Among the selected playwrights are Mark Harvey Levine -- a well-known writer who has some 800 productions to his credit -- and Jamie Pachino, a Los Angeles writer for the TV show “Barely Legal.” There’s popular local playwrights like Tom Barna, Greg Abbott and Mitch DeDeyn as well as unknown names like St. Paul’s Ellie Schmidt, who wrote a play about the history of cubicles.
The short play festival will be held Sept. 6-7 at Mankato West High School.
Local, state voices
As organizer and North Mankato playwright Greg Abbott noted, the festival includes 17 plays -- all 15 minutes or less -- from writers both local and national.
Included are plays from well-known Minnesota entities like Adam Sharp, the co-founder of Twin Cities-based Box Wine Theatre; and Katherine Glover, whose 2012 Fringe Festival submission earned spectacular reviews. Event organizer Greg Abbott called Glover’s “The Party” -- about a socially awkward youth who throws a party after his parent’s urging to have friends over -- one of the “real gems” of the festival.
There are also a handful of local playwrights who are participating, including Abbott, whose play, “Vultures,” is based on the Pulitzer-winning photograph taken by Kevin Carter that depicts a Sudanese toddler crumpled outside a feeding station with a vulture lurking nearby. Carter committed suicide a year later. The play has been produced on the East Coast, but never in Minnesota.
Eagle Lake’s Tom Barna, who publishes under the name tdbarna, submitted “Now It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry,” a drama on body image that stars high school junior Cynthia Riebesell as director and a middle-aged man (Kevin Mock) in the lead female role.
And Minnesota State University graduate Mitch DeDeyn’s play “First Date Frappe,” about a mixed-race blind date punctuated with awkward boasts and awkward pauses, stars Tracy Stokes and Free Press staff photographer Pat Christman in lead roles.
“These are the first leading roles for both of them,” said Tim Berry, who is directing DeDeyn’s piece. “They’ve both been delightful to work with.”
Abbott noted that many of the plays feature actors and directors pulled from local colleges and performance groups.
“That’s what I really like,” he said. “MSU, Bethany (Lutheran College), Merely Players Community Theater, Mankato Mosaic -- we can bring all these theatre groups together to showcase our own talent.”
Mark Harvey Levine is a seemingly prodigious Los Angeles-based playwright who has been a regular participant in the four-year history of the play festival.
Though Mankato might seem an out-of-the-way destination for national playwrights, Paul Hustoles said the contrary is true. The chair of the Minnesota State University Department of Theatre and Dance is directing Levine’s submission for the third straight year and said the festival has already gained coast-to-coast recognition.
“There’s not that many play festivals in the country,” said Hustoles, who is also directing a second play from Rich Orloff, who is also a nationally known playwright with roughly as many production credits as Levine. “This one does have a national reputation.”
Levine’s “Misfortune” concerns a date between a man and woman at a Chinese restaurant. One receives consistently good fortunes; the other, all negative. The seeming simplicity of the plot, Levine said in an email, belies the density of a 10- or 15-minute play.
“It’s freeing in the sense that since it’s just 10 minutes, you can afford to experiment. You can have the characters be insects or crayons. You can have them speak in verse. You can kill off everyone,” he wrote. “And it's limiting -- but in a good way. Writing a 10-minute play forces you to be concise. There's no room for padding. Every word counts. You have to get right to it.”
New to the festival this year is Jamie Pachino, a writer for the USA Network TV series “Fairly Legal.” Though she began her career as a dancer and actress, she discovered writing was more appealing. She’s written several full-length episodes of “Fairly Legal” as well as a smattering of TV movies and plays. Her submission, a comedy titled “Status Update,” opens with a couple in bed, the woman preparing to change her Facebook status to “in a relationship.”
Pachino said her piece is a lighthearted take on this generation’s equivalent of getting pinned, or going steady.
“I want to know what the conversation was beforehand,” said Pachino, who learned about Mankato’s play festival online. “I’m absolutely thrilled to be included.”
The unknown quantity
Part of the allure of such a play festival -- both for participants and attendants -- is discovering new talent.
One participant that might fit that mold is Ellie Schmidt, a St. Paul writer who is having her first-ever production in the festival.
“The Creation of the Cubicle” is a fictionalized retelling of the factual circumstances that led to the invention of the cubicle. Before writing the play, Schmidt researched the history and then boiled it down to an interaction between two office workers -- one ambitious, the other lackadaisical -- who are trying to find an idea for an office furniture expo.
“People always say, ‘Write what you know,’” said Schmidt, who held a variety of jobs before settling on freelance writer. “I guess I’ve had one too many jobs in a cubicle.”