Review: Short & Sweet ~ theatre notes

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Review: Short & Sweet

Short & Sweet 2006: Week 3 Top 30. Various artists. Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre.

As everyone knows who is not from Mars (or outside Melbourne, which local pundits sometimes seem to think amounts to the same thing), Short and Sweet 2006, "the biggest 10-minute play festival in the world", has been the subject of extensive discussion in the blogosphere recently.

So I took myself along to Week 3 with a certain curiosity, checking my preconceptions at the cloak room on the way in. Given the ferocity of the debate about its virtues, I wanted to know what I thought.

The 10-minute play festival is something of an institution in the United States. From Kansas to New York, from Ohio to Los Angeles, festivals of "shorts" pop up like mushrooms. And it's easy to see the appeal of the idea, in its many manifestations: they are a convenient form for play competitions and they can permit a handy showcase for new writers. And, finally, there is the considerable challenge of the form itself.

What you notice immediately about most US festivals is that they usually run a single program of 10-minute plays. The average seems to be about six works. In play competitions, for example, the theatre company generally broadcasts a call for entries, and then produces winning plays as a single program. Secondly, you notice that the ten-minute play has attracted a number of big names: short play festivals have included works by David Mamet, Christopher Durang, Woody Allen, Wendy Wasserstein and the man who is probably the grand master of the short play, Samuel Beckett.

Short & Sweet crosses the 10-minute play competition with Australian Idol. The idea is to select 30 "top" plays, plus another 20 "wild cards", which are all then given productions over three weeks. They are assessed by a panel of "industry judges" who, with the "people's choice" audience vote, narrow them down to a final few which are presented at the Gala Final. The various winners of the Gala are then showered with $30,000 in prizes and "priceless development opportunities", namely a chance for workshops with TILT, the Art Centre's new works showcase, and a free summer course at the VCA.

This, according to the guff, "encourages the participation of aspiring, emerging and established playwrights, directors and performers from the community to explore their creativity in a supportive, vibrant and creative environment". Note the buzzwords: I'm not sure I've seen so many in one place outside a grant application. It's all very feelgood.

There's also a whiff of the MFA creative writing circle here, a phenomenon common in the US, where aspiring poets (for example) learn how to write poetry in an MFA program, are published because they have an MFA, and go on to become creative writing teachers who run MFA programs...a rather pernicious professionalisation, as many have suggested, which explains the smooth edges of so much contemporary American poetry. Short & Sweet has its own version - aspiring S&Sers can enrol for the Short & Sweet playwriting course in early 2007, where they can presumably learn how to write plays for the festival.

Cynics might remark that it also has a built-in audience - 300 actors and directors means a lot of family and friends shelling out for tickets ($18-$27 for the competition, $26-$37 for the Gala Night). And certainly it was a partisan and supportive crowd the night I went, with whoops from different parts of the auditorium signalling supporters of each play. Eavesdropping confirmed that I was sitting next to someone's Dad and siblings.

But what was the work like? The evening was slickly presented - fast turnovers between plays, with the actors being efficient stage hands. Of the ten plays I saw, I thought three were decent: Andrew O'Keefe's Uncomfortable Silences, Jonathan Gavin's Sleepless Night and Billy Windlock by Hellie Turner (for me the standout piece).

The first two were well-turned comedic works on relationships, sharp and witty and ultimately without much weight, and performed with a lot of polish. Sleepless Night, directed by Nic Clark, was the only piece that showed directorial flair: it's not surprising to find that Clark ran a short play festival in the Riverina.

Billy Windlock
was the only play with real ambition: it evokes a kind of Carson McCullers picture of a small Australian town's secrets and hypocrisies. It was, in the best sense of the word, melodramatic, and despite some overwriting stayed poised with considerable flair on its theatrical conceit. Laura Bray gave a brave performance that only rarely tilted into over acting.

The rest of the program wavered between the usual variants of indifferent directing and acting and unsuccessful writing. There was a tired satire on Jerry Springer, a surprising number of critiques on the War on Terror with various degrees of heavy-handed politicising, and some meek or naive experiments in form.

Is a 30 per cent strike rate - from what I gather, around average for these nights - enough to justify putting on 50 plays? It no doubt gratifies the participants, but if one is serious about supporting new or emerging talent, why not simply select the 10 best plays, give them to the 10 best directors and run a decent season?


Anonymous said...

Concerning your question "why not simply select the 10 best plays, give them to the 10 best directors and run a decent season?", it would be interesting to know how much overlap there was between the 10 highest ranked plays "on paper" (when they were choosing which 30 to perform) and the 10 that were judged best once the plays were performed. For example, would the 10 best plays judged beforehand have included the 3 that you picked out as especially good on the night that you attended? If there isn't much overlap there, someone might claim that you have to cast the net wider than 10 in choosing the number to perform in order to find out which 10 are best.

Anonymous said...

Having participated in five or six of these 10-minute-play things myself in the past two years, let me just respond that there's a thin line between cynicism and practicality when it comes to these events. Once friends and family come to the play, who else is left? Regular theatregoing audiences rarely attend new plays, even ten new plays at once, arranged with all the justification of MTV videos (if you don't like this one, don't worry, it'll be over soon and a new one will start). Theatres know how hard it is to attract audiences to new plays by unknown writers, which is why they stage so few of them, whether they're full-lengths or greatest-hits compilations.

The 10-minute form itself encourages both light, if absurdist, comedy and the blunt political statement; anything more ambitious tends to get buried. This is the underlying reason that, of the five playwrights you mention as past purveyors of the form, three are boulevard comedians, one has occasional ambitions for the commerical theatre, and one is -- one is, well, dead, and I wonder how Ohio Impromptu would fit in among the plays of an S&S evening. (Billy Windlock sounds as if it took the third model for these plays, Tennessee Williams' short pieces, to heart, which is also done rarely enough.) The model for these plays tends to be the absurdist comic sketch as presented on television shows like Saturday Night Live or the late, lamented Mr. Show. Not to put either of these down, but they are limiting.

A final cynical reason for doing these shows is to participate in the illusion that "theatre is alive and well!" and all that Hallmark Card self-congratulation that stems from mere quantity. S&S can point to 50 plays from among hundreds of submissions; how can theatre as an art be said to be dead when its writers are so damn prolific? But massive volume of output is no indication of the health of an art form any more than diarrhea is an indication of the health of a body. Now that's cynicism, and I'm sure I should be slammed for it. But I couldn't resist.

Alison Croggon said...

Good points, George. And thanks for your insight. I did notice that the theatre at Kansas University programmed Beckett's "Breath" at one of these events, so it has been done. And I also forget to mention Mamet. It seems to me a little like the poetry slam, which encourages, on the whole, crowd-pleasing poetry with a punchline or, as you say of plays, blunt political statement.

I have serious reservations about the model of competitions in art, for lots of reasons. But given that, they exist and it's a popular model (literary prizes, poetry comps, and so on and so on). So is this the best way to do it?

If ten plays had been chosen (say) someone would have had to have made a decision. If it's impossible to pick a good play off the page (and of course it is possible), what's the point of a play competition? Yes, poor plays can be rescued by performance and direction and good plays destroyed: but again, if you can't tell the play from the production, what are you doing? Isn't matching good texts with good collaborators precisely what a producer is supposed to do?

Anonymous said...

Ah, well. Breath. Written for Oh Calcutta! anyway, as a sop for Ken Tynan. Not one of Beckett's brightest moments, either. Nor for Tynan, given what he did to it.

And let's us be the first to say (because somebody will) that yes, the earliest Greek tragedies emerged from a competitive model as well. We know, we know. But that doesn't turn my little ten-minute play into Oedipus Rex any more than winning the Oscar turns Forrest Gump into Citizen Kane.

Alison Croggon said...

I wonder if I ought to mention that short plays were a kind of fad for a while here - Keene/Taylor, Ranters and others produced several popular seasons of short works (not necessarily 10 minutes, though). An evening of short plays can be a great night in the theatre. There seems to be a similar misapprehension about short plays as there is about writing for small children, or writing poetry, that it's "easier": I would say the formal challenge is every bit as high as in writing a long piece. Maybe more so (hard to quantify these things).

S&S strikes me as the perfect arts event for the Liberal nation - the eisteddfod model brought into theatre. In Australia, the home of the handicap race, everyone has to have a go. What I question is how much this really contributes to theatre, as a community and as an art.

Anonymous said...

"What I question is how much this really contributes to theatre, as a community and as an art."

I have entered a number of plays into Short & Sweet, done the school, had several short-listed, had one production.

Is it a Good Thing?

Maybe not for advancing the theatrical form (although if you had seen 'Sad Bird Boy...' in its original form last year, you might disagree), but even at its least ambitious S&S is giving a heap of experience to many writers, directors and performers. As a writer, it has taught me much about audiences - the stuff they get, the stuff they don't; how to think about them a bit harder. It's a lesson you can't get from the page.

The criticisms of S&S which I've read here and at minktails and others (sorry Ming took that argument down - it was getting somewhere) seem to revolve around two issues: Is it contributing to Theatre? And: Is it exploiting actors, etc., while raking in the bucks for the Arts Centre?

I think you would have been in a better position to answer the Is it contributing to Theatre? question if you had seen the finalists' night. But if you thought three out of ten were worth a look on the night you attended, the averages suggest that between the Top 30 and the Wildcards, there was a decent chance of coming up with 10 plays worth your time on the final night.

Is it making a pile of money for the Arts Centre? I suspect not (running that place can't be cheap). But I submit that's a side-issue. In questions about money, it's probably more useful to ask whether the resources S&S requires could be better used in other ways; and whether they would be available if not used in the ways S&S uses them.

I think the answer might come down in favour of S&S, but am not qualified to insist.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi J Press: thanks for your comments.

I didn't see anything about "exploitation" in my own remarks, and the fact that S&S relies on patronage rather disabuses the idea that it's a money-spinner (which I don't think for a moment, btw). I was, rather, thinking about the way these kinds of things can be rather hermetically circular: built-in audience, built-in playwriting course, built-in hierarchy, built-in feel-good factor. Nothing wrong with that - I'm all for school plays, which are without exception packed out and which also give inexperienced theatre artists a go in front of live audiences - but I suspect that the competition model weeds out anything wildly unconventional. Was it a comedy that won? I could well be wrong, but I'd bet good money on it.

I went as an audience member and theatre goer, which is, after all, what a critic essentially is. All the S&S seasons are widely advertised to GP audiences. If the Gala night is the only one "worth my time" as an outsider, doesn't that rather prove my point?

Anonymous said...

I have a few reservations about the idea that theatre has a hierarchy of "art" that appears to rely on whether its unconventional or not. If a comedy wins why do we automatically assume its somehow inferior?

In Short and Sweet there is variation in the quality, however isn't this also the case on occasion for the Melbourne International Festival? While I realise the two are on totally different scales, the idea that it is okay for things to be under attended and get mixed reviews is okay as long as they are "edgy" or unconventional seems a flawed concept. Okay, so some of the S&S shows are attended by partisan audiences and the quality varies...Isn't an enjoyment and promotion of theatre the point and the idea that even 10 plays end up being really worthwhile presents a great opportunity for the writers and directors involved.

This idea that theatre is some rarified concept that only a few people "get" is slightly irritating. Theatre means many things to many people and until there as acceptance of its importance within general culture, there will continue to be little funding for "unconventional" shows that demonstrate true genius.They have their place as do popular or mainstream productions. All S&S is provide an opportunity to showcase short plays - some good, some not so good. Nobody is arguing its the Pulitzer.

Madeline Barrie

Alison Croggon said...

(Yes, I do have a life and things to do...) I just found out, to my vast amusement, that Sleepless Night, which included in its cast the notorious Ming-Zhu, won $9500 in the prizes, including best production. (I didn't hear this, btw, from Ming-Zhu herself).

Hi Madeline

Good to hear your comments.

I didn't see anything at MIAF, whether I liked it or not (and some things I did not like) that was not produced with skill and art. "Quality" in this context is not about the basic question of production values, but about aesthetic choices. As Paul Celan says of technique in poetry: it should be like hygiene, the least you should expect. Some of the pieces in S&S fell short on this basis; they don't get to the first base. This is part of what I'm questioning.

And please don't make the false assumption that TN is merely a spokesperson for the avant garde or "unconventional". If you have a look through the reviews here, you'll find I have a lot of time for so-called "conventional" theatre - try my reviews of Cyrano de Bergerac or Hamlet or Ivanov, say - and pretensions to unconventionality are no guarantee that I'll like it (eg Eleventh Hour's treatment of Miller's The Crucible or a recent production of Artaud). And I don't think Moliere or Wilde or Orton are "inferior" because their plays are very funny.

I'm not against things of this kind per se, but it does seem to me that the best way to "promote" theatre of any stripe and to make it matter in the wider culture is to present it at its best.

Lauren said...

Hmm - I don't think of comedy as an inferior form, but I do think the populist competition format of the festival ensures that the festival cannot: 'Inspire TP of the future to better their artistic practice' nor does it give 'new talent' the chances to experiment..(S&S aims as per website) As a viewer I have no desire to watch theatre practitioners 'thrash it out' or 'vote' for the 'people's choice', so they can win a 'cash prize'. I suspect a preferrable format would come in the form of ten plays being picked, as Alison says, 'off the paper' and the prize money being distributed to develop the work and fund the artists.

I disagree with the notion that once populist theatre can find support and a greater role in our society then 'unconventional theatre', assumably the poor (and mad) relation, will finally get funding. If this was the case, then 'emerging' and 'non-conventional musicians' would be reaping the benefits of the hugely popular Australian Idol.

I am not calling for the scrapping of S&S but a few changes wouldn't go astray. 'Unconventional art', which I guess means everything bar the well-made play and comedy skit, deserves showcasing and funding.

Anonymous said...

No intention to suggest that unconventional theatre is the "poor mad relation". Apologies if it read that way.

However, there does appear to be an assumption in any discussion related to Short and Sweet, that audience votes are somehow inherently flawed and open to stacking. I am not sure an audience is any less capable of deciding what is "good" than a "judge". In a number of cases in S&S the judges and the audiences selected the same plays. If there had only been 10 selected in the initial process and judged the best - there is some possibility a couple of really great plays may not have made it. I am thinking here of Uncomfortable Silences which a beautiful piece and which was a "people's choice" for the final and not a judges.

Ultimately, is the 3 week, Top 30 season of Short and Sweet, which may only produce 9 interesting plays, so different from a season at a subsidised theatre company that might only result in a third of the productions being of real quality or interest? I'm not sure that it is. Interesting discussion though.

Madeline Barrie

Lauren said...

Hmm - point taken on the audience ability to judge. It is no secret the subsidied theatres are also driven to appeal to their audiences judgement, but not in the same 'instant' manner.

It is the 'instant' and the 'you decide!' attitude of the affair that I begrudge.

Really,it is the marketing of S&S that annoys me. I think it is too much competition and too little art.