The phenomenon is becoming less and less rare, with 10-minute shows cropping up in Atlanta, New York and Chicago. The Triangle added its name to the list last summer, when the now-annual festival made its debut appearance, hosted by Orange County's Theatre Orange. The festival was a solid success, and ArtsCenter's biggest theater draw of 2002. Later this year, another group of 10-minute plays will strike in "Shorts in Winter," a similar festival planned by Theatre Orange and the ArtsCenter. Clearly, there's something addictive to the hit-and-run format.
"I think the format is very interesting," says Lynden Harris, artistic director of Theatre Orange and organizer of the "10 by 10" festival. "The plays all have beginnings, middles and ends. They aren't scenes, they're full story arcs--a combination of theater and a short story." Harris enjoys the festival because it attracts not just old and young audiences, but also theatergoing and less theater-savvy crowds. "We get lots of people who don't come to theater that much. It's great for them, because it's not as much of a risk. If you don't like one, there's another one coming right up. If you don't go to theater, you can go to a 10 minute festival and see 10 full plays and authors in the same space of time."
Despite inviting locally renowned actors and drawing strong directors (including Harris herself), the authors remain the focus of "10 by 10." There are, of course, 10 of them, but it wasn't such a simple process finding that number. Harris opened up a competition for 10-minute submissions back in January, and word quickly spread. By the end, she'd received 460 plays, from as far as Britain, Australia and New Zealand. A panel of 12 readers narrowed the field to 40, then finally to 10 (although some of those left at the altar will be performed this winter).
The final roster includes a stable of established playwrights and more than a few beginners, but all benefit from the sometimes-rare exposure. "It's getting harder and harder to put new works on stage," Harris says. "People are less willing to take those risks. I thought this was a great way to do something very concrete for other playwrights, and you can do it because it's only 10 minutes."
Of the selected playwrights, two have ties to North Carolina. Cedric Hayman, a recent graduate of Winston-Salem's North Carolina School of the Arts, will have #2, his first professional production, performed. It's the story of three men stuck inside a Wal-Mart bathroom with no toilet paper. The settings, much like the tones, greatly vary from play to play. One piece is set in an alley outside the Miss Kentucky beauty pageant, another is set entirely in bed, and another is about a B-movie star stuck in a hospital with an impersonator. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Deal With This, the selected play by Mark Smith-Soto, a professor of Spanish at UNC-Greensboro--it's about the Holocaust. "A lot of 10-minute festivals are done with an overt theme, like they're all set in a restaurant," says Harris. "But really, the only theme in this festival is relationship. They're all about people making discoveries about their changing relationships--but I'm sure that applies to almost any play you read."
And, of course, the 10 plays are also about brevity. But writer Smith-Soto sees "10 by 10" as much more than the gimmick it might at first appear. "I think the idea of it is just wonderful," he says. "I think it's great that anybody should be sponsoring theatrical events in our day and age. I think theater is a lot more alive than people give it credit for. This is precisely what we need to keep blood pulsing through theater."
In other words, a bolt of lightning. The "10 by 10 Play Festival" returns to the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, July 10-20, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10. Contact the ArtsCenter at 929-2787, or at www.artscenterlive.org. A special Talkback reception will be held for audience members with the cast, directors and several writers after the July 12 performance.