Click here for a video of the Minneapolis One-Minute Play Festival
No matter your métier, you’ve probably been involved in at least one 10-minute play festival at some point or another. Perhaps you were asked to pen your playlet in less than 24 hours, or to write about a certain theme. Maybe you received your lines the day you went on, or were given a group of actors to direct that you’d never met before. Short-play festivals do a wonderful job of involving loads of artists and creating a particular kind of buzz and energy.
Dominic D’Andrea has been involved in his fair share of 10-minute play fests. “I did a ton when I first moved to New York City,” he says. “I’d make work in my living room with my friends, but it often felt like there was no context,” he recalls. “It felt like a weird competition and wasn’t as community-building as I’d have liked.”
D’Andrea, who is primarily a director but has also written plays, got to talking about mini-plays with friends at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn. “We decided that basically one thing happens in a 10-minute play. So I wondered, ‘What if I invited a bunch of playwrights and asked them to think about the one moment that happens in a 10-minute play—but do it in a minute! We didn’t know what we were doing. It was just a fun thing.”
The event sprawled beyond the Brick—so much so that half of the actors had to wait at a local bar before going on. “It became a huge community event,” says D’Andrea. “Beyond academic exercises, one-minute plays didn’t really exist till our fest.”
That was in 2006. D’Andrea and his friends continued to put on the One-Minute Play Festival for four years before being approached to take it to a regional level, as a touring event. But something didn’t sit right with D’Andrea. For starters, the royalties for authors and actors would be complicated. Moreover, “I realized that the festival was for, with, by and about the artists in New York City, and that if I was going to go anywhere, I should probably make the festival pretty janky.”
Instead of taking the One-Minute Play Greatest Hits on the road, D’Andrea exported the model of his community-driven event to other cities. His first stop was San Francisco, in a partnership with the Playwrights Foundation. “Then it started growing. It went from one city to six. And everywhere I went I’d be asked back for a second year.” This year D’Andrea, who is the producing artistic director of the One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), will partner with 20 organizations to create their own one-minute fests.
How exactly does the one-minute play festival work? The plays really are just 60 seconds long, and though props and costumes are allowed, the set is limited to four chairs. “The aesthetic is very bare-bones,” allows D’Andrea. “But that lets you focus on the ideas.”
D’Andrea usually asks upward of 70 to 90 playwrights to contribute two plays. “I target-ask, because we don’t have the manpower to read through submissions. I also powwow with the partnering organization so that there’s a cross section of age, race, culture, points of career and theatrical sensibilities.” Directors are handed 7 to 10 plays and arrange them as they see fit. Then D’Andrea decides the order of the evening. “The bare-bones nature is the structure. We provide the egg carton and the artists put the eggs in it.”
OMPF serves not only as a community-building event but also as a fundraiser for the partnership organization. “There’s always some initiative that needs additional funding,” says D’Andrea, citing the Playwrights Foundation’s residency program as an example. D’Andrea and his partnering organization do a profit split. Tickets usually cost between $15 and $20, low enough for audiences to afford but high enough that a substantial sum is raised. “We cap it at three performances, since the artists are volunteering their time,” says D’Andrea, adding that typically between $1,400 and $4,000 is raised. “What I take home is the operating budget for OMPF,” he says.
D’Andrea doesn’t tell artists what to write about. The first year he visits a new city the prompt is general, but it evolves over time as he returns. “Usually by the third year the prompt is more specific,” says D’Andrea, who hesitates to call the one-minute factor a constraint. “I like to think of it as something you build up to. But when you ask 70 playwrights to participate, topics always emerge.”
For example, in Chicago D’Andrea has observed playwrights writing about the north/south divide of their city and related race politics. Social media as a topic has sprouted up in a number of cities, but while Bostonians tend to examine how technology prevents people from interacting with the world, San Franciscans demonstrate a more fantastical approach to the technosphere. At press time, D’Andrea was preparing for the second annual OMPF of Latino Voices at INTAR in New York City. “I speculated that many submissions would be about identity, and it turns out many are about speaking English and what it means to live in an English-speaking culture.”
“No two festivals have been alike,” enthuses D’Andrea, who is quick to point out that the OMPF is more than a fest of quickie playlets, but what he calls a “barometer project.” “It’s survey art—it’s a way for people to have a community convening and look at the zeitgeist of that moment in that community. With the one-minute form, it’s less about the individual playwright and much more about what the group says.”
Despite the group mind that emerges from this “70–90 pulses of storytelling,” specific moments do stand out. “The power of a moment is not to be underestimated,” notes D’Andrea, describing a particularly moving piece about Alzheimer’s by New York City–based playwright Christine Evans. “It was so simple and implied something about the larger world and had an emotional impact.”
Emotional ties keep playwrights coming back for more year after year. “The OMPF is a connective tissue between institution and community. A lot of cities have convenings about the state of theatre, but very rarely is an artistic challenge at the center,” says D’Andrea.
Like a perfect marinara sauce, the OMPF uses a few simple ingredients. “It costs nothing beyond my plane ticket, it earns the theatres money, and brings a shitload of people into the theatre that aren’t usually there. But the ingredients have to be perfect,” cautions D’Andrea.
D’Andrea avoids giving too specific a prompt, because, after all, a barometer is meant to measure, not prod or constrain. A freelance assignment with Cornerstone Theater Company that focused on hunger, for instance, produced too many similar plays, D’Andrea felt: “It was an incredible experience, but the result was very one-note, and there wasn’t enough diversity within the plays.”
Can you really do a play in one minute, though? “There’s a push with some playwrights and ensembles to experiment with length and make eight-hour plays. We’re doing the opposite of that,” D’Andrea reasons. The best one-minute plays, he points out, never call attention to the fact that they are one-minute.
“I’m trying to develop an exit strategy for myself,” says D’Andrea. (When we met for lunch he wore a suit, because of his “Mad Men”–style ad agency day job.) “I’m a director,” D’Andrea says. “I’d like to go back to directing plays.” But in the meantime, Australia, Germany, Canada and Mexico have made inquiries about doing OMPFs of their own. D’Andrea is enthusiastic, but cautious: “I want this to be the last season I’m doing this much work.”
After all, those minutes add up.