There’s no better way to start out the new theater year than attending Gift Theatre’s “Ten,” an annual festival of short plays that never ceases to amaze. Originally designed as a one-off event to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary season in 2011, it has since become a must-see event.
‘Ten’ When: Jan. 5-15 Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $10 Info: thegifttheatre.org
A bit of serendipity is involved here: Michael Patrick Thornton and William Nedved, co-founders of Gift Theatre, met at the University of Iowa at, you guessed it, a ten-minute play festival.
“He wrote the play and I directed,” Thornton recalls. “So this actually has been in our DNA from the beginning. There has been so much growth at Gift and this is a wonderful way to remind us how we got started.”
That first festival at Gift’s tiny storefront theater in the Jefferson Park neighborhood had a “bit of a Hail Mary pass” to it, says Thornton. They reached out to playwrights Gift had produced, such as David Rabe and Eric Bogosian, with the hope they would agree to write a short play.
“To our shock they said yes,” Thornton says, with a laugh. “’Ten’ continues to be a great opportunity for us to collaborate with the playwrights we look up to.”
The 2017 version of “Ten” features “A Little Feat” by Paul D’Addario, “ Bye, Chuck” by Eva Anderson, “Butterflies in the Midst” by Lekethia Dalcoe, “Arrangement for Red Bicycle and No Piano” by Will Eno, “They Are Decided” by Ed Flynn, “Love, America” by Amina Henry, “Warrior” by Jose Nateras, and “The New Sultans” created and performed by giftED, the theater’s high school troupe.
There’s also performances by Gift’s house improv team, Natural Gas, and giftLIT, which features readings of literature curated by ensemble member Maggie Gawlik. (Warning: Tickets go fast to this two-week event.)
Thornton feels short plays are an interesting format to work with for playwright, director and actors. He says he looks for works that are their own world and environment and don’t beg for more exploration.
“They should open a window into a world, give you a great sense of that world and then close it,” Thornton says.
Without giving too much away, New York-based playwright and ensemble member Will Eno’s play, a Beckett-like treatise on endurance and hope, is presented by a very unusual narrator. Eno says the idea was fueled by today’s political climate.
“I think a lot of people need some encouragement,” Eno says. “So I had that in mind when I was working on this play. Plus I’m always looking for different ways to get a feeling or thought across, ways that are surprising or funny.”
Amina Henry was equally inspired by current events. Like everyone else, she had been following the election for months and trying to wrap her mind around where the country was headed. Her play puts the spotlight on a young working class couple with differing political and social views.
“Living in New York City I think I’ve been sort of sheltered regarding underlying attitudes and assumptions in the rest of the country,” Henry explains. “So I think the play was me just attempting to begin a conversation and start to take the temperature of the country from my own perspective.”
For playwrights used to creating longer plays, penning such a short example can often be challenging.
“It’s a great feeling to finish a play, and a short play is sometimes a little more finishable than a long one,” Eno says. “So if for no other reason than that, it can be a real pleasure to work on one.”
Henry finds short plays “sort of troublesome and challenging.” But on the other hand, they can open and expand on ideas.
“They can give me an opportunity to poke my nose in things I wouldn’t necessarily do with a full length play,” Henry says. “I can try on ideas that I might want to expand into something larger. So in that sense, I think this can often be a very useful exercise.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.