Ten Minute Play Festival
At Bell Foundry, 1539 N. Calvert St., through June 24
More at weekly.citypaper.com
When Sarah Lloyd, a member of local theater company UnSaddest Factory, was in Poland three years ago, she had a moment of extreme culture shock. Whenever she went to see theater, the performances were packed to the gills—with young people. This is not common on these shores, where theaters are more likely to fret about aging audiences and lack of relevance than about how to accommodate overflowing crowds. In Baltimore, though, the DIY theater scene has shown that theater can matter to young people, something that’s nicely encapsulated by one event that’s sold out every show in its three-year history: UnSaddest Factory’s Ten Minute Play Festival (full disclosure: This reporter lived at the Bell Foundry with members Lola Pierson and Cricket Arrison, but was not affiliated with USF. Also, City Paper film and calendar editor Erin Gleeson performs in one of the plays).
For the past three years, the festival has showcased the work of dozens of Baltimore playwrights and hundreds of local actors, directors, prop-makers, musicians, dancers, puppeteers, and singers. Serving as a sort of incubator for the city’s underground theater world, the festival has grown from a one-off experiment into an art-scene mainstay. Except that when USF kicks off its festival for the fourth time this weekend at the Bell Foundry in Station North, it will also be for the last time. The finality of this year’s festival naturally gives rise to reflections on its history.
While the festival has evolved quite a bit since its early days, the general format remains the same: The members of UnSaddest Factory (who include its founders, Pierson and Anna Fitzgerald, plus Lloyd and Arrison) assemble scripts from contributing playwrights in the winter. Plays have been contributed by writers as varied as musician Dan Deacon, Towson theater professor Juanita Rockwell, former performance artist about town Ric Royer, and City Paper cartoonist Dina Kelberman, among many others. After a complicated match-making process, each director is given a script and set free to put the piece together as he sees fit.
This results in a series of very different theatrical pieces performed over two nights (or two matinees), and a good part of the festival’s liveliness comes from so many disparate works bumping up against one another. “The energy in the DIY theater scene of the past few years feels a lot like the energy in the music scene of 2004-’08 in Baltimore,” says Deacon, who contributed a play in 2011. “It reminds me a lot of [experimental music festival] High Zero, in the fact that writers are teamed up with directors and actors that would might not normally ever work together. There is a weird mad science alchemy to it all that produces some real magic.”
That magic has sometimes teetered on the brink of disaster—which is exactly the kind of tension that Pierson hoped to provoke when she organized the initial festival in 2009. In the raucous warehouse atmosphere of the former Annex Theatre, where the first two festivals were held, it really seemed as though anything was possible—catastrophes included. When, during the festival’s opening night, Adam Enders smashed a bottle over his head at the climactic moment of “Letters” (a two-man show co-written by/directed by/starring Connor Kizer), chaos erupted backstage. Even the festival’s organizers were sure the blood on Enders’ face was real—at least until he strutted backstage, none the worse for wear. (The bottle was made of breakaway glass.)
Since then, a level of success has left USF in the tricky position of striking a balance between the early ramshackle exuberance and more polished theater. Last year, USF debated whether to move the festival to a more traditional venue, but ultimately decided not to. While there are plenty of downsides to hosting a theater festival in a space that’s more suited to loud bands—poor sight lines, wonky warehouse wiring—USF decided to embrace those contradictions instead of resisting them. “Usually when you go see theater, even if it’s experimental, you’re sitting in a seat in a room that feels very sterile,” Arrison says. “It’s very different to be packed in a room of sweaty, raucous people. . . . As theater artists we don’t get that [kind of] energy from an audience very often.”
Nevertheless, the festival has inched its way toward greater respectability. This year’s productions are more sophisticated in both their conception and execution, according to Pierson and Arrison. Thanks to funding from the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, this year USF was able to hire technical director Rick Gerriets for his expertise and local carpenter Emma Alves contributed a new revolving stage.
While the process may have gotten more professional, the plays themselves have become, if anything, more challenging. “The first year, most plays had a theatrical arc and a narrative structure,” Pierson recalls. No longer: “Maybe because we’ve established ourselves as a festival that tends toward the weird, this year’s festival is full of lots of stuff that’s more experiential than narrative.” Plus, as Arrison points out, “If you don’t like it, it’s over in 10 minutes!”
So why are they calling it quits? “I don’t know if we need it anymore,” Pierson says. “It felt like it was doing a really specific thing and now we don’t need that thing because people are doing it themselves.” The energy they put into the festival can go to other projects. Arrison, though, leaves open the possibility that the festival may return someday, in some guise: “It’s a unique event, and I’m sorry to see it go. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but for now I’d like to try something new as a company and an artist.”
The festival consists of two separate nights, each with different plays. A Night takes place June 21 and June 23 at 8 p.m., and June 24 at 2 p.m. and B Night takes place June 22 and June 24 at 8 p.m., and June 23 at 2 p.m. for more information visit unsaddestfactory.com.