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August 14, 2018

City Theatre Gets Big Results from Little Shorts, with an Assist from Samuel French


It was just an idea in 1996: to introduce the little known genre of ten-minute plays, shorts, to the South Florida community.  It was the dog days of summer when many people left for cooler climes, but not all of us.  The Jerry Herman Ring Theater on the University of Miami campus was available, and dozens of talented actors, directors and designers, bored in the down time of the region’s traditional October through April theatre season, were looking for something to do.  And these peculiarly interesting and versatile little plays could be assembled and creatively divided into Program A and Program B, served up with a picnic dinner in between. Thus, City Theatre was founded in Miami, Florida by Stephanie Norman (actor), Elena Wohl (actor, director) and myself (playwright), and not knowing much about what we were doing, we managed to produce a festival called Summer Shorts.

What were those first shorts, and where did we find them? We threw the net wide not knowing what we were going to find.  We decided not to punish playwrights by only accepting unproduced scripts. We understood everything was going to be new to our audiences, which is still true today. A call for scripts went out via the Dramatists Guild’s publication, and to a small but burgeoning community of local playwrights. We also took a deep dive into the mother load of published shorts found in Samuel French’s anthologies, Ten Minute Plays from Actors Theatre of Louisville, Volumes 1-4.

Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of the prestigious Humana Festival, produced a weekend of shorts among the new full length plays, thanks to Producing Artistic Director Jon Jory who used that particular programming to create unsolicited submission opportunities for playwrights to Humana. Then, seeking more exposure for the genre and the Festival, the plays were edited by ATL literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon, for annual publications by Samuel French.  The first lines in Jory’s introductory forward in the 1989 edition, 25 Ten Minute Plays from Actors Theatre of Louisville caught my eye: “The ten-minute play, like speed chess and the fifty-yard dash, is something of a secret. What you are unlikely to know if you haven’t worked with the genre is that the energy that can be generated is enormous, and that it can lodge like a sliver in the mind of a viewer to remain for a lifetime.” So this is what we sought out.

That 1996 inaugural season featured 18 eight to ten minute plays, including four from the Samuel French ATL anthologies: American Welcome by Brian Friel, Bed and Breakfast by Richard Dresser, Downtown by Jeffrey Hatcher, and Lynette at 3 Am by Jane Anderson.  As the self-appointed literary manager, I made the call to inquire about licensing these plays, and spoke with Samuel French legend, Allene Hussung. Ms. Hussung dryly informed me that theaters produced one act plays including those published as part of their long running Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival (OOB). However people read ten minute plays, or studied them for playwriting classes, or maybe put them up as a one-off, but they were rarely professionally produced (ATL), and there was no record of such a thing being done in Miami, Florida. After some convincing that City Theatre, an emerging company in the tropical hinterlands was serious, we negotiated terms for the first time.  Happily, Summer Shorts was a critical, popular and artistic hit, and City Theatre immediately began reading plays for Summer Shorts 1997.

Fast forward to 2018. Attention spans have shortened, and productions of the marvelously multi-faceted short play are growing! In its 23rd season, and the only professional theatre company in the country producing short plays and musicals, City Theatre programming is year-round, and for all ages. The company has produced nearly 600 plays by hundreds of playwrights, has actively developed relationships with a national community of playwrights, often originating through The City Theatre National Award for Short Playwriting Contest.  Contest scripts are leading contenders for readings, the Summer Shorts and Winter Shorts Festivals, Shorts Gone Wild production of LGBTQ related plays, the City Shorts regional spring tour, the Short Cuts middle school tour, and a developing venture, Shorts On Ships. Educational outreach extends through the local NextGen student playwright mentorship initiative, and the national CityWrights Weekend, a symposium bringing playwrights and theatre industry leaders together for artistic and professional development.  Margaret M. Ledford, City Theatre’s Artistic Director, is leading the company and its talented staff and artists, into areas of growth including the development of short musicals, commissioning, and the production of the occasional new full length play, begun the fall of 2017, with the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan.  Planning is underway for City Theatre’s 25th anniversary in 2020.

In 2012, City Theatre asked Amy Rose Marsh and Casey McClain to represent Samuel French Publishing as participants at CityWrights. The duo expertly presented interesting and informative sessions about literary publication to the conference playwrights, and extended an invitation for them to submit to Samuel French’s annual OOB Festival, a valuable opportunity that continues today. City Theatre also began attending OOB to find new and interesting plays and playwrights.  Both entities currently exchange plays, with City Theatre sending its Festival and Contest Finalist scripts to Samuel French for OOB, and Samuel French sending its top 30 Finalist scripts to City Theatre for entry into its National Contest, and production consideration. For playwrights the results can be important: a variety of City Theatre sponsored playwrights are now on Samuel French’s radar, while City Theatre has  licensed and produced such plays as Bedfellows by Adam Peltzman, The Reality Show by Mark Swaner (originally produced by City Theatre and submitted to OOB), The Student by Matt Hoverman, Tornado by Arlitia Jones, Old Flame by Mira Gibson, Risen From the Dough by France-Luce Benson (originally produced by City Theatre and submitted to OOB), Mandate by Kelly Younger,  Evelyn Shaffer and the Chance of a Lifetime by Greg Edwards (Book & Lyrics) and Andy Roninson (Music), Valkyrie in the Roller Disco by Seamus Sullivan, this movie by Amanda Keating, bedtime by Steve Yockey, whose City Theatre commissions, Serendipity, Joshua Consumed and Unfortunate Pear, Mrs. Evelyn Foxy and her Low Orbit Anxiety are now published by Samuel French. In August, Miranda Rose Hall’s 2017 OOB Finalist play, What Happened at the Dolphin Show, will be produced as part of City Theatre’s Shorts Gone Wild 6 production.

The relationship between City Theatre and Samuel French which began so long ago, has evolved into a wonderfully robust and dynamic artistic collaboration. By celebrating and elevating these remarkable, intriguing, tiny theatrical gems, our institutions are increasing visibility of the genre, and opportunities for playwrights, literally page to stage. These are plays that are entertaining thousands of South Florida audiences. We also want to thank the amazing staff of Samuel French for encouraging, nurturing and supporting playwrights – we can’t wait to meet many of you soon!