The giant tree from the last production still looms in the corner of the Masquer Theatre while three casts from current plays take short turns—ten minutes each if they’re on the money—on stage. Actors and directors have rehearsed in the hallways, and in the green room, and at home. One director gives her actors feedback after their first post-vacation run: “Good. Good, good. I have a few notes.” While she comments on their performance, the rise and fall of voices from another rehearsal echoes down the hall. And in the lobby, another director and two-person cast has erected an impromptu set with the Meloy gallery as backdrop. They all bring their own costumes and props—matching sets of gaudy earrings purchased at a dollar store; a bottle of hand-lotion spontaneously pulled from a back-pack; a black blazer over a Far-Side t-shirt. Students everywhere, not a professor in sight. All in all, the students have written, cast, directed, and produced 15 short plays. It’s the Ten Minute Plays Festival, a home-grown, student-run, shoe-string-budget show. And it’s a treat.
Kate Hoffower, an MFA candidate at the University of Montana, brought the festival to life for a couple of reasons. “There’s no real outlet for plays written by local people,” she says. “A few of my friends weren’t cast in the main season productions, so I thought this would be a good time to combine something for playwrights.”
Hoffower herself is the award-winning author of The Office, a play that has been produced from Kentucky to Singapore. She also had what she calls a selfish reason for starting the festival: “I wanted to have a reason to write something new.”
Evidently, she was not alone. After hanging a few posters advertising her idea, Hoffower saw other playwrights and scripts quickly materialize. “All of a sudden,” she says, “I had 12 submissions.”
She has a Shakespeare who speaks in yadda, yadda; a southern belle who sniffs her armpit for traces of body odor; an orange beagle named Barney. She has explorations of how tragedy transcends class, a surprising self-commentary on theater, and a gentle look at the loneliness of moving from innocence to experience.
The variety of characters and themes the students generated surprised Hoffower. “Take a population that is living in the same place at the same time and shares a lot of the same experiences,” she says, “yet comes up with stories that are very individual.”
All submitted plays were accepted because she had just one criterion: “it doesn’t get me kicked out of school.”
While student enthusiasm flooded her way, she can name only one faculty member—Greg Johnson—who has shown support. “There was a lot of stress for a few weeks,” she says, because some faculty members “let me know in no uncertain terms that this was draining resources they had planned on being able to use.” Despite the complaint, the department pro-vided her with “not a cent” toward the festival. “To be fair,” she says, “we didn’t ask for any.”
So the students fund the production. “A lot of it has come out of my own pocket,” says Robyn Rose, who directs three actors in scenes from Table Seven at the Elephant. “I found purses for them, I went out and bought earrings, and cigarettes I’ll have to buy because she [actor Heidi Nielson] doesn’t smoke.” She didn’t have to buy the Bible, though. It came from the nursing home where her mother works.
The directors also pool resources. “We don’t have a bed right now,” says Liz Combs. Now, a line-up of three chairs serves as a bed, but everyone is on the lookout. “Whoever gets a bed,” she says, “we’ll all use it.”
Combs, who is acting in one play and directing another, applauds the idea of the festival. “This was a great opportunity for playwrights to have their stuff seen,” she says. “And actors love it when they’re busy. Now people have two or three things going on.”
During rehearsals, a certain vigor and synergy spins amongst casts and directors. “Do you guys know who wrote that?” asks Hoffower after a run-through. “Meleina who works in the box office. Isn’t that awesome?”
Though the scenes are just ten minutes, most have been rehearsed for three weeks. “Even though it was a ten-minute scene,” says Rose, “I wanted it to be perfect.” She has to tell herself to back down, lay off, let the actors go home. She abandons the compulsion to keep her actors until the wee hours of the morning, but she pushes them to be fresh. “What I like the best,” she tells them after a run-through, “is that each one of you is doing something new each time.”
Though some see the festival usurping the department’s actors and equipment, Hoffower is quietly unapologetic about its value. “I’d love to see it continue,” she says. “It’s a fantastic way to get people interested in the program.”
The festival runs Dec. 5, 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. in the Masquer Theatre. Admission is FREE.