By Tanner Kent
---- — MANKATO — Now in its fifth year, the Minnesota Shorts Play Festival continues to grow.
The brainchild of North Mankato playwright Greg Abbott and a committed group of area theater enthusiasts, the festival drew 50 submissions its first year. The next year, 100 submissions. Last year, 400 submissions. This year nearly topped 500.
"Last year, we were blown away," Abbott said. "This year, we got even more. ... It's amazing. We didn't anticipate growing this fast."
Abbott attributes the growth to a broader lack of such opportunities statewide. Often, he said, play festivals include only local submissions, charge entry fees for scripts or force playwrights to write to a specific theme or scene.
But Mankato's festival, he said, places no such restraints on participants.
Even when last year's pool was tilted decidedly in favor of national playwrights — seven out of eight submissions were from non-Minnesota playwrights — Abbott decided to make a slight change to the format. Instead of disallowing out-of-state submissions altogether to preserve the festival's original missions, Abbott instead designated one night for Minnesota plays and another for national plays.
This year, the two-day, 16-play festival — which will be held Sept. 5-6 in the theater at Mankato West High School — will be divided into a Thursday night showcase of Minnesota playwrights and a Friday lineup comprised of out-of-state playwrights.
"We've been more open to accepting scripts," Abbott said. "We don't want to impose any limits."
The net result is a delightfully varied and robust performance lineup that serves as a showcase for established talent as well as a proving ground for budding professionals.
Morgan LeClaire is a senior in Minnesota State University's Department of Theatre and Dance. Though she's performed several times as an actress at MSU, she had yet been given a chance to make her public directorial debut.
That is, until MSU instructor and department chair Paul Hustoles handed her a script during his spring course in advanced directing. LeClaire reviewed the piece — a sister drama written by Minneapolis' Whitney Rowland — and agreed to take the challenge. Since all the plays in the festival are held to 10 minutes, LeClaire said she'll need to focus on pacing and building the audience's suspense before something of a reveal at the end.
"This will be my first play seen by a large number of people," she said. "It's a great opportunity, a great thing to do. ... I'm definitely excited to be a part of it."
Adam Sharp and Esther Hoffmann, however, are theater veterans who will be filling multiple roles for the festival.
In recent years, Hoffmann has had works selected for the Minnesota Fringe Festival as well as for local Mankato Mosaic productions. For the short play festival, however, the Mankato playwright will make her directorial debut with her own play, "The Gospel According to Hertha." In addition, she'll be playing one of two roles in the comedy that delves into the opposite perspectives of two women who are fired from their jobs.
"Whether your relationship is ending, or you get fired from your job or your parents are dying — this play is about how you react when you no longer know who you are," she said. "This is the first time I've directed anything. But when I wrote it, I saw clearly how I wanted it to move."
Sharp's 2012 submission, "Captain Corporate Personhood," was well-received at the Minnesota Shorts Festival, and later went on to be performed in New York and earn honorable mention in the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest.
This year's submission, "ET vs. Predator," is a social satire couched in outlandish plot and character. In addition to writing the piece, the co-founder of Box Wine Theater in Minneapolis will also play the role of ET as well as play a role in Sam Graber's play, "Driving Herd."
"I really enjoy this format," Sharp said. "A lot of ideas don't need to be epic, two-and-a-half-hour, Tennessee Williams-, Eugene O'Neill-type dramas."
If You Go What Minnesota Shorts Play Festival When 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 5-6 (Thursday is reserved for Minnesota playwrights and Friday for national playwrights) Where Mankato West Theater Tickets $10 at the door. Discounted tickets can be purchased prior to noon on Sept. 5. Also, students can purchase advance tickets for half price. More info Visit www.mnshorts.com. Note Audience members will also have a chance to vote for a people's choice winner each night. That winner receives a $100 prize.