For 10 years, theater lovers across southern Minnesota have had a chance to enjoy an evening (or two) of bite-sized plays in rapid succession during the Minnesota Shorts Festival.
For two nights every September, the festival crams seven plays — no longer than 10 minutes each — from seven different authors and with seven distinct casts and directors into one madcap evening. (If you’re keeping track, that’s 14 plays, directors and casts if you attend both nights, since there are no repeats.)
The festival is founded on variety, mixing one-act dramas with zany comedies. This may be the only festival in the area where you can watch a group of bugs trying to escape a bottle for 10 minutes before watching a father and daughter come to grips with her genetic, terminal illness. You might worry about mood whiplash, but you don’t have to; you’re having too much fun, and the evening is barreling along at too fast a pace for you to even notice.
Things might be a little different this year, though. Not because the format will be any different; the festival still will feature 14 talented playwrights. But this year, festival organizers decided to focus on only Minnesotan and Midwestern writers.
Festival founder Greg Abbott said his hope is that more playwrights from around the area will have the opportunity to break into a scene that has limited chances to show off original work. (Abbott is married to Free Press News Editor Kathy Vos.)
“I think for writers from New York City or the [east] coast, they have so many opportunities to get into festivals,” he said. “The Midwest writers are the ones who have a hard time breaking in. My hope is that I’m giving more of an opportunity for those writers.”
Another reason for the change? The sheer volume of hopeful playwrights sending him material.
Abbott explained that he has received a massive number of submissions from all around the world in recent years. Last year, he received about 500 scripts, which he then divided into 30 script packets to send to his two judges. These judges would rate the scripts and narrow them down to 200, then 100, then 20. Eventually, working with Mankato’s theater group, the Merely Players, they’d whittle it down to the final 14 plays.
“It was getting really hard to divide 500 scripts into 30 script packets and send [them] out, and then narrow them down,” he said. “So I thought I’d just focus on Midwest playwrights.”
Abbott said he limited the “Midwest” area to seven states and ended up receiving about 200 plays this time around. (One caveat: If a playwright had produced a show the year before, they were invited to submit something again this year even if they didn’t live in the area.)
“[That] was a lot more manageable to read them all and judge them all,” Abbott said.
The festival was open for submissions from Jan. 1 to Feb. 1, with judging until May. The final lineup was split between Minnesotan playwrights and Midwestern playwrights, with seven plays in each category. (They’ll be mixed together during the festival, not separated on different days.) This year’s selections came from Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and, of course, Minnesota. One is even from Mankato.
“We still have a lot of good scripts, and that’s what we’re really aiming for,” Abbott said.
Mankato resident Jill Fischer is one of the featured playwrights this year, presenting her one-act show, “Who’s Afraid of a Minnesota Goodbye?” Fischer has a BA in theater and got involved with the MN Shorts Festival about four years ago, directing plays two years in a row. After those experiences, she decided to try her hand at writing a play.
Fischer took her inspiration from the “longgggg” Minnesota goodbye and mixed it with the iconic Edward Albee dark comedy about a young couple trapped with an older couple.
“[It’s] that cultural thing where you might be saying goodbye to someone for 15 minutes or a half hour — just sort of stuck in the doorway,” Fischer said. “Sometimes I’m the leader in this, sometimes I’m the one trying to escape, and sometimes, especially at family events (I have a very big family), I just sneak out to avoid the long goodbyes. I hope people find it funny. It still makes me laugh. It’s been a great experience to write it and have it go through the MN Shorts selection process. I was proud just to make it past the first round and was elated to be chosen. I am very honored!”
According to Abbott, the festival has averaged 120-150 audience members a night in recent years, and he’s hoping for similar numbers this time around.
“It gets pretty fun, and it gets pretty wild,” he said. “I think people will have a good time, because they always have.”