This weekend brought two lively slates, in two different media, of short, new works grounded here in the Northwest. Though completely different in history and form, both festivals share a commitment to showcasing new works, rich in their sense of place; and both execute well on that vision.
One of such shows was As If Theatre Company’s brand-new Kenmore Quickies, a festival of locally-inspired 10-minute plays, which ends Sunday.
To read about the other, Velocity Dance Center’s decades-running Strictly Seattle Performances (a festival of dance shorts and dance films, which ended Saturday), click here.
NOTE: If you’re reading this before the festival is over, you’ll notice something strange: playwright names have been replaced with “[redacted].” An important aspect of the festival is that audiences vote for their favorite anonymously, before finding out the playwright slate, and NWT won’t be ruining that surprise. This piece will be updated with the winning playwright and other names after the festival concludes.
Updated (7/28): Playwright John C. Davenport won the audience favorite award, with “What the Hell Was That?” The playwright names have been filled in below and in photo captions.
Newcomer As If Theatre Company seems to have hit its stride already with its second-ever show, a new works festival called Kenmore Quickies.
In an unusually themed festival, As If gathered up eight playwrights, gave them each a section of a giant painted wall (along with randomly assigned actors and a director), and asked them to bring back a 10-minute play based on it. (Read more about the project in NWT’s earlier coverage here.)
The plays were quirky as expected. They focused a surprising amount on animal characters — often seen in the show and played by humans, but sometimes unseen characters as well — and largely coalesced around themes of change. And, unusual in a short-play festival, none of them were duds, reaching too hard for an easy laugh, or ceding to a trite and throwaway topic. Instead, the writers created interesting worlds and characters, the directors grasped their vision (or some vision that worked from the audience seats, anyway), and the actors overall nailed their roles (yes, even the animals).
The 10-minute play is a creature all its own, at once disarmingly simple — write a handful of pages of dialog — and difficult to pull off well. Done right, it can give all the information you need to fall for the characters and understand their story, wrapped up neatly enough in a short time that the viewer can be satisfied with what they got — and yet want more.
Of this form, the Quickies play Wish Bone was an exemplar. Written by Caitlin Gilman with direction by Ted Jaquith, the characters and narrative arc hooked right away: two older women day-drinking, one running from something, one having spent perhaps too much alone time with the jukebox. The theatrical device of the two women playing cards for bits of personal information worked well — allowing the two to maintain their desired virtue by avoiding real gambling, while treating the audience to background in a way that flows naturally. And the two characters, played by Dawn Cornell and Mary Kay Voss, play off of each other well.
The vignette was just enough to get the characters and feel the introduction was complete, but keep wanting more — and I could watch a full play from this writer centered on these two characters. The actors contributed mightily to the characters’ chemistry. In particular, Voss reminds me of the sweetness of Marianne Owen, crossed with the saltiness of Suzi Hunt, which makes for a fun combination.
Voss also played in If a Tree Falls, by Julieta Vitullo with direction by Doug Knoop, another play which focused on change. This one looked at the clear-cutting of trees to facilitate so-called progress, and included a character of a crow driven from its habitat. It was surreal, in fact, to watch the play shortly after intermission, right around dusk, after watching several hundred crows fly overhead — no doubt also displaced from development to a further-out location. The playwright displayed a keen observation on what’s occurring in the space, and what progress and healing entail.
In various forms, change was a common theme through the pieces. Much like its more-publicized, larger neighbor to the south, Kenmore has seen much change due to the Seattle-metro area’s population boom. Those changes include the cultural changes in the Northwest, displayed in several laugh lines in Hard Times at the Dixie Inn (by Betsy Hanson), in which characters debated business ideas that would or wouldn’t take off — ultimately rejecting the notion that beer gardens, bicycles, and high-end coffee would ever take off in Kenmore.
And The Guardsmen (by Marcus Gorman) and Psychic Latex (by Carolynne Wilcox) deal both with changing perceptions and, centrally, animals, as a drunk woman tries to determine just who this person — or peacock — she’s talking to is; and a man grapples with the sensory changes apparently causing him to hear, though not see, strange animals.
Short play festivals are difficult (logistically, thematically, stylistically) and inconsistent (with quality all over the map). As If, a new company, managed to do something weird, keep the moving parts together, and get a high-quality output from every piece in the show.
A Welcome Newcomer
There’s something cute and homey — in a refreshing way — about As If’s approach. The shows are in a community hall, casual and without any airs, with little separation between the audience and the stage (or any other aspect). The two leaders, Artistic Director Cindy Giese French and Managing Director Amy Gentry, got up and introduce the festival in springy eyeball-style “As If” headbands (“Shame is part of our fun”) before passing them off to the raffle ticket sellers; and the two chiefly hauled around the set pieces and props during every set change throughout. The donations-based concession samples out homemade cookies and boasts an impressive lineup of six La Croix flavors (YES), including the heaven-sent Key Lime variety. They don’t serve anything stiffer, but the three breweries within a block will happily meet those needs before or after the show. (Might I suggest the bison chili-based Frito pie and kibbles ‘n’ bits at Nine Yards Brewery, directly next door.)
For north-end folks, As If is a much-needed solid theatre option in and of the community. For folks closer to Downtown, as I am, it’s a welcome break from the norm.
Kenmore Quickies runs 7/26 through 7/28 at the Kenmore Community Club. Tickets $20, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, though the main restrooms are not.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.