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A NOT JOLLY OLD ELF: Ken De Rugeris is a boozehound Santa and Nathan Caracter his enabling sidekick Rudolph in the 2009 10-minute gem 'Santa Qaddafi and the Sweatshops of Guangdong.'

8 Tens @ 15

As Santa Cruz's quirky 10-minute play festival celebrates its quinceañera, directors talk about the craft of going short

By Traci Hukill

IN 1994, the only city in the United States with a 10-minute play festival was in Louisville, Ky. In 1995, Santa Cruz became the second.

"I thought, we're the Actors' Theatre also—why not have a West Coast 10-minute play festival?" says director, playwright and Cabrillo College theater instructor Wilma Marcus Chandler, who was using short plays as a teaching tool in her classes. "It started with admiration for the form of the 10-minute play."

The first 8 Tens @ Eight festival was open to local playwrights, who submitted their work to be performed by local actors under local directors at the intimate Actors' Theatre. It was a resounding success. The next year, festival artistic director Chandler opened it to playwrights around the Bay Area. It kept expanding, and today it's an international affair, technically at least, with alums hailing from Australia and at least one Russian hankering to get her play produced in Surf City. It's also now one of dozens of 10-minute play festivals around the country—in Oxford, Miss., Jersey City, Los Angeles and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It's an idea whose time is now. If you've ever been to an 8 Tens performance, it's easy to see why. The pieces are taut and kinetic. And being so compressed, moments of pure magic can happen. One of the funniest moments I've ever witnessed in live theater was in the 1999 humorous short Barbies, which featured rival dolls with butchered, badly dyed hair and jerky, straight-legged gaits.

Last week, as the Actors' Theatre prepared to celebrate 15 years of 8 Tens @ Eight (and a quarter-century of innovative theater in Santa Cruz on a shoestring, but that's another story), we sat down with veterans of the festival to talk about the 8 Tens phenomenon. In the room were Wilma Marcus Chandler, who served as the festival's artistic director for 13 years; Brian Spencer, who took over from Chandler as artistic director and has directed many plays; play director Andrew Stewart, who serves as board vice president; and Ron Barr, president of the board of the Actors' Theatre. Excerpts of the conversation follow.

SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: You mentioned this form is especially appropriate to modern audiences. Why?

WILMA MARCUS CHANDLER: TV has ruined us all, including me. Our attention span is quite short in the 20th century. If you just go to the theater or a movie, the audience after about 55 minutes is very jumpy and needs a break. So that's already the explanation for the one-act, the two-act play. The 10-minute format is also a way for people who don't always go to the theater to be introduced to it. We get them for 10 minutes and they can say, "Oh that was horrible" or "Oh, that was really good." It's like dim sum.

RON BARR: Everybody has one they hate and one they love. We do surveys—we did one last year and we'll do it again this year. And it's really fun—it was almost always a wash; the one that people said they hated the most will also be the one that other people love the most.

Do you try to get an equal mix of comedy and drama?

CHANDLER: The original instructions [to the selecting committee] were to only go on the literary merit of the piece, not to worry if it was a period pace that would require costumes or a cast of 40, just go on the literary merits. And some years it was mostly funny. One year almost all of them had food in the titles.

BRIAN SPENCER: And last year it was mostly ghosts.

CHANDLER: It's a serendipitous fiesta.

SPENCER: Some companies have a theme. Actors' Theatre leaves it open, which means we get plays that range from religious to heavy drama, political.

ANDREW STEWART: And the subject matters themselves. You could have a Japanese internment camp and go to the civil war to a modern contemporary piece. That's the beauty of it. It stretches the span of history and time.

Are there local plays every year?

CHANDLER: Oh, every year.

SPENCER: We'll have seven of the eight playwrights on opening night. Some are coming from San Francisco, over the hill. The one not coming is from Kansas.

CHANDLER: But they have in the past.

STEWART: They've come from as far as the East Coast. Washington state, Australia.

SPENCER: Last year we had our first admission from Russia.

CHANDLER: But that was a lousy play.

STEWART: No Chekhov there!

Are you seeing any big changes in the art form over the years? Is it maturing?

SPENCER: I think it changes with the economy, things going on in the world. Also the fact that the whole thing is growing because there are more contests. Every playwriting class in the country is being told by the instructor, look around, find a contest and enter it. That's where we get a lot of our entries, I'm sure.

STEWART: I noticed this year there were more serious dramas. I think it is a direct result of the economy. In 2008 the theme was Iraq. We've probably got two comedies this year. And usually we try to look at a balance, but it depends on the submissions.

What do you hope to accomplish in a 10-minute play?

CHANDLER: For me it's like going into eight different rooms in a museum, with eight different artists, eight different displays of how they interpret life. Or looking through eight windows. What I hope to accomplish is to give a slide of life or picture of the world that the audience might not enter, whether a Japanese internment camp or soldiers in a foxhole.

SPENCER: And because it's compressed you've got almost a poetic feeling to it, because you have to economize in order to do that in 10 minutes. Some people are really good at it. It's that type of thing you're looking for, the person that can tell that story in that space of time and create interest that carries through. It's surprising how quickly an audience can be lost if at the beginning of the thing they're saying, "I have not a clue."

STEWART: Wilma said it very succinctly. You're giving a slice of live, a portal. And in that you challenge the spectrum of human emotion every time. For me as director, I'm only interested in comedy or absurdist theater or dramas if it speaks to me emotionally. And then seeing the whole flow, the piece together and how it moves you through human emotion. You never know till you put it together during tech week. Last year I directed a comedic piece about a drunken Santa whose wife had left him, and Rudolph was his enabler. And this year I'm directing a piece about addiction in upstate New York today. ...

SPENCER: That's one thing that attracts directors. They can come in and handle this little problem. Next year maybe it will be something totally different.

CHANDLER: I think the unsung heroes of this are the technical crew, the people who make the shifts. We used to have just rehearsals of those people by themselves, almost like ballet rehearsal. Every movement was crystallized, honed down, made absolutely flawless. No set change took more than one minute.

SPENCER: We're trying to get that to 30 seconds.

CHANDLER: But the theater loves watching that. Because when done well, they're beautiful.

BARR: Half the audience in the survey said they wish they were faster, the other half wished it was more artistic.

How do you decide the order of the plays?

SPENCER: I'm trying to create a build in each act, a beginning place for audience that is a comfort type of thing and build to some sort of higher level at end of that act and then take a similar approach in the second act. It's not always possible, because other things come into it. If you have actors doing more than one play, you try to keep them out of same act

CHANDLER: If you have a child in a play you try to get that into the first act or the opening show so they can go home. And it's important how you end: what is last play? There's been a raging debate about that for eternity. Leave on a joyful note or given them a dramatic punch ?

SPENCER: Or the one with the adult words so they can leave.

STEWART: The C-words and the F-words!

8 TENS @ EIGHT opens Friday, Jan. 15, at 8pm and runs Thursday–Sundays through Feb. 14 at Actors' Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12.50–$18 at or 831.425.PLAY. Special $40 packages are available for three plays: 8 Tens @ Eight, 'Beyond Therapy' (opening Feb. 26) and 'Rabbit Hole' (opening May 14).

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