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Friday, December 30, 2011

Dominic D'Andrea on the origins of OMPF, how 10-minute plays provided a jumping-off point, and what (and who) brought him to BPT

Dominic D'Andrea
I'm looking forward to the first-ever Boston One-Minute Play Festival and since the event is being co-produced by BPT, that gives me an excuse to ask questions...lots of 'em. I was eager to know more about one-minute plays, the genesis -- and growth -- of the Festival (which has grown from a single event in NYC to a nationwide movement in a half dozen years), OMPF's mission, and, well, keep reading.

OMPF Founder Dominic D'Andrea gamely and graciously (and thoroughly!) answered my queries, and I can't bear to cut a single word. What follows is the first of two parts of our Q&A [part two is here], so get ready to be inspired.

Tickets can be purchased online; proceeds from the event will support new plays in our community, so be sure to come check it out on January 7-9 right here at BPT.

KAM: How did the first One-Minute Play Festival (in NYC) come about?

DD: The One-Minute Play Festival actually started over half a decade ago when a theatre company I am a member of and I participated in a large national short form festival sponsored by a major NYC institution that was supposed to be about inclusion, bringing the community together, and deep conversation/collaboration with people who wouldn’t normally work together. I really bought into the whole culture of this festival, and deeply wanted it to be a transformative experience. I spent a lot of time crafting the work for it with no resources, as did my colleagues. Some of the work assigned to us was really tough to connect to our work and personal missions, as it was about a singular writer, but we tried to “go big” and “make it our own.”

Long story short: After going through it, I was really disappointed by the reality. I didn’t meet anybody, and didn’t have any meaningful conversations, I didn’t learn anything, and I was neither transformed nor transported. It felt like we simply participated in a massive PR stunt, or some bizarre ongoing flash mob and not much like the community theatre event it said it was. I felt duped. I felt like I had just participated in a system that had nothing to do with me or my community, or the communities around me. It felt about as personal as taking the SATs.

While I really loved this institution (and still do) for their history and importance, I felt this particular event fell very short of its goals they so eloquently articulated—at least I can say that was true for me and my collaborators. It may not have been true for everyone, but based on our conversations, it was safe to say that our experience was pretty unanimously poor. Standing on the steps of the massive theatre immediately after the event was over, the feeling of disappointment was quite apparent in all of us. I thought in that moment: I can do better at making a community event than this! I think an important seed was planted that day. Or at least a specific need/desire to connect to the community around me was instantaneously articulated. Whatever that experience ended up being, I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity it provided me to learn about myself and to have illuminated such an important new goal.

Parallel to this experience, a bunch of that same group of artists were having an ongoing conversation about how why the culture of 10-minute play festivals were problematic. It was said in these chats that 10-minute play festivals had a lot of the same disconnecting qualities as the festival we had just participated in: lots of work, no real community context. As emerging artists, it always seems it would ask us to write and direct for festivals that had no central goal, or context; and, often it would end up feeling like a competition about which play of the evening was the best. I personally had experienced that several times, and it left me feeling alienated. During one particular conversation over many beers, someone said 10-min plays were boring; that in watching 10-minute plays there were only like a minute of them are actually the thing that happens, and the rest is just spent waiting for those minutes to pop.

That prompted a big “ah-ha” moment for me: what if I could make a festival of just those things that happen in a 10-min play that you wait for. Two weeks later, I was reaching out to playwrights asking them to participate in a playwright-focused community event/experiment: sort of looking at the 10-minute play form and distill those ideas down to under 60 seconds. We didn’t really know what to ask for, just a sense that we wanted to try this out. No one knew what this was going to be like; it could have been a disaster. That fall we did like 65 one-minute plays by writers like Jason Grote, Mike Daisey, Rajiv Jospeh, Bash Doran, Adam Szymkowicz, Callie Kimball, Sibyl Kempson, James Comtois, Ashlin Halfnight, and others. Everyone showed up to our tiny theatre. We had over 90% of the writers there in residence that weekend. We had so many actors, that we had to keep some at the bar across the street, and switch them out at intermission. It was an incredible, exciting, surprise to discover all of the energy around it, as scrappy as it was at the time.

It was quickly apparent that this was a very good idea and needed some refinement. The festival had community buy-in, now I had to look critically at what worked and what didn’t.

As OMPF developed as an entity, many examples of what a good one-minute play was became very apparent from the work we developed in the festival. Writers like Rajiv Joseph, Andrea Thome, Ashlin Halfnight, Kyle Jarrow, Liz Meriwether, and Bash Doran provided so many great examples of the work, that we drew on them to develop the form. Plenty of great writers offered work that wasn’t as successful, so we were able to see why as well. The idea that what we are really looking at in this work are a series of highly theatrical singular moments started to emerge. Based on what we learned, I started guiding writers towards thinking in directions, which would offer stronger, more specific work in the context of our festival.

Also during this time OMPF completely stopped looking at 10-minute plays for any sort of jumping-off point, and started really basing our progression on the one-minute work that was specifically created for the festival. So it’s safe to say, the work OMPF does is based on its prior history, which continues to be the case even to this day. What’s learned is absorbed, and put into action. It became all about the concept of praxis: action, critical reflection, further informed action.

In this way a specific OMPF methodology and ideology started to strongly emerge. Artists and institutions alike started taking notice.

After our third year, where we lucky enough to receive a space grant from HERE Arts Center, regional theatres started contacting me, and wanted me to come and do runs, which was a complete departure for the OMPF model. One theatre in particular wanted to give me a three-week LORT contract for eight actors to come and perform 50-60 of our best plays. It meant exposure and money for everyone. This was an amazing opportunity that we had to explore. But as I started planning it, it just felt wrong. Then it got complicated with the artist, the institution, and then the goals got lost in an ongoing negotiation of what this would look like. It wasn’t working. The conversation went cold; I pulled the plug.

Going back to the goals as to why I started OMPF, it was out of a need for a community event and community context. I realized that if I was going to “bottle the lightning” of what made the event exciting in NYC, I would have to make it like I do here in NYC: with the community! So I had several conversations with colleagues in other institutions about what their institutional and community needs are, and what OMPF might look like working in these unique contexts. Then next thing you know, these partnerships evolved organically: and then a national OMPF movement started.

So, this unique partnership model started to emerge between OMPF and other institutions. OMPF was going to partner with playwright or community specific theatres, and the participants and most of the proceeds would benefit those specific communities. So the artists are local, and in buying-in, they would be also giving directly back to their community. It is a nice eco-system for work that keeps cost and demands down for the institutions hosting, while maximizing the potential for participation and shared meaning with the artists in those communities. This model is what OMPF is currently using, and it’s working quite well!

The festival grew from one to four to six to 10 cities in two years of working nationally. I’m proud to say that every city OMPF has been is, it’s been back for a second year. I’m proud that theatres I don’t have relationships with are reaching out and wanting the festival to come to their cities, and I’m happy to be able to provide this service and learn about these communities.

OMPF has grown into a movement, legitimized and developed a form of theatre into the mainstream that really just existed on the fringe, and created a network of national partnerships, which include some of the most important institutions and artists in the county. Not bad for a no-budget experimental festival which started in a small theatre in the depths of Brooklyn, NY!

KAM: What connected you to BPT?

DD: As I said, most all of the festival I have done have occurred very organically from conversations with institutions and artists who know me and what I was up to in NYC very well. These are relationships I’ve had for years.

In the cast of BPT: this marks the first OMPF I’ve done where I really didn’t have an existing relationship with the theatre or the artistic leader beforehand. This connection was made through playwrights! I can credit writers Christine Evans, Ken Urban, and James McLindon for reaching out and making the connection between Kate Snodgrass and I.

I realized in that conversation that Kate’s Boston Theater Marathon has a lot of similar goals and ideas about community engagement, and OMPF and BPT seemed to me a natural fit. As I also work in the new play world-I’ve been lucky enough spend the last seven years as a director at the Lark Play Development Center in NYC throughout their season, so Kate and I share a similar value system for working with writers too.

It can be a little bit strange to partner so intimately with an institution that one does not know, but fortunately, Kate and BPT are really keyed into what OMPF is doing, and it’s felt like I’ve know them for years. They know the drill. It’s been a pretty straightforward relationship, all about the work! I’m sure it this particular festival will have a very similar feeling and spirit to past events at BPT, but hopefully with a unique spin!

So: Thanks to Christine, Ken, and James! 

Stay tuned for part two. Also: Check out the OMPF blog for insights from playwrights Lisa Burdick, Israel Horovitz, Natalia Naman, Ken Urban...and more to come!

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