With the latest rite-of-passage graduation season winding up, theater-savvy South Floridians know that it’s time for a regional rite of summer: City Theatre’s annual Summer Shorts Festival.
Dreamed up by a trio of artist-moms – Susan Westfall, Stephanie Norman and Elena Wohl – the festival is about to raise the figurative curtain on its 23rd edition. Cofounder and literary director Westfall, artistic director Margaret M. Ledford and their colleagues have assembled a program of seven short plays and two compact musicals, with the gala opening night at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater in Miami set for Saturday (two nights of previews come Thursday and Friday).
Gail S. Garrisan, the company’s founding artistic director, is back this year to direct two of the pieces: Audrey Cefaly’s world premiere “Bloodbath at the Fillmore,” about a successful author smack in the middle of a midlife crisis, and Sheila Cowley’s world premiere piece “Duck,” about an older couple trying to divest themselves of the stuff that accumulates over decades together.
Garrisan, the most recent recipient of the Carbonell Awards’ George Abbott Award for her work as a director, teacher and artistic leader in South Florida, feels strongly that what Westfall and City Theatre have achieved with the enduring cultivation of short-form theater isn’t appreciated enough.
“Susi [Westfall] has always been very interested in new play development and a real advocate for local playwrights,” Garrisan says.
“We started summer theater here with programs of 16 to 18 plays [in the original two-part festival]. Oftentimes, City Theatre hasn’t been given the credit it’s due. The work is dismissed as ‘skits.’ But these plays provide an opportunity to give some playwrights their start, to understand how concise you have to be. … There are hundreds of playwrights and actors who have had opportunities working with the festival.”
Indeed, through the years, City Theatre has produced the works of 267 playwrights and presented not just Summer Shorts but several Winter Shorts programs, the LGBTQ-oriented Shorts Gone Wild (in association with Island City Stage in Wilton Manors), Shorts 4 Kids, Short Cuts school tours, Shorts on Ships, a couple of full-length productions, the CityWrights playwrights’ conference and myriad readings.
This year’s festival acting company includes five short-form veterans and a newcomer.
Carbonell Award winners Tom Wahl and Elizabeth Dimon have the most experience with Summer Shorts, with Wahl having appeared in a dozen of the festivals and Dimon in 11. Alex Alvarez and Diana Garle, who appeared in the company’s Winter Shorts program last December, and Marquise Rogers, a cast member in last summer’s Shorts Gone Wild last summer, are also in the cast. Daryl Patrice, who most recently appeared in M Ensemble’s “God’s Trombones,” is making her festival debut.
Staging this year’s shows are Ledford, Garrisan, Carbonell Award-winning director Clive Cholerton, Florida International University associate professor Michael Yawney and actor-director-playwright Jessica Farr, who serves as City Theatre’s administrative manager.
This year’s pieces were chosen, Westfall explains, through a process involving hundreds of scripts submitted through direct submissions and from other sources such as publisher Samuel French and the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange.
“When it comes down to the last 20 plays, we look at tone and themes, and we consider the actors,” she says. “For example, you may have 10 plays about couples, but why do this one? ... Many of the plays this year do reflect what’s going on in the world, but not in an overt way.”
Adds Ledford, “Putting together the overall program, we look for a variety of content and characters, so no matter where you are in your life, there’s something that speaks to you. … We have a really fun, funny program, with plays involving politics, racism, deregulation, body image, getting rid of stuff, relationships.”
For Dimon, who plays a praying mantis in Eric Pfeffinger’s “Melto Man and Lady Mantis,” a Dutch doll in Mark Harvey Levine’s “One More Time,” sister to the “Bloodbath” writer in crisis, an unusual potential mother-in-law in the Greg Edwards-Andy Roninson musical “The Almost In-Laws” and the woman determined to downsize in “Duck,” the overall theme she senses in the newest Summer Shorts lineup involves acceptance.
“There will be something for everyone, but if there is an idea that is emerging for me, it’s learning [that] we need to accept what is before we can change it,” Dimon says.
Wahl, whose eclectic roles this year include the troubled writer in “Bloodbath,” an elf in “The Almost In-Laws,” a hula dancer in “One More Time,” Dimon’s hoarding-inclined mate in “Duck” and a cat ruining a couple’s hot happy ending in Scott Gibson’s “Ailurophobia,” notes that jumping from role to role isn’t easy.
“It’s a real different way of working. It’s not for everybody. You have to compartmentalize,” he says.
Alvarez, who will be dipping his toe back into musicals with “The Almost In-Laws” after a decade of focusing on plays, is feeling most moved by Ken Weitzman’s world premiere play “Covenant (… or bagels and butchery).”
Winner of City Theatre’s National Award for Short Playwriting contest, the play features Alvarez as a Jewish father and Garle as his non-Jewish wife. In the next room, friends, family, an unusual mohel and their baby boy are about to participate in a bris. But in a play both funny and poignant, the parents are at odds over whether to go through with the circumcision ritual.
“I really like ‘Covenant.’ I understand that relationship. They really need each other – it’s a partnership in this decision. She challenges him to reach something deeper, more primal,” Alvarez says.
Adds Garle: “That piece is so raw, so real that I don’t think of it as a comedy. This is about two people who really love each other.”
Farr, who is directing “Covenant,” sees the play as being about “a new generation’s response to tradition. A generation that may be more skeptical than spiritual, more discerning than willfully obedient. … Ken’s play navigates through the search for grounding in a world filled with epistemic crises and the plague of anti-Semitic violence. Somehow he makes you laugh, cry and question it all in under 10 minutes.”
To play the romantically frustrated couple in “Ailurophobia,” Garle and Rogers had an “intimacy rehearsal” led by director Yawney, who says, “We have two people who have to touch and kiss each other. We have to be sensitive, and you have to reflect that in the rehearsal process. … It helps that they like each other and have a sense of humor with each other.”
Both actors welcomed the attention to their comfort with the play.
“Diana and I know each other. I’m a feminist. I respect women,” Rogers says.
Garle, who notes that she and Rogers have known each other for five years, says, “It is a really vulnerable piece. Thank goodness for the cat, who interrupts the act multiple times!”
For Patrice, the Summer Shorts first timer, rehearsing Bekah Brunstetter’s “Run” has been cathartic. In it, she plays Ellie, a 17-year-old with less than no interest in sports, and Alvarez plays her ex-Navy officer father, a man pushing his girl to get in shape as they run around a track.
“This is a very emotional piece. I see myself and my father in it,” says Patrice. “I’ve been Team Chubby since the fourth grade, and it’s something seeing Ellie really struggle and open up to her dad like that. I haven’t been able to do that with my own dad.”
Patrice also gets to demonstrate her considerable singing chops alongside Alvarez as they play the about-to-be-wed couple in “The Almost In-Laws.” Cholerton, who is staging the piece and working with musical director Caryl Fantel, sees the mini-musical as a twist on “the fears everyone feels introducing their family and parents to someone they love. Particularly when your family is more than just a little on the racist side.”
Like his colleagues working on this year’s Summer Shorts, Cholerton sings Ledford’s praises.
“Margaret is so incredibly accessible and open to ideas. I’ve never encountered anyone that creates a better artistic environment. [She achieves] a perfect balance of setting a vision and allowing people to execute within it. Just a huge talent,” he says.
Westfall, who has put the annual CityWrights conference on hiatus this year as the company expands it programming, is thrilled with Ledford’s leadership and future possibilities.
“She’s just so well-respected in in the region. She’s a great director and a good leader. She has her own point of view, her own aesthetic, her own taste. She has thrown herself into everything, including learning about the board, fundraising, sponsorships, artistic statements and grant-writing,” Westfall says. “I have to think about succession. I was 40 when we started the company. So bringing Margaret in now has been perfect.”
If you go
- What: City Theatre’s 23rd annual Summer Shorts Festival.
- Where: Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
- When: Through July 1.
- Cost: $39 to $54.
- Information: 305-949-6722 or https://hrld.us/2LCvg57