City Theatre’s Summer Shorts Festival, one of the reliable cultural pleasures of early summer in South Florida, turns 21 this year.
The concept has endured all these years in part because founders Susan Westfall, Stephanie Norman and Elena Wohl were right when they imagined that audiences would enjoy watching a collection of diverse, short plays performed by a company of versatile actors.
That basic, winning formula has endured through changes in format (two separate summer shorts programs have now become one, and City presents or collaborates on additional short-play productions), personnel (Margaret M. Ledford is now the festival’s artistic director, and the lineup of actors and directors changes every year) and venue (after launching at the University of Miami’s Ring Theatre, the festival now makes its home at the Arsht Center).
But faithfulness to that central idea hasn’t kept City Theatre from tweaking the formula. And at this year’s fest, which runs through July 3, the tweak is adding short musicals.
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“Musicals are a passion for Margaret [Ledford],” notes Westfall, the company’s literary director and founder of its annual CityWrights playwrights’ conference, this year a musical-oriented gathering set for June 23-26 at Miami’s EPIC Hotel.
“But she said, ‘There have to be two.’ ”
Indeed, two of the nine Summer Shorts shows are world premiere musicals, albeit very different ones by the same composer. Evelyn Shaffer and the Chance of a Lifetime, with lyrics by Greg Edwards, music by Andy Roninson and a book by both, is about a video game designer who finds dreams and disillusionment in her meeting with the head of a major gaming company. Warped, with music by Roninson, a book by Chris Critelli and lyrics by both, is a crazy set-in-space musical about an alien who falls for his human captain.
Comedy is predominant in the eclectic short plays, though Jennifer Jasper’s Eggs (about parents who go to extremes in coddling their children) and Elin Hampton’s F4 (about a young paramedic tending to an older man injured during a devastating tornado) are thought-provoking dramas.
Kelly Younger’s Best Lei’d Plans brings together the scheming mothers of a bride and groom at their kids’ Hawaiian wedding. In Paul Rudnick’s monologue Cabin Pressure, a flight attendant becomes a hero in a most unusual way. Patricia Cotter’s The Rules of Comedy pits a humorless woman against a comedian with attitude. France-Luce Benson’s The Talk features a Haitian-American mother seeking unusual personal advice from her embarrassed grown daughter. And Steve Yockey’s commissioned world premiere, I Buried Doug Biggers Alive but He’s Probably Dead by Now, is a raucous tale featuring all seven of this year’s actors.
The company features three Summer Shorts veterans — Carbonell Award-winning actors Karen Stephens, Elizabeth Dimon and Tom Wahl — along with newcomers Alex Alvarez, Meredith Bartmon, Andres Maldonado and Cherise James.
Directing this year’s crop of plays and musicals are Paul Tei, Jessica Farr, Ledford and Dimon, who is trying her hand at directing for the first time with Evelyn Schaffer.
“It’s a great musical in 12 minutes,” Dimon says. “I never thought I was interested in directing, but starting last summer, I thought OK, I might be able to do this. So I told Margaret I’d like to put my hat in the ring. This is my 10th Summer Shorts, and I’m bossy and opinionated — and it’s short.”
For her part, Ledford had directed different Summer Shorts plays for a decade but was happy to work with other artistic directors. Her job at Nova Southeastern University’s department of performing and visual arts, as well as directing at various South Florida theaters, kept her plenty busy.
“I love being in the rehearsal room [as a director] so much. And I know I had some fear. But I thought, well, I’ve directed for the festival for 10 years. Maybe it’s time to move to a leadership role,” Ledford says.
In the run up to Summer Shorts, Tei and Farr weren’t just staging their pieces for the festival. They were also rehearsing and opening Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, a Mad Cat Theatre Company production at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, with Tei (Mad Cat’s founder) directing and Farr (who also directs City Theatre’s Short Cuts school tour) one of the three actors in the cast.
Tei, who has directed and acted in Summer Shorts numerous times, is liking this year’s addition of musicals.
“People will be really excited by them. They get you up onto your feet,” he says. “And I like this year’s bigger cast. It takes some pressure off the actors, and you start to miss people when they’re not in a show. But everybody gets a moment to shine.”
Farr sees “a lot of connecting threads in the plays. There are feminist themes, stories about coming out of disaster and terrorism. But still, it’s a night of comedy. These are plays about real people going through things the audience will recognize.”
As for the actors, most feel like they’re back in school, moving quickly from one play and role to the next, adapting to the different directors and making strong choices in the disparate pieces.
Wahl, who has one of the juiciest roles as the flight attendant in Rudnick’s play, notes that tone requires walking a fine line.
“He’s so over-the- top, flamboyant and out there that you have to make him almost childlike, so he can be approachable and relatable,” the actor says of playing the unconventional hero in Cabin Pressure.
Stephens, not a mother in real life, plays two of them in this year’s festival. She laughs as she says, “In my quest for eternal youth, it’s hard to see myself in a mother role” but adds, “In Summer Shorts, we get to do things that we don’t get to do a lot of in other places.”
Newcomer Maldonado gets the humor, the truth and the rigor he and his fellow actors have to bring to the Summer Shorts stage; with little plays come big challenges.
“You can’t fall into the trap of playing the comedy in a superficial way. You have to present it so it’s not just a joke,” he says. “This is a challenge of scale, endurance and wit as an actor…Summer Shorts has been a huge cultural staple in Miami for so long.”
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If you go
What: City Theatre’s 21 st 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: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (additional matinees 2 p.m. June 4 and June 11, 7 p.m. Wednesday shows starting June 15), through July 3.
Cost: $39 to $59.
Information: Call 305-949- 6722 or visit arshtcenter.org/.