Christine Dolen

City Theatre’s Summer Shorts parlays brevity into longevity

City Theatre has specialized in the art of the short play for 19 years, a very long run that founders Susan Westfall, Stephanie Norman and Elena Wohl probably didn’t envision when they sat around a kitchen table and cooked up the idea for an annual Summer Shorts Festival.

Summer Shorts, which has its gala opening at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, has held onto its basic format of diverse short plays performed by an acting repertory company while experimenting, adding and subtracting elements over the years.

John Manzelli, City Theatre’s artistic director since 2010, says this year’s festival has “more production values. We have a troupe of dancers and live music.” Presented as a single program (vs. the two-program approach from many of the company’s earlier festivals), the 10 plays were chosen from more than 900 submissions. They include seven world premieres and Miami playwright Theo Reyna’s The Scottish Play, a clever political spoof that premiered earlier this season as part of Mad Cat Theatre’s Mixtape 2.

“I never take a play done somewhere else [locally], but when I saw it I thought, ‘Oh, this is a play I’d have wanted to do,’ ” Manzelli says. “We’ve embraced the role of wanting to be the best theater to do this kind of work, so it’s acceptable to take a piece and re-present it.”

“This year’s theme is relationships,” says Westfall, who has amped up City Theatre’s national visibility over the past three years with CityWrights, a weekend conference devoted to the art and business of new work. This year’s fourth edition runs June 26-29 at Miami’s Epic Hotel, with Humana Festival founder Jon Jory as its keynote speaker. And before the Summer Shorts opening on Saturday, Westfall will see her devotion to plays and playwrights honored as the Carnival Studio stage is christened the Susan Westfall Playwrights Stage.

Eclectic as always, this year’s heavy-on-comedy Summer Shorts lineup includes those world premieres (Leslie Ayvazian’s The Click, Richard Dresser’s Halftime, Steve Yockey’s Joshua Consumed an Unfortunate Pear, Holli Harms’ Make John Patrick Shanley Go Home, Arlitia Jones’ Tornado, and Shock and Awww by Deb Lacusta and Dan Castellaneta), John Minigan’s It’s the Jews, Reyna’s The Scottish Play and a fully staged version of Paul Rudnick’s My Husband, part of the Standing on Ceremony program of plays about gay marriage.

The actors who will run themselves ragged bringing so many characters to life are a combination of Summer Shorts veterans and newcomers. Elizabeth Dimon is appearing in her eighth festival, Tom Wahl in his sixth, Irene Adjan in her fifth.

New to the Shorts mini-marathon are David Perez-Ribada, Niki Fridh (who was part of the LGBT-themed Shorts Gone Wild cast last summer and will be again when City Theatre and Island City stage team up for the second edition Aug. 7-Sept 7 at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage), Mary Sansone and City Theatre’s associate artistic director, Mcley Lafrance (Sansone and Lafrance have played key roles in City Theatre’s Shorts 4 Kids program.).

Even early in the rehearsal process, the actors say, they had coalesced into a warm, close company excited by the challenges in this year’s plays. And veterans and newbies alike know what it takes to be a successful Summer Shorts actor.

“In a regular play, you’re one character throughout. In this, it’s one to the other, and you’re the lead in every play,” says Dimon. “It’s not for everybody. … You have to make choices and make them quickly. You can’t be talking about process.”

“Our job is to make this look really easy. How hard it actually is can get lost,” says Adjan. “It’s all fast and furious.”

Manzelli, Margaret M. Ledford, Mad Cat artistic director Paul Tei and New Theatre artistic director Ricky J. Martinez are staging this year’s plays (Lafrance, who performs Halftime, shares directing credit with Manzelli.). All know how to work the form — Tei from Mad Cat’s Mix Tape programs and previous Summer Shorts directing, Martinez from his theater’s Miami One-Acts, Manzelli from directing numerous Summer Shorts plays and Ledford from a decade of directing at the festival (“I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” she jokes.).

“The challenge in short plays is rhythm,” says Martinez, while Ledford focuses on tone. Tei, who says Shorts feels fresh with Manzelli and literary director Westfall running the show, says directing at the festival is different from his all-encompassing work at Mad Cat.

“You’re asked to cook, but you’re not allowed to bring any of the ingredients yourself,” he says. “It takes a lot of the pressure off you.”

Reyna credits Tei with the impetus to write The Scottish Play, which features Scotland (Dimon) and England (Wahl) as a divorcing couple, with America (Lafrance) as Scotland’s “special friend,” and Oil (Sansone) as the teen daughter of the soon-to-split couple.

“He told me he wanted me to write something about Scottish independence. So I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of videos. I thought you could vent some of England’s and Scotland’s resentments this way,” Reyna says. “This is a sketch with a political angle. You figure out the points you want to make. It was fun to write from the point of view of a country.”

Shock and Awww began as a piece by Castellaneta (whose multifaceted career includes voicing Homer on The Simpsons) about two roommates who had a cat. Then Lacusta, his wife and frequent writing partner, wrote the second part, taking the work more deeply into the realm of sci-fi comedy.

“There’s all this YouTube speculation that cat saliva can put you in their power,” says Lacusta.

The duo has written for The Simpsons, but they find writing plays more satisfying.

“We started out writing for theater. I was with Second City, and we wrote our own material,” says Castellaneta. “With a play, it’s yours, and you have control.”

The Los Angeles-based Yockey, who says he writes “quirky, dark, fun things” and had his play Serendipity done at last year’s Summer Shorts, admits he doesn’t avoid staging complexities, even in short plays.

“I like to put stuff in there that makes people try to figure out how to do it,” he says — the comedic bloodbath of Joshua Consumed an Unfortunate Pear included. Craftsmanship, however, is paramount.

“You need to keep in mind that even in a 10-minute play, there really needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Short work is about capturing a moment,” he says.