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Datebook: Heartland Theatre Turns Up The Heat In 10-Minute Play Festival

Heartland Theatre Company Managing Director Gail Dobbins, left, and past president Sandi Zielinski, right.
Breanna Grow
Heartland Theatre Company Managing Director Gail Dobbins, left, and past president Sandi Zielinski.

The weather is getting warmer. The days are getting longer. The pandemic seems to finally be turning a corner. Maybe you’re thinking of getting back out there and finding something new and exciting to kick off the summer.

Well you’re in luck: the Heartland Theatre Company is set to debut “Hot Shorts,” a festival of five, fresh 10-minute plays for your viewing pleasure, starting at 7 p.m. May 23 on the theater's YouTube channel.

Theater Managing Director Gail Dobbins said tight deadlines from writing to rehearsing helped really spice things up.

“Rather than doing things with regular production schedules, everybody’s got a short time,” she said. “Short time to find directors, short time to find playwrights, short time to rehearse, short time to produce; everything is compressed, so there’s some energy behind it to get enthusiasm and everything going. Thus, “Hot Shorts.” Short plays, hot pressure cooker.”

Heartland past president Sandi Zielinski helped spearhead the project.

Her recipe for a piping hot festival? Combine five directors, five playwrights and 11 actors; allow 10 days for production, and post to YouTube.

Zielinski said COVID-19 proved to be a key ingredient.

“This COVID pandemic has made us think more outside the box than just going along, we have a season, we have directors, we’re having auditions, that’s what we do,” she said.

Dobbins said that typical formula just doesn’t work right now for a theater like Heartland.

“The problem with our theater is it seats 94 people, and we just can’t break even with a reduced capacity,” she said. “And if that 6-foot distancing rule stays in place, we’re in trouble because if we can only get 35 people in the theater, we can’t break even on a show. We would lose $2,000 to $4,000 on just running a show.”

Dobbins said Heartland’s board voted some time ago to wait to reopen at full capacity during Phase 5 of the governor’s Restore Illinois plan — which may not be so far away.

“And so that means we can start our 10-minute play festival, which always happens in June, maybe start it late in August or just wait and start in September,” she said. “But I feel fairly certain that we can start in September.”

But, said Zielinski, they couldn’t just sit on their hands until then.

“Instead of saying, ‘Oh there’s nothing we can do,’ we said, ‘Yes, there is something we can do, so let’s think beyond what we normally do,” Zielinski said.

Since shutting down last March, they’ve stayed busy — from showing one 10-minute play a week online to broadcasting three radio plays on WGLT and WCBU — and now, “Hot Shorts.”

Dobbins said she wanted to take a different approach to online theater.

“We’ve seen a lot of Zoom plays online, and they mostly were plays that were designed to be on stage that were kind of converted to Zoom, and they weren’t really working for us,” she said.

Dobbins and Zielinski challenged the directors, playwrights and actors to work with the new medium, not against it.

“And so because of the screen and the relationship with the person and the screen, we wanted some creative things to happen that focused on Zoom meetings and screen time, almost like the people are coming out of Zoom into your living room," Dobbins said.

The result is a lineup of shorts that explore new terrain within familiar genres.

In “Two Ghost Night,” by Blaise Miller of Frisco, Texas, virtual ghosts use one man’s technical shortcomings to haunt him — through his computer.

In another, two UFO enthusiasts meet online to discuss a strange object one of them found in the yard in “Distance” by John Enright of Chicago.

“Remote” by Nancy Halper of Summit, N.J. connects two siblings living at opposite ends of the earth to plan their father’s COVID-19 compliant memorial service.

“Return to Normal” by Dan Borengasser of Springdale, Ark., drops in on two actors in a budding relationship as they work through scenes for an upcoming virtual performance.

And a young man visits a virtual confessional conveniently located at a large chain grocery store in “Good for the Soul” by Bruce Boeck of Normal.

Zielinski said being socially distant has actually meant the chance for more connection for some of those involved in the project.

“I think for the directors, it’s been very exciting, not only working with actors that they don’t know, but playwrights,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen a lot. So I think it was exciting for everybody to participate in a way that they had not participated before.”

Dobbins said that includes doing prop, costumes and lighting work themselves.

“It’s so funny, I had a director call me up and say can you meet me at the costume shop for a priest collar, and I said, ‘No! This is a different kind of a project, you’re going to have to figure this out. The actor can find construction paper and masking tape or something,'” Dobbins said. “So there’s a lot that the directors, playwrights and actors have to do, let me say get to do, that they’re not in charge of with an in-person, onstage play.”

But Dobbins emphasized the theater isn’t lowering its standards just to put on a Zoom performance.

“in Bloomington-Normal, Heartland is the theater that’s really focused on quality,” she said. “We’re sometimes called the ‘serious theater,’ which is good and maybe not so great, but we are serious about the quality of what we do.”

Another element of pressure ensuring these shorts come out nice and hot.

“Hot Shorts” premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 23 on the Heartland Theatre Company YouTube channel.

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