Every theater has had to find its way to reach audiences during the pandemic. For Heartland Theatre Company, that includes reaching into its own past.
Taking full advantage of its YouTube page, Heartland has been uploading videos culled from past 10-Minute Play Festivals. The festival is a yearly competition that draws short plays from playwrights all over the world.
Dubbed “10-Minute Plays from Better Days,” the YouTube series each week highlights a different play from the festival that was established in 2002. Fortunately, the plays have always been recorded, so the theater had plenty of material from which to choose.
“When the pandemic hit and we got over the shock and realization set in, you look at what you have now that can get you out there – fast – in the community, so they don’t think that you’re going away, or maybe you’re not going to come back, said Gail Dobbins, managing director of Heartland Theatre Company. “You try to find what you have that you have permission to show."
“When a playwright submits a play to the competition, they check a box that says we have the right to use that play,” Dobbins explained. “But once we decided what plays we wanted to put out there to the world, not just on our stage, I went back to each of those playwrights of each of those plays to make sure they were OK with it.”
Once the theater had approval to post the performances, the organization was faced with the task of selecting which plays to feature. Not such a bad job, but as Dobbins revealed, it had to be a group effort.
“To tell you the truth, we did not want this to be a ‘best play’ type of thing. So, if you get that out of the mix, and you’re not trying to choose the best staged, best written play. If you just go for the audience favorites and put eight minds together in a committee – because just one person cannot remember all the good plays over the years – and they all have memories of different plays that they really liked,” she said.
Playing it safe, the committee opened the theater’s loading dock door and set up a table in the driveway.
“We did a checkout system,” Dobbins said. “The committee members came and checked out the DVDs that we have on file in our archives. They viewed the plays to make sure they were the quality that we wanted them to be.
“Sometimes a play got thrown out because it was too static, there wasn’t a lot of movement in it. Sometimes a play was chosen just because it was fun, and funny and the audience loved it, and maybe it wasn’t the best written play, but it was memorable.”
Rhys Lovell, the theater company's artistic director, was the head adjudicator for the plays, giving not only the last word on which ones would be featured, but in what order they would be released.
“Some cast members are cast in a lot of the 10-minute plays. I’m going to call them audience favorites,” Dobbins explained. “There’s just some actors that come back every year that are in some of the best plays because the directors snatch them up right away in auditions. We did not want back-to-back those same people in the shows.”
In evaluating what plays to post to YouTube, the theater also had to take several other factors into consideration, including how well written the play was, the quality of the casting, if it’s well staged and well lit, and with good sound.
As for mood, Dobbins admitted the selections for “10-Minute Plays from Better Days” did lean in a particular direction.
“I would say that we were all looking for something on the lighter side because of the pandemic,” she said.
Posting the selection of 10-minute plays online each week has prompted a bit of serendipity. Each post of a play sends notifications to everyone who has ever entered the 10-Minute Play Festival over the years. And the playwrights who have yet to win are inspired by what they see, said Dobbins.
“They are writing in, saying, ‘I have not ever won yet, but looking at the quality of your productions, I will continue to try – this is fantastic!’ You have to look for the silver linings, and they’re everywhere if you just look for them,” she said.
“Heartland Theatre has to be resilient; we have to be innovative. And if we weren’t before, my goodness we are now!”
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