The Shorts Fest has become a tradition here at Elizabethtown College for students in the fine and performing arts department’s directing for the theater (TH320) class to showcase their skills as directors of a short play of 10 to 20 minutes in length. This year, the Shorts Fest consists of six short plays, two of which are student-written. This year’s plays are: Sherry Kramer’s “Hold for Three,” Christopher Durang’s “Naomi in the Living Room,” John Patrick Shanley’s “The Red Coat,” Frank Hilmes’ “Mrs. Scheinbaum,” sophomore Stephen Boyhont’s “God Complex” and senior Nicole St. Pierre’s “Fly Away,” the last two being student-written shorts.
Dr. Michael Swanson, the professor of the TH320 class for the last five years, created the Shorts Fest performance, modifying it from his predecessor’s One Act festivals. The one act plays were at least 30 minutes in length, but given the varying number of students in the class, it is not feasible to have between six and fifteen 30-minute plays. Nowadays, it is more commonplace for schools to host shorts fests wherein every student in the directing class gets a chance to put on a show for the general audience. This format also benefits the audience in that these are complete plays rather than a selected scene from a longer play.
St. Pierre’s play “Fly Away,” won a playwriting contest last year and was subsequently produced at Millersville University. It tells the story of two characters who meet at an airport, but the characters keep a hidden back story to themselves until the ending where it ties back into the whole play. “Naomi in the Living Room” by Durang is an absurdist comedy in which the characters’ motives are exaggerated and their actions are often illogical and outrageous, all playing into a wacky comedy. “The Red Coat” by Shanley is a teenage romance in a moonlit setting. Kramer’s “Hold for Three” is the story of a character trying to complete various tasks in the span of three minutes while holding his breath. “Mrs. Scheinbaum” by Hilmes is a story about a holocaust survivor. And finally, Boyhont’s “God Complex” is a tale of God coming to Earth.
What makes the Shorts Fest unique from other campus productions, according to Swanson, is the fact that the shows are “totally a student production. Students stage manage it, any design considerations are student-developed… It really is a student production. Certainly, students bear the brunt of most of the productions we do—they’re playing the roles and so on—but this is also student coordinated.”
One of the earliest assignments for students in Swanson’s TH320 class was to submit a few short plays that they would be interested in directing and producing.
Their play had to be between ten and twenty minutes and have no more than six characters. Once their choice was approved, it was entirely up to these newly-appointed directors to hold auditions and cast their plays. From September, these students and members of their casts were responsible for reading through, rehearsing, blocking, choosing lighting and sounds, etc. on their own time. “These shows don’t get the benefit of the five-nights-a-week rehearsal time that main stage shows such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get… They get to rehearse as much as they want to, as much as they can arrange with their actors. There’s kind of a rule of thumb in theater that for every minute on stage, you should be rehearsing for about an hour,” Swanson said.
Students’ shorts are the final project for TH320 and Swanson makes a point of watching at least one rehearsal from each cast. One of Swanson’s favorite things about the Shorts Fest is “watching what the students do with the plays. I actually do enjoy, and probably my favorite thing about directing is, going to rehearsals of these and being able to talk with the director afterwards about ‘Oh, that’s a great job, you did really well with that. Here’s something else you might want to look at and reconsider, or here’s something you may not have thought of,’ and that’s a very rewarding process.”
One of the biggest challenges for these directors is working with their peers. Unlike most theater productions wherein a professor is directing, in this case, students are directing their peers. For a student working with their peers, the success relies upon students respecting another student who is in charge of them for the project.
As opposed to past years, the directing class has only six students this semester, and so the plays will all run together on one bill. Previously, there was an average of ten students in the class and therefore ten plays, requiring the plays to be divided into two bills.
Casts are currently rehearsing for Etown’s fourth annual Shorts Fest. The Shorts Fest will begin productions Thursday, Nov. 17 and run nightly through Saturday, Nov. 19 in the Tempest Theater. “I would encourage the audiences to come see young artists on campus doing creative work,” Swanson said.