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Hourlong stage festival celebrates 60-second plays

Seth Bockley | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

Seth Bockley | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

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One-Minute Play Festival

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $15

Info: (773) 871-3000;

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Updated: July 15, 2013 1:24PM

Anyone who thinks a two-hour play is way too long will want to check out the One-Minute Play Festival at Victory Gardens Theater. You’ll still be in your seat for two hours but you won’t have time to think about it as an impressive swarm of 95 plays comes to life on stage.

The festival, which has a homebase at New York’s Primary Stages, is the brainchild of Dominic D’Andrea. Its first incarnation was eight years ago in Brooklyn; it has since grown to 13 national events that are specific to each city where the event is staged.

“It started as an experiment,” D’Andrea says. “The one-minute play idea had existed as an academic exercise, but as a practical playwriting exercise it did not exist. We learned from our mistakes for four years before we took it to other cities.”

This is the third year Victory Gardens will host the event as a fund-raiser. It’s a crowded roster featuring 60 playwrights, 10 directors and 60 actors, all from Chicago.

“We keep it coming back because the energy around it is so kinetic and exciting,” says Victory Gardens associate producer Will Rogers, who also will direct a batch of plays. “We place a high value on events that engage a diverse community of artists.”

D’Andrea heads up the enterprise in each city. He does not give the playwrights a topic; the themes and ideas that emerge are totally organic.

“This year there’s a lot about politics, gun control and terrorism,” D’Andrea says. “Themes that are very political and very dark. It’s all very rooted in the here and now.”

Writing a full-length play is always a challenge, but it’s a piece of cake compared to writing a one-minute play. These shorter pieces are all about clarity, nuance and focus.

Usman Ally, best known locally as an actor, has a background as a SLAM poet and is currently working on his first full-length play. This is his third year writing for the One-Minute Play Festival.

“The primary challenge lies in writing something that actually has a narrative, a plot that is going somewhere and finally reaches somewhere within a minute,” explains Ally, a member of the American Theater Company ensemble.

Another featured playwright Emily Schwartz, a company member at Strange Tree Group, says it’s all about finding a “moment.” The format allows the playwright “to shine a light on the absurdity present in the smallest slices of life.”

“You don’t have time to say a lot, and you don’t have time for character development, so personally I like to come in with something people can immediately relate to and then turn that on its head with a twist or a surprise,” Schwartz explains.

Seth Bockley, playwright in residence at the Goodman Theatre, finds that his “rebellious streak” is brought on by all the guidelines given to the writers — guidelines such as no props or design elements of any kind.

“Now, when I read that I instantly try to figure out how to get around or defy those rules in my plays,” Bockley explains. “But we are allowed to have four chairs. So my play this year, ‘Twelve Ways to Consider Four Chairs’ is an object theater/puppetry piece that focuses on furniture. Reacting against the limitations is one of the reasons it’s such a fun experiment and exercise for me as a writer.”

D’Andrea says the goal is to treat the 95 works as a singular cohesive whole, although it’s made up of separate minutes. It’s a challenge because the Chicago version of the festival is the largest D’Andrea produces, but he says he loves the style of work that emerges.

“There’s a kind of fearlessness in Chicago theater that is natural,” he explains. “People in Boston can be reserved, but in Chicago they let it rip. They want to take it to the next level and one up themselves.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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