The one-act play is having a moment. Once a vital component of American theater, the form thrived as curtain-raisers before three-act productions in a time when audiences expected to spend hours at the theater on an evening out. Its popularity has faded in recent years in favor of ten-minute plays, which abound in Louisville, but following a significant handful of recent local productions, three Louisville theater artists are committed to giving these shorter world premieres a permanent home, too.
Actor and director Brian Hinds Hinds has joined with playwright/actor Rachel White and actor/director/playwright Tad Chitwood (they all wear a lot of hats) to form Marrow Street Theatre, a company devoted to producing new one-act plays.
One-act plays run about 30-60 minutes with no intermission. They’re long enough to develop full characters, but closer to the short story form than the novel.
“They’re like shots of espresso,” says Hinds.
In May, Hinds directed White’s one-act “The Gardeners,” billed as “a robot memory play,” in an open space inside Tim Faulkner’s Butchertown art hub on Franklin Street. The brief cautionary story about potential and growth withering under disconnect and neglect featured haunting costumes and set design by White’s brother, artist Patrick White. Chitwood saw the production, and fell in love with the one-act form all over again.
Seeing Savage Rose Classical Theatre’s summer bill of classic American one-acts (which featured Hinds in Tennessee Williams’ “27 Wagons Full of Cotton”) sealed it. And Chitwood just directed Hinds for Savage Rose in two marathon evenings of Eugene Ionesco’s one-act absurdist comedy “The Bald Soprano,” its one-hour run time allowing the company to present four shows in one night, rather than spacing the run out over six or eight performance nights.
The classics are one thing, but Marrow Street wants to bring back the new American one-act, premiering another White original this week. “Lydia and the Dawn of Man” opens Wednesday at Tim Faulkner Building.
“A college girl has taken a real interest in her anthropology book, to the point where the material from her anthropology book presents itself to her in a real way,” says Hinds. “I think it’s a great comment on struggling for identity, especially in those college years.”
“And there’s something very primal about this piece that lends itself to that performance space in particular,” he adds.
The character of Tim Faulkner Building as a performance space has had as much influence on Marrow Street’s development as the form. The artistic directors praise the Faulkner’s rough edges, excited to produce in a space where Chitwood says “something raw and exciting feels possible.”
“There was something really special about doing ‘The Gardeners’ there a couple of months ago. It was a different atmosphere than is typical in a standard theater,” says Hinds. “We got a lot of audiences who typically wouldn’t come out to see a piece of theater. It’s a very interesting space, creatively.”
“It was as if they had shown up to see art, not a play,” adds Chitwood. “Not that they are exclusive, but that wasn’t their impetus to get there.”
When it comes to short format, Louisville theater audiences are spoiled for choice with ten-minute play evenings, including annual events like Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival Tens, the Ten-Tucky Festival (The Bard’s Town Theatre, opening Thursday) and Finnegan’s Festival of Funky, Fresh Fun. With its national ten-minute play competition, Actors Theatre’s widely credited as the home of the tens. But having written, directed and acted in ten-minute plays, Chitwood says he longed for material that offered a bit more substance such a tight format allows.
“Actors are going to appreciate being able to sink their teeth into something,” says Chitwood.
The company will re-mount “The Gardeners” for the Slant Culture Theatre Festival in November. Though they’re starting out with White’s plays, Hinds says other Louisville playwrights are intrigued by the possibility of having their one-acts — the odd man out in a world of full-lengths and ten-minute festivals — produced in Louisville.
“There’s already been interest when I talk to other people who are writers in the community. They’ve been filing these little plays away and not had a place to submit them,” says Hinds.
But the three aren’t planning too far ahead. They want to stay nimble for the time being, not plotting out a season or two ahead.
“The work will present itself,” says Hinds. “That’s what happened with ‘The Gardeners.’”
Flexible doesn’t mean unintentional. Patrick White, whose artwork gave “The Gardeners” what could become Marrow Street’s signature visual vocabulary, is also designing sets and costumes for “Lydia and the Dawn of Man.” Hinds says the group wants to continue to work with artists from other disciplines in their productions, creating something more like a living installation than traditional theater productions.
“It’s important that [Tim Faulkner Building] is an art gallery. ‘The Gardeners’ run felt like people were coming to look at something and appreciate something with a different eye than the average theater-goer would,” says Hinds. “I’d love to do things there with live music.”
“Lydia and the Dawn of Man” runs every Wednesday night September 11-October 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Tim Faulkner Building (943 Franklin St.). Tickets are $10, cash at the door only.