Gotta Minute? Nuts and Bolts of the One-Minute Play Festival

Tick tock...

Frank Abagnale Jr., the subject of the bio crime pic and stage musical Catch Me If You Can, once said, “People say that life is short, but it isn’t short. It’s very long.” Thankfully, to help fill up some of that very long amount of time, there are plenty of plays and musicals to attend — some of which are long, and some of which are short. Very short.

The One-Minute Play Festival (1MPF), touted as America’s largest and longest running grassroots theater company, has grown into a nationwide phenomenon. According to the website, 1MPF is a “social barometer project, which investigates the zeitgeist of different communities through dialogue, consensus building, and a performance of 50-100 short moments generated by each community.”

But can a play really tell a story in only one minute? Yes. It can.

I have had the good fortune to be a part of this festival as a writer and can tell you firsthand that, while challenging, it is indeed possible to pack a punch in 60 seconds — or less.

Recently, I got the chance to catch up with Founder and Producing Artistic Director Dominic D’Andrea to find out more about how the festival has evolved, where he sees it going and what makes a good one-minute play.

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50 to 100 pulses of storytelling.

Robin Rothstein: When did The One-Minute Play Festival start and what sparked the idea?

Dominic D’Andrea: I started The One-Minute Play Festival over 10 years ago as a challenge to our artistic community to “write the one thing that happens in a play.” In our first cohort, all of our friends were young playwrights or artists kicking around NYC, who are all our best and brightest a decade later: Rajiv Joseph, Kristoffer Diaz, Bash DoranMike Daisey, Matthew Lopez, Adam Szymkowicz, Jason Grote, among many others. It was fun, and obvious that it was going to be a thing that we would do.

But the origin story is not as important as what it’s become. First, per the plays itself, the 1MPF process is not about “distilling down.” It’s about planting a “seed” image, word, idea, moment, exchange at the core, and then building up to include what is necessary. It’s about finding room for breath and stillness, and not “cramming in” a bunch of content. It’s about committing to treating the creation of the work we are asking for as complete works, even if they are short.

Second, it’s a “social barometer project,” meaning it’s a platform for a community to engage with big themes and ideas that they generate. We use the metaphor of a “performative community mind-map,” or like sticking a core-sample in the earth and looking at a cross-section of what’s in the dirt through 50 to 100 pulses of storytelling. It’s survey art.

Dominic D’Andrea.

RR: How many people participate at a time and how do you manage to herd all the cats?

DD: Between 80 and 300 writers, actors, directors, theater members and community members-at-large. Herding cats is kind of our specialty. The short answer is: previous knowledge, trial and error, repetition, feedback and leading with values and clarity.

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RR: How many cities has the festival played at this point?

DD: We’ve been in about 30 total and do about 20 annual cities, some more than one per city, but we’ve also worked with specific populations of circumstance or interest — prisons, senior centers, immigrant communities, communities in crisis and others. Associate Producer Caitlin Wees, or myself are on the road 20 to 30 weeks out of the year.

A good one-minute play is a small portal into a much wider and fuller world.

RR: How did all these organizations become aware of the festival and what has been your involvement in these productions?

DD: Personal relationships. Or they reach out to me via my personal relationships. In the early days, we got invited to make work outside of NYC. I didn’t have any big plans to do anything outside initially. It just grew naturally.

I plan [the festivals], lead them and make them specifically for each iteration. I am a community-engaged artist, so it’s largely about the way we put them together and lead them.

RR: Could the festival go international?

DD: It already has, and more upcoming that we can’t announce yet!

RR: What is the basic process and timeline for producing the festival — from finding a theater organization partner to securing performance space, from finding playwrights to attaching the actors and directors, to communicating with all the participants?

DD: We set up our partnerships a year in advance and, at this point, our dance card is really full. If we do take a new one, it’s all a matter of calendar space and resources.

So we ask [the artists], set deadlines, and expect our participants to meet them. We have many of these festivals in the pipes at the same time. In fact, we are working on four at the same time all at different steps in the process right now. We do this kind of “admin” work about 40 to 50 hours a week. We have a pretty well-oiled process.

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RR: What makes a good one-minute play?

DD: A good one-minute play is a small frame that is a portal into a much wider and fuller world. It’s a form that relies on being topical, present and in direct response to the world as it is. And when we look through 60 to 90 portals, we get a much fuller sense of the world at a given moment. They are good when the writers treat them as thoughtful and complete works and not an exercise or throwaway. They are easy to make just okay, and they are hard to make good — but when they are good, there is nothing like them.

Also, per the way we work and what we always say to our participants: it’s not just about what a one-minute play is or says, it’s about what the group has to say. We are looking for the themes, ideas, styles, trends, conversations and connections that exist within a specific group of writers. That’s what’s unique about our work: we are an excellent artistic practice that focuses on the zeitgeist in a really effective way — for better or worse, we always learn a lot about where we are.

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A 2015 performance of The Every 28 Hours Plays at Providence, RI’s Trinity Repertory Company. (Photo: Erin X. Smithers.)

RR: What social and political effects do you see the festival having on the local and national level and within arts communities?

DD: That’s hard to qualify, but I can say a few things. We did a huge project about Black Lives Matter called The Every 28 Hours Plays, which I made in Ferguson, MO, for a week, and then a year later my colleague at Oregon Shakes promoted the plays and offered stagings of them in communities all over the country. We work with young people in South Florida, trying to imagine their future. We’re about to do a US/Mexico collaboration called No Wall. We did a big project in Providence, RI, which was recognized by their mayor. My collaborator, Joe Wilson, Jr., from Trinity Rep, and I were awarded a citizen citation.

Hurt is real. Pain is real. Our country is in crisis.

All of our festivals raise some money for new plays, education or social programming that benefits the community at large in various ways. We’ve funded playwright residency programming, youth and continuing education programming, youth playwright programming, women’s shelters, food banks, library services, access programming, social justice programs and operating budgets of struggling organizations. We’ve done this on an ongoing basis and it’s something I’m really proud of. Sometimes that money we earn is so little it serves as a token or symbol, and sometimes they directly depend on it.

RR: Right after the presidential election, you initiated a rapid response One-Minute Play Festival in NYC. How did you pull that together so quickly, and what did you learn about what artists were thinking?

DD: We were able to pull it together in a “rapid response” format because we just had to. Our community, our city, our country was hurt, raw, angry, confused and stunned. Nobody knew what to do. And who are we as artists in moments of crisis if we don’t put out values, our knowledge, our ability and our leadership into action?

We started by doing a community process session. We had about 50 people with us from 6pm until nearly midnight. It was just a response space. We decided in that room that we needed to do something. Our friends Tim Errickson from Boomerang Theatre Company, Michael Gardner from The Brick, Micah Bucey from JudsonNathaniel Claridad and Nilan Johnson and 1MPF’s Caitlin Wees, all contributed in various ways and we made a festival from community meeting to stage at The Brick in less than a week.

What we learned from it? Hurt is real. Pain is real. Our country is in crisis. It provided a space for our artistic community to debate, to challenge, to listen and to say things. It was raw, it was beautiful. But we didn’t know what would happen — and so many things have happened since then. We are still unsure and raw. Our job is to keep active and not to normalize these political and social things, or we are all screwed.

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RR: As an artistic leader, what are the most important skills or habits you have developed that have helped you stay the course and succeed?

DD: Try. Work. Make progress. It’s about moving down a big punch-list every day. It’s not a mystery. It’s nuts and bolts. It’s often boring and repetitive. But it’s necessary. It’s a lot of hard work, attention to detail, and picking the right battles.

Embrace the community and meet them where they are. The nature of doing community work is that it’s never going to be perfect. But we commit to setting them up for success, no matter where they are in their artistic development.

Plant seeds of change. Point out what’s working and what’s noteworthy. Make them aware of the big themes and ideas. Ask the community what it means. Invite them to engage with it. Frame conversations that are generated by a community and let the community have ownership of them. Return. See what’s developed. Sometimes big things do! That’s what success looks like for us.