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Abingdon Theatre Company’s Virtual Festival of Short Plays returns with four new stories

Abingdon Theatre Company is bringing its Virtual Festival of Short Plays back for a third time, giving theatre enthusiasts around the country a chance to hear timely stories from four unique playwrights. The festival premieres Feb. 23 at 7 PM ET on YouTube and continues on Feb. 24, but before that happens, I had a chance to speak with the creative team about the festival and the productions.

Here’s what Abingdon artistic director Chad Austin, artistic associate Kate Bell, and playwrights Ada A., Maximillian Gill and Alexis Krysten Morgan had to say about the two-day opportuntiy to present these shorter yet no less impactful stories not just to a theatre audience—but to a digital audience.

Brittany Frederick: How was the Virtual Festival of Short Plays lineup decided?

Chad Austin: Kate has been working as line producer alongside of me to bring in the plays and the playwrights. But this is our third year presenting the Virtual Festival of Short Plays. We received a little bit over a hundred pieces this year. So Kate and I, we’re reading those pieces all through the summer. And then we go from selecting the lovely playwrights [to selecting] the directors next. So it’s really just a building block of gathering great people to tell these wonderful stories.

BF: Was there any particular criteria that you had or types of stories that you were looking to showcase this year?

CA: When we started this festival three years ago—and the reason that we started it—we wanted to make sure that we opened the doors and did our part to meet more emerging artists and emerging playwrights, certainly from underrepresented communities… So after reading all those pieces, then we really need to decide, do we have a broad spectrum of stories here?

A lot of times there were maybe a play that was just as wonderful…but it was a very different perspective of the world and story. I think that’s the challenge—not just finding the best plays [but] the subject matter and trying to, within only four pieces, give something for everyone and a perspective for many different people.

BF: How would you each describe your particular play? Was it always intended as a short play or are these smaller samples of a larger idea? What was it like working within that ten-minute space?

Ada A. (The Reverend Dr. Paul(i) Murray): I typically don’t base any of my stories on real life. The play that I wrote is based on Pauli Murray, so because I was limited to real life, it was easier for me to write a shorter play. Not because her life wasn’t worthy of a full-length, but because my brain isn’t used to writing a story like this, and so I had to start small. There’s potential for this story to blow up, but because this is a newer type of genre that I’ve never written in before, it made more sense for me to start out with this being a shorter play.

Alexis Krysten Morgan (Miles to Go): I really have been working on doing ten-minute plays. I write one-act and full-lengths, but it was a season of writing ten-minutes. I wanted to tell this aspect of how African Americans were able to travel throughout this country [in the earlier 20th century] and some of the barriers that they faced. It felt like the ten-minute play was the perfect format to tell that story. It could possibly be expanded, but for what I wanted to share, it really matched and aligned to that form.

Maximillian Gill (Threat Assessment): It feels like every story has its right length. For me, this one, just felt like it fell into two neat scenes that contrasted and compared with each other. And it just worked out to be 30 minutes.

Chad Austin: They all wrote beautiful pieces, but the length and the way they told the story, I feel like everything is buttoned up. I feel like we have a beginning, middle [and end] of all these stories. To have put so much into that 10 minutes is why I was drawn to all of the pieces… It’s very interesting because as a reader, I have read in the past things that I could tell were the beginning of an idea. Things that I could tell it could go off in many directions. With these four pieces, they are so isolated in the amount of storytelling and audiences will get a full realized story from all these short pieces.

I’m just really thrilled by that. We haven’t had that experience totally, if I’m completely honest, in the two previous years. They have been pieces that were the start of an idea. Now we’re in our third year; I really wanted pieces that did want to stand alone and be represented as a play in itself and not a part of another story. So I’m really glad that we were seeing eye to eye on that.

BF: What is that like from a production point of view? Does the length of the play change the logistics of making it happen?

Kate Bell: Most of it was just doing [our] best to honor the work and how the editing could help push the story along. It was really easy with the team that we had with the playwrights and directors and all the cast members. And I don’t think the virtual form took away from any of the plays. I think it helped add more to it, especially getting playwrights from across the country, directors from across the country as well as the cast members. It didn’t matter where they were.

BF: Each of these plays tells a very different story. Is there anything in particular that you want to highlight to audiences as they sit down to watch, or any particular message you want to leave them with once they’ve seen it?

Ada A.: It’s very much about how we talk about people in the past using language of the present. Pauli Murray, who is very much a self-determined person, and what it means that someone could rewrite their story through a contemporary lens. What would it be if 50 years down the line they’re like, oh, someone is writing about me like that? The play ends with Pauli Murray talking about herself using her own words and I think the language that she uses in that final monologue is very much the language of 1980-something.

While it might be problematic and offensive now, those are the words she needed to outline the boundaries of her freedom, to outline the boundaries of her own personhood and I think that’s very powerful. The proudest thing about this play to me is that it ends with her words from a letter that she wrote and not my own feeble 2023 dialogue.

AKM: For me it’s the idea that this could happen again. That we’re not so past this and it’s [not so long ago] that Black people couldn’t travel in a safe way throughout the country. As we look to see what’s happening in our country, as we look to see what’s happening in our world, we need to continue to fight for not just our freedom but our liberty. That’s the idea I want to come across to the audience.

MG: I think that this play does a good job of shedding a light on some of the forgotten victims of the so-called “war on terror.”

BF: Is there any particular way that viewers can continue supporting your work if they enjoy it during the Virtual Festival of Short Plays?

MG: Something that I do after participating or seeing a festival like this is I go to the New Play Exchange. I look up the playwrights and the plays and if they’re on there, I leave a recommendation. It’s a great resource for getting people’s work out there. The more recommendations you get, the more it kind of lifts you up and the more you’re likely to be noticed by other theatre companies and universities and people producing theatre.

The Virtual Festival of Short Plays runs Feb. 23-24 on the Abingdon Theatre Company YouTube channel. For more information on the festival and the company, visit their website.

Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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