Editor’s note: The HamilTEN Festival announced on March 12, 2020 that the 2020 iteration of the Festival would be cancelled due to COVID-19.

Live theater takes its audience on a journey. But imagine if the plot twists, character development, comedy and drama was condensed to just ten minutes. Would it still be as effective?

This is the challenge that the annual HamilTEN Festival has posed to playwrights since 2012. For those who are successful in having their work chosen, it’s the ultimate challenge: the chance to showcase their work to an eager audience, but with a only ten minutes to do so, and an equally limiting set. Performances cannot use anything beyond five props, one table and two chairs.

For local playwright Stephen Near, the HamilTEN Festival is an opportunity to test out a narrative and characters that may evolve into a larger work. His offering, Foreign Domestic, is a historical drama that tells of an interaction between a father and daughter. As an artist who traditionally writes longer plays, Near recognizes that a ten-minute play can be full of opportunities, but is also rife with challenges.

“It’s not easy to write a play,” he acknowledged. “But with only ten minutes, you need to be economical with your language, character development and story arc. . .and you need to find a way to hook your audience and then get out.” 

In addition to Near, the 2020 festival will feature fifteen individual performances in three different pods. Each pod is an hour long with 5-ten minute plays in each. The pods have been given different colour-codings to make them distinct, and run back-to-back-to-back on each day of the festival- April 3-5. 

The logistics of selecting these performances is an art in itself, explained the Festival’s new Artistic Director, Annalee Flint. As a local theatre artist herself, Flint was aware of potential biases that could impact her perception of each script. To ensure that every playwright had equal opportunity, identifying information was stripped away from each submission by a third party. Flint then read through each script, conscious of the fact that the performances not only needed to be strong enough to be presented on their own, but work with the other submissions to create a compelling evening of theatre for Festival audiences.

When piecing together the performances for each pod, Flint also tried to balance both veteran playwrights and newcomers in an effort to build connections and bonds between established and emerging artists. At the end of the process, when receiving the identifying information for the chosen works, she was surprised to see the geographical diversity represented.

“Plays were submitted from beyond Hamilton,” Flint acknowledged. “Identifying information showed plays from Kitchener-Waterloo, Oakville, Mississauga and Toronto.”

This geographical variety, as well as the large number of submissions this year, speaks to Flint not just of the Festival’s past success, but also its demand. The Festival saw approximately twice as many applications as it was able to accept.

“There is not really a great home for short pieces of theatre because they can be hard to sell on their own.” said Flint. “It’s cost prohibitive to stage them by yourself, so HamilTEN becomes a great vehicle for these. We specifically showcase short plays.”

The result is a mixed-bag of performances, performance-styles and levels of professionalism. For some, this may be the first work that they’ve had performed, or their first time performing. While for professional creators, like Near, the festival may be an opportunity to explore new characters or ideas before fully flushing out their work. 

To many artists, the Festival represents the opportunity to have their work staged with the opportunity to focus solely on their performance. HamilTEN provides playwrights with the venue, and all promotional, logistical and technical support for the Festival. Playwrights are responsible for their ten-minute work, including the casting of actors.

This creative freedom is often incentive enough to encourage playwrights and actors to participate in the Festival. However, audiences are also able to vote for their favourite performance following each show, with the performances that receive the most votes receiving an award.

“There is an audience choice award (gold, silver, bronze), which comes with a cash prize for the playwright. It’s modest, but it recognizes the favourites.” Flint explained. “Ideally, we’d have honorariums for every playwright. . .but being able to pay all of the artists is a goal in further years.”

Audiences are able to purchase tickets depending on the number of shows they wish to attend. With five performances in each pod, and each pod being presented on each night of the Festival, audiences are only limited by their budget and time. For a full list of performances and start times for each pod, visit the HamilTEN Festival website.

Who: Various Artists
What: HamilTEN Festival
Length: Each pod is 60-minutes in length
Where: Staircase Theatre Bright Room (27 Dundurn Street North)
When: April 3 beginning at 7pm; April 4 beginning at 6:30pm; April 5 beginning at 1:30pm
Tickets: $10 in advance, $14 at the door per pod; $30 for a Festival pass through the HamilTEN website

Feature photo courtesy of HamilTEN Festival (credit to Sarah Janes Photography)

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