Theater of the Hive Mind: The One-Minute Play Festival Illuminates the City with Many Small, Bright Visions

It'd be hard to imagine a mode of theater more seemingly apt for our newsfeed-dominated age than the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival, a two-night event, now in its fifth year, that features more than 80 one-minute plays by more than 50 playwrights, all locals.

But Dominic D'Andrea, who created the first One-Minute Play Festival in New York nine years ago (and has since seen it spread to more than 20 American cities), is adamant that one-minute play festivals are not theater for the Twitter age.

“It's quite the opposite,” D'Andrea says by phone from New York, where he's in tech rehearsals for another One-Minute Play Festival. “I hate when it's framed that way. This work requires a great amount of focus.”

The One-Minute Play Festival, D'Andrea says, is not about catering to short attention spans or racing against the clock (though he takes the one-minute cap very seriously). “We're asking 100 playwrights to consider the communities and neighborhoods that they belong to and the way they live their lives, and I ask them to create moments that could only happen in this place and time, that speak to the here and now,” he says. “When they submit these moments, we're looking at the emerging themes, ideas, and connections. So it's really amazing that 10 playwrights in the city would write about one topic, and 10 playwrights will write about another topic, and 10 playwrights will write about a third topic, so that there are these four to 10 huge narratives that organically emerge in the structure of the work.

“We're performing a mind-map of 100 pulses of storytelling,” D'Andrea continues. “It's like a core sample: sticking something in the earth and looking at a cross-section of what's there.”

The event's focus wasn't always so lofty, he says. In its first year, the One-Minute Play Festival featured “a lot of gags and dick jokes.” But as the festival matured, it's found a higher calling in democratically and organically capturing the zeitgeist of the community. An evergreen theme of the San Francisco festivals has been the way technology impacts our relationships; this year's plays will also tackle everything from the drought to gentrification. D'Andrea, in collaboration with the plays' nine directors, orders the event according to these themes, with each thematic group getting its own director.

In bringing this event to S.F., D'Andrea partnered with Playwrights Foundation, one of the top new play development centers on the West Coast. Artistic director Amy Mueller, in inviting more than 90 playwrights to participate, concentrated on getting as diverse a cross-section of the community as possible, in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as career level. “I really did my homework,” she says. “I really reached out to communities of people we haven't worked with before.” Some participating writers, like Aaron Loeb, Megan Cohen, and Christopher Chen, are some of the most well-known in the area, while others are fresh out of grad school.

This sense of camaraderie — which can be rare for writers, who often work alone — is what draws many to participate in the festival. “It's a really nice community-building for theater artists,” says Braden Marks, a playwright who's in the festival for the second time. “It's not as competitive as it can sometimes be, because it's a minute or two for everyone. As you take in these themes that emerge, you see that no one playwright could have really created that. You get this sliver of what people are concerned about in the city right now.” The audience that turned out last year was so big that the festival sold out a week in advance, motivating a move to a larger venue, the Brava Theater, this year.

The playwrights who accept the challenge of the one-minute play festival relish its constraints. “It forces you to be very particular about how you use language and how you manipulate time,” says Elizabeth Spreen, also a two-time participant in the festival. “It's an opportunity to experiment in a really safe way.”

Both Spreen and Chen — who's participated in the festival all five years it's been in San Francisco — believe that the most successful one-minute plays layer surprise upon surprise. Marissa Skudlarek, a four-time participant, stresses that to achieve that surprise, the onus is on an immediately recognizable opener. “You have to make sure it's really clear what's going on from the get-go in the writing and the direction. You can't puzzle.” Then, she says, “you have to get from the opening tableau to a different place in the span of a minute.”

Challenging as that seems, it can also be liberating, says Chen. “Once you have the core of the idea,” he says, “there's an allowance to cut away all the bullshit of a full-length play.”

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