Imagine a producer convincing a regional director to take on a script that neither of them has read for a show both already know will sell out. The director must also forfeit control in selecting the cast, which the producer will choose—again, before ever having read the play. A pretty risky proposition, right?
Now suppose that the producer must also persuade nine other directors to accept these dubious terms. Plus, they have to share a single pool of ten actors. Then they all have to work out their shows at the same time before presenting them to the public. The chances of this working once or twice seem slim. But fifteen times?
Whatever the odds, 10 by 10 in the Triangle has been beating them since 2002. In the process, the festival of new ten-minute plays has improbably become The ArtsCenter's most successful annual theatrical endeavor, attaining a national reputation among playwrights—witness the eleven hundred entries it received this year, twice the number from a year ago.
The better it works, the less patrons detect the logistics of coordinating ten simultaneous productions that have to fit on the same stage under one set of lights. They'll also need individual rehearsal spaces at times that don't conflict with the actors' other shows in the festival or The ArtsCenter's daily summer camps.
"It's an algorithmic miracle how Jeri Lynn Schulke puts it all together," says Page Purgar, a regional actor and five-time festival veteran. Each January, Schulke, the festival's producer, has to track the progress of a small army of readers as they cull submissions for three months. During that time, she's also reaching out to regional actors and directors about scripts that won't be selected for months.
"You have to do it that way," Schulke says. "If you wait until May, when the scripts are chosen, people get booked."
That makes 10 By 10 "a trust exercise, in some ways," says director Tamara Kissane. Still, Schulke endeavors to give directors as much choice as she can. She gives them a week to make their selections from the final forty scripts, first come, first served. Once the shows are cast, stage manager Emma Nadeau constructs a stack of spreadsheets to cross-reference artists' schedules with available rehearsal spaces. The result suggests a multicolored duel between a Mondrian and Tetris. It's the only thing that keeps production from descending into total chaos.
With so many of the usual variables taken out of the directors' hands, Kissane says the festival is "more of a reactive experience." That allows her greater freedom to focus on the elements of a show she cares most about.
"There are fewer things for me to worry about, and since the quality of the material and people are really high, it's not that much of a risk," Kissane says. "It feels more like an adventure."
For actors who have to play multiple roles in one evening, there are certainly challenges. But Purgar, who performs in three productions this year, thinks it's all in good fun.
"I don't think anyone wants to see an actor play the same thing two or three times in one night; that's not the festival's point," she says. "Here you get to put on different hats so fast in front of the same audience. It's like actors' summer camp." When creators work in such close proximity, a community mindset develops.
"It takes so many people to make it, where the usual theater experience tends to be smaller," Kissane says. "It's about being part of something bigger, one piece of the whole."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theatrical Tetris"