Scene by James: What has happened to the Short+Sweet Festival?

Tom Wardle, Mustaq Missouri & Georgina Silk in Threatened Panda Fights Back!

[by James Wenley]

Tom Wardle, Mustaq Missouri & Georgina Silk in Threatened Panda Fights Back!
Tom Wardle, Mustaq Missouri & Georgina Silk in Threatened Panda Fights Back!

It’s started to bother me that the promoters of Short+Sweet are still running with the line that if you don’t enjoy one play, it’s okay, the next is just 10 minutes away. The subtext for potential ticket buyers is that some of the plays will be a bit shit. Short+Sweet Theatre has been going in Auckland for seven years. I would expect most plays by now to be good to excellent.

What has happened to the Short+Sweet Festival? The international franchise came to Auckland in 2009 at the Herald Theatre in partnership with The Edge (now Auckland Live). In its heyday, Short+Sweet was a hive of industry activity. Independent productions would be foolish to be program their shows at the same time – the Festival sucked up audiences. I did a few and had a great time. Short+Sweet has always been an excellent way to discover new actors, and for people to try out new skills like directing and writing.

Short+Sweet and Auckland Live went their separate ways two years ago. Having seen the first week of Short+Sweet Theatre in its second year at TAPAC I am sorry to report that the Festival is a shadow of its former self. When there is so much excellent theatre happening in other venues (All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever, The Events, The Black, Ernest Rutherford…) it is difficult to make an argument as to why you should see Short+Sweet. Only once you’ve seen all those mentioned above should you start thinking about going to Short+Sweet.

For reasons out of the control of the organisers, there are only seven plays in this line-up. One is excellent, a couple are good, the rest mediocre. There is no curtain call when I saw this tonight (Thursday). I think that’s very disrespectful way to treat the audience. We WANT to clap you, we EXPECT to clap you. It’s a rather deflationary way to finish. Good on the actors who are still there when we emerge in the foyer.

The Festival runs for one month at TAPAC. Joining Short+Sweet Dance, Theatre and Song for the first time is Short+Sweet Cabaret. This year, Short+Sweet Theatre is launching in Wellington too. They’ve spread themselves too thinly.  To make Short+Sweet relevant again I’d argue they need to downsize: have one punchy week of Short+Sweet theatre, and program the best of the best. Have a dramaturg offer script advice. Keep the wildcards for the newbies, and if having their own separate show doesn’t work anymore, maybe program a different wildcard play for each of the performances for the newbies. Have ONE final gala night incorporating the best from the Dance, Theatre, Cabaret and Song seasons. That would be appointment viewing.

There is a fine art to crafting a 10 minute play. It needs an idea strong enough to sustain itself, but also bring the audience to some sort of satisfying resolution. Not all ideas are enough to sustain a full-length play. I reckon even fewer ideas are enough to sustain a 10 minute play.

Case in point: My Sad Genie by Lisette de Jong. It’s I dream of Jeanie in 2015. Except the play is still stuck in the 1960s.  Would a Genie of 2015 still be happy being at the beck and call of the man, granting his every desire? This one, played by Paula Wray, doesn’t seem to have thought about. In between fuming about how humanity is still war-hungry, she’s on her hands and knees cleaning. There could be some sharp satire, but instead the play goes for pointless ranting and a squib romance (Tom Kane’s aww shucks character rather likes his genie, but is too afraid to come out with). It is a meandering way to begin the evening, though points for the magic tricks director Tony Forster throws in.

The Perfect Independent Film starts dramatically enough – a guy (Romain Mereau) and a girl (Emma-Mae Eglington) have awoken after a night of passion to find they don’t remember any of it – when they are interrupted by two people in trench-coats (Rebecca Parr and Matt MacDougal) who claim they have been transcribing their every word with the hopes of creating a script for an independent feature. Director Jesse Hilford has clearly chosen to go for hammy acting for these two, but the results are groan inducing rather than amusing. Writer Trace Crawford seems to want to satirise the clichéd conventions of both mainstream and independent stories, but the narrative commentary is very simplistic.

Little Boy’s Room by Phil Brooks is programmed last, and promises to give us some good drama. Set in a bathroom, it the wedding day for the groom (James Jenning) but he has cold feet. His bride to be is “up the duff without a paddle” and it turns out the best man (Phil Brooks) is actually his lover. Brooks fulfils his premise with strong and fraught back and forth between the pair, then introduces a third character, played by Lauie Sila, and the drama is stopped so Sila can go the toilet. That’s right, the only reason for introducing this character is so he can TAKE A DUMP. The drama needed escalation, but not like this. No doubt Brooks and director Fasitua Amosa bet on this being hilarious, but when it comes at the expense of dramatic progression, it is a shit too far. Luckily, the ending gives us a better pay off.

Plays that deal with grief are often an odd fit for Short+Sweet, as is the case for In the Pound by Judith Cowley, as the surrounding context makes it difficult for a story that demands deeper emotional engagement. Bevan (Mike Howell) and June (Sheena Irving) are estranged. He comes to here asking for money to save his dog from the pound, but behind their surface interaction we discover a dark hole: the death of their son. Cowley’s play is a well contained treatment of the theme. While Howell’s character is suitably pathetic, he doesn’t quite connect with the text. Irving’s grief is powerful, and makes a difficult watch. This good work is undone by some TERRIBLE mimed opening and closing of a door that director Christopher Preston has Howell perform.

It’s thrilling when you see one actor give two strong casting performances in different plays. Earlier Irving appeared in Cryptic, by Louis Mendiola and directed by Thomas Sainsbury, where she plays Kate, a Goth with interests in the occult, who encourages Morgan (Kermath) to dig up graves in search of treasure. She gets stuck in too, high heels and all. But her real plan is to create an army of the undead. With Sainsbury and Mendiola it is quirky as hell, especially the jokes at the expense of minor league New Zealand celebrities.

Grace, by Alex Broun, is a very good 10 minute play. Jessica Hunt, Hannah Patterson, and Vicky MacCulloch are dressed to the nines for high tea. They compare biographical stats and figures – number of children, number of husbands, year of death and so on. It becomes apparent they are portraying three very famous stars. The actresses are assured, and their exchanges are rich, though I wondered if the earlier details would be more resonant if it was clear for the audience who each of them were at the start.

If you do catch this week’s show, it is worth it for Threatened Panda Fights Back! Written by Short+Sweet veteran Rex McGregor (is there any year that he has missed?), director Katie Burson employs her clowning nous for an imaginative piece about a Panda threatened, not by extinction, but the new hot thing in animal conversation. Mustaq Missouri’s Panda is full of his own self-importance, a rock star and poster boy for WWF. His mate (Irasa Siave) tries many tactics to pique his sexual interest, but he stubbornly refuses: too many Pandas, and they’ll lose what makes them special. His thinking is challenged when very special birds Mr D (Tom Wardle) and Mrs D (Georgina Silk) appear on the scene and lay claim to the enclosure. It’s a great idea, great script, and made vibrant by the cast’s playful and physically astute performances. I’d love to see this enlarged and for Katie Burson to keep an entire zoo.

I am curious to see Week Two of Short+Sweet Theatre. I’m interested in seeing what Pretty Asian Theatre Company are up to. They are doing it right, using Short+Sweet to test out parts of a larger work in development. Next week is supersized with 12 works, and includes pieces from the recently cancelled wildcard show. It looks like a decent line up.

Threatened Panda Fights Back! reminds you how great Short+Sweet can be. It is sad to see Short+Sweet having to fund-raise on Boosted and struggling to meet their target. The performers, writers, directors are not paid for Short+Sweet, they dedicate many hours to rehearsing their pieces, and often spend quite a bit from their own pockets for set, props and costume. Yes the Festival provides a venue and platform, but it is the artists themselves who subsidise the Festival, so is it fair that they should also have to Boost it? Is it fair to ask audiences, who have paid for their ticket, to Boost it?

I am still a believer in Short+Sweet, but if audiences were to judge Short+Sweet by the strength of this week, what reason are you giving them to come back?

See TAPAC for more details about Short+Sweet Theatre.

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