Short and SweetSo far Mark Cleary has run a successful business with now over 1200 scripts being submitted world-wide for his Short & Sweet play festival; this year having 140 plays presented all-up, with 140 directors and over 300 actors. That’s a hard task to deliver, and it seems this year’s festival went off without too many hitches.

Short & Sweet offers a good opportunity for theatre dramatists to have their work seen by the general public, to be validated as artists, to practice and grow in their craft.

What’s more the festival certainly appeals to a wider audience. At a mere ten minutes per injection an MTV generation with the collective attention span of a stapler can certainly endure what is at times quite poorly crafted plays. Then there are the mums and dads and aunties and uncles, quite possibly theatre virgins, driving in to the centre of the smoke to watch young so n so have his debut in a semi-professional capacity.

Short & Sweet’s vision is for a more creative world ten minutes at a time. Promotion materials give a clear indication to patrons what sort of creative world is in store for them. This year’s poster displayed two young blonde girls quirkily dressed up in heels, one in a party dress a-la-Cyndi Lauper, one in a low cut short stripy number, both looking as if they have gotten ready to go to Purple Sneakers and dance the night away un-ironically to New Kids on the Block. Centred is an older bloke with aviator sunglasses and a gross cheesy grin posing like Elvis or perhaps Rod Stewart. The concept could be mistaken for an advertisement for condoms, Vodka Cruisers, or a Channel Ten promotion for Neighbours.

Amongst the theatre community there are two commonly held Short & Sweet criticisms. The greatest is that though it is a sponsored competition and the theatre spaces are subsidised, and though they charge $30 per ticket for plays regarded on the most part to be amateur, and $40 per ticket for the gala night in Seymour Centre’s York Theatre which on Friday was full to its capacity of 788, not one artist involved in the entire festival receives one dollar for their work, and not one production was allocated a budget. They even charge $5 for their programs (reviewers included).

Though well administrated, it seems exploitative. If Short & Sweet want a more creative world, they should begin by being less capitalising on the talents of work-hungry artists.

The second criticism is the general quality of work that gets put through to production. What Short & Sweet is doing for the Australian imagination is like what McDonalds is doing with their new menu choices for general health – for every salad there’s seven burgers.

Like with Tropfest, Short & Sweet has been developed in a way that will appeal to the mass market, presenting a sweet soap of digestible delights, forsaking art for gag. The envelope is not being pushed and the proverbial box is still firmly centred. Theatre’s immediacy has the capacity to throw an audience member into a multi-sensuous revelation of the world. Overall at the Gala night there was a trend for naturalistic un-theatrical made-for-TV plays.

The dilemma of theatricality that is Short & Sweet is further highlighted in the “AFC Award for the script which shows the most potential to be a short film”, and the lack of “Award for the script which shows most potential to be a full-length play”. For theatre to grow as an art form, it needs to be respected as that in its own right, which is apart from other media such as film or television.

If theatre is a reflection of society then I think we’re in trouble. Apparently our society is obsessed with JAFAs*, male larrikins (surprise surprise), desperate and dateless thirty something forty something and fifty something women (though they should be grateful they’re being written for, right?), and spicier sex for sixty something and seventy somethings (illegal in Tasmania).

Generally the plays were well written. On the whole the acting was of a high quality. Direction ranged from saving grace to non-existent. In terms of overall production (actors, director, writer) there were only three prime cuts.

*Term commonly used abroad for Aussie travelers, standing for ‘Just Another F***en Aussie’


Gala Night: A review

ACT I

Sexual Perversity in Prague
WINNER Audience choice award

Actor/writer Toby Levins in a relaxed and natural diction tells the story of a cocky Aussie larrikin called Toby (hmm) who lies to a pretty girl whilst in the Czech Republic about being in a play on the West End. Toby is your quintessential JAFA topped with the arrogance of an insecure though mildly sexy North Bondi actor. Dipping in and out of internal monologue, Toby reveals to the audience just exactly how full of s**t he really is. Only highlighting the misogynous mist of the plays’ subject matter is Levins' card-board cut-out female role, Eva, (successfully saved by the graceful talents of Kate Bell), who follows him to London, and then on to Australia. Unfortunately you don’t actually see what’s so great about this guy to warrant such dramatic geographical manoeuvres (and Eva seems far too level headed to be the stalking type), and yet all too often pretty girls do indeed chase the biggest losers so again the reflexive value of theatre gives us something to consider.

The play in fact is very charming. Augusta (Gus) Supple’s holistic direction keeps apace the writing. Supple has used simple sound devices and energetic stage-craft to lift the swift location swings and cohesed an engaging through-line to young Toby’s cock-up, which ends in an almighty slap from Eva to Toby, which perhaps should have been a bullet. The program gave no indication of its autobiographical element, though Levins, even in curtain call, seemed to have a certain Toby quality about him. I can’t help but draw a parallel between him and Stan Zemanec.


Character Development
Character Development
, written by John O’Carroll, is a rather delightful and very witty parlour comedy directed by Robyn McLean. It follows Roy (Peter Turnball), a middle-aged wheel-chair-bound writer who becomes sabotaged by a figment of his imagination - a character in his writing, Brett (Gus Murray), who according to Sydney critics is “nothing more than a poorly constructed He-man cliché”, is having an affair with Roy’s wife Maree (Janine Penfold). The couple re-unite against this out-of-control ‘hero’ character and set their fingers to the keyboards to fire up their own sex life.

With its wishy-washy characters, predictable plot development, at times bad comic timing and overall stale staging, ‘Character Development’ was reminiscent of an episode of The Bold and The Beautiful, it seemed though with no intentional irony (or if there was it didn’t carry through).

Turnball however was excellent.


Almost
WINNER best overall production, WINNER best script, WINNER best director

Almost, by Canadian Krista Dalby, was certainly the pick of the evening.

It is a story of regret, of when pride gets in our way. Two young professionals working in the same office take a fancy to each other but fail to do anything about it. In the unexpected ending as the characters narrate their own death we realise that in fact this office was in the world trade centre.

The characters are deep, funny and real. As actors Sophie Cleary and Paul Ashton play out the politics of an office crush, the intimacy was well achieved even in the massive York Theatre. With their awkward chemistry, impeccable comic timing, and natural totterings as if weaving between office booths, Cleary and Ashton were nothing short of brilliant.

Cleverly directed with interesting staging, Rebecca O’Brien created some beautiful images. She found a smooth rhythm to the already well-paced writing, her use of silence was powerful, and gave particular attention to lighting, intensifying the unbearably familiar sexual tension and then disappointing release between the could-have-been-lovers. O’Brien gets you hooked from the beginning, and you can’t let go until the end.

The ache of a romance that never got to be pierced through the heart and goose-bumped skin of the audience. The tragedy of 911 is used without cliché or sentimental doting. The message is poignant - do not fear each other, fear regret.


Love Story
WINNER AFC Award for the Script Which Shows The Most Potential to be a Short Film

The intense music and soft ethereal lighting which opened Anna Lall’s Love Story gave an expectation for something rather magical, meaning the fall to disappointing cliché was felt a little harder than necessary.

In terms of “Short & Sweet the soap fest” for this play we are talking Home and Away attempts Pinter.

It is the story of a lonely woman of 52 (Lisa Peers) whose only company is her cat, taken home by a male artist (Will Snow) 23 years her junior. Apparently there is a possibility of love, but in fact the issue is explored with the point entirely missed. The whole thing seemed laughable because the dialogue was so clichéd. The play lacked the real tension and chemistry needed to make the connection between these characters believable.


The Pursuit of Happiness
It’s a shame that New Zealander Angela Carey didn’t win anything for her play because it was one of the best of the evening.

Carey plays with words to give a moral message about the unending search for contentment. We have ‘Happy’ (Shannon Ellis) and ‘Ness’ (Anna Burgess) and ‘The Dictionary’ (Steff Dawson) all personified in a design-heavy production supremely directed by Andrew Carlton. Anna Burgess is certainly the stand out comedic actor, and despite the grammatical questionability of the characters mistaking ‘greed’ for ‘happiness’, this was ten minutes of good theatre.


Keeping Annabelle
WINNER best actress, RUNNER-UP best script

… and quite deservedly so.

Rachel Welch from the UK has written a cute and funny play that has been well teamed with director Neil Gooding. It begins with Sam Shepherd-esque eeriness - as Geoff Buckley music plays a shrill scream rings out, revealing a twitchy guy called Joe (Ric Herbert) holding a gun to a woman’s head covered in a Coles bag. The woman turns out to be Beattie (Melle Stewart), and as it happens Joe has kidnapped the wrong gal. In a neat twist kidnapper becomes hostage to a woman sick of being over-looked and under-loved.

From dry delivery to melodramatic put-on, a vocally warm Melle Stewart indeed was a highlight of the night.


ACT II

Sleepless Night

Jonathan Gavin’s Sleepless Night, directed by Natalie Lopes, was the night’s weakest link. We are talking fourth season of Secret Life of Us. One of those plays where you feel embarrassed for the actors.

With awkward set design (a giant bed mid stage), blocking circa Rock eisteddfod, and cringe gender politics ala Men are from Mars, the play explores a JAFA lost in the world and then found in love with a married woman who turns out to not be married (ooh, a twist).


Hope Fades But the Duck Never Dies
Runner-up Best Actor

With an ironing board on stage and its heavy silence-laden drama there was a slight hint of Aussie soap Prisoner to this essentially clichéd story of a woman in a crumbling marriage battling the binds of duty and habit.

Despite the odds however Jane Miller has written a good play, thoughtfully acted by Penny Hall and Maurizio Degliesposti, and on the whole neatly directed by Felicity Nicol.

Were there an award for most potential for a full-length play this should have nabbed it.


Road Kill
This is the story of a car accident involving a black woman (who it turns out is actually a man) and a racist larrikin, ending in a lingually graphic rape.

Unfortunately Louise Fischer’s direction fell short of Rick Viede’s rhythmic and gritty script. Though well cast, the actors remained facing out to the audience, unnaturally planted like statues, unnecessarily severing what could have been a more intense interplay.

Actors Pamela Jikiemi and Kim Knuckey were superb.


9/11 Conspiracy – The Musical
WINNER Alex Broun Award for Best New Talent (Director)

This provided one of the most ridiculous ten minutes I’ve spent this year.

With its political subject matter one feels compelled to hear something to argue about. When I cottoned on to the toilet trajectory of this work I could then relax and enjoy it for all its university arts review nostalgia.

Basically in good old-fashioned Aussie insensitivity this musical sets out to offend every religion possible. There’s nothing new to hear or see and it’s not particularly good theatre, but Will Snow who played a whimpering Tony Blair and Pat Brennan who played a cocaine slapped George Bush were hilarious. Olivia Ansell’s direction of the 11-part cast was indeed commendable.


The Second Cuppa
WINNER Best Actor, RUNNER-UP Best Actress

Finally we have a touch of Mother and Son mixed with Are You Being Served?

Playing with archaic Australian elderly archetypes, a huggable wife refuses to serve her yobbo husband another cup of tea because he drinks too much beer and doesn’t express his love or desire for her.

Refreshingly, writer Frank Davidson was entirely invisible and gave a balanced argument between the bickering couple.

Unfortunately, despite some very good acting by Peter Carmody and particularly Christine Greenough and a relaxed directional hand from Leslie Marsh, this sentimental comedy was boring, offered no surprise, and chartered a pointless trajectory.

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