Alex Lacey as Noah and Rebecca Cross as Olivia in ”Jehovah’s Witnesses Have Moms Too,” from this year’s 10 Minute Play Festival at Actors Theatre Playhouse in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire.
William Dixon
Alex Lacey as Noah and Rebecca Cross as Olivia in ”Jehovah’s Witnesses Have Moms Too,” from this year’s 10 Minute Play Festival at Actors Theatre Playhouse in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire.

Hooking the audience

Actors Theatre Playhouse gears up for its 49th season with its Ten-Minute Play Festival

WEST CHESTERFIELD, N.H.-Lights up in West Chesterfield: Actors Theatre Playhouse (ATP) opens its 49th season with the 14th annual Ten-Minute Play Festival. To whet the appetite, an ATP press release asks:

What happens when...

• A young movie buff, raised on the classics, must face the music (and a little advice)?• Olivia answers the door armed only with angst and preconceptions: Will she get religion?• The neighbor's philosophy is 'Build a wall'?• A desperate woman heeds a rancher's warning?• Exposure therapy reveals more than just anxiety?• Christmas is the hallmark of the day?• A father and son consider the real choices on their table?

Two friends conspire to search for a soulmate?

The answers, we're promised, are to be found in eight tightly wrapped 10-minute plays, running June 6 to 22 at ATP.

A fairly new trend in popular theater - a sign, perhaps, of hectic times - the 10-minute play established itself as a genre in 1977 with the Humana Festival of New American Plays hosted by Actors Theatre of Louisville, a highly regarded player on the regional theater stage.

Whereas a more traditional one-act play could run up to an hour or so, the 10-minute play is just that. Such acquiescence to our shortening attention spans parallels the truncation of a full-length Hamlet, for example, which could run over four hours, to something like The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), which romps from A to Z in 97 minutes.

Whatever the ramifications of shorter attention spans might be, no matter: the 10-minute play is a genre that hooks an audience.

This year, 20 actors - veterans as well as several new to the stage - and eight directors offer Panic Attack by Loretta Oleck, Build a Wall by Cary Pepper, Three Sides by Peter J. Stavros, Two Ladies in Black Heading Toward a Bench by Marj O'Neill-Butler, I Don't Call 911 and Jehovah's Witnesses Have Moms Too by Emily Worrell, Never Too Many by Carol Mark, and Ten Minutes 'til Christmas by Brian Vinero.

ATP's Festival Producer Jim Bombicino explains that these eight were culled by a committee of seven, most of them directors, through a carefully conceived process.

"In early August, [ATP artistic director] Sam [Pilo] posted in a New York City playwrights' newsletter online that ATP was looking for 10-minute plays. Originally, we'd targeted New England playwrights and we got hammered - 100 submissions in the first two days."

Out of 320 submissions reviewed, the final selections spanned the geographic range, from California to Kentucky and from Minnesota to Florida.

"The plays themselves are strong," says Bombicino. "Each tells a story, has an arc, a conflict, and a resolution, and then a message that you walk away with. At this stage of the game, I always wonder, Are these going to work?" he admits.

With actors stretched in busy lives, herding them to rehearse can be challenging. And then there are the logistics of set changes, which need to be tight to ensure flow: "We keep sets minimal, so that helps."

"There's a lot of cross-pollination" among the theater groups in the region, Bombicino notes, "which is a blessing and a curse because people are overcommitted."

But he counts his blessings, he adds, for the fact that in the years following the pandemic, ATP has "gone ahead without a hitch, we haven't lost any actors or had to cancel any productions."

According to Pilo, the festival is traditionally a showcase for seasoned ATP directors and actors. It is also an effective proving ground for those new to ATP.

Among the newcomers is director Bahman Mahdavi, who says he has "enjoyed [ATP's] well-oiled and smooth production process, and have been learning by observing other more-experienced directors at work."

From George Bernard Shaw to a literary variety show

The ATP season moves on with staged readings of the provocative satirist George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion on two Saturdays, June 29 and July 6, directed by Pilo.

Heartened by last year's reading of Shaw's Misalliance - "they got all the jokes," Pilo says, a little surprised - he lauds the Irish playwright's Pygmalion as being "as funny as a Frasier script."

Rooted in the ancient myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, Shaw's play gives us one of theater's most charming and enduring characters in Eliza Doolittle, a guttersnipe of a London flower seller who transforms into a high-society idol under the tutelage of the wacky and seemingly heartless Professor Higgins. The script became the book for Lerner and Lowe's ever-popular My Fair Lady.

The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, based on the book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, runs next in July, directed by Burt Tepfer.

On its website, the ATP describes the play as "a captivating, thought-provoking entertainment." The story centers around a magazine fact-checker and the author of "a transcendent essay about the suicide of a teenage boy - an essay that could save the magazine from collapse. But when the facts in the essay are checked, the two come head-to-head in a comedic yet gripping battle over facts versus truth."

J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls is on the bill for August, also directed by Pilo. A "classic play of the believable middle-class Yorkshire family called to account for its moral crimes by the enigmatic Inspector Goole, this stands as a metaphor for our own failure to accept our responsibility to others," notes Concord Theatricals.

In September, ATP will try out a new type of production, Spotlight, a literary variety show.

This year, as noted on the ATP website, "actors, musicians - and perhaps audience members - will explore what it means to be 'good' (and not so good!) through readings of poetry, quotes, short stories; excerpts from plays; and songs - old to new, profound to ridiculous [...], an entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking evening at the theater." Wendy Almeida and Lin Snider direct.

The season closes in late September with Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. According to Concord Theatricals: "In lyrical, soaring, and earthy prose, verse, and song, the most controversial poet of the mid-century stages a twenty-hour midnight pub crawl of a Welsh fishing village exposing the victorious and the venal among [its] denizens."

Bob Kramsky directs, bringing to life "not only what happens in the streets and houses of Llareggub but also what is inside the minds and souls of the residents. Lyrical, funny, bawdy, and moving, it speaks with a universality for all generations."

Passing the baton

Reflecting on the upcoming season, Pilo says, "Last year, audience-wise, saw an explosion of new people coming after the pandemic."

Having recently opened the box office for this year's season, he reports already seeing "very good results." In terms of drawing people in, "we just keep making an effort to reach out farther and farther."

"I'm on the way out of the organization and, fortuitously, the timing was just right in that we have a whole new board," Pilo says. "Bob Kramsky is president now, and we have an IT person who stepped forward to help, so a lot of the PR got passed to [Paul Happ of Walpole, New Hampshire]."

Pilo praised Bombicino, Happ, and Kramsky for reorganizing the theater "in terms of clearing spaces - getting rid of things."

"All that work's been done and a new lighting system is in place," he continued. "Things are coming to fruition with the new board coming in and my getting out."

Pilo said ATP is "creating an artistic committee to curate the seasons and become the artistic direction of the Playhouse," although he adds he will remain artistic director, "setting up and chairing or co-chairing" the committee. "How that will work out is not determined yet."

Of the baton-passing, Pilo adds: "We've been spending six months transitioning. It's kind of like I sold the business and am now teaching people how to run it."

He says that the 2024 ATP season "is a good mix of what our audience wants. Our audience is the library. Our niche is people who read and therefore we're a little more literary; we're not entertainment with capital letters. It's entertaining because it's thought-provoking or interesting in its concept."

Actors Theatre Playhouse is at 21 Main St. in West Chesterfield. For ticket purchasing and more information, visit

This Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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