Tiny Kushner

Tiny Kushner

Tiny Kushner

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Thrust Stage
October 16–November 29, 2009
West Coast Premiere

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

It’s time for Tiny Kushner, a series of short scripts by the singular Tony Kushner. The legendary playwright returns to Berkeley Rep to team up with Artistic Director Tony Taccone, who also staged Angels in America, Brundibar, Homebody/Kabul and Slavs! Travel to the moon—and to the afterlife—with Laura Bush, Nixon’s analyst, the queen of Albania and a host of real-life tax evaders, all adrift in an increasingly fragile world. In this co-production with the acclaimed Guthrie Theater, Kushner brings his brilliance and humor to bear in a sparkling string of one-act plays—and his gilded language is guided, as always, by an unwavering moral compass. Don’t miss these gems from a theatrical giant. Don’t miss Tiny Kushner.

The plays

  • Flip Flop Fly!
  • Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or “Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein” or Ambivalence
  • East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues
  • Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise
  • Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy

Creative team

Tony Kushner · Playwright
Tony Taccone · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
Anita Yavich · Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting and Projection Design
Victor Zupanc · Sound Design
Lynne Soffer · Voice and Speech Consultant
Marcela Lorca · Movement
Kimberly Mark Webb · Stage Manager
Mina Morita · Assistant Director

Cast

J.C. Cutler
Kate Eifrig
Jim Lichtscheidl
Valeri Mudek

“Exhilarating…penetrating…buoyant… blistering…wicked! Broad reach and Kushner’s eclectic, wicked wit make for a great deal of charm and excitement in Tiny Kushner, an anthology of five short plays…it’s impressive how well the five plays fit together, because they were written at different times for different purposes…Hefty political and moral issues dance with buoyant shtick [as] penetrating comedy and theatrical strokes light up the stage, fully exploited by director Tony Taccone and four versatile actors…Tiny Kushner delights!”—San Francisco Chronicle (Robert Hurwitt)

“A thinking person’s comedy…the West Coast premiere of Tiny Kushner took place on Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where so much of the nation’s talked-about dramatic product seems to come from these days…the five entries here are snacks in the Kushner canon. However, that doesn’t make them nonnourishing or the evening unsatisfying; Mr. Kushner’s fierce liberal conscience, colossally fanciful imagination and virtuosic gift for composing verbal arias are too much in evidence for that.”—New York Times

“A really big show. It’s brainy, complex, political, crazy, funny, sarcastic and a little bit touching…An evening of one-of-a-kind entertainment that dares to raise—as well as try to answer—questions about humanity and morality.”—San Francisco Examiner

“It’s just bloody amazing…One of the five plays in the new anthology of Tony Kushner’s short works, Tiny Kushner, now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is called Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy and is clearly the star of the show…It was published in the Nation in 2003, and it was performed many times around the time of the 2004 Republican convention, with various luminaries—Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter—playing the central role of Laura Bush. I can’t imagine any of them doing a better job than Kate Eifrig.”—San Francisco Chronicle (Jon Carroll)

“Keenly directed by Tony Taccone, it’s a multifaceted theatrical crown of small gems…all of which offer dazzling insights into the teeming brain of one of our most celebrated playwrights…By turns quirky and cosmic, these wee one-acts were written at different times for different reasons, but they coalesce in a tartly existential meditation on the bedrock national themes of death, taxes and redemption. Kushner’s genius for the idiosyncratic speech patterns of a universe of characters, from militant survivalists to petulant teens, remains mind-blowing.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Several years ago I started badgering Tony Kushner about producing an evening comprised of his one-act plays. Over the past 20 years he has written well over a dozen smaller pieces, each of which was inspired by an historical event that arrested his attention. Some were meant to serve as celebrations of people whose lives had gone unnoticed, others as examinations of the state of the body politic. While disparate in theme, all were united by two things: their love of language and their love of entertainment.

We all know Kushner as a man of extraordinary intelligence blessed with great political acumen. He has been rightfully lauded as one of our country’s most important thinkers. But at heart, and he truly does write from the heart, Tony Kushner is a wildly interesting artist. He is not some encrusted intellectual sermonizing to us mere mortals from a distant mount. No. In reality, he is much more like a 200-year-old rabbi trying to write a very good comedy sketch about the state of the universe.

It was Tony’s husband, the eternally supportive Mark Harris, who came up with the clever title and who finally prodded us into action. And it was Joe Dowling from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis who came up with the wonderful idea of a Kushner festival, which included this production. It proved to be a great way to first explore these little gems, these flights of excessive linguistic fancy. And what a great way to sustain ourselves, in these, our perilous times. Welcome to our own little version of heaven.

All the best,

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

Welcome!

This production of Tiny Kushner follows a succession of Tony Kushner’s plays that have received their world or West Coast premieres here in Berkeley. Our ability to bring the work of one of the nation’s most important playwrights to this community comes as a result of a long and fruitful relationship between Tony Kushner and Berkeley Rep, a place that Kushner has described as “the platonic ideal of a regional theatre.” The lineage of that relationship goes back even further, beginning when a young Tony Taccone, then artistic director of the Eureka Theatre, first commissioned an emerging playwright to write a script that turned out to be Angels in America.

Theatre is all about relationships. On our stages, you experience the glorious variety of relationships that are the essence of the stories we tell. Memorable drama can only come from the rich and dynamic variability of characters relating to one another in an incredible array of circumstances.

We enjoy other relationships here at Berkeley Rep, relationships that are profoundly important to us. We’ve had a relationship with many of you, some for as long as 42 years! I’d like to think that we’ve grown together. As Berkeley Rep has matured, and our taste has expanded, we hope that your tastes have evolved with us and your capacity for wonder and surprise has expanded in concert with our own. I’d like to think that we’ve developed a trust between us. I hope that you feel you can count on Berkeley Rep to provide you with a challenging, high-quality, thought-provoking experience. I know that we feel we can count on you to be thoughtful, engaged and open-minded participants.

Because of these myriad relationships—on stage and off—Berkeley Rep is able to attract many of the best artists of our time, to encourage their best work and to put that work in front of the best audiences in the country. We’re grateful to you for being part of that equation.

Warmly,

Susan Medak

A tale of two Tonys: Taccone on Kushner

By Madeleine Oldham

Tony Taccone and Tony Kushner have known each other for a long time. Their careers have converged and diverged over the years, but the two have remained close. Taccone traces the seeds of their relationship back to his response to the tragedies of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, a fitting introduction to a writer who is likely to go down in history as one of the great interpreters of contemporary America. (In an interesting moment of symmetry, Taccone is finding himself on the other side of the rehearsal room, and is currently writing a play about those same events.) Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager, sat down with Tony Taccone and asked him to talk about his long history with Tony Kushner.

Madeleine Oldham: How did you meet Tony Kushner?

Tony Taccone: That is a long story. The seminal moment happened when I was the artistic director at the Eureka Theatre in the late ‘70s. We were in rehearsal for A Mad World, My Masters with Barrie Keefe, a great English writer. We were in the basement of the Eureka Theatre, and someone ran into the rehearsal room and said, “Somebody just shot Harvey Milk and George Moscone…” So we all went out to the candlelight vigil. Barrie was with us, and he said, “If this had happened in England, people would be bursting with plays about it.”

We felt like we needed to do something. We all felt that this was too important and too obvious a subject to ignore. So we spent about two and a half years developing Execution of Justice with Emily Mann, and, because our theatre burned down to the ground and we had no space, we ended up doing it at the Humana Festival.

And so we very consciously began to look for more American writers over the next few years. We’d been doing a lot of British work, and we really wanted to develop an American series of voices and relationships with people who would tell American stories.

We asked friends and colleagues for recommendations. Carl Weber, former member of the Berliner Ensemble and a professor at Stanford, said, “There’s this former student of mine, this guy Tony Kushner. You should check him out. He’s in New York somewhere.” So I dispatched Oskar [Eustis, then dramaturg at the Eureka, now artistic director of The Public Theater] to find this guy named Tony Kushner.

Oskar went to New York and found him in a little loft in Manhattan. He had his own small company at the time, but he was completely and utterly unknown. Oskar brought back a play, handed it to me and said, “You have to promise me you’ll read this play tonight.” I did. It was A Bright Room Called Day, and it completely knocked me out. I loved it and wanted to produce it. It was Tony’s first professional production anywhere. And we went on to form a great relationship.

Did that great relationship happen right away or did it take a bit of time?

Well, actually, when he got off the plane, Oskar and I took him directly to the Oakland Coliseum to see an A’s game, which I believe is the first and last game that he’s ever seen in his life. I think he was completely stunned and couldn’t figure out why we would be bringing him to a baseball game. But he was too polite to say anything, and he had his first professional production riding on it, so I think he must have thought, “I better shut up and not say anything.” But we got along really well right from the beginning.

What happened after your production of Bright Room?

We really loved his work, and we hired him to write our next play. He said he didn’t know anything about it, other than that it would be a 90-minute chamber piece with three characters in it: Roy Cohn and two Mormons. Just a very short little thing, and we said OK. Five years later: Angels in America.

The interesting thing about Angels is that the first part, Millennium Approaches, just burst out of him. I think it took him four months to write it. And then Perestroika took like four years. It’s much easier to write something that has no ending than it is to end something.

I also think he was under a different kind of spotlight when he was writing Angels. People were starting to know who he was. Bright Room had been done in New York by then and got savaged by Frank Rich in the New York Times. I mean savaged—the review was legendarily cruel, which made the redemption of Angels that much sweeter for Tony.

Can you articulate what it is that makes Tony’s writing so special?

It’s the combination of talents. It’s not just that he’s got a political mind that is astonishing in its breadth and scope; it’s not just that he’s really funny, or that he’s a really good poet and has a real sense of drama. It’s all of it—it’s the combination of things that makes him really unique.

He’s inspired a generation of people to write. After Angels came out, a bunch of writers were really exhilarated that it was possible to be that ambitious. I think the power of that feeling of possibility was really amazing.

Did you have any inkling of the kind of impact his writing would have on the American theatre?

I think from the very beginning, we as a company were aware that he was a special voice and that he had a lot to offer not just to theatre people, but to progressive people—people who were looking for some somebody to talk about a whole range of things in a bold and new way. And he did. And Angels ended up being like a coming-out party for America.

So you commissioned this small “chamber piece,” and then he comes back with this sprawling epic thing. Did you know that you wanted to do it right away?

Yes. When we saw Millennium Approaches, we knew right away. I mean, sure, it was a first draft so some t’s were not crossed yet, but the quality of the writing and the empathy of it—the desire for a more full-throated world, if you will—was palpable. And the company was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. It was a really exciting time.

There were a lot of workshops, and by the time it was ready for production, we had all left the Eureka. So from the time we hired him to write it to the time that it ended up being done, the entire company had scattered. It was directed at the Eureka by David Esbjornson. They actually staged Part One, and then Part Two was done as a reading. So the show was half done, and it already got phenomenal response. There have been a handful of shows in my life where the second they’re up, you know you’re onto something really special. It’s way bigger than you, and it just captures some sort of yearning on the part of the audience for this material.

So, when it went up, you knew that it was something special, but the famous story is that everybody rejected it…

Yeah, before it went up at the Eureka, it was submitted to theatres around the country and everybody rejected it: “It’s too long, too political, too gay. It’s too much, it’s just too much.” And to be fair, I certainly couldn’t remember very many seven-hour plays…

And there was the whole sexual politics issue back then—things that now seem totally passé and not controversial at all, but at the time were anything but. Bright Room got criticized for being this overt, didactic, slanderous play that championed sloganeering of the left. Tony has always said it was much harder to come out as a socialist than as a gay man.

How did you come to co-direct the world premiere of Perestroika?

Well, by this time I had gone to Berkeley Rep and Oskar had gone to the Taper in Los Angeles. Obviously we were both still deeply connected the evolution of Angels, and the Taper’s artistic director at the time, Gordon Davidson, agreed to a production co-directed by Oskar and myself.

How did your relationship continue post-Angels?

I came to Berkeley Rep and did Slavs! Then he sent me the monologue for Homebody/Kabul, and I flipped out of my mind. (I’m happy and honored to say that I’m one of the people he tends to show things to in the first round.) Then he sent me the rest of the play, which was 270 pages, single-spaced! I think it meant a lot to him that I called him and said we were going to do it.

You must have really loved his writing to commit to produce it in such an early stage.

There’s a quality about certain writers—they get to you. They worm their way into the fiber of your being and into the deepest part of you. They can make you respond in the most profound way, and Tony’s always been that for me. I read his stuff and there’s this kind of yearning—like I want the same things for the world and I just love how he says them. But I don’t pretend to understand all of it—it takes me about three times to get it when I’m trying to direct his stuff.

It doesn’t sound like you’re surprised that he got famous, but are you surprised that he got as famous as he did?

Yes and no. Watching Tony’s ascendancy to the ranks of the great thinkers of the American literati was pretty interesting. When he became famous, we were all pretty young. I mean, we were kids in a lot of ways. Eureka was a small, mid-size house, and we had virtually no national recognition at all. So it’s a little strange to turn around one day and one of you has won a Pulitzer. But I think with writers, while their suffering is exponentially greater, the potential acceleration of their recognition is much greater too. It’s not so much that way for directors.

Do you have a favorite Tony Kushner rehearsal story?

I have to think about ones I can share!

I’ve been in more than one Tony Kushner rehearsal where an actor that’s new to his work has built up these lingering questions like, “How can my character speak like this?” And you can see Tony anticipate that the question is going to come at some point, and this little smile comes over his face. And finally the actor will say, “I? How? People don’t speak like this!” And Tony will just say, “Well, he does.”

People always relate to Tony Kushner as the great serious thinker, the man of wildly complicated intellectual ideas that mere mortals can’t understand. I think of him as a 200-year-old rabbi who’s trying to write really good sketch comedy about the universe.

One of my favorite memories is of him trying to figure out a rubber-chicken gag in Hydriotaphia. He’s much more interested in the science of getting a laugh than anybody ever realizes—he’s a huge fan of comedy. We had this running routine for a while, where I had found this old Borscht Belt vaudeville sketch on a record of a guy who wants a haircut and his barber—it’s the most inane, ludicrous thing you ever heard. And they’re bantering jokes, these old Yiddish jokes. Then they break into song. And it makes no sense, but we would do this routine back and forth, and that’s the kind of comfort that we get from each other. I mean, we really like to laugh.

I think we both feel that the world is in such dire shape, the only way to survive is to laugh our butts off. And so I think that there’s a kind of “survivor’s laugh” that we have in common. I mean, real belly laughs, falling down off your chair in rehearsal, that kind of thing. It’s fun.

I imagine you know each other pretty well after all these years.

It’s been about 25 years now. We’ve watched each other grow up essentially; we’ve seen each other’s lives change. I saw him go through his period of thinking he would never be worthy of someone else’s love, and then he got married to Mark, who’s just a dreamboat of a guy. I think Mark has been fantastic for Tony, and he really balances him in a great way.

When Tony first started dating him, I said, “So, who’s this guy?” He blushed and said, “You know, he kinda looks like you…” And then I blushed and we’ve never talked about it since! But when I’ve been in New York, I’ve had people mistake me for Mark a number of times. Though Mark has proven to be much better looking as the years have gone on.

There’s something about the fact that Tony and I have had such a long relationship, and that it’s stood the test of time. We’ve gone through some times that were really complicated and stressful and filled us with fear, and that challenged our own inner sense of success and what we wanted. But I do think that as you get older you let go of a bunch of stuff. Eventually, you’re not worried about the same stuff, you’re not worried about your image and success—you’re just two guys trying to work on something. And I think we’ve arrived at that point in our lives, which is pretty amazing.

It sounds a lot like the beginning.

Yeah! But with all the knowledge of where you’ve come from. So it feels good; it feels more relaxed, more trusting. I get his work. I get what he’s trying to do. I certainly get, politically, his worldview, and I understand some of the contradictions he’s really interested in making vividly clear. So I think that’s a really good marriage—we’re just guys getting older trying to encourage each other. I think he is grateful to me for providing an environment of safety over a really long period of time. He knows that he’s supported wherever I go, and that I will champion his voice. And I think that means a lot, because we go way back. It’s not just somebody who wants him to write the next thing—it’s been tested over time.

Where reality meets imagination

By Madeleine Oldham

In his writing, Tony Kushner sometimes bases characters on public figures and then has them interact with fictional characters he invents. In addition to Laura Bush, Tiny Kushner features some other notable real-life individuals:

Geraldine, Queen of Albania

Geraldine Apponyi de Nagyappony died in 2002 at the age of 87, four months after finally being allowed to return to her native Albania following many years in exile. The daughter of a Hungarian count and an American heiress, she lived a life from fairytale to hardship and everything in between.

The post-World War I years saw the rapid descent of many of Central and Eastern Europe’s royal families. Geraldine’s father died when she was 9, her family’s crippling debt overtook them and what riches they had left disappeared. By the time she was 20, Geraldine was reduced to learning how to type and take shorthand and selling postcards in the Budapest National Museum. Fortunately, her natural disposition rendered her resourceful and resilient—far from the helpless stereotype of fallen monarchy forced to make its way in the everyday world.

Despite hard circumstances, Geraldine and her sisters still attended balls, where at a particularly fateful one, Geraldine’s picture was taken. The photo found its way to King Zog of Albania, who had been searching high and low for a bride. They met in person on Christmas 1937 and Zog proposed a week later on New Year’s Day. Upon acceptance of his proposal, Geraldine was made a princess. Among their wedding gifts was a Mercedes given to them by Adolf Hitler.

When Italy invaded Albania in 1939, the king and queen were ousted into exile and a life of instability. Political favor waxed and waned, but never settled down enough for them to return home together. They bounced from place to place and palace to palace over the next decade, finally landing in Paris in 1952. Nine years later, after King Zog died, Geraldine went to live in Spain and South Africa, until at last being invited to return home to Albania.

Lucia Pamela

Famous for her sunnily eccentric personality, entertainer Lucia Pamela died in 2002, aged 98. Pamela frequently blurred the lines between fact and fiction, yet never succumbed to the lure of sensationalism. She moved through the world cheerfully and sincerely no matter how outlandish her stories. Pamela believed wholeheartedly in the mythology she created for herself. Her relentless optimism and refusal to believe that anything was impossible captured the hearts of many an American.

Pamela racked up colorful achievements over the course of her lifetime. She was crowned Miss St. Louis of 1926. She managed an amusement park in Fresno, where she also dressed up as Mother Goose. She had two radio programs: The Encouragement Hour and Gal About Town. She started an all-girl orchestra that she called Lucia Pamela and the Musical Pirates, as well as a musical duo with her daughter (who went on to own the St. Louis Rams later in life) that she called the Pamela Sisters.

Some of her claims remain unsubstantiated. She said she learned more than 10,000 songs and for doing so, was recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. She asserted that she attended a prestigious German music conservatory as a child but was kicked out for being overqualified. She purports to have been the first person to appear on television.

But her pièce de résistance centered around her self-proclaimed trip to the moon and her musical documentation of that adventure: a 1969 cult sensation LP entitled Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela. The album stands as the only recording Pamela made throughout her lively career. Wacky yet charming, and thoroughly unique, the record holds a special place in the hearts of aficionados of musical kitsch. In 1976, she released a coloring book also portraying her moon travels called Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela in the Year 2000.

Howard Jarvis

Howard Jarvis died in 1986 at the age of 82 following a long career as an influential anti-tax activist and an outspoken critic of government. Appropriating the phrase “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more,” Jarvis was instrumental in the passage of California’s controversial Proposition 13 in 1978, which cut property taxes by a whopping 57%. Some current thinking cites this tax cut as one of the origin points of the 2009 California state budget crisis.

Jarvis ran for mayor of Los Angeles several times on a strict anti-tax platform. He never won. His scathing remarks about the uselessness of government institutions garnered him a few devoted followers but proved too polarizing to capture any kind of majority support as a serious candidate. In fact, ironically, he eventually found himself in need of one of the very institutions he so ruthlessly derided. He received protection from the Los Angeles Police Department for a period of time due to frequent threatening phone calls from Californians incensed by his inflammatory language about everything from public schools and libraries to the League of Women Voters to fire departments.

Jarvis’ notoriety earned him a cameo appearance in the 1980 film Airplane! as the man who waits in Ted Striker’s taxi for the duration of the film while the meter ticks away.

In 1996, a story broke in New York City about city employees, including a number of police officers, who had managed to avoid having federal income tax withheld from their paychecks for years. The scam began with a set of instructions purchased through a website. The instructions were sold many times over and directed individuals to claim 98 dependents and declare themselves entities separate from any kind of federal oversight. Jarvis had been dead 10 years when the New York City tax scam was uncovered, but his legacy of tax revolt may have paved the way for the widespread evasion scandal.

Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker

Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker died at the end of the year 2000 at the age of 102. Hutschnecker was the only known therapist to have ever had a president for a patient: he treated Richard Nixon for years. Rumors about the president’s unstable mental condition bubbled up, which Hutschnecker diligently attempted to squelch during Nixon’s lifetime. Publicly, Nixon and Hutschnecker claimed friendship as the reason for their continued conversations. When Nixon died in 1994, Hutschnecker found himself able to be more open about the true nature of their relationship.

Hutschnecker spoke frequently throughout his life about the pressure that high-profile political life can place on people and about the benefits of therapeutic treatment in such situations. It often proved an uphill battle to try and overcome the public stigma of mental illness. Common opinion saw it as a sign of weakness and out of keeping with the confident, unshakeable image a president was supposed to project. Hutschnecker lobbied for a perception shift on that front, arguing that certain levels and types of neuroses do not automatically preclude people from being effective leaders.

No stranger to contention and not shy about asserting his opinions, Hutschnecker was advised to leave Germany for New York in 1936 after publicly calling Hitler a pig. He later proposed that the United States government should require political leaders to obtain a mental-health clearance before being allowed to take office. He found himself embroiled in controversy after the release of a 1970 White House study on crime where he is said to have suggested that seven- and eight-year-old perpetrators of serious crimes be treated in “camps.” He later clarified that he was offering this in the context of his own positive associations with summer camp as a child. He remained active and outspoken on issues where mental health intersected with politics well into his 90s.

Short plays then and now

By Rachel Viola

When theatre was born in ancient Greece, long and tragic epics had sidekicks. Infinitely funnier but less highly regarded than the classical dramas were satyr plays: brief skits that poked fun at the heroes and gods of myth. These little burlesques followed the serious trilogies entered in the dramatic competitions of antiquity. In the Middle Ages, these smaller works took on greater responsibility. Brief Bible story reenactments were incorporated into church services and ritualistically performed for festivals. These religious scenes became popular very quickly, and grew up to become the Mystery and Miracle plays of the time. By the 16th century the grand-scale masterpieces of the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration periods took centerstage in the English-speaking world. Short plays continued to appear as pantomimes within longer works and took the shape of courtly masques. But it wasn’t until roughly the 19th century that they reappeared as their own significant form.

The late 1880s saw the rise of the symbolist movement in Europe, which was quickly followed by other European and American theatrical styles, such as expressionism, naturalism and absurdism. These new genres were more flexible than the “well-made play” template of earlier centuries and allowed playwrights the artistic freedom to create drama of different forms and lengths. These artistic developments later influenced the work of noted American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, both of whom often wrote in one-act and even shorter formats.

A crucial moment in the history of short playwriting occurred in 1977, when the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville popularized the format of the 10-minute play. This opened huge doors for young and unknown dramatists seeking recognition and financing for larger projects, and also for established writers looking to tease out new ideas. Festivals and foundations dedicated to 10-minute plays, one-act plays and performances of “shorts” sprang up around the country. Organizations such as New Dramatists and Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York followed suit, creating various competitions and homes to foster new work. Educational programs dedicated to playwriting used the format as a teaching device, and actors began to employ short plays as showcasing vehicles. In recent years, festivals and evenings dedicated to shorter works have gained appeal in cities from Boston to San Francisco.

Though their value has been widely accepted among insiders, short plays haven’t yet found momentum with a mainstream audience. Dominic Orlando, a writer under commission at Berkeley Rep, feels that we may be headed in that direction. He jokes that, “theatre used to be an all-day event, and then it was an all-night event, and now it’s become basically what you might do before you go for a drink.” Yet Dominic senses an increase in audience appetite for shorter forms of storytelling. In the New Play Boot Camp workshops he conducts for the Playwrights Foundation, he actively encourages younger writers to develop one-act plays.

Itamar Moses, whose Yellowjackets was produced last season at Berkeley Rep, is also known for some of his shorter work and says he enjoys the wide array of options that a performance of collected shorts guarantees. As an audience member, Itamar feels that watching a series of brief plays “gives you the joy of anticipation over and over again in a single evening. If you don’t like the play you’re watching, it will soon be over and maybe you’ll like the next one.” As a playwright, he likes the opportunity to take chances and play with alternative technique and content in his shorter works. He says that playwrights “can take enormous risks with form and subject matter, because the piece doesn’t have to sustain for very long. It can destroy itself. It can make up strange storytelling rules that are collapsing from the very beginning. Also, some ideas are worth writing but aren’t worth a full-length play, and short plays give those ideas a way to exist.”

Though some writers outline a story before any writing commences, others don’t know where a play will take them until they start writing it. In the latter situation, short plays allow writers a certain level of flexibility that full-length work may not offer. According to Dominic, “A true short play is a full-length idea that just stopped sooner than you thought it would. The characters have stopped talking, the conflict or the action or the thread of imagery is—it’s just done.” Instead of having to scrap a story altogether for not going the distance, a writer can preserve strong ideas and impulses within the context of a shorter piece that may otherwise have been lost.

Perhaps this is why he suggests, “The play itself tells you what to do when it comes to length and content, and you fight with the play at your own peril.” He believes that respecting the play as it unfolds preserves integrity, and that whether the story resolves itself in 10 minutes or three hours is irrelevant as long as the message is effective. He states, “I think theatre as an art form should knock you out roughly 93% of the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s short or long. As for the purpose, it’s the same for all plays: entertain, shock, amaze, awe, thrill, inspire, celebrate, grieve—you get the idea.”

Watch now

Production trailer

Comedy doesn’t come much funnier or smarter than Tiny Kushner. Watch the trailer.