Calgary theatre companies prove their mettle at this year’s 10-Minute Play Festival

Periodically, I meet people who are just moving to town and looking for theatre recommendations. I have my standard spiel on who does what in the major companies. And then I tell them to mark their calendars for the 10-Minute Play Festival every January.

The event is an annual part of OYR’s High Performance Rodeo. I was at the first one, way back in the mists of time (please note how I will now carefully not tell you when that was), and it has become my favourite recurring theatre event. The core concept has remained essentially unchanged: a group of local theatre companies are given a prop, a line of dialogue, and 24 hours to create, rehearse and present a 10-minute play. If you’re thinking that this sounds like it has the potential to be a train-wreck of epic proportions, I will not lie to you — you’re absolutely correct. Some of the shows are duds. But they only last 10 minutes, and there are moments of brilliance in others that make it all worth it.

It’s like theatre speed-dating — you’re introduced to a handful of young, local theatre creators, and you get 10 minutes to decide if you want to see them again. You have to know a bit about narrative structure, character development, and audience engagement in order to get this right, and it doesn’t take long to see who has the goods.

This year’s event took place Jan. 6, and was again sold-out. The show has been hosted for the last eight years by Downstage (who have their own show premiering later in the Rodeo, Extremophiles), and this year they invited local stage manager Emma Brager and actor Eric Wigston to co-host. The job of the host is not only to facilitate the action onstage, but also to choose the props and lines of dialogue based on a personal interest (aside from, you know, theatre). Brager and Wigston are a real-life couple who picked birding as their theme, and it made for a wacky collection of plays. And a lot of feathers.

Verb Theatre went with a simple, comic narrative, and it was an almost perfectly-realized little gem. Their assigned prop was binoculars, and their story focused on a nosy neighbour whose illicit view is obstructed by an uncooperative bird. They started with a strange episode of audience participation that was fun until it became clear that the play had started but no one was listening because they were too busy participating. But apart from that brief hiccup, it was well-crafted and entertaining — exactly the right way to spend your 10 minutes.

Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre put forward perhaps the most ambitious and thought-provoking offering, as one would expect from a group who are veterans of the festival (I’m trying not to say that it’s not their first rodeo. Oh, look what I went and did. My apologies). As a prop, they were given an empty journal, and they used that to muse on their own personal memories, hopes and dreams as well as those of selected audience members. They reflected the birding theme in a disconcerting study of the audience and each other, and this was perhaps the most specific and thoughtful incorporation of the theme. It was fragmented, though, without a clear narrative through-line, and the format they chose meant that transitions between vignettes were jarring (at one point an actor’s lines were cut off, and he had to finish in the post-show debrief with the hosts). It suffered a bit in execution, but the concept was the most intriguing of the night.

The fact is that none of the shows this year were duds — they all had moments of greatness. And they were particularly good showcases of each company’s unique character, which isn’t necessarily the case every year. If you missed it this year, mark your calendars now for January 2019, and get yourself on OYR’s mailing list so that you don’t miss it next year.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.