One-act plays ‘off shelf’ and on stage in Martinez
By Lou Fancher
A feisty young actor aims for a career in musical theater, suffers a horrific accident that puts her in wheelchair for life and becomes a stand-up comic.
A good one-act play, according to Onstage Theatre artistic director Helen Means, instantly establishes character and never repeats itself.
Short plays, such as “Jenny Gets Her Wheels On,” by Bay Area playwright Gary Carr, rocket through a story in less than 25 minutes with writing that most often includes conflict, tragedy, humor and emotional truth.
Curating 13 out of the best of 50 one-act plays submitted to Onstage for its annual festival, Means and the community theater company based since 2013 in the Martinez Campbell Theatre present “Off the Shelf and On Stage.”
The festival showcases the work of playwrights from Martinez, Concord, Clayton, Pleasant Hill and Rossmoor and is presented through June 24 by seven Bay Area theater directors.
The first and second weekend blocks include plays deemed most appropriate for adult audiences; the third program is oriented toward families.
“I did a 50-50 comedy-serious grouping for the first block, more adult scenes for the second, and a show that it’s all right to bring children at the end,” says Means. Variety was a priority.
“Many of the plays that were sent to me were about death,” she says. “Could it be a sign of the times? I have no idea. But you can only have so many of that in a series.”
Indeed, a mix of uplifting, comic and dramatic stories makes for an ideal festival, with at least one play each audience member can enjoy.
“I also looked for style differences and playwrights of different ages. One is by a college student, another by a playwright who lives in Rossmoor, for example,” Means notes.
Means read all of the submissions from beginning to end — even the few she says she could make neither heads nor tails of.
“I gave those to a colleague to read, to make sure I wasn’t missing something,” she says.
Plays that Means admired, but knew weren’t suited to the company’s capabilities after auditions determined the pool of actors for the festival, she put on a shelf for the future.
The festival dates back to the Pleasant Hill School House, where Means launched the company in 1982. After that building was condemned in 2008, Onstage bounced from the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek to Concord’s Cue Productions, before landing at the Campbell.
Means says the festival has been ongoing despite the upheaval. Originally conceived to present existing one-act plays she believed had been overlooked and deserved a spotlight, this year’s festival features all original works.
“I wanted to bring attention to local people and build our audience with interest in community-based plays,” she says.
Pairing directors with plays was a back-and-forth enterprise. Directors were given plays to read that Means selected specifically to match directors’ unique styles and expertise. Two of the directors helm their own plays; the rest chose works they connected to — the works most suited to their directing ideas.
“The topics are universal, modern or topical, or even farcical, which we need in this day and age,” says Means. Asked to explain why she thinks people “need” extreme, absurdist stories, she says life’s rapid pace and every country becoming “so political and ridiculous and not connected in human ways” are the root causes.
“When I was a girl, you didn’t travel as much, so other countries and people in general were romanticized in a way they no longer are.”
About Carr’s play and the festival in general, Means says the blend of message and moments of simple entertainment achieves her purpose.
“It lets you know that just because something bad happens, you can find something that will fill your life. It’s funny, but it’s also moving.”
It’s rather like a small community theater that, bumped from its longtime home, lands in a new-old historic home and keeps its voice and mission to serve local audiences.