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A Marathon, Not a Sprint, for Actors and Playwrights

BPT’s annual 10-hour theater marathon runs Sunday


Michael Ouelette (left) and Vin Misra rehearsing An Arm and a Leg by David L. Meth for BTM X. Photo by Kate Snodgrass

One of this city’s claims to fame is the 112-year-old Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest. But the Hub is becoming known as well for another, quite different, marathon — the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (BPT) Boston Theater Marathon. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the annual celebration of the area’s abundant theatrical talent stages 50 10-minute plays, produced by 50 local theater companies, all in a single day. BTM X, as the organizers are calling this year’s marathon, takes place on Sunday, May 11, at the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Performances begin at noon and run until 10 p.m. Tickets are $25, and all proceeds benefit the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund, which assists members of the theater community in need.

Jacob Strautmann, the BPT managing director, spoke with BU Today about the marathon and what theatergoers can look forward to during a 10-hour day watching 50 original plays.

BU Today: What should attendees expect to experience at the Boston Theatre Marathon?
Well, there are always those brave few who try to see all 10 hours. And we don’t recommend this, because you can’t keep your seat if you get up to run to the restroom or get a drink. So we expect a lot of people to come in for three or four hours, then go and enjoy the neighborhood — we’re in a beautiful part of the South End — and then come back in for another couple of hours, off and on all day long. Our passes allow them to come and go all day as they please. People study their programs when they come in, pick what they’re going to see, and then plan accordingly.

You’re going to see five shows an hour, for 10 hours — from comedies to dramas. We even have an opera this year, based on the myth of Hero and Lyander. There are a couple of shows that deal very directly with the war in Iraq, but there’s also a show about the Tooth Fairy. It’s a wide range of experiences

What are some of the challenges of producing the marathon?
The first challenge is the judging process. We made this marathon — it’s part of our mission to develop new works in Boston. So we invite playwrights to send us one or two scripts, so that we’re able to then have the theater community in town pick up those scripts and judge them blind. Every play is read four times — that alone is very impressive. The plays that get to the next level are read seven or eight times. So we’re pretty thorough in picking the plays.

How many submissions do you typically get each year?
It’s always rising. I was surprised when I found out that this year we broke 400 for the first time. The more we get the better, because the quality of the 40 or 50 that we produce goes up with the opportunities we have.

If a play is not accepted the first time, can the playwright resubmit?
Yes — in fact, that’s one of the most exciting things. I’ve seen plays go through cycles of being submitted and not being ready for the marathon; then they disappear for a couple of years and come back, and they’re wonderful. It makes us feel like we’re doing part of our job as a theater devoted to new works, to see something we’re doing promoting that continued revision process.

How does the marathon unite the local theater community?
Because the actors donate their work and because there isn’t any difficulty in terms of whether you need to have Equity or non-Equity folks in your show, you can really pull from the entire theater community. And that means that you’ll have folks from the American Repertory Theatre right next to a couple of people from a theater that just started up a year ago. So there are a few hours when those groups are really together and have the same backstage experience. That’s lovely, because it’s a way for the actors to be connected with each other.

In terms of the playwrights, someone who has worked with only one theater company can be picked by a company like the Lyric or the Huntington. That opens up real possibilities for the playwrights and makes the connections. In terms of community, I think the Boston Theater Marathon has been extremely helpful.

How is the short, 10-minute form special?
In this situation, celebrating the community, and what we do, and also raising funds for the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund, the short form is great because it allows us to experience everybody in a short amount of time. That’s the very practical aspect of it.

In terms of the playwriting process, when I teach an introductory playwriting class, I always have my students work on a 5- or 10-page play. It requires you to jump into the moment of conflict, almost on the first piece of dialogue. You have to just start high and build.

What standouts should people look out for?
One is by Leslie Harrell Dillen (GRS’06) — it’s called Benji 53. It’s about two fighter pilots, you assume over Iraq or Afghanistan, and one of them has been hit. The two actors are sitting on stage across from each other, and in the middle there’s a woman doing her laundry. The cost of war is made evident without being preachy, which is very hard to do.

The school of theatre at BU is involved as a producer, with playwright David Meth and his play An Arm and a Leg. One of my personal favorites is a play called Poor Shem, by Gregory Hischak, produced by Theatre on Fire — it’s hilarious, and I can’t wait to see that. So it’s really everything from the farcical to things that you’re surprised playwrights feel safe to even touch. There’s something for everyone — if you see a play that you’re not into, you’ve got 10 minutes to wait.

What’s special about this 10th anniversary marathon?
I feel in some ways it marks a turning point, because for future marathons, we’re going to look for funding outside of our usual sources. This year we said to the theater community, “We’re going to step forward and make sure that as single donors, you’re going to have this marathon this year.” I want next year to have our marathon covered by a grant or a corporate donor, so we’re changing the way we’re running it. And we’re also developing a small group of individuals, the Friends of the Boston Theater Marathon, to help us see it through the next 10 years. So really this is the year to mark what we’ve accomplished. We’ve raised over $100,000 for charity, we’ve produced over 450 plays. And we’ve built a community. So I think those things together say that this is definitely an event not to be missed.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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