To be effective, a play must set a tone, develop characters, and tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end — not an easy feat to achieve in a mere five minutes. However, a handful of talented playwrights have managed just that in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s latest offering. Last month, the theater organization launched a series of five-minute plays, gathered from a call to writers that was put out in March through the Playhouse’s newsletter.
“We only advertised it on our email blast,” says artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo. “With all that was going on in the world, we hoped a five-minute play wouldn’t be asking too much of writers.”
From around 30 submissions, the Playhouse selected six to produce as digital Zoom readings. The themes cover a wide range, from speed dating to dementia to talking pigeons. The only stipulation included in the call for submissions was that each short play should “include a moment of connection, cheer, comfort, hilarity, or joy.” All of the chosen plays have managed to meet that standard, sometimes in surprising and gratifying ways. As of this writing, five of the six plays are posted on the Playhouse’s website.
The first five-minute play, titled “Hatched,” by Michael Towers, artistic director of Westford Academy Theater Arts and the Summer School for the Performing Arts, was posted in early May. In “Hatched,” a man uses a nighttime trip to the beach to have a heart-to-heart with his depressed teenage niece. An unexpected occurrence provides the moment of joy in this play, and also serves as a life lesson for both characters.
“Indoor Activities for Children” is more an example of sketch comedy than any of the others. The playwright, Ledia Xhoga, was inspired by watching videos aimed toward moms dealing with the challenges of isolating with kids. Xhoga has written a very funny satire of a typical mommy vlogger’s advice video. The playwright is originally from Albania. For the role of an Eastern European woman offering some rather odd advice on children’s entertainment, the Brooklyn-based playwright was able to recruit a fellow Albanian actress from New York City.
“Originally we were talking about casting the usual Playhouse actors,” says Munafo. “Then I realized that I can ask anyone in the country to read on Zoom.”
That inclusivity allowed the Playhouse to recruit Eileen Padua for the third short play, “Mr. Moonbarley.” “She actually has a major movie credit,” says Munafo. “She played the grandmother in ‘Spotlight.’” In “Mr. Moonbarley,” Padua is joined by the talented Shelagh Hackett as a woman disillusioned about her romantic prospects, until her mother brings a bit of magic into the process. J.B. Miller of London is the most accomplished of the series’ playwrights, having previously had plays produced in New York City and London. Miller, a Yaddo and MacDowell alum, has also published two books and written for the New York Times, among other publications. His full-length play “Mona/Lina” was presented as a reading by the Playhouse last summer.
The neophyte of the five-minute play winners, Mona Hennessey, has a long history with the Playhouse as a volunteer, employee, director, and actor. Her play “Out of Mind” is her very first foray into playwriting. The play deals with dementia, but it’s hardly a downer (or a story that plays on gratuitous jokes about memory loss). Instead, a clever plot twist will leave viewers smiling at the end. “Out of Mind” features two Playhouse veterans, Paul Munafo and Jenny Allen, who are joined by Heidi Karolina Harger, a Connecticut-based nurse whom Munafo knows from previous Playhouse auditions.
“We’ve been doing all of these on our computers right in our own homes,” says Munafo, who directed all of the short plays. “Making all of these connections has really been the silver lining in these difficult times.”
Another way that the Playhouse has benefited from starting off the summer season with bite-size Zoom plays is that the staff has had the chance to hone their digital skills. Plans are now in place to host longer virtual readings throughout the summer.
“This is for fun,” says Munafo. “We’re posting them without any charge. We wanted to offer something for free, and this is also a way for us to get familiar with the technology.” She adds, “I’d love to do it again. It works really well. Maybe it will be an annual thing. It opens up the field widely.”
Watch all of the five-minute plays by visiting the Playhouse website, mvplayhouse.org. Join the email list to keep up with future offerings.