Community is a word that comes up frequently when talking to Susan Bernfield, the founder and artistic director of New Georges and curator of the Performathon, a ten-hour festival of ten-minute plays on Sunday, June 11, to benefit The Room, New Georges' workspace. And Bernfield's use of the word isn't lip service. There's certainly a spirit of community engendered by 33 plays onstage in 10 hours, with productions ranging from staged readings to full prop-and-costume affairs, each having roughly six hours of rehearsal.
"We used to hold the 'Thon in The Room," recalls Bernfield, "and it was so hot and crowded, and at the end of the day there was almost no performance space whatsoever." Nightmare? Not for this crew. "People are coming in and leaving, and there's Raffle Babe, selling tickets," says Jessica Davis, a veteran Performathon director whose work can be seen in this year's festival, which is being held at the more spacious Dixon Place at Vineyard 26. "There's beer and so your audience is laughing very loud, and it's to raise money for New Georges, so everyone comes."
The mood is addictive. "One person saw every single piece one year. She wanted to. Every piece!" Bernfield marvels. "People come to see their friends and end up staying." She imitates typical post-show testimony: "'I came for 20 minutes and ended up staying for five hours!'"
No doubt the Performathon is fun. Yet it's not just the crowd, booze, heat, and great theater of all genres that makes this low-tech affair a theatrical bonding experience. Artists involved in the Performathon also note the communal feeling, which is created by something more unique. Davis avers, "There is such a sense of camaraderie at New Georges. At other ten-minute play festivals, there's a kind of competition, and that is not true [of the Performathon] at all."
Competition certainly isn't what Bernfield has in mind. "We want to make people feel they're part of the community," Bernfield says (there's that word again), "and also to assert, 'These are the folks, folks!'" As in, these are your peers, these are other women who are emerging or up-and-coming, this is who you want to meet and now you can.
Bernfield is not just festival honcho and raffle-prize solicitor, but also chemist, matching up playwrights, directors and actors in partnerships, some of which have been enduring and profitable. Elyse Singer's revival of Mae West's 1926 play Sex, which enjoyed a successful run earlier this season, started out at the '96 Performathon. Future production, however, is not the central goal of the 'Thon. As Davis says, the focus "is on the process, for all the artists involved."
Cusi Cram, a past and present Performathoner, values the chance to experiment and get immediate feedback. "You can be in your room for a million years and think, 'Ohmigod, this is the funniest thing I've ever written,' but you'll never know," Cram points out--until it's in front of an audience. Playwrights from the New Georges group of affiliated artists, as well as unaffiliated writers who submitted work, get to dust off old ten-minute plays, pull a scene from an existing play, or write something new. From the directing standpoint, Davis notes, the brief rehearsal period forces artists to make quick choices, which can lead to exciting outcomes.
Bernfield founded New Georges in 1992 as a venue for women artists to push their work forward together. Davis thinks that the woman-centered climate of the company contributes to the Performathon mood, in addition to serving a greater function. When artists and audience members gather together to experience the broad array of women's voices, "not to fight for women's rights but to figure out what women are about, in the end it does something for women in general," Davis says.
Cram agrees. "It's one of the few events in New York where you just see so many women doing what they do. And it's so eclectic, that's the great part of it.... The theme is girls, women! It's very charged."