On Their Marks
Ten hours, 40 plays, two stages.
"I was sitting at T's Bar, down the street from the theater, with Bill Lattanzi, a local playwright, brainstorming about how we could raise the visibility of writers in Boston," says Kate Snodgrass, producer of the Boston Theatre Marathon. "I had this idea that we could create a festival, and hook up each playwright with a producing theater. That way, we could make connections for the artists within the theater community and at the same time, introduce audiences to new voices. 'You should do that,' Bill said, 'and you should do it the day before the Boston Marathon.' A little bell went off in my head, so I decided to try."
It sounds like a pretty modest beginning to the hottest theater ticket in Boston. Last year, the Boston Theatre Marathon was sold out for all ten hours and all 40 plays, and this year is likely to see the same response. But Snodgrass is familiar with taking big risks: for ten years she has been the producing director of The Boston Playwrights Theatre.
Founded in 1981 by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, the BPT is dedicated to providing both new and established writers with the opportunity to collaborate with other theater professionals in an intimate studio setting. BPT alumni have gone on to national recognition with the National Hispanic Playwrights Project, The Kennedy Center, the John Gassner Award and Off-Broadway productions. Snodgrass, who also teaches playwriting and dramaturgy at Brandeis and Boston universities, is herself the winner of the prestigious Heideman Award from the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Producing great theater on a tiny budget is all in a day's work for Snodgrass, but the festival was much bigger than anything she had done before. "I really felt I needed the support of the community," she admits. "I could never have attempted it otherwise." So she took her idea to Stage Source, a local alliance of theater professionals. "They were having a big producers meeting that night, and I showed up and asked them, 'If we did this, would you be interested?' They all said, 'Sure.' That gave me enough 'yes' in the community to forge ahead."
Snodgrass received 170 entries from local playwrights in the first year. With a grant from the Boston University Humanities Foundation, the Boston Theatre Marathon was launched.
Community seems to be a key word whenever you talk about the Marathon with Snodgrass. The Playwrights Theatre has always been at the service of area writers, a place where connections are formed and frequently where longtime collaborations are begun. And so I asked Snodgrass what was involved in keeping the Marathon a community effort, rather than a star turn for one producer.
While running the Marathon last year, did Snodgrass hit "the wall"? "Yeah," she laughs, "I hit the wall around 8pm. We had been running late and had just caught up the time, and I realized there wasn't anything more I could do. I was extraneous. I didn't get to see too many of the plays because I was pacing around backstage, worrying, trying to help things run smoothly." Run like a Swiss clock is more to the point.
Over the course of ten hours the Marathon produces 40 plays on two stages. For act one, plays run simultaneously in groups of four. Then audiences have an intermission break (for Gatorade and orange slices) and return to their seats. Meanwhile, the plays switch locations, and for act two repeat the show in the opposite theater. Every two hours, a new group of plays begins, and the process starts all over again. If a play runs over ten minutes, or if an actor misses a cue, the entire production schedule can be thrown off, leaving the audience to play catch-up.
Last year's marathon finished dead-on at ten o'clock--exactly on schedule. And from all accounts, the results were electrifying. "We had SRO crowds from noon on. I can't tell you what that felt like. It's hard enough to get people to come to new plays, never mind get to our little, hard-to-find-theater--[but] people were camped in the aisles and begging at the door to get in. A lot of folks came to see one play, and then they couldn't leave. They didn't want to miss anything. There are great plays happening every hour. You just can't lose."
The future looks equally exciting. This fall, Baker's Plays, a subsidiary of Samuel French, will produce the First Annual Boston Theatre Marathon Anthology, which will include 20 to 25 ten-minute plays selected from the first year. "Hopefully, the second edition will be out the following spring," adds Snodgrass. "Then people can buy the anthologies at the performance."
There are ten-minute play marathons being produced all over the country now, and I asked Snodgrass if the BTM was different in any way. "We are the only marathon in the country with 40 producing theaters. With other events, like Louisville or Ensemble Studio, it's always under the auspices and direction of one entity. Here, we have major regionals like the A.R.T. and the Huntington producing alongside small professional companies like Súgán, dedicated to the latest Irish works, or the New African Company. It's an amazing mix of talent.
"Plus, all of the money raised goes to charity. This year, we are donating the proceeds to the Children's Aids Program at Boston Medical Center. They are hoping to start a children's theater company, and we are all really excited to support them."
After the marathon, you might be tempted to make your way to the nearest first aid tent for massage and recovery. But not before hitting the boards with the Chandler Travis Philharmonic. Once again they will play until long after the city of Boston has rolled up the sidewalks. There's a cash bar, free food and music, and a raffle offering everything from season tickets to local theaters, to free lube jobs donated by area businesses. So lace up your sneakers and make a dash for new work!