The History of Heartland’s 10-Minute Plays
How did Heartland Theatre’s 10-Minute Play Festival get started? You need to go back about two years before the first festival of brand-new 10-minute plays actually came to Heartland’s stage in the summer of 2002.
Well before that first festival, Heartland had successfully produced David Ives’ All in the Timing, a popular collection of 10-minute plays, and Julie Kistler, then a theater critic as well as a novelist, was thinking about expanding her craft as a writer into plays. Julie began to see just how good short plays could be after covering other 10-minute play festivals on stage in central Illinois as well as in Louisville, Kentucky at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. As she became interested in the shorter form, Julie took a playwriting class at the summer Iowa Writers’ Workshop where participants were asked to write a 10-minute play over the course of the class, and prompts like “the front porch under a full moon” were used in writing exercises.
Julie saw a piece in the Bloomington Pantagraph where Heartland Artistic Director Mike Dobbins indicated that he was looking for new work. Although she had never met Mike, Julie thought that sounded like a good match for her own interests, and she called the theater to pitch her idea of a festival of short plays written by local authors.
Mike quickly called back and asked Julie to meet with him and Brian Simpson, then thepresident of the Heartland Board of Directors, at the Coffeehouse in Normal to discuss whether this could be a feasible project for Heartland. Julie’s initial idea was to ask a select group of playwrights from Bloomington-Normal to write plays that would use a common set. She thought that it would not only put a spotlight on local authors, but allow all of the writers to help promote the festival, since they would be available to do interviews and appearances. Julie encouraged using a prompt – in this case, a specific place – to spark playwrights’ creativity as well as insure that they wrote new work just for Heartland. If the prompt consisted of a place or location, she felt it would also facilitate staging, since a collection of plays with the same set could proceed smoothly without lengthy scene changes.
In that meeting, Julie offered “The Front Porch” as a good theme for the pilot year, again remembering her class in Iowa, and Mike and Brian came up with a list of local playwrights who could be asked to participate. To put together a group of plays, Mike solicited pieces from a line-up of Illinois authors – Kistler and Simpson plus John Ficca, James Keeran, John Kirk and Kathy O’Malley — plus one “wild card” that came from Texas playwright Chuck Watkins in response to a general call for plays in online forums and through playwriting groups.
The 2002 Festival went over quite well, and Mike and his wife, Gail Dobbins, a member of the board who was in charge of Heartland Theatre’s marketing, began to plot out where they might take the 10-Minute Play project in its second year. Mike and Gail decided to make Heartland’s Festival a national contest, asking playwrights all over the world to submit their work on a particular theme. They chose another location – this time a funeral parlor – and went to work setting up a way to judge the work that came in. Playwrights from Georgia, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas were represented in those “Parlor Plays,” with David L. Paterson’s One Last Time picked up for publication by Samuel French after its performance at Heartland.
The overall 10-Minute Play process at Heartland has been refined and changed over the years, moving into more esoteric themes like “20 Years” and “One Shoe” rather than simple locations, adding more rounds of judging and detailed scoresheets to help the judges evaluate the plays, creating a stylesheet for playwrights, moving to all-electronic submissions, and putting an emphasis on communication with playwrights from the beginning to end of the competition. That personal touch has made a big difference in Heartland’s relationship with its playwrights, some of whom enter year after year.
As Heartland’s connection to playwrights flourished, the number of submissions also grew, rising from about a hundred in the early years to almost 400 for the theme “Playing Games” in 2012. No matter how many entries come in, each play is read and discussed by four judges in the first round of judging, and comments are offered to playwrights who request them. In recent years, playwrights who enter early enough have been eligible for revisions if first-round judges feel an otherwise worthy play can advance to the second round after minor changes.
When “The Art Gallery” plays bowed in June 2016, Heartland Theatre had produced 120 different 10-minute plays in 15 years, with 104 playwrights from 27 states. Outside the United States, there have been two winners from Canada and two from the United Kingdom, with one winning playwright from Australia. Sixteen different playwrights have won twice, with Dan Borengasser from Arkansas and Ron Burch from California reaching that goal in 2016. As of yet, no one has won three times, but there’s always next year.
For a complete list of winners, alphabetical by playwright, click here.