Sketchbook Festival Collaboraction

Astudy by Indiana University telecommunications professors, noted by Ezra Klein in the May 18 Los Angeles Times, found that between 1968 and 1992 clips of presidential candidates talking on the news went down from one minute on average to about ten seconds; since 1992 they’ve dropped to eight seconds. Our collective reduced attention span may endanger nuanced political discourse, as Klein goes on to suggest, but it’s created a cottage industry for theater artists. Short play festivals crop up regularly now from Nantucket to Las Vegas. In Chicago, Collaboraction’s annual Sketchbook Festival has become the marquee showcase for short plays—most are no longer than seven minutes—and a hootenanny for artists from all over the city.

This year’s installment, the eighth, divides 14 pieces evenly between two programs. Works by a couple of Sketchbook veterans, Sean Graney and Laura Jacqmin, which appear on Program A, typify the two most common forms entries take: the freestanding, complete play and the sketch that still needs to be completed.

Graney’s I’S N UR B1UDStR33M COZIN FA60SITOSIZ uses leet, the Internet slang that’s become the bane of English teachers, to tell the story of a 13-year-old boy making his online farewells as he’s dying of an unidentified congenital disorder. The piece amounts to a brief meditation on reduced expectations—for language and for life. Directed by Michael Patrick Thornton, it features Bubba Weiler as the boy, who sits silently in a wheelchair while his text messages flash on screens surrounding the audience and a voice-over translates them. An astonishing array of emotions is embedded in the shorthand, including sorrow for the guilt-ridden mother left behind and regret for a life unlived. I’S N UR B1UDStR33M is a strong example of completeness in a small package, and Weiler’s body language captures the oceanic currents beneath the character’s superficial stillness.

By contrast, Jacqmin’s Parkersburg is an underdeveloped riff. Directed by Greg Allen, it follows a trio of young female coal miners—in garish party dresses—who must find a vein of coal or lose their jobs. Alliances shift as fear mounts—particularly when the proverbial canary in the coal mine keels over. Allen’s stylized staging lends physical energy (the girls swing pickaxes into the wooden bottom of a reclining chair as they desperately seek bituminous salvation), but Parkersburg remains an idea for an allegorical play rather than a fully realized work.

The two programs mirror each other in interesting ways. For instance: Program A kicks off with Itamar Moses’s Treadmills, in which a couple at a gym discusses whether or not to move in together. Their exercise machines become a metaphor for their relationship, as they speed up, slow down, and hit each other’s “heart” emergency buttons to stop the crazy things. The symbolism’s a bit labored at times, but the couple’s mutual passive aggression comes through with painful clarity. Program B opens similarly, with Cassandra Sanders’s Chicago Summer, in which two young bicyclists are shadowed by their future selves as they meet for the first time. The piece is a slight, curtain-raising amuse bouche, but Lauren Sharpe and Brendan Donaldson bring loads of charm to their courtship-on-wheels.

Some of the most crowd-pleasing and aesthetically satisfying work this year is humorous, and both programs end with comic gems. On Program A, there’s Drew Dir’s clever The Lurker Radio Hour, in which the host of an old-time radio crime show (a desperately hilarious Will Clinger) begs his faithless wife to come back to him—on the air—while his smitten Foley artist (Amy Speckien) tries to catch his attention. The play’s funny but also resonates darkly as a portrait of romantic obsession and humiliation. Program B concludes with the most outsize piece of the festival: Cowboy Birthday Party, by local black-comedy specialist Emily Schwartz, is pretty much exactly what the title promises, plus a string quartet. It’s a big, absurdist homage—Blazing Saddles by way of Eugene Ionesco.

Some of this year’s entries reflect on currents of social and political disquiet, with varying degrees of success. Jose Rivera’s Yellow (Program B) shows what happens when the facile ribbon on the old oak tree attracts a menacing soldier. It’s chilling, but ultimately too smug about smug knee-jerk patriotism. By contrast, Eric Ziegenhagen’s allusive Bad News (Program A) encompasses current economic fears in a skillfully drawn encounter between a father and his teenage daughter. Dad is apparently facing federal charges for some kind of financial malfeasance and he’s trying to make amends. “Risk,” he says, “is either losing faith at the right time or having faith at the right time.” As an epitaph for whatever remains of the economic optimism of the 90s, that’s right on point.

Collaboraction has always encouraged audience participation. In the past that’s involved libations and ambulatory stagings, but this year audience voices are brought directly into the event through Sketchbook Submit, which allows anyone to go online and answer 14 questions derived from the themes of this year’s plays (number four: “Tell us about your biggest fear;” number nine: “How do you support the American soldier?”). Interludes created from the answers (directed by Collaboraction’s executive artistic director Anthony Moseley and performed by the five-member Submit Ensemble) fill the breaks between pieces.

Like most trips through an artist’s sketchbook, this year’s festival yields some clunky moments, but those are overwhelmed by the festival’s atmosphere of communal joy. As a sampler of some of the best writers, directors, and actors in town, it delivers an exhilarating gallery of voices, images, and insights.v