Odds are you are already aware of an evening of entertainment called the poetry slam. But you might not be aware of a variation of that kind of competition called the Play Slam. It is basically the same type of competition; but rather than the subject being poetry, the subject is theater. Moreover, in order to have a competition that would not keep an audience sitting in their seats for hours on end, there is a limitation. The work being presented can be no longer than three minutes.

So, what playwright would wish to write a play only three minutes long? Apparently quite a few. This past Saturday night, a total of 13 North Carolina playwrights gathered at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC to present their three-minute plays in the Third Annual Play Slam, presented by the North Carolina Playwrights Alliance. This fast-and-furious competition eliminated eight contenders in the first hour. The audience made these decisions, using scorecards supplied in place of a program. After all 13 plays had been seen in Round One, these scorecards were turned in and tallied to select the five who would advance to the final round. This year, The ArtsCenter crowned a new winner, who walked off with a beer pitcher filled with dollar bills 100 of them, to be precise.

Each playwright must submit two three-minute plays; the second is for showing in the second round, should one advance so far. But these works need not be short-short one-acts. They might also be a scene from a larger work, a monologue, a work-in-progress, or whatever other work actually fits the format.

According to hostess Lynden W. Harris, the artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, this is the most unfair of competitions. All a dramatist needs to win is to bring plenty of friends and family along, all willing to vote for you. And that at least seems to be what happened this year. One particular playwright, Allan Maule, in addition to having one very funny and wicked play, also had his very own cheering section.

One individual from the audience, during the question-and-answer period at the beginning of Round Two, wondered out loud why the genre seemed to be best suited to comedy, as evidenced by the fact that 10 of the 13 plays we had just seen were comedic. Of all 13 playwrights, Maule provided the best answer: that through comedy, it is easier to connect to the audience member because of that ready response. Nevertheless, the evening’s entertainment ranged from the quite serious drama to the comic, and beyond even to the point, in just a few cases, of the ridiculous.

The five playwrights who survived the first round were (in no particular order): Gina Kelly, whose short conversation between sisters showed that they both did really care about their aging parents in “Show That You Care;” Jerome Oster, whose masterful wordplay in a dinner scene in “Fortay” pits wife against husband in a game of wits in which he is unarmed; Lynden Harris, who wrote in “Proposal” about a man proposing to a man when neither of them are gay; Allan Maule, whose first work was about a wicked argument between two men in a Laundromat, and leaves us to wonder just which of them is “The Laundry Bastard”; and John Paul Middlesworth, whose “Play for One” shows how artistic zeal can actually lose a theater troupe its patrons.

Of course, we didn’t know this immediately; all we knew was that each playwright who did make it to Round Two had already prepared his actors with another scene. In some cases, it was pretty easy to see which two plays were by the same playwright; a prime example is the second play by Allan Maule, “Cheers, Roomie!” which was performed by the same two actors, Maule being one of them. Whereas this scene was not so nearly as tense, funny, or real as was Maule’s first attempt, its attraction for the students in the audience, and that pretty big cheering section, were enough to put him over the top.

But there were four other contestants who were able to give us another dose of their three-minute play-writing ability. Two of these plays were far from funny; Gina Kelley’s “Leaving,” tugged mercilessly at the heartstrings, whereas Lynden Harris’ “Escape Artist” was a series of short monologues by battered women who must escape their horrible traps and one woman who, using a clever game with her children, manages to get all three of her children and herself away from the man who, literally, imprisons them.

Jerome Oster, whose “Fortay” moved him up from Round One with alacrity, presented another kind of “leaving” scenario, in which a man finds a creative reason for leaving his always-angry and philandering wife, in “8 Central.” And it was John Paul Middlesworth who gave us an interesting three-minute egg of a twist involving men in towels, entitled “Those Who Knead.” Massage, anyone?

These scenes came and went like the wind and we are not likely to see them again (unless one or two of these playwrights hones his craft to full-production grade) but the actual fun of this show is the format, a three-minute play. Can you succeed in getting your point across in 180 seconds or less? Thirteen N.C. playwrights were willing to give it a go, not just once, but twice. For even though only five moved forward, all 13 had to bring two scripts, just in case. And the 14 member pool of actors who took these shows on at a moment’s notice and did them all proud also deserve a big round of applause.

The Fourth Annual ArtsCenter Play Slam won’t be back until next September, but you can start your three-minute play right now; then, when you see the notice for entries on The ArtsCenter’s website in August 2006, you’ll be ready!

North Carolina Playwrights Alliance: http://www.ncplaywrightsalliance.org/ [inactive 11/09]. The ArtsCenter: http://www.artscenterlive.org/.

PREVIEW: North Carolina Playwrights Alliance: Third Annual Play Slam Pits Playwright Against Playwright for a $100 Prize

by Robert W. McDowell

The Third Annual Play Slam, presented by the North Carolina Playwrights Alliance Saturday night in Carrboro, NC at The ArtsCenter as part of the center’s OffCenter Series, will pit Tarheel playwright against Tarheel playwright for a $100 prize, determined by an audience vote, and bragging rights.

“This year’s Slam includes such intriguing titles as ‘The Paint Can,’ ‘People Who Knead,’ ‘Paris Fantasy,’ ‘Escape Artist,’ ‘Ancient Concerns,’ ‘The Laundry Bastard,’ ‘Eight Central,’ ‘My Mama’s Monkey,’ and more,” says Lynden W. Harris, artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage.

NCPA President Adrienne Pender says, “The Play Slam is like a poetry slam: fast paced, brief pieces, with audience participation. The way it works is that each playwright submits two pieces, three minutes or under each. Each playwright gets one play read in Round One. The audience scores each of the plays in Round One and the top five vote getters are moved on to a second round.

“Only the top five playwrights’ pieces are read in the second round,” Pender explains. “The audience scores the plays again; those scores are combined with the Round One votes; and the winning playwright with the most votes gets the prize, which is $100 this year.

Pender says, “The readings are done by local actors, who are given the scripts about a day before the event. They meet with the playwright (who serves as director of their pieces) about an hour before the event to discuss the work, get any additional ideas about what the writer wants to get across, etc. But for the most part it’s a bare-bones, seat-of-your pants kind of thing. But that seems to come across to the audience and is, I think, one of the reasons they respond to it. The audiences have been very enthusiastic in their participation, love that they are ‘in charge’ with their voting; and when we have a little talk back session after the show with all the playwrights on stage, most of the audience stays and asks questions, so we get great crowds.”

Some of the actors include participating in the Third Annual Play Slam include Naomi Eckahart, Thaddaeus Edwards, Barbette Hunter, Thomas “TeKay” King, Eryn Makepeace, Steve Walsh, and Nick Winstead.

Adrienne Pender adds, “I’ve been a writer in two of the Slams, and have pieces in this year as well. It’s definitely a challenge to write something with a beginning, middle, and end, in three minutes. I would say that the piece doesn’t have to be a complete ‘play,’ but it does have to have a completion of some kind. We get a whole range of pieces, from serious to slapstick comedy. The pieces that usually work the best are those that are written specifically for this, not excerpts from other works, because there is no time for explanation, or exposition. And, you have to remember that there is audience of people voting; it isn’t so much that you have the best-written piece to win as much as something an audience will relate to and/or enjoy. Those can be quite different things.

“As far as I know,” Pender says, “we are the first producers of an actual play Slam, but I think it’s a great concept that should catch on. It’s not difficult to put together, there are no sets/costumes/props, unless an actor or writer brings them on their own. And again, the audience loves it.”

Playwrights participating in the Third Annual Play Slam include Mark Cornell, Lynden Harris, B. Holroyd, Gina Kelly, John Kreilkamp, Phil Lewis, Allan Maule, John Paul Middlesworth, Jerome Oster, Adrienne Pender, David Roth, Laura Janelle Royster, and Stephen J. Walsh.

Lynden Harris says, “We have several playwrights participating who have seen their full-length plays produced in the area in the past couple of years, such as Adrienne Pender at Theatre in the Park and Jerome Oster at Burning Coal Theatre Company, as well as a newcomer to the area, Mark Cornell, who used to be at the Geffen in LA. Playwrights hail from Chapel Hill to Willow Spring and points between.”

Harris claims, “The Slam draws both stalwart theatergoers as well as the curious bystanders. Unlike a poetry slam, we give every audience member a score card, so the tallying is a bit of a nightmare. We should really get some accounting firm to sponsor this event, rather than make the poor actors try and manipulate calculators.

“Actually,” Harris says, “the mayhem around scoring is some of the fun and allows for more beer to be consumed and more time to be spent conversing with the playwrights on stage. It gives the audience a chance to talk very intimately with writers and sometimes even inspires the audience to give writing a shot next year. Everyone gets to mix it up with actors, new and old, from around the area and playwrights whose works the audience may or may not have seen. No one has any idea what the night will bring, which is a little nerve-wracking but compelling. Theater at its least-rehearsed and voting at its most irregular.”

The North Carolina Playwrights Alliance presents the Third Annual Play Slam Saturday, Sept. 24th, at 8 p.m. at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $5. 919/929-2787. North Carolina Playwrights Alliance: http://www.ncplaywrightsalliance.org/ [inactive 11/09]. The ArtsCenter: http://www.artscenterlive.org/write/calendar.html [inactive 1/06].