Preparing the expanded 8 Tens @ Eight festival means finding great art from all over the world—and a top team of artists here in Santa Cruz
By Wendy Mayer-Lochtefeld
Culture watchers have been wringing their hands over our shrinking attention spans for many moons, but one plucky local theater company chose to embrace it long ago—and Santa Cruz audiences have been showing up in droves ever since. This is the 21st season of 8 Tens @ Eight, the little festival that could, which pioneered the 10-minute play festival on the West Coast.
It began as a showcase for playwrights from the Santa Cruz area, and gradually began to draw talent from surrounding regions. It challenged audiences in the same way that short stories challenge readers, measuring every word and gesture for impact. As winning plays were picked over many summers, resulting winter productions handed us wit, wisdom and pathos in 10-minute bites of every flavor.
There were 53 submissions in the summer of 1999, all from within a hundred-mile radius. This year, there were close to 300, from 30 states, and countries as far afield as Korea. One play was even submitted by an inmate serving a life sentence in Texas. It was among the winners. There have been so many submissions, in fact, that last year 8 Tens @ Eight doubled in size.
“We used to have a second set of shows called the Best of the Rest Fest, which showcased runners up, but that became so popular there were fights in the alley about why this or that play wasn’t one of the eight,” says Wilma Marcus Chandler, the festival’s founder and longtime artistic director. “Better to have two nights of winning plays instead.”
This year continues the expanded format—16 pint-sized plays presented in repertoire on “A” and “B” nights, from Jan. 8 to Feb. 7. That means 16 different playwrights, directors, casts, and sets.
“We’ve gotten a lot more technically savvy with lights, sound, and set changes,” says Chandler. “The crew shifts sets in less than a minute.” Take that, Broadway.
Steve Capasso, who has acted in 8 Tens @ Eight since 2008, goes for laughs this year as a hapless husband in Flirting with Age, about a son who brings his 70-something-year-old girlfriend home to meet his parents. In You Too, he seethes as a blue collar worker with a chip on his shoulder, grilling a guy who works on Wall Street.
“I found my tribe,” says Capasso of the actors he works with during the festival. “We know our work, our strengths, our weaknesses. We’re extremely supportive of each other.”
It’s a tribe that’s ever expanding, in geography and scope. Helene Simkin Jara—who has been involved with 8 Tens @ Eight since 2003 as an actor, writer and director—is directing a play from New Zealand this year called Threatened Panda Fights Back, by Rex McGregor.
“It begins with choosing a play that you think you can interpret well enough so that the audience and playwright will be pleased,” she says. “As a director, I’m like a proud mom, watching my actors and hearing the audience’s reaction to the creation we were all a part of.”
Themes tend to emerge. The 2015 season saw characters surviving crisis, and some LGBT themes. One year was all about food.
“This year, a lot of the plays submitted deal with aging and ecology,” says Chandler. “The world shapes what we write, and we shape the world. Every year, it’s completely different.”
There’s a lot of local talent among the playwrights this year, but it’s not because of some kind of quota—their work was selected on the basis of merit alone.
“About a third of this year’s winning plays are from local writers, which is very unusual. Judges don’t know who wrote the work they review or where it’s from,” says Chandler. “Out of 16 plays, five or six are by locals. Some years we don’t have any.” She shies away from taking personal pride in 8 Tens @ Eight, she says, but feels gratified at how much its scale has grown.
“It’s a lovely melting pot,” she says, “that brings us all together.”
The 8 Tens @ Eight festival will be presented Jan. 8 – Feb. 7, Wednesdays through Saturdays, at 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Center Stage Theater, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 general, $22 senior/student. For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or go to brownpapertickets.com. For more information, go to sccat.org.