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January marks the return of Santa Cruz County Actors’ Theatre’s 8 Tens @ Eight Festival, the annual event that features a series of short plays each night.

In celebration of the event’s 20th anniversary, organizers have selected 16 plays to produce this year, up from the usual eight.

Opening night is on Friday, January 9 at the Center Street Theater in downtown Santa Cruz.

A little like speed-dating, 8 Tens @ Eight showcases eight 10-minute plays each night, with every play possessing its own distinctive characters, stories and flair.

The festival is ideal for those who have never experienced the thrill of live theater, says artistic director and festival founder, Wilma M. Chandler.

“Not only is watching the performances a lot of fun, but, if you decide a certain play is not exactly your cup of tea, you just wait a few minutes and get a completely new one.”

While Santa Cruz audiences cannot possibly be that fickle (or, can they?), festival organizers have made it easy for folks to get their theater-fix by offering a two-night package special through Brown Paper Tickets.

Unlike years past where only eight plays were selected and performed through the duration of the festival—which was then followed by Best of the Rest (staged readings of “runner-up” plays the day after the festival ended)—this year’s festival will have sixteen fully-produced short plays to offer.

The first eight plays will be performed during “A” nights and the other eight will be performed during “B” nights.

Rest assured that neither day’s repertoire is better than the other; the plays are divided up for convenience purposes alone.

The chosen plays were selected through a national play writing competition, which began way back in February, when festival organizers put out a nationwide call for submissions.

More than 200 entries were submitted from all corners of the world, yet highlighting the amazing local talent, seven of this year’s sixteen chosen playwrights are from the local area.

This is a mere coincidence though, points out Chandler, since the names of the playwrights were kept under wraps until the judging portion of the competition was complete in August.

The festival showcases various play genres. There are quite a few comedies and dramas in this year’s lineup—though there are themes and topics that arch across many of the featured plays, including family relations, one’s lasting legacy and human connections.

Winning by Mercilee Jenkins shows how people celebrate their last days on Earth and how this influences how others spend the remainder of their time, while Vincent Durham’s Change of Heart explores what happens when a child dies too soon.

These themes are also present in Santa Cruz Sentinel writer Wallace Baine’s Oscar’s Wallpaper—which is directed by Santa Cruz’s own Tandy Beal, on the eve of the Tandy Beal & Company’s 40th anniversary, no lessas it pertains to a great writer’s “last words” and how these will impact future readers and admirers.

Countess Befits Her by Steve Wong, a retired local English teacher whose play, Habits was produced by a previous year’s 8 Tens @ 8 Festival before making it all the way to Off-Broadway/West 42nd Street in New York City, deals with issues of ancestry.

“Everybody wants to know where they come from, or how all their “pieces” got put together,” he says.

8 Tens @ Eight Festival runs from Jan. 9 – Feb. 8 at The Center Street Theater in Santa Cruz.