During a workshop at Manifest Minifest 2020, an online festival of original short plays and related events, Vortex associate creative director Rudy Ramirez took a moment to explain the concept of extinction: “When the asteroid hits, it’s all the big animals that die off. The dinosaurs are the ones who are gone. It’s the little birds and the little mammals that survive and then take over afterward.”
The plight of these smaller animals, Ramirez explained, is no different than what young theater artists face in 2020. With the nation’s pandemic-stricken theater landscape leaving large established theater companies with uncertain futures, younger independent voices now have the chance to speak their piece in a major way.
While Ramirez aimed the metaphorical advice to any young theater artists watching, it’s hard not to believe it also referred to New Manifest Theatre Company itself. A young theater collective launched by Simone Alexander and Elisa Regulski, New Manifest had yet to reach its one year anniversary before COVID-19 indefinitely shuttered the city’s stages.
Like most productions planned pre-pandemic, it seemed the company’s annual festival of original, short plays — Manifest Minifest — would be canceled too. But Alexander decided to steer Minifest headfirst into an online, virtual platform.
Streamed over the weekend of September 24-26, Manifest Minifest 2020 saw the dynamic young collective take its first step into a post-COVID theatrical world. Alongside a bevy of newly devised artists workshops, Manifest 2020 showcased four new works from playwrights across the country, each performed, directed, filmed and edited remotely by the company’s ensemble of artists. While it might not have looked like any project New Manifest has put on in the past, the festival saw the organization do what it does best — tell original and challenging new stories from a variety of diverse perspectives.
Chicago-based playwright Kristiana Rae Colón set a powerful precedent for Minifest 2020 with “Covenant,” the opening production. This poetic play focuses on four teenagers casting a ritual of protection around society’s most vulnerable on the eve of President Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration. At 20 minutes, “Covenant” was the longest of the festival’s and offered plenty of topical content to sift through.
Key to this work’s success is director Simone Alexander’s firm grasp of Colón’s artistic style — a style that formed the backbone of New Manifest’s final pre-COVID production, Colón’s visceral school shooting-focused play, “good friday.” Like with “good friday,” Alexander here assembled a cast of New Manifest’s A-teamers whose distinct energies worked in tandem to find the humor, urgency, and heart that’s baked into Colon’s prose. Even with actors filming their parts remotely, we felt the chemistry between these characters as they agitated and inspired one another.
As visual storytelling, “Covenant” was perhaps the strongest of the festival. Filmed in front of a sparse black backdrop, the audiences’ POV cuts between characters rapidly. Though that could have been jarring, it wasn’t, and instead, allowed Alexander made room for the script’s lyricism. Colón’s writing is often purposefully hectic, with characters speaking over one another. Some strong editing choices — such as layering characters’ video above one another — Alexander built upon Colón’s choices, creating a cohesive and unique style that infusd every element of this production.
Poignant and well-acted, “Covenant” proved a perfect festival opener, serving as a strong example of the spirit of creative collaboration that Alexander has fostered within her organization.
Leading Friday night’s festivities “Bo” was a touching drama by Cris Eli Blak. Directed by New Manifest ensemble member, Faith Anderson, Blak’s script tells the story of Quinn, a Black teenager (Kenah Benefield) coming out to his old-fashioned, no-nonsense father Derek (Trevor Bissel).
Blak’s script is both a commentary on and an upending of how coming out narratives are usually played for dramatic (and traumatic) effect, particularly with BIPOC characters. Blak’s understanding of this generic convention is obvious as tension builds between Quinn and his father. Yet Blak’s steers the drama too a mature, respectful dialogue between father and son.
Blak’s strategy isn’t subversion for subversion’s sake. While “Boy” challenges our preconceived notions of coming out narratives, it succeeds in doing so via the believable depth established between its two characters. Under Anderson’s direction, Bissell and Benefield capture the generational divide between parent and child with sincerity. From a technical standpoint, Anderson took a bare-bones directorial approach, telling the story through snappy shot reverse shots.
Although it’s difficult to see how this play was in any way improved for having been moved to a virtual medium, Anderson’s direction ensures nothing was lost either. “Boy” wore its lack of frills on its sleeve, letting powerful performances and sparse camera work build the tension. These elements together make this short a tightly written and thoughtfully paced eight minutes.
“Flat Hens Don’t Lay Eggs or How the Chicken Crossed the Road”
The final night started with a delightful piece of absurdity from Katie Svatek, “Flat Hens Don’t Lay Eggs or How the Chicken Crossed the Road.” A creative adaption of the Hollywood Freeway Chicken case — wherein a group of feral chickens inexplicably populated the off-ramp of Los Angeles’s Hollywood Freeway — Svatek’s narrative is told from the perspectives of the chickens themselves.
“Flat Hens” follows its feathered leads — a perpetually bickering couple named Click and Clack — as they discuss the pros and cons of Clack’s lifelong desire to “get to the other side” of the road, as well as the philosophical questions that desire raises.
Apparent from the get-go is how much enjoyment Alexander took in her role as director. Shot outdoors along a highway, “Flat Hens” employs multiple, ground-level camera angles. What’s more, our two main characters take the form of rudimentary, googly-eyed chicken puppets flapping around humorously. Sometimes, these elements create such a cacophony that makes it downright impossible to follow exactly what’s happening within Svatek’s script.
While the piece more than once loses itself in its presentation’s absurdity, “Flat Hens” nevertheless finds its heart in the stellar voiceover performances of Eva McQuade and Hollis Lapree Edwards III. McQuade in particular brings to Cluck the same combination of spunk and sincerity that’s defined her characters on Austin stages in the past.
“Flat Hens” deserves credit for taking the most production chances of the four festival plays. There’s no doubt a lot of passion from all parties involved here, making the payworth viewing should you find yourself able to commit to three or four clarifying viewings.
Closing Minifest was a sweet romantic comedy from Dallas-based Andra Hunter. A tightly constructed romance filled with delightful dialogue and spunky characterization, Maude follows love-seeking seniors Thomas, played by (Rupert Reyes), and Maude (Jean Budney) on their first virtual speed-date.
Much like “Covenant,” “Maude” proves there is power in creative collaboration. Hunter projects her heart directly onto the page, making her script perfect fodder for a thoughtful director like Eva McQuade as well the two well-cast actors.
As the pessimistic, impatient Maude, Budney exhibited equal amounts of humor and heart, ensuring her character’s eccentricities remained endearing. Reyes played the role of a kind-hearted and patient foil with a confident charm.
But while “Maude” started strong, its second half slowed with Thomas’s long-winded monologues and Andrea’s over-explained metaphors. Still, the play’s heartwarming conclusion satisfied.
For a play that seems tailor-made for a virtual “Zoom play” format, Hunter said in her post-show talkback that “Maude” was originally written as a traditional live stage play.
That made “Maude” an appropriate choice to close out Minifest 2020. It captured what made the event a success. Along with the thoughtful workshops and other original productions, Hunter’s work showcased the sorts of genuine experiences and unselfish connections that are becoming increasingly possible within a virtual framework.
Manifest Minifest 2020 proved that theater artists can make meaningful pivots toward alternative storytelling avenues. And it showed that not only is it possible to share fresh narratives within a distanced medium, such adaptations can breed new innovations. Theater artists the world over arere working to define their art form’s future. They might do well to pay attention to the trails New Manifest and its merry team of collaborators are currently blazing in Austin.
Plays included in Manifest Minifest 2020 can be seen on New Manifest Theatre’s YouTube channel: youtube.com/channel/UC9_kQVnlomq9o-n6eEHC_pA/featured