Jan 07

HPR – 10-Minute Play Festival – Interview with Ryan Luhning

by Wil Knoll · 1 comment

He likes theatre and zombies and stuff

“Once it hits tomorrow it’s go go go, but the lead up is pretty easy.”

Ryan Luhning seems calm compared to most of the recent conversations I’ve had with people about the High Performance Rodeo. As the time drew closer to today, e-mail’s would be replied to later and later. Some responses started showing 2 AM time stamps or worse, and the responses themselves started getting shorter.

But Luhning is willing to give me a bit more. He isn’t producing a show for the High Performance Rodeo per se. He and his team are orchestrating one of the Festivals within the Festival, the 10-Minute Play Festival. Ground Zero Theatre, which he has been the artistic director of since it’s birth 13 years ago, produces the annual challenge that leads to one great big party on Saturday night.

“It’s one of the things I always put due care and consideration into.” Luhning is relaxed and caught up in domestic duties it seems as we chat about the 10-Minute. Even though calm, his voice allways carries a mischivous energy and smile. I had asked if he just finds objects around the office for use in the festival. “We don’t want to handcuff people. You don’t want to give them objects that are so spesific that it dosen’t open up the creativity.”

Aparently a framed 8×10″ photo of Doug McKeag, which some may have displayed in their office, may not be the best example of a prop to be used in the festival. Teams are given packages containing a prop and one or more lines of dialoug that must be used and featured centraly in a play. That play must be written in 24 hours. Companies get their package Friday night, they perform their work Saturday night. Doug McKeag’s photo? Might be a bit to loaded and narrows opportunities. “Keep it open as possible, to keep the creative juices flowing. It’s the old improv adage, the simpler the better.”

McKeag’s photo was used one year as a prop, the year he first started hosting the 10-Minute. But the 10-Minute itself is 10 years old. It started in ’99 after Theatre Skam out of Victoria came to Calgary to share how they did 10-Minute Play festivals. Luhning was approached by Michael Green of OYR about it.

“Michael wanted to start showcasing young groups, but he couldn’t give them a day or two with how tight the Rodeo’s schedule is.” So Green turned to Luhning and Ground Zero Theatre to work together on it. Ground Zero was arguably, and Luhning stresses arguably, the king of the wave of new theatre companies that had spun up in the years just previous. The arrangement worked amazingly well. “You’re a young company, you’re getting more people in for the 10-Minute play festival then you are getting for an entire run for your show. So it’s a fantastic platform for young companies.”

The 10-Minute has been evolving for some time now. It’s size grew, prompting a move from The Big Secret Theatre where OYR resides, to The Playhouse for a period, and now into The Martha Cohen Theatre. The rules have stayed the same, but the faces of the indy companies performing have changed. And the face of the 10-Minute it’s self will be changing after this year as well. “We’re kinda not the leader or champion of the small indy companies anymore. I mean, we do big musicals now. I’m not overly in touch anymore with the young groups. I got to a point with the festival where I would have to ask Mark Hopkins ‘Hey, who are the hot companies, who should I bring in?’ When I start getting out of touch, well, maybe it’s time to pass it over.”

In 2011, the 10-Minute Play festival will be lead by Simon Mallett through Downstage. “I think Simon’s group with Downstage are probably the leaders of the next generation of indy companies that are upcoming.” Luhning called up Simon and asked what he thought of the idea. Although not able to take the reigns this year, Mallet accepted.

It was a natural fix as Luhning sees it. “I was going to hand it off this year and say ‘Here you go dude.'”

Some advice for Downstage? “It is called the 10-Minute play festival. There were a few years in there where we would have groups come in with a 20, 25 minute piece where they think that more is better. We just instituded in the past two years a system for the audience where at the ten minute mark stuff will happen if you’re not ready to wrap it up. And then oddly every group in the last two years have always come in under ten minutes. It’s never been used, it’s still in place. Come this Saturday some group starts creeping up to the ten minute mark… stuff could happen”

“Don’t put an agenda on it. Keep it very light. Keep the idea that Fun is the most important part of the 10-Minute. The audience, at all times, is on everyone’s side. The audience is well aware that people have created these pieces in 24 hours. The audience comes in ready to go, ready to support you through the whole thing. People are on your side. Keep it light and fun. That doesn’t mean that you always have to make a comedy, just keep it fun.”

Some pieces from the 10-Minute have gone on to become full shows, or are incorporated into larger works. So the festival can become a stepping stone for young companies trying to get exposure and experence. The party after the 10-Minute has been called the best of the HPR by some.

The setup is a great way to discover the talents and skills of individual contributors to a company, especially under pressure. But the environment and challenge is not for everyone, or maybe exactly right but for reasons the teams could not have expected. “I know some groups have broken up because of the 10-Minute. I know companies have imploded because of this. It’s been a great path for people to say ‘Know what? We don’t work well together.'”

And then Luhning laughed. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to discover those relationships early.

I’m hoping that on Saturday, the team I’ll be performing with (Swallow-A-Bicycle), will have survived our 24 hours. I’m hoping that we can pull off the finer points of how a team works as Luhning sees it. “The best thing about the event is when you see a company receive their prop, receive their quote, and then literally use it for the utmost they can get out of it. And that’s where the magic from it comes. To come in with a blank slate and go “ok this is what we got, this is what we have, what are we going to do?”‘

What are we going to do? If you care to find out, you know where to find Luhning and I Saturday night. Sadly, my interview with Luhning went over time. I’m not sure what penalty the audience will be enforcing on that.

10-Minute Play Festival

Ground Zero Theatre
At The High Performance Rodeo
January 9th, 2010
Martha Cohen Theatre, 7:30pm
Tix $25

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