Summer Shorts turns 20 with 9 plays and its most diverse company yet

So here’s a question for you: What has 437 plays, 165 world premieres and 228 playwrights?

Answer: All of the various festivals put on over the years by Miami’s City Theatre, the company that will open the 20th edition of its popular Summer Shorts festival at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater.

Through those many summers, first at the University of Miami’s Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, then at the Arsht, the company that specializes in short-form comedies and dramas (and now and then a little musical) has employed 93 actors, 60 directors and 46 designers.

That’s a lot of work and a large impact for a company that was dreamed up around a kitchen table by three friends with young kids.

Playwright Susan Westfall, the company’s literary manager and the only one of the three founders (the others are Stephanie Norman and Elena Wohl) still involved with City Theatre, says of its evolution, “We still do relationship plays, business plays, wackadoo crazy plays. I’m still excited every year to read them, to see what comes in. We’ve grown up, artists and audiences, in understanding the genre.”

This year’s Summer Shorts has some familiar elements: actors Tom Wahl and Elizabeth Dimon, festival veterans (Wahl has played 54 roles in 10 seasons, Dimon 46 roles in 9); directors John Manzelli (City Theatre’s producing artistic director), Margaret M. Ledford, Paul Tei and Bechir Sylvain, all of whom have been involved with past festivals; designers Jodi Dellaventura (set), Matt Corey (sound), Ellis Tillman (costumes) and Preston Bircher (lighting).

But Summer Shorts 2015 has plenty of new elements, too. Playwrights France-Luce Benson, Edith Freni, Kelly Younger, Patricia Cotter and R. Eric Thomas, for instance, are all making their Summer Shorts debuts.

The six-person acting company has three first-timers — Carbonell Award winner Karen Stephens, Chastity Hart and Michael Uribe (who once apprenticed at the festival) — in addition to Sylvain, Wahl and Dimon. Stephens and Hart are black actors, Sylvain is Haitian-American, and Uribe is of Colombian heritage, making this year’s acting troupe the most diverse in Summer Shorts history. And that’s important to Manzelli.

“We’re trying to make our company and our art look more like the city,” he says.

Sylvain, a Miamian who has been working in film and television in Los Angeles for the past seven years, came home to reconnect with theater as an actor and to direct Benson’s Risen from the Dough, this year’s winner of City Theatre’s short playwriting contest. The piece stars Stephens and Hart as Haitian sisters who run a Miami bakery, with Stephens playing a grieving widow jittery as she awaits a visit from a health inspector.

“This is a super strong piece that really deals with our culture,” Sylvain says. “You don’t often get to see how we feel being in a country where you have to morph into this new identity. … The way we talk is very loud and aggressive. It can make you think, ‘Man, these people are always angry!’ But it’s not that. It’s the passion we have.”

This year’s other plays are Jane Martin’s Bedtime, about a couple at two different stages of life; Steve Yockey’s Mrs. Evelyn Foxy and Her Low-Orbit Anxiety, a commissioned play about a quirky older woman; Holli Harms’ Cougar, about a woman unexpectedly pursued by a younger man; Freni’s Flare, about a nervous flier and the pilot sitting next to her; Younger’s Let’s Get Physical, a sexy comedy; Younger’s Mandate, in which a bromance cooked up by two guys’ wives plays out; Cotter’s The Anthropology Section, a gay marriage play in which a woman encounters her now-wed ex; and Thomas’ Human Resources, a play (with puppets!) about a corporate takeover.

The fifth edition of CityWrights, a national playwrights’ conference, will be held at Miami’s Epic Hotel June 25-28 with Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman as its keynote speaker. Manzelli says that the gathering, led by Westfall, has increased the company’s national prominence in the short-play genre and has led to the kind of programmatic strength in this year’s festival.

“At first, work would be sent to us. Now, the work is coming through CityWrights or through a direct relationship with playwrights. Though we still read the pile [of submissions],” he says.

The result, says director Ledford, is powerful: “This year is very strong. There’s not a weak one.”

As they were heading toward opening night, the Summer Shorts veterans had useful observations for the newbies.

“The process is really fast. You have to come in with choices made. You don’t have time to fool around,” Dimon says. “The directors don’t know what you’re doing in the other plays, and you’re trying to make different choices. … It’s not for everybody. I’ve seen meltdowns.”

Tei, the Mad Cat Theatre Company founder and artistic director, has been both an actor and director in seven Summer Shorts festivals.

“It’s about precision and execution,” he says. “It’s a lot of talent and ego and personality to try to blend together. People have the misconception it’s easy.”

Stephens, though a veteran actress, is going through the Summer Shorts process for the first time. She auditioned “a few times” but wasn’t cast then. She’s happy to be having the experience now, though she says with a smile that Bedtime is giving her pause.

“I’m at a point in my career where there’s an actress playing a younger version of me,” she says, crossing her eyes.

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