Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lawrence Kessenich: A Somerville Bagel Bard with a flair for “flash” playwriting

Lawrence Kessenich: A Somerville Bagel Bard with a flair for “flash” playwriting.

Lawrence Kessenich is a member of Somerville ‘s Bagel Bards and was an editor at the prestigious Boston publishing house Houghton Mifflin. During his time at Houghton Mifflin, Kessenich recruited W. P. Kinsella author of “Shoeless Joe,” Rick Boyer’s “Billingsgate Shoal”, a mystery that won an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, “Confessions of Taoist on Wall Street,”by David Payne, and “Selected Poems of Anne Sexton,” edited by Diane Middlebrook. Here Kessenich writes about his experience in a 10-minute play competition…this piece should take you about 5 minutes to read!


The first company to have an official 10-minute play festival was the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1977. Since then, such festivals have sprung up nationwide, usually associated with competitions that draw entries from around the country – and even from around the world. Boston has one of the most extensive festivals I’m aware of, every May at the Boston Center for the Arts. It’s called The Boston Theater Marathon – eight solid hours of 10-minute plays, five per hour – and it’s entirely captivating. Very few of the plays are boring, and when one comes along that is, it’s over in 10 minutes, anyway!

If your response to this is: “10-minute plays? What can possibly be conveyed in 10 minutes?” you’re clearly not a poet. Though ten minutes may seem like a short amount of time for a play, it’s an eternity for a poem. Heck, many of us have had group readings where we got 10 minutes total to read our poems – and we’ve said a lot in those 10 minutes.

What are these plays about? I’ve seen one about an old boyfriend and girlfriend meeting on the street in “the hood” years after the woman had moved away. Another was a socio-political satire about people shopping at The Hate Store. A third was, believe it or not, about a pair of mismatched socks talking about their relationship – and it was delightful!

You have to be good with dialogue, of course – or with conveying ideas through movement (as in one I saw about a bird that falls in love with a human that relied mainly on dance moves).

When I decided to start entering plays for the Boston Theater Marathon, four years ago, I was blessed with a lot of experience writing dialogue in novels (novels that remain unpublished, sadly, but they were good practice), and I always enjoyed writing that dialogue. I’d also been an amateur actor and had written one play adaptation in college.

But being a poet was probably my biggest advantage. In an essay on the Boston Theater Marathon website, BU playwriting professor and co-founder of the Marathon, Bill Lattanzi, writes: “It's been said that the theater is really closer to poetry as an art form than it is to movies, television, or the novel. It's a form that relies on artful compression of events into a single small space; that makes strong use of imagery, often spoken, to carry the day.” So, there you have it, poets. You’re half way there!

I find it a great joy to write plays. A new friend of mine, poet and playwright Lynne McMahon, tells me that she thoroughly enjoys the freedom that play writing gives her. “So liberating after the rigors of the poem,” she writes. “ Or rather the rigor is of a new and different order so it feels liberating – that's probably a temporary hallucination . . .” Okay, so maybe the sense of liberation isn’t permanent, but it makes a nice change from writing poetry.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to mine my poems for 10-minute play ideas. For years, people had been telling me that some of my poems were like little stories. So, I went back them and, lo and behold, found four that did seem to contain the seeds of something longer. I’ve turned all four of them into 10-minute plays.

After entering a number of plays in the Boston Theater Marathon, I decided to enter other 10-minute play competitions. And this year I finally succeeded. My play “Ronnie’s Charger,” based on a poem I’d written years ago, was shortlisted for a new festival in Durango, Colorado. The play is a series of monologues (with one brief interaction in the middle) spoken by a couple who lost a son in the Vietnam War. The Charger of the title is a Dodge Charger their son bought after high school graduation and enjoyed for the summer before going to boot camp. It becomes the metaphor for Ronnie’s life while he’s away and after he is eventually killed in Vietnam.

The play was given a dramatic reading with the five other finalists in May. The grand prize went to a play by Lynne McMahon, my new playwright friend, and mine won “The People’s Choice Award,” which is voted by the audience. Both plays, along with three other s, were performed at a festival in Durango on September 17 and 18, and I was fortunate enough to be there.

It’s quite an experience to see your characters embodied by real human beings, to hear your words come out of their mouths as if those words were their own. It’s a very different experience from reading a poem out loud at a reading, or even from hearing someone else read it. The work literally comes alive.

So, dust off any “story” poems you might have, or give an original 10-minute play a shot. And consider entering your play in one of the many national competitions. The writing is a lot of fun, and seeing you work performed is deeply rewarding. It’s an experience I highly recommend.

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