Theatre preview: Madlab’s Theatre Roulette celebrates 15 years as renowned shorts festival

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From the May 8, 2014 edition

For the last 15 years Theatre Roulette has been a cornerstone of Madlab Theatre’s season as the longest-running annual shorts festival in Columbus. Theatre Roulette started small, both as a production (two plays a night for three nights) and in concept (Madlab was looking to give up-and-coming playwrights a chance to produce their work). The result wasn’t earthshattering, but it did have an effect on the theater company.

“I wouldn’t call it a critical or box office success, but internally the company really enjoyed the process. The people who worked on it really enjoyed it, so they decided, let’s do it again and expand it a little bit more,” said Madlab Vice Chair Andy Batt during a pre-rehearsal interview earlier this week at the Downtown theater.

After expanding Theatre Roulette to include more plays in the second year, the company found success. As Columbus’ most renowned presentation of the short play format, Theatre Roulette selects the best from hundreds of submissions to present three different nights of short play collections. As the old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“We’ve made some changes here and there, but for the most part it’s been the same thing for a long time,” Batt said.

While most of the changes to Theatre Roulette over the years have been marginal, last year marked a fairly significant one. Last year was the first the company dedicated one night to a single playwright.

This year Madlab will feature five shorts from Kathleen McGovern, a Los Angeles-based playwright, and it will be the world premiere of her words. The night is titled “The Forgiveness Files,” and despite being five separate plays, consistent themes run throughout.

“All the pieces have a lot of heart … and they’re all very much themed around [forgiveness], whether it’s forgiving someone else or yourself. They cross the range of funny, touching, tragic,” Batt said.

Madlab has a history of presenting collection nights, and it’s helped boost the company’s growing national reputation. Playwrights from across the country are consistently submitting to Madlab.

“The more I’ve spoken with playwrights from around the country over the years — and we’ve been taking open submissions for over 10 years now — it seems like we’re more well-known in the national playwright community than we are in Columbus,” Batt said.

While Madlab’s national reputation is growing, it’s still a homegrown theatre company, run by volunteer performers, directors, etc. Hence, Theatre Roulette’s “State’s Evidence” night featuring sevens works from Ohio playwrights (five from locals). Two “State’s Evidence” plays are scribed by Madlab members, Erik Sternberger and Stephen Woosley, and that’s only because those were among the best.

“We had over 1,000 submissions [for this Theatre Roulette]. Getting in was tough for anyone, and we try not to play favorites,” Batt said who is also directing the plays for “State’s Evidence.”

The third Theatre Roulette night is aptly titled, “Open Book,” and is a catchall of shorts submitted from all over the world. Works came in from as far as Germany, Australia and Nigeria, but the final seven are from stateside playwrights. The “Open Book” plays, while selected on an individual basis, conveyed a thematic resonance.

“They are all about communication and communication breakdowns among people,” said Jim Azelvandre, who is directing all plays for “Open Book.” “I found that theme of relationships and communicating is the important thing. And what happens when people can’t connect and the differences in communication.”

Each of these three nights, and the 19 plays contained within, present a copious amount of themes, narratives, tones and more. Whether a specific play or a night’s collection, after 15 years audiences should expect Theatre Roulette to be nothing short of a sure thing.

Andy Batt photo