Event takes theater into non-traditional space for an evening of original short plays

You're hanging out at the St. James Tavern, that cornerstone neighborhood bar in Italian Village, enjoying a beverage and minding your own business, when a fellow patron begins waxing on about the possibility that former President Barack Obama was an alien robot clone. Is this, A, the kind of intense, critical thinking for which the St. James has come to be known, and thus probably just a random topic of conversation? Or, B, a scene from the St. James Tavern Shorts Festival?

At the risk of giving too much away, if you're at the St. James on Tuesday, July 3, chances are pretty good you've happened into Doug Powhida's “Thanks O.B.A.M.A.,” which is, indeed, part of the eighth annual theater fest, sponsored by O.G. Productions.

“Thanks, Obama” is the (loosely applied) theme for this year's fest, which was originally intended to be a one-off, Artistic Director Stephen Woosley said — a side project by some MadLab folks who didn't want to fuss with Red, White & Boom traffic in a year when its traditional first-weekend-of-the-month production aligned with the July 4 holiday weekend.

“We decided we should do some shows anyway, and went to three writers we knew and threw this idea out there,” Woosley said. “We said, ‘It's gotta be low-tech,' and we decided that each play should actually be set in the tavern.”

And so began an annual night of theater, plunked down right in the middle of a bar.

“People are sitting at tables right next to actors. The audience is so close, even compared to an intimate space like MadLab,” Woosley said.

“It really is fun,” said Powhida, a veteran of the shorts fest, as well as other MadLab offerings including Theatre Roulette. “You have to write knowing a person sitting next to your actor might not have any idea what's going on.”

Which is not to say that some advance warning isn't offered to patrons (many of whom, obviously, are there for the event), but once the curtain goes up (to be clear, there is no curtain) all bets are off. Woosley said many plays, which are selected following open submissions each year, enhance the setting by referencing St. James staff, even, at times, including them in the staging.

Much of this year's fest will be set around the bar's pool tables, which suits Powhida just fine.

“I'm a minimalist, anyway,” he said.

There are other benefits to holding the event in a bar, Woosley said.

“We encourage everyone to drink,” he said. “Everything's funnier that way.”