Adding to the richness and vitality of the local theatre scene through its mission and programming is American Lives Theatre, a professional theatre founded in 2019 by artistic director Chris Saunders. Following its mission to “engage, provoke, and entertain by presenting a mirror to Indianapolis, reflecting our lives and history with new and neglected work exploring the lives and experience of all Americans.” ALT will soon mount what is truly an ambitious undertaking when it presents “SPF: 2021, the second annual Indy Short Play Festival.” Taking place October 14-17, at The District Theatre, the festival will present 75 performances of plays divided into three programs.
After an extraordinary year of loss, social upheaval and a demand for systematic change, ALT invited Hoosier playwrights to reflect on identity in 2021 asking the question “Who are we as individuals in this country? Who are we collectively? How do others see us?. Inviting audiences to “come witness a variety of fresh voices probe these questions and more in short plays that are hilarious, heartfelt and raw” ALT is currently knee deep in the rehearsals and other preparations for what it truly a monumental endeavor.
Curious to learn about the festival and the preparations for it I reached out to ALT founder Saunders and met up with him at the Mass Ave Starbucks a few weeks ago to learn details.
On the onset of our chat, Saunders pointed out that ALT held the first festival last year at the height of the pandemic during which they held three plays in outdoor space, all by local playwrights, that touched on COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement and the quarantine itself, all of which occurring at that very time. Deciding to expand this year Saunders said they wanted a broader theme so they posed a question to playwrights “What do you see as the American identity? Does that mean a country, or an individual?” Receiving 200 submissions from around the country they chose 15 (three of whom are local) to present at “SPF: 2021.”
When asked about the content of the selected works Saunders said that surprisingly, “A lot of the plays have humor in them. “I think a lot of the playwrights felt a need to laughed and wanted to share that with their audiences,” adding that the subject matter included topics such as “student loan debt, the echoes of World War II, standing up for one’s beliefs, karma, dating, and modern gender, sexuality and the fluidity that with it.” he revealed. Regarding the diversity of the plays content Saunders said “We tried keeping ep the programs diverse. We did find similar themes within plays so we have the programs name, connection, contradiction and concealment but even within those plays there is a diverse amount of both in the tone of the play and the content.” Expounding further on other plays subject matter Saunders said “There are some historic plays that take place in a particular time of American history but we thought were reflective of today. Some of them that deal with immigrants. Some that deal with the world and the things we like to shove under the rug. Some of the racist things we don’t talk about even in this day and age.”
Explaining that the festival is sponsored by a generous donor that wishes to remain anonymous, Saunders says that all the performers which number 20 and 14 playwrights, are being paid stipends and his the other major expense is the rent for The District where they will be using the venue’s main stage and its cabaret space. Regarding the mechanics of SPL: 2020 Saunders said “There are alternating times that weekend so each of the 15 plays gets five performances from Thursday to Sunday so it is a total of 75 plays being presented. We divided them into three different programs so each program has 80 to 85 minutes and that’s what you’ll buy a ticket for. There are three different programs you’ll buy one ticket for one program, and you’ll see five plays. And if you want, you can go around the block, have a drink, have dinner, comeback and see five more different plays.”
Reverting to a discussion of the pandemic and how it affected him Saunders admitted “I am going to answer that question truthfully. It’s kind of negative which I don’t like to do but anyway, I remember sitting down and telling myself you are not allowed to get this busy again. My schedule gets crazy and I my mental health kind of suffers but not enough that I don’t stop doing it. And so, I told myself I wouldn’t do it again but I have. So that is one lesson I thought I learned but I didn’t, but I don’t know how not to do it. But I am so excited about his theatre but on the good side of it, its stuff that I want to do. Saunders went on to explain “It’s remarkable how quickly I take on projects. For example, I probably should not have planned such an expansive festival this time around, there is so much to consider with that but you get very excited about the pieces and you want to share them. So, I am not saying it’s a horrible thing but I still haven’t figured out that time management thing.” he laughed.
As your brainchild, what does American Live Theatre mean to you? I asked Saunders to which he replied “I think it’s the most important thing I have done in my life and it’s not very useful to think of it in that regard on a daily basis because you feel the weight of it. But I have made hundreds of amateur mistakes and will continue to do so but the opportunity has been better than any opportunity I have ever had. Just as much as a hustle it has been just to be able to find material that shapes your community and find artists who want to speak to it who want to share that, it’s a very powerful and fortunate thing.”
Pointing out, that from my observation, he is well respected in the theatre community, I asked the humble and always self-deprecating Saunders how he felt about both the financial and moral support he has received since founding ALT. “It’s been very gratifying and surprising. I felt earlier those individuals were reticent to donate with something that was new and unproven and I was wrong about that. And I was also wrong about the larger theatre companies in this city recognizing what the smaller theatre companies are doing and trying to do and that support has been really heartwarming to me, and it gives me more drive.” he offered.
Concluding our chat, I asked the visionary and enterprising artist-administrator why the public should support SPF: 2021 and without hesitation he stated “Because it is a rare opportunity to see very new work by new playwrights that deserve to be seen and have been seen but not necessarily here in Indianapolis. And what I want people to take away from the material itself is empathy for one another and a reflection on humanity right now.”