Most artists' sketchbooks contain three types of material. First, intriguing little gems that need no further development—deft, isolated flashes of imagination. Second, studies for larger pieces that may someday emerge, which to outsiders may have little value beyond documenting the creative process. And finally, ideas that are better discarded.
And that's why Collaboraction's Sketchbook might be the most accurately named theater festival in Chicago.
The festival began 13 years ago as a modest hipster happening, with cocktails, DJs, and a showcase of seven-minute original plays in an art-heavy loft space. By comparison, this year's incarnation, deemed "the most ambitious Sketchbook festival yet" in publicity materials, is a bloated, exhausting affair, with 14 original pieces arranged across four different programs in two theaters, requiring more than 150 actors, writers, directors, designers, stagehands, and musicians. The marathon opening day, when all the work was presented, ran from noon until 9:30 PM—with lots of downtime between shows, and sometimes during them. You'll have one more chance to see this marathon-style on the fest's closing day. Believe me: you don't want to.
What you want is to see "The Shorts: 9 Destinies," a program of original seven-minute plays that, unlike most everything else in the festival, is fun, inventive, imaginative, and largely satisfying. It's got a partylike atmosphere, with live music between pieces and a guy wandering around hawking cheap beer. As the "classic" show for which Sketchbook is known, it's got an enthusiastic following; on opening day, this was the only program with an audience more than one-third full.
Most importantly, it's got the right scale. After 13 years, the artists involved have mostly figured out how to make seven minutes of stage time feel complete. Sometimes it's by recounting a memorable anecdote: in Survey No. 5, performed by Colin Sphar, writer Alex Lubischer tells an apparently autobiographical story about "the bisexual," who meets an ex-girlfriend while he's still reeling from the breakup with his first boyfriend. Sometimes it's by creating a pregnant moment: in Adam Seidel's Darkness, preternaturally unpleasant Grace, who's been dead three centuries, has one chance to convince her supernatural agent she'll make the world a better place if she's allowed back among the living. And sometimes it's by simple stage magic: director Paige Reilly creates an arresting image of heaven in Minus You by dressing an actress in white, seating her on a white swing hung from the ceiling by white satin, and projecting clouds onto her.
The informality of "The Shorts"—encouraged on opening night by Collaboraction artistic director Anthony Moseley, who urged the audience to get up and wander around during the show if we felt like it—helps smooth over what might otherwise be the program's greatest weakness: none of these plays has anything to do with any of the others. The abstract, poetic musings about a homemade dream machine in playwright Chelsea Marcantel's elusive Everything Is Permitted, for example, couldn't be more at odds with the cheap, crowd-pleasing stunts that follow in Jenny Lynn Christofferson and Jaci Entwistle's intentionally lowbrow Theater McGuiver, in which an actor must jury-rig his own escape from drowning while audience members pelt him with balls of wadded-up paper. But when you're knocking back a Miller High Life and chatting up the hottie next to you, who worries about thematic consistency? Heck, you may even overlook the fact that it takes these folks two hours and 15 minutes to get through nine seven-minute plays.
The other three programs in Sketchbook range from underdeveloped to irredeemable. The piece with the most potential is Honey Pot Performance's Price Point, in which four African-American women—three live, one on video—weave together academic treatises, personal narratives, and mystic mumbo jumbo in an effort to depict the woes of the working urban poor. The show is best when it's most specific—pointing out, for example, how much a poor person's quality of life may be influenced by the mood of a Department of Human Services worker on a given day. But too often the troupe veers into overly broad lefty gripes about global economic injustice.
In Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman's Hospital, a typical doctor's visit turns into a surreal battle with indifferent medical personnel. Her engaging performance captures myriad telling details, but the inclusion of a second performer, portraying various medical professionals and occasionally breaking into dance, creates a conceptual muddle. Tony Werner's WeatherVane, about a mysterious female prison camp-cum-wedding palace, also features strong performances and an indecipherable story. And family dramedies Snapshot and Deadpan Melodrama are simply opaque.
Collaboraction had a good thing going with its original Sketchbook. If this year's festival is any indication, maybe it's time to get back to basics.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that it's Adam Seidel, not Adam Joshua Seidel. We also wrote that Alex Lubischer both wrote and performs in Survey No. 5; actually the performer is Colin Sphar.