"The reason so many people turned up at his funeral is that they wanted to make sure he was dead." — Samuel Goldwyn, about his longtime partner, Louis B. Mayer
Mark Della Ventura and David Michael Sirois had an idea. As the resident playwrights of Miami's Alliance Theatre Lab, they wanted to host an evening of world-premiere short plays to close out the theater's 2012 season; all would share the same set design at Barry University's Pelican Theatre.
One concept was a graveyard, with its cement finality and ghostly possibilities. Another was a subway stop, all subterranean ambiance and chance meetings among bustling strangers.
"We realized an interior would probably be easier to create, because an outside set would be difficult to make look realistic," Della Ventura recalls. "And then Jodi [Della Ventura, Mark's sister and Alliance's set designer] said, 'How about a funeral home viewing room?' And we lingered on that and finally said, 'Yeah, that's it, actually.'"
Eight local playwrights and five actors later, the result is Home Sweet Funeral Home, which begins a three-weekend run this Friday. The set-sharing concept is creative, but it's not entirely new. Della Ventura and Sirois, who codirected the show, took inspiration from A.R. Gurney's 1981 play, The Dining Room, in which 18 unrelated but interconnected vignettes share the same location and acting ensemble; taken collectively, the segments spelled the demise of the upper-middle-class family.
The difference here is that The Dining Room was written by one man. For Home Sweet Funeral Home, the directors also wanted a fluidity of tone, which is difficult when working with eight distinct voices. "In the original email we sent to all the playwrights, we said that we prefer the plays to be relatively light, to stick more to the comedic side and not to do anything too heavy," Della Ventura says. "Because we did want the overall evening to be more fun than dark and thought-provoking."
That was a smart decision. Anyone who has ever attended the annual Summer Shorts festival at the Adrienne Arsht Center or the Naked Stage's 24-Hour Theatre Project of world-premiere shorts knows drama is much harder to sell than comedy in this kind of format.
The playwrights found much comedic counterpoint in the serious milieu, some hewing close to reality and others incorporating fantasy and surrealism. In one of the plays, a wake turns into a scavenger hunt. In another, Death receives a performance review from an angel. In yet another, young people throw Mike and Ike candy into an open casket. And in his play, Sirois revisits his award-winning dramedy, Brothers Beckett (produced at Alliance in 2011), by penning a prequel featuring the same characters.
To ensure the playwrights would not repurpose a piece from their archives, Della Ventura and Sirois gave each of them a required prop (a toothbrush) and a required line — "Why did it have to be that book?" — to integrate into the story. The playwrights were told to limit their characters to 20-somethings, because that's the age of the ensemble that the directors had corralled. Each playwright was given a different casting dynamic — man/woman, two men/one woman, two women, etc.
"Every playwright is different, but David and I both enjoy restrictions," Della Ventura says. "We like stipulations, and we like deadlines."
For Christopher Demos-Brown, who penned the outstanding full-length play Captiva for Zoetic Stage in 2011, the line about the book fell into his toolbox like a happy accident. The premise came to him while sitting next to a woman reading Fifty Shades of Grey on her Kindle during an airplane flight. He struck up a conversation with her and ended up writing his play, Protagonista, over a couple of sessions in London. It's about an author of mommy-porn novels who harbors serious literary ambitions and who begins to engage in a metaphysical argument with his fictional protagonist.
"I had completely forgotten about the book line, and once I got into it, I found a way to incorporate it," Demos-Brown says. "I assume subconsciously I knew I had to work it in somehow."
Demos-Brows says the restrictions greatly enhanced the writing process. "Unlike dancing, acting, or painting, when you're writing a play, you have to create the entire world, the rules of the world, and everything that inhabits the world every time... Having an outside restriction is liberating."
Playwright Tony Finstrom initially bristled at the casting and time restrictions he was given for his play Venom & Vodka, set at the funeral of a despised drama critic (a work surely not inspired by any Miami New Times reviewers).
"I was given a cast of two young women, and, for me anyway, it's tough to write a two-character play," he says. "It all becomes too talky! So I begged the powers that be over at the Alliance Theatre Lab for a third character, and they pretty much said, 'Drop dead.' Consequently, I was stuck trying to write a two character-play, and I think it turned out pretty well. For example, I look at Venom & Vodka now and I can't imagine what I would've done with a third character.
"But those guys at Alliance were awfully strict about keeping these plays exactly ten minutes in length. Not 11 minutes. Not ten minutes and 40 seconds. Not ten minutes and ten seconds. Ten friggin' minutes flat, baby. Or preferably less. I had to cut some funny stuff to meet that time limit. But who knows? Maybe the play is better for it. You tell me. And I'm sure you will."