I have seen theatre productions in many different venues over the years, but, until last night, never in a church. St. John’s Cathedral, a gorgeous Episcopal church near downtown Los Angeles, was the setting for Chalk Repertory Theatre’s 4th biennial Flash Festival, and when I say “setting,” I don’t simply mean venue—the five short plays performed during week 3 of the festival were written specifically for various spaces within the cathedral, from a hallway, a rec room, and an outdoor courtyard to the nave.
Chalk Rep specializes in site-specific work and producing plays in unconventional spaces. The fifteen playwrights involved in the festival toured the church, were assigned their specific spaces within it, and then had a month to write a play on this year’s theme, religion and politics. The plays were turned over to the actors and directors for only about a day of rehearsal before being presented. The festival spanned three weekends in October with five plays each weekend, and I was lucky enough to catch the final weekend.
Because of the interesting set-up, the festival had almost an immersive vibe. The audience is led into the church (on the night I attended, we were split into two groups, each starting with a different play and moving through accordingly) and brought to the first location. When that play ends, you are shuffled to the next space. The entire experience lasted around 80 minutes, and it was interesting to see the differences in how each playwright interpreted the theme and utilized the setting.
My group began with “Sock Angels,” a charming play written by Rachel Axler and directed by Adam J. Smith that starred two socks (yes, really) and took place in the church’s courtyard. It was both adorable and hilarious, and explored ideas of discrimination in an unexpected, lighthearted way as the two main characters discussed how oppressive life can be as a sock. While I feel like I am not selling this hard-to-describe concept well, it was truly very charming, and ultimately my favorite play of the night.
Next up was “Involuntary,” which took place in a rec room area and followed two volunteers tasked with setting up a polling place. Written by Lina Patel and directed by Brian Slaten, the seemingly innocuous interaction gets complicated when one volunteer, a white man, makes a comment about how he feels minorities are stealing his job opportunities. It’s complicated because his fellow volunteer is a non-white woman, who also happens to be pregnant. It was an interesting piece that nicely explored the theme, and even had a tiny bit of a romantic comedy vibe thrown in.
“Quite Contrary,” written by Dorothy Fortenberry and directed by Kristopher Lencowski, was the most unique play of the night, and the only one to not take place in the present day. In fact, it takes place in biblical times, on the day Jesus’s tomb was discovered to be empty. In a twist, one woman (all three in the play are named Mary) has recently returned from the future. When she tells her compatriots about all of the conflict and trouble their religion causes down the line, they must decide if they wish to proceed with opening the tomb or if they want to change the course of history.
“Patch of Blue,” written by Lisa Kenner Grissom and directed by Johnny Kwon, features an African American mail carrier who often pauses on his daily route to take refuge in the church for reasons he cannot quite articulate since he considers himself an atheist. When he encounters a white man who works in the church, they end up having an important discussion about race, religion, and the role both play in the current political climate.
The final play of the evening, “Holy Crap,” written by Meg Miroshnik and directed by Jennifer Chang, stars two con women who are only at the church to pull off their latest theft, although one falters when she finds a surprising familial connection in the pile of donations they are stealing. It was certainly the darkest twist on the location, and a fun way to end the night.
I am looking forward to seeing which unique locations Chalk Rep may choose for future Flash Festivals. It was a nice change of pace to see plays (especially five plays written by female playwrights) performed in such a different, unexpected space, and it also brought me, and I assume many others, to a beautiful place in LA I may not have experienced otherwise. With the election just around the corner, the theme of religion and politics was perfectly chosen, and the creative teams did a great job utilizing the spaces provided and offering smart commentary.
While this year’s Flash Festival is now over, please visit chalkrep.com and follow @ChalkRep on social media for information about upcoming productions.