Shelter in Place Play fest

The cast of Telluride Theatre in "Pericles," a Shakespeare in the Park performance on the Town Park stage. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Schwab/Telluride Theatre)

The pandemic has stolen many things, but not — at least, not entirely — Telluride’s festivals. Indeed, this unprecedented time has actually inspired a brand-new fest, named for what we’ve all been doing these last few weeks. The event debuts Tuesday, not on Zoom — another surprise — but on Instagram and Facebook, when Telluride Theatre presents its Shelter In Place Play Festival. 

You may not only have heard about this fest, but have been looking forward to it: the theater company’s Artistic Director Sasha Sullivan recently put out a call for submissions of brand-new plays, promising that the company’s actors would act in, and film, the most promising submissions. 

Sullivan didn’t disclose exactly how many of those submissions would be filmed. 

What if many turned out to be creepy or inappropriate or (perhaps worst of all, for literate thespians) poorly written? 

In the end, none of those things proved true. Sullivan was not only pleased with the quality of the submissions and surprised by the diversity of the writers, she was blown away by the number of worthy submissions she received: a total of 16 (she’d been expecting maybe 5 or 10).

The playwrights ranged in age from a few middle school and high school students to a retiree; most had never written a play before. The subject matter was equally varied: “Some plays were serious, some were comedies, and some were really weird,” Telluride Theatre’s publicist Jessica Lackey said. 

All of the works had two things in common. “We didn’t limit submissions” to regional residents, but that is who submitted these plays. “It just so happens that our reach is hyper-local, and that’s what we got,” Lackey said. The other thing the works had in common: “They’re all uniquely, weirdly Telluride.” 

Sullivan decided to film them all. “People made the time to do this, and many had never even written stuff like this before. And I got excited about how many submissions we received,” she explained. “I thought, ‘Let’s show them the magic of theater! Let’s show them what something looks like when it’s produced!”

Although each work is a two-character play that is just a few minutes in length, behind-the-scenes production of the Shelter In Play Festival was neither simple nor streamlined. There were 16 playwrights, meaning “there was a ton of scripts involved” and numerous works to interpret (most productions are of a single work). 

What’s more, the director was coaching her players remotely. The actors in each play live together, and therefore comply with social-distancing guidelines: But this meant that the thespians would have to film each other, “which involved people feeling comfortable with filming themselves, and making it look good, from afar, because I was directing them from afar,” Sullivan said. 

The results of all this creative effort and initiative — Sullivan estimates 50 people were ultimately involved — will be on display beginning Tuesday, when two fresh plays will premiere on Telluride’s Theatre Facebook page, along with a link for audiences to vote on the winners. 

Two more plays will premiere Wednesday through Friday, for a total of eight the first week, and an additional 8 plays premiere the week after that. 

The audience’s top choice will be performed live, pre-show, by Telluride Theatre actors in advance of one of their performances as soon as it’s safe to do so. 

“We’re in a holding pattern right now,” Sullivan said. “Our actors were thrilled to get the chance to perform something but we know that social gatherings, and live entertainment, are the last bastion” when the mandate is social distancing, and groups of no more than 10. 

“Our Shakespeare in the Park audience every summer is 100 people and we don’t want to jeopardize the health of our actors, or audiences. We’re going to comply with whatever guidelines” that the San Miguel County health department and the state come up with, Sullivan added. “We have a plan A, B, C, D and E,” based on whatever those dictates may be. “Right now, we’re playing it safe.”