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Frank Blocker's Bonita-based play fest brings us the world in savory, small bites

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News
Matthew Bunn in Joseph Bulrid's "Scatching the Surface"

Beware the talking refrigerator. Marvel at the man who returns from the dead — but in need of a 38D bra — to walk his daughter down the aisle. You may want to take home the two philosophizing dogs. 

We are stepping onto a strange new planet — thanks to a flight into the unknown from the coronavirus pandemic — for drama. Your guide for this journey: one Frank Blocker, instructor/original works curator at the Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs.

Frank Blocker poses for a portrait, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, at the Moe Auditorium at The Center for Performing Arts in Bonita Springs.

Blocker was lamenting the cancellation of his annual "Stage It! 10-Minute Plays Competition" — in rehearsal before coronavirus restrictions shut the arts centers down — when the idea came to him. Put the entire catalog online so people could enjoy it. But wait! Why not let other playwrights aspire to this medium, too, he asked himself.

The Social Distancing Short Play Festival was born. Blocker contacted his "Stage It" mailing list. They contacted their colleagues. A festival began to emerge.

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There are multiple goals, multiple hurdles

Blocker is swimming in the Gulf Stream of online drama; there are at least two other concurrent play festivals. But he specifically targets short plays, with a 20-minute limit. It's double the length for the competition he curates at the Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs. The Social Distancing Short Play Festival has, in effect, opened up a second tier for short-work playwrights, he acknowledged.

"There were three main goals to this: One, playwrights getting their work done, somehow, in spite of all this. Two, actors continue to work and exercise and entertain. And three, that there was something for the public to see," he explained. There will be a good deal for the public to see; Blocker's goal is roughly 150 plays. 

Frank Blocker poses for a portrait, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, at the Moe Auditorium at The Center for Performing Arts in Bonita Springs. When Bocker's "Stage It!" 10-minute play competition was canceled, he decided to let other playwrights send in their works for an online all-comers Social Distancing Short Play Festival.

"It's all free. No one's making anything off of it," he added. By the same token, it's all a bit vulnerable to pirating, he conceded. "I can only protect their words so much. I don't leave the plays out there — they must be requested (by potential actors), so that at the very least, I can find something written as to who checked them out. 

"But in this case, I think playwrights were anxious to see their works done — and aren't as worried about short plays. They're a connected bunch. They look out for each other." 

One of his familiar playwrights from the "Stage It!" competition, Teri Foltz, of Fort Thomas, Kentucky, sent fully produced Zoom videos of her plays, using a Cincinnati-based contingent of actors. Others came as videos from an earlier film festival. Many, however, have asked Blocker for production help, sending in plays with casting requirements.

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Talent has responded from Philadelphia, London, Los Angeles and Texas, where two couples in Lubbock and Dallas offered their paired services, as well as locally. Blocker would like to see more actors from anywhere in the world. This catalog should be a godsend, he said: "To those of you who've always told me 'If I could just cast myself,' well, here's your opportunity!"

"A few, I should note, have gone the extra mile of using the situation in creative ways to apply it to the play. Elizabeth D'Onofrio (of Fort Myers Beach) did an entire play, 'Fridge,' on her own, changing costumes and using her own fridge as a character, and editing it all together," he said.

Elizabeth D'Onofrio in Jennifer O'Grady's "Fridge"

Blocker is waiting on a pairing in which the actors are videotaping their dogs and doing voice-overs: "The playwright and I are both curious and anxious to see that one."

Zoom-orchestrated productions are time-consuming, he warned. 

"We quickly learned if you're not sitting your computer right by your router you're going to cut out like a bad CD in the '90s at least once or twice in 10 minutes," Blocker said. Further, he said, there's a two-second delay between the actor speaking and the sound reaching the listener, so the actor's partner needs start just as the first speaker is finishing, to avoid awkward pauses.

Add to that the ambient sounds of life — "Typical things in your home become part of the background, like the leaf blower next door or the airplane overhead." And, of course, interruptions by "spouses, partners, children, pets. They don't know what you're doing."

Creators, casts worldwide forge friendships

Blocker doesn't know where all the playwrights are from; he hadn't made their cities of residence an identification requirement. ("I'm learning as I'm going," he admitted.) The credentials have ranged from first-time submissions to published playwright David Matthew Barnes of Denver, who submitted "Trophy." It comes with extra value: One of the play's monologues, Barnes just learned, was selected for inclusion in the Smith & Kraus "Best Men's Monologues of 2020."

What Blocker does know is that this festival is laying foundations for creative sanity and new friend networks. Much of the time, he said, when he calls playwrights to fine-tune their productions, "we spend most of the time talking about their anxiety, their worries during all this.

"When we end the call, they say, 'Thank you so much. I really needed this.' I've heard this from about half the people I've dealt with."

He treasures feedback from actors as well. Blocker recalled phone call with a trio from Los Angeles, London and Southwest Florida: "At the end of the phone call, the LA actress was telling the other two 'I've got a project I want you to work with me on' and they were saying 'Let's get emails so we can do this for a play I'm involved in.' "

"That's what made every ounce of it worth of it to me, if I can get people to work to together," he said. "Friendships form that never go away."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

Watch, socially distanced

What: The Social Distance Short Play Festival

Where: Facebook/Social Distancing Short Play Festival; on YouTube, type in the festival title to all the videos in one location

Something else: A live performance of "Stage It!" and book release is rescheduled for June 12-14 at the Performing Arts Centers of Bonita Springs, but that, like many other events in Southwest Florida, is tentative; call 239-495-8989 or see the website artcenterbonita.org for updates.) 

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