Known as the “biggest little festival in the world”, the Short+Sweet Festival (SS) has certainly come a long way since its relatively humble beginnings in Newtown Theatre in Sydney, Australia, in 2002.
In Malaysia, the festival is in the midst of its 10th anniversary celebrations this month, having grown from just involving theatre into an eight-week-long annual competition that encompasses dance, musical theatre, stand-up, song and a new addition this year — the junior dance category.
Reflecting on its beginnings, founder Mark Cleary says the idea was born more out of necessity than inspiration. “Short and Sweet was actually preceded by a contemporary dance choreographic showcase. Since I’m both a writer and director, it seemed like a no-brainer to try something similar with short plays. It was also an answer to the common theatrical dilemma of having a dark theatre (a theatre without a booking).
As the name proclaims, the format involves short performances lasting 10 minutes. “Ten minutes is like the Goldilocks zone — not too long, not too short, but just right. And frankly, most stories are improved by the constraint … We didn’t invent the form, but did popularise it. It was an instant hit,” says Cleary.
Today, the festival is held in around 30 cities in nine countries, and perhaps its greatest impact is effectively cultivating an ecosystem and community for the arts. Its format, by submission and audition, “lowers the participation barrier” for amateurs and even first-timers. Unlike a formal theatre company setting, individuals can sign up or submit their work for selection, and the festival connects them to others — be it playwrights, directors, actors or dancers — to complete the performance where necessary.
“It’s a great platform for showcasing work. Often, writers struggle to get their work performed. Because this is not one big idea per se, but many small inspirations gathered, there is a chance to work with thousands of clever and creative people along the way. That includes audience members ... theatre needs audiences most of all,” the director points out.
SS Malaysia festival director Datuk Faridah Merican agrees. Over the years, she says, the festival has become a channel for talents feeding into several of Malaysia’s creative industries — film, TV, comedy, dance and writing. Quite a number of performing arts talents have also cut their teeth on or had their first taste of it through SS.
Some may discount the festival as amateurish, but it has been the genesis of some of the brightest young stars, and a number of sublime works have even gone on to become full-fledged successes. “I don’t want to single out any example, but I am proud to say that Short and Sweet has helped discover about 5, 000 talents over the last 10 years,” says Faridah, who is the co-founder of the Kulala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. “Six years ago, when Penangpac was set up, Short and Sweet also found a home up north, though it only runs across two weeks there for now.”
Owing to our unique heritage and diversity of cultures, Faridah observes that SS Malaysia has also taken on a unique colour that is entirely and peculiarly Malaysian. “Considering that all the works are original and have never before been performed before a paying audience, that makes for an exciting discovery.”
She reveals that next year’s festival will introduce a film category, which was first launched at the Sydney festival this March. Cleary says the first event drew about 250 submissions, and went on to debut in Dubai, Manila, Melbourne, Chennai and Los Angeles, where they partnered the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
“It is probably the best school for actors in the world,” he says. Notable alumni include Robert De Niro, Salma Hayek, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Benicio del Toro and Sydney Pollack.
The winning films of the festivals in the six cities were screened at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard as part of an International Gala Final. Kuala Lumpur will no doubt be joining the fold next year.
“The mission has always been to tell local stories” says Cleary, “though the key to the sustainability of Short and Sweet is its continued evolvement, a result achieved through the people we’ve worked with. Like here in Malaysia, Faridah and Joe (Hasham) have been growing a uniquely Malaysian version of the festival. For them, it’s a tool that allows them to foster a new generation of Malaysian artists.
“As a festival, we stay ahead of the curve. We’ll shut up shop and roll down the shutters when people run out of stories to tell. In the meantime, we’ll keep the flame burning…”
Short+Sweet Malaysia 2017 is currently ongoing. The theatre segment will run from Oct 11 to 29 at Pentas 2, klpac, Jalan Strachan, Off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah, KL. Tickets are priced at RM45 and RM55. For more, visit www.klpac.org.