The only thing standing in the way of becoming a playwright or actor is a $5 bill, a single Abraham Lincoln.
“You pay your $5, and you can act. You pay your $5, and you can bring your script. You pay your $5, and you can just watch,” said Michael Tooher, president of the Portland Crowbait Club, which will host its annual short-play festival this weekend at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. “Getting into theater can be intimidating. The Crowbait Club is barrier-free. The only barrier is $5.”
The Crowbait Club hosts monthly play competitions at Mayo Street Arts. People bring a script, and plays and actors are chosen at random. Actors get two minutes to read the script and 10 minutes to perform.
Over the course of the night, 10 plays are read. The monthly winner advances to the annual King of Crows festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday. The10 plays on the weekend roster are by Cory King, Cullen McGough, Charlie Cole, David Body, Jody McColman, Victoria Machado, Howard Rosenfield, Michael Tooher, Michael Kimball, and Doni Tamblyn and Leann Lewis. The material ranges from comedy to drama.
Unlike with the monthly death matches, the plays that are performed at the festival are fully produced. Actors are given the script in advance and assigned a director.
The Crowbait Club has been around four years and began as a gathering of friends at the now-closed Mama’s CrowBar on Munjoy Hill. The idea was, and remains, to make the performing arts accessible to newcomers. The Crowbait Club operates nearly opposite of how most theater companies operate. No experience is necessary; in fact, none is encouraged. Nothing is curated, and the audience decides if a play advances to the finals. “It’s a total populist activity,” Tooher said. “And we’ve found that the audience is a pretty good judge.”
McColman, Crowbait’s artistic director, is an example of an accidental playwright. He wrote his first play in 2013 and has written a couple dozen since. Several of his plays have been produced nationally, including three this summer in California, Ohio and Rhode Island. “I had never written a play before the Crowbait Club. Now, I’m having them produced across the country.”
A 10-minute play requires about seven pages of script, he said. If a full-length play is a jazz song, then a 10-minute play represents rock ‘n’ roll.
In four years, the Crowbait Club has spawned more than 600 scripts. More than half the people who have submitted plays were first-time playwrights, Tooher said. In addition to seeing its plays produced around the country, the club has produced work at PortFringe and other short-play festivals.
This festival includes music, courtesy of music director Victoria Stubbs. During the monthly competition, Stubbs and her trio fill the two minutes between plays, while the actors are reading and preparing the script. The music often leads to a sing-along and overflowing frivolity.
“This is just so much fun,” she said. “You don’t really have time to prepare, so you just go.”
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS & INFO: $15 at the door or thecrowbaitclub.org