Timing is everything with 8 1/2 x 11, Dad's Garage Theatre's long-running, ever-changing annual short-play festival. About a week before opening night, a rehearsal momentarily focuses on whether actor Tim Stoltenberg can convincingly shotgun a beer quickly enough to make his cue.
Stoltenberg and his fellow actors take turns narrating "The Summer of 1987," a dramatized version of a short story by Jan Dykes, bassist and songwriter for the Ellen James Society and other Atlanta bands of yore. This year, 8 1/2 x 11 features the unifying theme of Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll, and "1987's" nostalgic account of punk-rockin' roommates discovering sex and abusing alcohol covers the bases, as long as you count beer and vodka as drugs.
After the read-through, director Kate Warner, wearing a CBGB's T-shirt, checks her stopwatch and serenely announces "10 minutes, 52 seconds. Good job, guys." All of the stage directors pay close attention to the pace of their shows, but time plays a unique role in 8 1/2 x 11, and Warner knows that if "1987" were longer than 11 minutes, well, it would be bad. She comments that for 8 1/2 x 11 this year, she wants a feeling that's "less theater, more rock 'n' roll."
Warner's involvement with the festival goes back a full decade, when it originated in 1996 as 10x10 by the edgy, now-defunct Barking Dog Theatre Company. Staged at the 14th Street Playhouse, the original 10x10 and its follow-ups offered a kind of citywide theatrical sampler platter, with 10 different Atlanta playhouses staging a short work of 10 minutes or less. Warner directed for the Theatrical Outfit "team."
When Barking Dog went defunct in the late '90s, Dad's Garage picked up the baton in 1999, but with a twist. Since 10x10's short plays at Barking frequently ran longer than their allotted 10 minutes -- sometimes much longer -- Dad's opted to enforce a strict, 11-minute time limit, complete with visible clock and buzzer. Thus it was renamed 8 1/2 x 11, with the "half" being a ninth, five-and-a-half minute show. For its first installment, the timer was former artistic director Sean Daniels' headshot, cut from his 8x10 glossy photo and attached to a moving, at-times malfunctioning track. In subsequent years, the timekeeper was a big red digital clock worthy of a basketball game.
In 2001, Dad's Garage tweaked the format by switching from the guest-playhouse concept to all new plays by local playwrights, and 8 1/2 x 11 saw an even more drastic change three years later. "Since it's about new works, we wanted it to evolve and up the production values. One of the things about 8 1/2 x 11 was that the quality was all over the map. Which is great for taking risks, but ... " Warner leaves the thought unspoken.
Although the 11-minute time limit remains a goal, the clock went out and the mandate expanded to include new works by writers of national repute, such as Urinetown co-creator Greg Kotis. Warner says this partly comes from the urge to have the company develop full-length plays, such as the upcoming Invasion: Our Town by Travis Sharp.
"With shorts, we can commission new work from national playwrights who we couldn't afford otherwise," Warner says.
The new relationships pay off; getting New York playwright Kyle Jarrow to contribute to the festival led directly to Dad's Garage getting permission to produce its holiday hit A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Children's Pageant.
Instead of the focus on the fun but distracting gimmick of the timepiece, Warner, as "curator" of the festival, began grouping plays around a unifying theme. Technical director Jamie Warde summed up the change in philosophy by remarking, "So we're going from a mixtape to a concept album."
Warner recalls that the first theme, "Punk Rock Will Never Die!" evolved after several Jamesons with Sean Daniels at the Four Seasons bar in 2004. They talked about things that were inherently cool, and Atlanta disk jockey Leslie Framm had just gone to the Grammys wearing a T-shirt that said, "Punk rock will never die." They thought, "That's cool!" She adds that the rest of the season's programming contributes to the decision, and that Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll seemed to fit in a year that began with Reefer Madness: The Musical and includes such upcoming shows as The History of Rock and Roll and Steve Yockey's Skin.
This year, the "half" will be a musical performance from a rotating pool of Atlanta singer/songwriters, including Jen Lowe and Jim Hodgson. Another segment will draw from an improvisational format called "Rockola," which features an off-the-cuff scene inspired by a track from an audience-selected rock album. (In rehearsal, they've been working with the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique.) Rockola has won a following at the company's 10:30 p.m. improv shows, and Warner wants to expose it to the "8 p.m. audience" of stage plays.
The titles alone suggest that the latest 8 1/2 x 11 will not be a genteel evening. Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll includes Steve Yockey's "Sucker Punch," Kyle Jarrow's "Total Fucking Blackness," Alice Tuan's "It's More Metal If It's a Double T," Ken Weitzman's "Nude in Front of the Garden" and Leah Maxwell's "Pissing Contest," the latter set in a men's room. The cast features Chris Blair, Lauren Gunderson, Eve Krueger, Jen Lowe, Amber Nash and John Benzinger.
Warner says Dad's Garage might shake things up again next year, and maybe the time is right for a Best of 8 1/2 x 11 compilation album. Every year, she raises the question about whether they should bring the clock back, but the playhouse consensus is a resounding "No!"
And perhaps too many rules run contrary to the rock ethos. Warner says that this year, the show's spirit comes from the film School of Rock's definition of rock 'n' roll: "It's about sticking it to The Man!"