Instant Theatre

Img 861A decade ago, the 7-11 Theatre Project began here in Des Moines. Originally produced by the Theatre... For a Change organiztion (TFAC), it is now in the hands of Goldfinch Theatre Company, still in its original home of the Viking Theatre at Grand View University. The Gentle Guide talked with both Thatcher Williams of TFAC and Kristin Larson of Goldfinch about the history and future of the event.

Close to a dozen different theatre troupes will gather on Friday, September 15th at the Viking Theatre to find out what they're going to be challenged to create. They will find a fully built set, ready for their performance (and it could really be ANYTHING). Then they will draw a "style" and receive a character and prop to incorporate into their show. And the clock starts. In seven days, on the following Friday evening, they will perform their new, completely original 11-minute show that didn't exist a week ago. It truly is "instant theatre".  


Starting Stages


The 7-11 Theatre Project is rather unique, and Williams wanted it that way from the beginning. "In late 2006, TFAC board member Susie Gulbranson-Irish and actor Kyle Chizek came to me saying they wanted to see a one-act or short play festival in central Iowa. There are a lot of those 10-minute play festivals. Usually they are juried entries, prescreened and selected by a very narrow panel of adjudicators. I had watched the 48-Hour Film Project the first year, and participated in it the second year, and thought this is what a short play festival needed - initial production values provided to all who entered (a theatre, a set, basic props, marketing), a general guide by which to produce short plays, competition... and a deadline to do it all in."


As a result, and with the cooperation of Grand View and others involved with TFAC, the first 7-11 Theatre Project was held in May of 2007. Williams continues, "Though its main mission is to showcase the wonderful talent we have in Iowa - it was always meant to be a competition. The idea for the competitive edge encourages creative artists to dig deeper and find stories and journeys within themselves to express on stage. We also included the audience in the judging, giving them a voice in which performances they thought were the best."


One of the most fun elements of 7-11 is the reveal of each year's unique set. Performers have no idea what they will be doing in a week in front of an audience, let alone what the setting will be. It's designed to be challenging, and yet functional.


Set Piece


Img 0855"The sets have been chosen in the past to offer different types of theatre spaces to utilize. We've done massive, stuffed sets, with tons of pieces such as the first year with the barn, and the urban alley another year. And we've done simple sets such as the art museum or restaurant, with minimal furniture and no walls. We like to give variety - in types, as well."


"The Viking Theatre is in the style of an operating theatre or mini-amphitheater. However, it can also be configured to be theatre-in-the-round. In the past, we have made sets in 3/4-thrust and end stage, in-the-round, and forced proscenium.  For some theatre troupes, these stage types are rare if they have only performed with a handful of theatres in their lives. This adds to the challenge - not just to the competition, but to also, again, have the artists dig deeper into their well of talent to bring forth a great and unique performance."


Like almost anything in the theatre world, however, there's always the wish of being able to do just a wee bit more. That's difficult when you only have a week to create a piece from whole cloth, but there are always ideas....


"I have always wanted to do the command deck of a starship," says Williams, "not unlike the Enterprise from Star Trek. With multimedia, we could project on the scrim for the command screen and offer generic explosions for choices of the troupes to use in the show. Also, live green screen camera work, do 'away missions' and communication with other ships. But time always gets in the way - because when building the set for the 7-11, the theatre has to be shut down so that no one knows what the set is for the competition. And that's kind of a hard thing to do at a college who needs the space to teach students."




Img 0857The current caretaker of the 7-11 Theatre Project is Kristin Larson. In addition to being in charge of the Grand View University theatre program, she's also one of the prominent members of the Goldfinch Theatre Company (who presented the world premiere of No Coast earlier this year). She has some thoughts on the set process too, although she's careful not to give away what's going to happen for this year.


"It is always the most fun to come up with scenic ideas, and Alex Sondgrass is running with a FANTASTIC idea for this year right now. It's exciting to think of ways to offer lots of Playing opportunities on the set. The lines and props are also fun to create, and we just try to keep them interesting and actionable!"


Of course, Larson has her own experience with those sets, lines, and props, as she's a veteran of past years when her group was part of 7-11, and looks forward to its newest incarnation.


"My husband and I had the WHIRLYGIGS troupe prior to heading up the 7-11 Project. We loved it as a crucible for creation and interaction with other artists we love. Actually, we turned one of our 7-11 plays, Lost and Found, into a full-length children's play that performed at Grand View for student and community audiences in 2016! So the work sparked other work."


Img 0856The Project could find no better cheerleader than Larson. "Theatre artists are always bemoaning that they would make something if they had the space and the money... well, this project sets it all up for you. AND you make your art in a sweet week! With Prizes! Lots of good camaraderie happens between troupes as well."


The 7-11 Theatre Project is still accepting groups for this year's events, and will take entries right up to the kick-off event on Sept. 15. So if you're even remotely intrigued by the idea of instant theatre and want to try, details are available at the 7-11 website. Larson believes this is an event for everyone, and can't wait to see what is going to be  created in just a week... and how audiences respond to that creativity.


"This is such a unique opportunity for theatre artists and for audiences. For artists, it is the opportunity to create new theatre on a unique set, with all of the technical elements desired--in a week! For audiences, the surprise of the invention and creativity that the troupes bring is a draw. They get to experience wholly new plays by fantastic local artists. AND they get to vote for an audience choice winner each night!"


So, be a part of this, whether as a creative artists (with a minimal time investment!) or as an appreciative audience member. The Kickoff is Friday, September 15 at the Viking Theatre, with performances a week later on the Friday and Saturday evenings. And then the awards are presented to the winners in a number of categories on the following Sunday afternoon, the 24th. For more details you can visit the Project website at

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Grand View University Kristin Larson Thatcher Williams Viking Theatre 7-11 Theatre Project