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Writers put best foot forward
Ron Emmons, Nathan Bottorf, Jenny Setterlund and Ann B. White, from left, examine a lone piece of footwear in "O'Boylan's Finest," one of the eight short plays comprising Heartland Theatre Company's annual "10-Minute Play Festival," opening tonight with a pay-what-you-can preview. (For The Pantagraph/JESSE FOLKS)

NORMAL - There's no business like shoe business as far as this year's sixth annual edition of Heartland Theatre Company's "10-Minute Play Festival" is concerned.

The popular smorgasbord of playlets is offering up eight 10-minute meditations on the dramatic/comedic possibilities inherent in the enigma of a lone shoe.

While perfectly mated pairs of shoes may lack mystery, there's always at least one question to ponder in the matter of a single piece of footwear: Why the separation?

Per Heartland's own description:

"Was it pitched out of a car by a cranky child or dropped from the sky by aliens? Did it fall off a speeding bicyclist or a bumpy moving van? And what does it mean? Maybe it's a coded message left by a spy. Or a plea for help from a kleptomaniac …"

This year's winners have broached the enigma in eight distinct ways.

One has pondered the implication of a lone shoe's security implications in a post-9/11 airport. Another has set the lone shoe in an art gallery, where its solitary nature spurs a marital debate. Still another explores the impact of a found shoe on the fantasy life of a homeless couple.

A veritable shoe store of solitary soles was assembled: a size 15 Durango cowboy boot … a new tennis shoe … a work boot … a ballet slipper … a 3-year-old's Mary Jane shoe … a baby booty in a cigar box.

In past 10-minute festivals, the thematic elements have been largely matters of location - a front porch, a funeral parlor, an attic, a classroom.

This year, notes Heartland marketing director Gail Dobbins, the theme is purely situational.

The concept was inspired by USA Today writer Craig Wilson, whose "The Final Word" column featured an entry several years back titled "Big mystery: Is the shoe on the other foot?"

In the column, Wilson ruminated on the lone-shoe phenomenon.

Dobbins saw the piece and contacted Wilson, who told her he had received thousands of e-mails from readers pondering the stories behind that single shoe on the sidewalk, or wherever.

Wilson granted Heartland permission to adopt the theme for its festival. In fact, his blessing has been so firm that Wilson is scheduled to appear on the Heartland stage in Normal during the last weekend of the run (June 22 through 24, times to be announced).

As inspirational as Wilson's situational concept has been for the festival's contestants, "I can tell you we're going back to locales next year," laughs Dobbins.

The reason: Location-based themes pose far fewer logistical challenges for the Heartland tech staff in its limited space and working with its limited budget.

A funeral parlor is a funeral parlor, in other words.

But locations for the single-shoe concept know no boundaries, Dobbins says. "It's been really difficult to do because the locations are all over the place."

So set requirements are far more complex. Which is why, says Dobbins, the theme for next year is back to a location: a coffee shop at 10 p.m.

This year's contest drew 165 submissions from no less than 34 states and seven countries, including, among the latter, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

"That's the Internet," notes Dobbins, adding that contestants are encouraged to submit their plays electronically, which opens up the festival to "anybody writing plays all over the world."

The fact that three of the eight winners this year are local - Nancy Sultan and Dewey Johnson, both of Bloomington; Todd Wineburner of Tremont - is merely a coincidence, notes Dobbins.

Per tradition, all of the submissions were judged blind through the various levels of the jurying process.

Dobbins thinks the phenomenon of three local winners probably has to do with the fact that playwrights who live in the area have been to Heartland Theatre "and know the space pretty well; plus, they've been hearing about the festival in our theater programs for six months, so they have more awareness of it."

Over the course of the six festivals, the event has become one of Heartland's biggest draws, running four full weekends.

"It has become a doorway into Heartland. So many of our plays are difficult," Dobbins says. "But one that runs 10 minutes is not an insurmountable thing."

8 times 10

Following are synopses of the eight winning 10-minute plays in this year's Heartland Theatre Company festival:

Escape from the Land of Shoes, by Henry W. Kimmel, Atlanta, Ga.: A man has one last chance to escape from "The Land of Shoes," but even with the help of a friend, he's unsure whether he can give himself the boot.

Here to Serve You, by Barbara Lindsay, Seattle, Wash.: Does an unattended shoe in an airport pose a security risk? One passer-by tries to do the right thing, while another scoffs at fear of a shoe.

New Paradigm, by Rich Espey, Townsend, Md.: Jerry meets Ellen as he arrives for an interview for a sales job. There's a rigorous test before the interview even begins … or is that the interview?

O'Boylan's Finest, by John J. Conley, Baltimore, Md.: As they quarrel over an avant-garde exhibit called "Red Shoes," a couple disputes the role of imagination in their marriage.

Pas de Deux, by Nancy Sultan, Bloomington: The life of a homeless couple is transformed into a wonderful fantasy world when the wife finds a discarded shoe.

Penny from Heaven, by Dewey Johnson, Bloomington: A still-grieving mother visits the police station to report what she thinks may be new evidence in her daughter's disappearance.

Sunday in the Park with Frank, by Matthew Wilkie, Farnham, U.K.: A simple trip to the park creates a series of challenges for a young man and his elderly granddad, who can't seem to remember things like shoes and gloves and hats and where he's going next.

Workshopping the Script, by Todd Wineburner, Tremont: A hopeful playwright/producer/director hires two actors to do some improvising in the hope of making the play better. But things don't quite work out as planned.

At a glance

What: "6th Annual National 10-Minute Play Festival: One Shoe"

When: Pay-what-you-can preview, 7:30 p.m. tonight; regular performances, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and June 7-9, 14-16 and 21-23; and 2 p.m. June 10 and 24

Where: Heartland Theatre Company at One Normal Plaza, Lincoln and Beech streets, Normal

Tickets: All seats $12, Friday and Saturday; $6 to $12, Thursday and Sunday

Box office number: (309) 452-8709


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