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It’s the mantra of short-play directors and festivals everywhere:

If you don’t like this play, you only have to wait 10 minutes for the next one.

That idea has long been drawing audiences to Niagara University’s Short Play Festival, which has been running in some shape or form since the school’s theater program was launched in the late 1960s. This year’s festival opens tonight in Niagara University’s Leary Theatre and continues through Jan. 26.

The festival, which runs in three cycles, features 23 Niagara University juniors each directing a short play of their selection featuring student actors. The plays come from a variety of professional sources and playwrights famous and obscure. Two were written by Niagara University senior Megan Kemple.

Doug Zschiegner, an associate professor and associate director of Niagara University Theatre, said the festival goes far beyond the scope of most classroom projects and provides an unorthodox experience for students and audiences.

“When their final exam is in front of 130 paying audience members, they are certainly dedicated more than if it was just a test,” Zschiegner said. “For audience members, it’s an opportunity to see an enormous range of theater in short bursts. The plays range from incredibly broad, comic silliness to a lot of very dark and powerful ideas, including a range of theatrical styles.”

For students accustomed only to acting, he added, the festival provides a chance to zoom out a bit and to get a sense of all the disparate elements that make up a successful play.

“The main thing this gives them is the opportunity to see a production from somewhere bigger than just ‘how many lines do I have?’ [They are] able to step back and see a production from essentially the audience’s point of view and how all of the aspects are integrated,” he said. “That’s rare for an actor to have that kind of perspective. It also simply gives them pure leadership skills in a way that many of them have not experienced before. The buck stops with them individually, so they schedule the rehearsals, they do the casting, they direct the shows.”

In Buffalo, the short play festival has been a fixture at several local companies. Subversive Theatre runs its annual “Subversive Shorts,” scheduled for June 13, and Buffalo United Artists launched its own short-play production, “BUA Takes Ten,” last summer. But the Alleyway Theatre discontinued its long-running “Buffalo Quickies” short play festival this year, providing even more reason to venture to Niagara County to see the work of Zschiegner’s students.

“The 10-minute play has become a real phenomenon in the last 15 or 20 years,” Zschiegner said. “There’s something about that incredibly reduced form that’s engaging. The exposition, the tension, the climax – all have to be so isolated and sort of purified. There’s something purified about the theater experience by making it so short and clear.”

Niagara’s festival has been a hit with local theatergoers, Zschiegner said, who have responded to the technical design, costumes and weeks of rehearsal that students pour into the productions. And then, of course, there is that irreducible fact about short play festivals that audiences everywhere can appreciate.

“Certainly not everybody’s going to like every script,” he said. “But they’re always going to be surprised.”

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What: Niagara University Short Play Festival

When: 7:30 tonight through Jan. 26

Where: Leary Theatre, Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre, Clet Hall, Niagara University

Tickets: $7 to $10

Info: 286-8685 or theatre.niagara.edu

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com