Matt Neely is an 88-year-old man, a Confederate soldier, a theater director and a boisterous, annoying friend, all at once.
As part of this year’s 10X10 Upstreet Art Festival in Pittsfield, Neely (a Williamstown native and Mount Greylock graduate) will perform in Barrington Stage Company’s second "10X10 New Play Festival," which features ten ten-minute plays back-to-back, running for three weekends, beginning Feb. 14.
It’s a lot to prepare for, Neely said of the four roles, "and it’s a short rehearsal process, so you’re going as fast as you can." With a little over a week to rehearse, he learned as many of his lines as possible before rehearsals even began.
Six of the actors (three local and three from New York City) will perform multiple roles, with most plays having a cast of between two and four. Shae McIlquham, a fifth-grader at Craneville Elementary, will perform in one of the plays, marking his Barrington Stage debut. Two of the plays are monologues.
"I call it the acting Olympics, because there’s so many events," Neely said. "It’s crazy because you’re in one, then you run backstage and change your clothes real quick and have a new character and walk on as someone else. But I think it’s fun for the audience to see the actors doing these quick changes. And also, each play is only 10 minutes, so if one’s not your cup of tea, then there’s another one starting real soon.
The 10X10 Upstreet Art Festival began last year as a collaboration between Barrington State Company and the City of Pittsfield, with a variety of downtown businesses taking part.
"So it’s just a general festival in Pittsfield in February to try to get some tourism and get people out of their homes in a kind of a dead month," Neely said. February is also when winter break occurs for many local schools, so kids will have some fun activities to keep them busy during the winter doldrums.
Following the theme of the festival, events this year include a 10’’ x 10’’ art show at Gallery 25, a show at Lichtenstein Center for the Arts that includes 10 billboards from around Berkshire County, 10 singer-songwriters performing at the Market Place Café, a smartphone 10-minute film festival at Beacon Cinema, and other variations.
In theater (and in film), the 10-minute production is already something of a genre. "It’s kind of a thing," Neely said. "You never hear about nine-minute plays or eleven-minute plays. You do hear about ten-minute plays."
Neely majored in theater at Skidmore College and earned an MFA in acting from Carnegie Mellon University and the Moscow Art Theater. In New York City, where he lived for 11 years, he performed in numerous short films and Off-Broadway (and Off-Off-Broadway) productions. He also has worked in television and film production, most notably as Associate Producer of the Emmy Award-winning second season of Cash Cab on the Discovery Channel.
In 2007 he returned to the Berkshires to begin a career at Neely Investments (owned by his father), in Pittsfield. "But I do theater on the side when I get the opportunity," he said. "I’ve done some other shows at Barrington Stage, which is great because I miss it, of course."
Each of the 10-minute plays is unique, requiring the actors to juggle several roles simultaneously. To play multiple characters in the context of a series of short plays, Neely said, presents its own unique challenges. "You carry yourself differently. You walk differently. You speak differently."
Without overindulging, he said, "you really want to differentiate, and you don’t want the audience to see the same person from play to play. So that’s all about attitude and how you carry yourself."
Getting a feel for the different characters is just as much a physical process as it is a mental one, he said. The costumes, how a character holds himself and speaks are avenues into that character’s personality, and can help create a profile. "So once you find where you want to go with that, once you can get into those [characters] quickly from one to another, that really helps differentiate it in your mind ... but it’s not just a brain thing. So much of how you move, it really informs how you feel inside as the character."
The most important thing Neely learned from last year’s festival, he said, was to learn as many of his lines as possible before rehearsals begin.
"As soon as you can put the script down and really focus on the other person or the other people on stage with you, it really frees you up, and if you have to wait ‘til the last minute to do that, it’s tough," Neely said. But at the same time, he added, "it’s not the easiest thing to memorize lines by yourself. You really get them ingrained, I think, through doing the scene repeatedly with the other actors, because there’s a context to it. It’s not just you memorizing words in a void."
Last year’s New Play Festival was a huge success, Neely said, selling out its two-weekend run and helping to inaugurate the first festival.
"We wanted to extend it another week but were unable to because some of the actors weren’t available," Neely said. "It was a lot of fun, we got a bunch of good reviews, and the audiences really liked it. So everyone is really excited to do it again."
Barrington Stage Company’s 10X10 New Play Festival will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., from Feb. 14 through March 3 at the theater’s St. Germain Stage. For more information, visit barringtonstageco.org, discoverpittsfield.com.