by Ray Sikorski
BOZEMAN, MONTANA – Most 15-minute plays are slapdash affairs – spartan sets, shallow characters, simple plots. But playwright Ryan Cassavaugh takes his local one-act festival as an opportunity for vividness, texture, and depth.
“I like to come up with outrageous settings for my plays, because I find it’s more interesting to put real human emotion contradicted against something big and ridiculous,” says the 34-year-old Bozeman, Montana playwright. For example, Cassavaugh’s most recent offering, “Waiting to be Taken,” involves the subtleties of a forbidden gay relationship between a clown and a strongman in a Depression-era circus. “When you then get down to what’s really human about them, it’s more surprising than if you have two people sitting around a coffee shop table talking.”
Cassavaugh’s choice of 15-minute plays was not his to begin with – it’s a dictate of the Bozeman’s Equinox Theatre‘s annual one-act competition. In a city of about 33,000, there aren’t many opportunities for theatrical production, so a writer has to take advantage of any possibility. Along with the one-acts, he has written children’s plays, puppet shows, radio plays, sketch comedy, and full-length farces for the city’s annual Sweet Pea Festival. But the short one-acts is where his talent shines. In the five years of the competition, he has won Best Production, Best Script, Audience Favorite, or a combination of two of those for each of the five plays he’s entered. Cassavaugh has directed most the plays himself, with the help of his costume-designer wife, Sadie.
It’s easy to see why he’s done so well. His authentic-looking costumes and props have a tangible attention to detail. “I love the theatricalness of plays,” he says, hearkening back to the first play he saw as a child, a version of the Arabian Nights. He contrasts his own attention to the stage with that of minimalist one-acts, which may take place on a couch or at a coffee shop.
“They make really good scripts out of them, but that’s not what got me into theater,” he says. “I like being transported to somewhere else. I don’t want to go, ‘Oh, I recognize that couch,’”
But aside from the attention to visual detail, there’s the sheer effort Cassavaugh puts into writing, particularly expressing the human condition. Cassavaugh says he spent 2 ½ years writing “Waiting to be Taken,” stressing over every word. He overwrites, creating a 20-page script, then cutting it down to 12. He researches. He speaks of a strict hierarchy among circus people, in which a non-performer would never fraternize with a headliner – yet that hierarchy is never revealed to the audience.
“There’s a lot of tension there,” Cassavaugh says. “I don’t think people would understand where it comes from, but it helps me to know, and I think it helps make it more real, even if people don’t know why that tension is there.”
Other plays Cassavaugh has submitted to the festival have included “The Trifling Affair of an Ending, or the Ending of a Trifling Affair,” about Elizabethan-era actors on the run from an angry mob because their play had no ending, and “The Last Kings of America,” about two Civil War deserters who declare themselves monarchs.
“By the time I was done I had enough information to write a full-length play about these same characters,” he says of “Last Kings,” adding that he’s currently transforming that one-act into a full-length play.
That project, however, may take a while. After all, there’s no real outlet for it in Bozeman. He maintains a storage shed for his props and costumes in case there’s ever a call for a night of Cassavaugh one-acts, but that idea seems a bit far-fetched, too. He works in a record store, and his wife in a frame shop, to support themselves and their one-year-old daughter.
In a way, Cassavaugh is not unlike one of his characters: a curious sort living in a cold and unforgiving setting, toiling humbly for the sole reward of a hearty round of applause.
Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.