April 17, 2008

24-Hour Playfest: A Day in the Life of a Play

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Back in 11th grade, my high school drama club undertook what we thought would be a fun, engaging adventure in raw, spontaneous theater. Someone, somewhere, in some obscure literature, had read about the 24-hour play — a type of theater that’s conceived, written, rehearsed and produced, all within 24 hours. Not for the faint of heart, the concept combines all the already-exhausting facets of making theater — from creating characters and memorizing lines to fashioning costumes, sets and choreography — and condenses them into one thick, heavy porridge, distilled to the very essence of playmaking.
But that’s just the concept. In reality, our 24-hour play resulted in Shining-esque, 4 a.m. breakdowns, a desperate, collective nap at 6 a.m. and the final product, a six-minute piece of abstract nonsense entitled, in its first draft, Train Wreck: A Minimalist Play. We certainly learned about ourselves — and about theater — that fateful Saturday, but we shattered souls still, to this day, refuse to recall it with any sort of fondness.
That wasn’t, however, the case for Kelly Durkin ’10 and Brandon Imp ’10, the fearless masterminds behind the Schwartz Center’s recent attempt at its own 24-hour playfest, which was performed (and written, and rehearsed, and produced …) last Saturday in the Schwartz’s Black Box Theater. “It was all about having fun,” said Imp, his baggy, tired eyes nevertheless still beaming with adrenaline.
And indeed, despite their obvious exhaustion, everyone, from the writers to the actors — many new to theater — seemed to be having a whole lot of fun. The performance itself consisted of two one-act plays, each roughly twenty minutes long. Jesus Freak, written by Will Cordeiro grad (a staff writer for The Sun) and directed by Alex Viola ’10, featured Imp in an impassioned, energetic lead performance as a religious zealot-turned-transvestite. The second play, an untitled piece written by Joshua Kaufman ’11 and directed by Amanda Idoko ’10, featured Hope Rainbow ’11 as a religious, sexually frustrated housewife whose zany attempts to seduce her husband (Carlos Guerrero ’10) were set against a priest (Tom Jeffers ’09), serving as narrator. The holy man’s feeble, repeated attempts to connect to a modern pop culture, of which he is horribly misinformed (“Text me, kids!”), amounted to a creepy, often irreverent religious fanaticism. “Shelly feels sinful tonight,” the narrator preaches as Rainbow’s character writhes on the floor. “Shelly’s acting Jewish.”
That the plays shared their two central themes — sexuality and religion — was simply a happy coincidence, however. To begin the process, the playfesters, led by Durkin, a theatre arts major, and Imp, a biology major heavily involved in theater, had an extensive brainstorming session.
“We had a long discussion about themes,” said Durkin — ultimately, the theme of monsters emerged. The phrase “pregnant with emotion” also featured prominently in the brainstorming session, perhaps explaining the setting of Cordeiro’s play — a Planned Parenthood center run by an amusing cadre of militant, business-oriented women.
In the end, the writers — who worked from 9 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Monday, before passing the baton to the stage managers, directors and actors — were given two (and only two) constraints: The theme, monsters and the first line of each play, “There’s something sticky under my bed.”
That opening, made for, at the very least, some interesting theater.
Cordeiro’s play, at times markedly funny, was made even funnier by the clever, creative choices of Viola and her actors. When Imp, dressed in amusing drag, entered a party thrown by the abortion clinicians (the flyer, handed out to the audience by the cast: “Superfreak Face-Off! Party Tonight! Everyone’s Coming!”), the action, from Imp’s initial hesitancy to his eventual super-freakout, was set to Cascada’s “Every Time We Touch” and strobe lights (read: the stage manager, standing prominently at the light switch, flicking it on and off).
It was a fun, clean, succinct moment that highlighted one of the essences of the 24-hour process: With minimal rehearsals, preparation, lights and sound, the productions became all about choices — about the costumes, about the actors’ physical actions and about the set (with all its colors, qualities and quilted curtains).
Throughout both pieces, there was always the extra element of pseudo-spontaneity; both plays benefited from the constant awareness of minimalism — everything distilled into the utter, beautiful basics.
“We learned how important every person, every prop, every piece of the production is,” said Durkin after the performance. “Luckily we didn’t have to spend any money.”
“Well, except for one thing,” chimed in Ryan Oliveira ’08, who stage managed Kaufman’s play. “We had to buy the K.Y. Jelly.”
At the end of a long day, it was clear that everyone involved came a little closer to realizing what theater actually means. The cast members, most of whom were not involved in theater, got to taste the thrill of performance; the directors got to experience the thrill of why-isn’t-there-enough-time-oh-my-god-let’s-run-that-again constraints; and the stage managers got to run all over Ithaca, gathering props and accoutrements for their respective plays.
A piece of theater is an exhaustive, extensive process; everything and every one relies on each other to create a performance-worthy product. If an actor doesn’t show up — as the playfesters found, to their horror — it could spell ruin for the entire performance.
But the product is only what the audience sees for 45 minutes; it was the other 1335 that really defined the playfest. Durkin and Imp’s grand experiment was just that: One grand day of experimentation, creativity and the rewarding, but often frustrating, fusion of styles and instincts into one piece of collective art.
“First instincts are very powerful tools in playmaking,” said Durkin, but, “the process is experimenting.” With only 24 hours to create something that normally takes weeks, everything is whittled down to instinct, with experimentation providing the spice.
Admittedly, Train Wreck: A Minimalist Play wasn’t such a bad experience after all — I got some McDonald’s hotcakes out of our early-morning chaos — but perhaps what we were missing back then was the impetus and spirit of Imp and Durkin’s crazy endeavor. In the end, it didn’t matter what happened on stage Saturday night.
According to Durkin, “We just wanted to go play for 24 hours,” and how could that possibly have ended in anything but fun?