Last weekend, I took part in one of the most exciting, challenging, fun experiments a theatre person can be involved in. I think. It’s called “24 Hour Theatre.”
Pensacola Little Theatre’s Studio 400 certainly didn’t invent the concept. I was told once that it began at the New School for Drama in New York. It’s been done at the Old Vic. Several times. A few days before PLT’s 2012 edition, The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild did it in Australia. We are in good company, certainly.
The first “24 Hour Theatre” at PLT occurred in March 2007. I was out of town. The second was in November 2007. I planned to audition. Until I got a desperate call from then-organizer Donna Holt. They needed a director and a writer; I could have my choice, if I would only help them out. I agreed to write.
A few days in advance of the event, Donna and her son Austin Holt met with the writers and directors. They said that farce worked best. I looked it up. What?! I skipped a lot of Theatre History classes. Once I read a list of plays, TV shows and movies considered farces, I felt better.
On the night, I was paired with my director, Bill Whalen. I knew he was an amazing actor and improv artist, so I was thrilled to be working with him. I talked with him about a couple of general ideas I thought I could develop, and then I mentioned a phrase that came to me on the ride down – a convenience store hostage situation. He loved it.
As the actors auditioned using scenes from existing plays, we talked about the types of characters that could be in the scene – a middle aged Bonnie and Clyde, a teenager trying to buy beer, a disinterested cashier. After auditions, the five writer-director teams fought over the available actors until they were all divvied up.
The directors and actors went home to sleep, while the writers moved over to the University of West Florida computer lab. The words flowed out of me, and by 4am, I was finished. I rode home with a fellow writer to try to have a nap, but sleep eluded me. Back at the theatre at 7:00 a.m., I handed the script for “Open All Night” over to Bill.
“How is it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied uncertainly.
His face fell. But he started reading and pretty soon he was chuckling. Thank God.
We had our first read-through in the park across the street. The cast seemed to enjoy it, which eased my mind quite a lot. Then we went inside to start blocking. I stayed for a bit, got involved in a few little projects because I was also an employee of the theatre at the time, and eventually was able to get hold of my husband to come pick me up. I tried to nap, mostly unsuccessfully, then went to the theatre for the premiere of my play.
After viewing rehearsals of all the plays, they selected mine to go last, which I took as an compliment. The performance went well. Happy ending.
In November 2008, I acted. I was lucky to have a pivotal, but not huge role, in a play about pi. Yes, the infinite number. It was cute, and the performance went well.
In 2010, I wrote. “Diner at the End of the World” was a parody of science fiction “B” movies. Several of the actors really appreciated the subject matter, but I did end up with quite a few people on a tiny stage, which really put a strain on the young director. It was a large cast (14) for a short play, and I think some of the actors resented getting smaller roles. I felt good about the writing, though. This was the first year the writers were assigned a particular zany prop that had to be used in the story. I was given a giant wrench, which I had my trucker bring into the diner as a weapon, and it’s later used by one of the convicts to escape.
In February 2011, I directed. I was paired with an experienced playwright who was new in our area, but she’d participated in this type of thing before. Our prop was a yoke, and she wrote a bizarre little western with a vampire pony. Honestly, I think directing is the hardest job – trying to coordinate the gathering of props and costumes, getting the program information to the organizers to print, keeping the actors corralled and focused, and get it blocked to everyone’s satisfaction. I feel like the performance went really well.
This year, I wrote again. The process now includes two zany props, with instructions that they had to be an important part of the story (I don’t think they liked my limited use of the wrench), as well as a random number of zany phrases. Mine included: It’s comin’ down like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock; So when is Shanna coming back from New York?; and You just bought yourself a 5-gallon can of whoop-ass. The props were two (fake) stuffed birds. I decided to write a spy-thriller; the birds became a concealed weapon and a hidden camera. I also tried to use some of the actors’ special skills – I had a talented pianist so I had him playing a pianist, and I took advantage of actors with foreign language skills to internationalize the intrigue.
I started writing “Transactions” around 10:30 p.m. and finished about 3:30 a.m. After that, I puttered around gathering up props, and just waited for the director and cast to arrive at 7:00 a.m. I was there for the first read-through and for part of the initial blocking. My husband and I had some timing and transportation issues, so I had to leave around 9:30 a.m. or be stuck there all day, and I needed sleep. I returned at 4:00 p.m. for the dress rehearsal only to find that one of the actors decided to ad lib a lot of 4-letter words. Afterwards, I asked him not to cuss, because my momma was coming, which was true. I don’t want her to think I was the one dropping the f-bomb throughout. He didn’t cuss during the performance, but he did throw in a couple of Uncle Tom-style lines towards the end. I’m not sure if he resented the role as the hotel concierge (the largest role in the play) or if he just thought he was funnier than the script. That was the most disappointing aspect of the play. It got laughs and I received some nice compliments after the show, and I feel really good about the script.
If you have any questions about the process, want to find out how to get involved in the next “24 Hour Theatre” at Pensacola Little Theatre, or would like tips for putting on a production at your venue, I hope you’ll post here. I’d also love to hear from people who’ve been involved in a show like this about what your group did differently and what you thought of your experience.