Something from Nothing
Jason Heid / Staff Writer- 08/28/02
A chronicle of 24 hours of nonstop theater
How does an idea become a finished, polished play? Weeks of blood, sweat and rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal is what most would tell you.
But can all that be distilled into just 24 hours? Two Carrollton-based theater troupes attempted to meet this challenge last weekend at the Plano Art Centre Theatre. They conceived, wrote, cast, rehearsed and performed seven plays in less than one full day.
The following is my chronicle of that event.
9 p.m. Friday
Theater folk are an energetic bunch, easily excitable. Most aren't shy about sharing their emotions, definitely an asset on any stage.But anyone would be excited in this atmosphere. In less than one day, the 50 or so people sitting here in the Plano ArtCentre Theatre will be performing seven one-act plays. There are no scripts. No one has been cast.
In less than 24 hours, these people will be taking a bow up on that stage. They can only hope the audience will be applauding, since no one in this room has any idea yet what the audience will be seeing.
There is a semblance of order to the process. Actors come in the door and are immediately asked to fill out a sheet with their names and one short line to identify themselves in the program. Oh yes, programs will have to be printed as well.
The actors stand against a wall. An instant photo is taken of each and then stapled to an information sheet. This is all the directors will have to look at while they're casting. There's no time for auditions.
The show's technical director Russell Dyer will manage lighting and musical cues that have not been designed yet. He has taking his first look at the Plano stage."What have I gotten myself into?" he says.
Brad McEntire, whose Audacity Productions company is sponsoring the event along with Rover Dramawerks, another Carrollton-based group, addresses the troops:
"A paying audience will be here at 8 o'clock tomorrow night," he tells the newly formed and destined-to-be-temporary troupe.McEntire has been through this before. It was Audacity Productions that brought the idea of 24-hour theater to the Metroplex early last year. Still, he doesn't know what to expect. This year, they're attempting seven plays, instead of five.
The actors, directors and writers sit in the audience. Jason Rice of Rover Dramawerks is handing slips of paper out to everyone and instructing them to write a word or a phrase -- an idea for a play -- on the paper and place it in a hat from which the writers will literally draw their inspiration.Early on, it's clear that everything about this weekend will be makeshift. The hat isn't really a hat. It's a cardboard box with the word "hat" written on it.
Jason Rice forces a slip of paper into my hand. I am reluctant to participate. Shouldn't I remain objective, outside the story?I reluctantly write the word "chipmunks" on the paper and place it into the hat.
A group photo is taken, and the actors are dismissed. They are to return at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Some are heading home for rest, and others make arrangements for other means of preparing themselves physically for the marathon rehearsals tomorrow.
One overheard actor: "Come to my house and drink."
The writers and directors form separate huddles and are given several instructions on how to make rushed plays work.
Directors are asked to bring anything they have that might be used for props or costuming. Writers are told to keep monologues short, so actors have a realistic chance of getting them memorized.
Carol Rice, a co-founder of Rover Dramawerks, appeared in a play at last year's "One Day Only." This year, she's directing. She assures her fellow directors that it's possible to pull off a quality production."Trust me. This is the most fun I've ever had doing theater," she says.
The directors are dismissed, to return at 7 a.m. for their first look at the scripts.There's no rest for the writers.
The eight writers (one pair will work as a team) pile into cars and drive to the Rices' home in Carrollton, where they will buckle down with computers for the night.The first of a slew of glitches occurs before the group can even leave. One of the writers had his car towed during the hour he was in the theater. He has to go retrieve it from the impound lot before heading to Carrollton, shortening even further the limited time he has to write.
Scripts, of about 10 pages in length, are to be completed by 6 a.m.
Arrival in the heart of a typical Carrollton neighborhood. The Rices' house is large, allowing each writer his or her own room for allowing the creative juices to flow freely.Last year, the five writers crammed into one room at a hotel and shared one laptop. First drafts had to be written out by hand. This year's accommodations seem luxurious by comparison.
Each writer picks his own spot, searching for a comfort zone.
"Carol, do you have an electrical outlet outside?" Jimmi Wright asks.
"You want to write and smoke?" another writer him.
One hour later, Wright is typing away on a word processor on the back porch, a cigar between his teeth.The drawing of topics is delayed until the last writer arrives. Everyone concentrates on preparations. There is coffee to be made. Three writers head for Taco Bell.Others have brought their own energy boosters.
"I brought power bars. I'll be OK," Wright says.
The final writer still has not arrived, but the rest of the group can no longer wait. They've already resorted to a debate on the merits of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." They're ready to get on with it.
One at a time, they pull randomly from the hat. Jason Rice draws "incest and alcoholism." Duane Jones and Kelli Elandis pick "murder." Some are fairly descriptive: "an ex-burlesque dancer opens a dance studio for wealthy customers," and "five strange people stuck in a box." Other topics leave far more room for the writer's imagination: "melanthropic" and "ain't ain't a word."
The writers immediately begin grumbling, seeking some way to justify taking another draw.I find I am somewhat disappointed that my vision of chipmunks on the Plano stage may never come to pass.
Each of the writers has a different approach.
Matt Roberts says he wrote a first line in advance and figured he'd plug it into any topic."I am of the Zen school. You just start putting words down and see what happens," Roberts says.
Greg Romero, who drove up from Austin today for the event, says he searches for a visual image as a starting point for his topic: "a night with an insomniac.""I got this image of a boy and a girl sitting with their arms raised in the air, as if they're playing a game to stay awake. And I'll see where that goes," Romero says.
Jones and Elandis appear regularly as part of a sketch comedy troupe in Dallas. They know they'll be sticking to comedy."It's what we know," Elandis says. "I would seriously hate to see us be serious.""I can be serious," Jones says.They look at each other, then both erupt in laughter.
The final writer has arrived. There is some consultation among the group, but soon everyone is settling down to a keyboard. Jason Rice doesn't expect his writing process to remain a solitary one."I have a feeling it's going to be an incestuous mess by the end of the evening," he says.
7 a.m. Saturday
Back at the theater in Plano, it's time for the directors to read the scripts for the first time. But only three of the directors are here, with only four of the scripts.
Printer problems have delayed the arrival of the other three scripts. The directors are subdued, but in generally good spirits. There is laughter as they read.
The actors have already been reduced to their most basic physical characteristics. The Polaroids have been sorted into five piles, on which the casting will be based: men - dark hair and light hair, and women - redheads, blondes and brunettes.
"It's totally typecasting," McEntire says. "You need a big guy? Here's a pile of big guys."
The rest of the directors filter in, as do a couple more scripts.
Tiffany Kellerman is a co-producer with Audacity Productions. She is managing the theater for the show. The seventh script still has not arrived from Carrollton, and actors are being ushered into the theater to sit and wait.Kellerman occupies herself by cleaning the glass on the doors, even though it is hours before showtime.
"I interned here," she says. "I had to scrub between the tiles of the lobby floor. So I take pride in this space."
The first hour of rehearsals will have to be canceled. They were set to begin now, and the final script still hasn't arrived.The directors are sitting around the theater office, wondering how they can work without the last script. One suggests they take one page from each of the other plays to create a mishmash for the seventh. Each director is already considering which play to direct.
"You look for something that will challenge the actors, and something you can take in a direction," Jamey Jamison says. "That's the standard academic answer. The real answer is: something I think I can do."
Kellerman continues to channel her energy. She is now vacuuming the lobby, while the actors sit around and wait."It's all about networking, networking with people and socializing," she tells the group, trying to keep them enthused.
At least one of the actors has overcome his sleepiness and is standing around the lobby with a big smile on his face. Berry Jackson drove up from Tyler, where he studies drama at the University of Texas."It's the chance of a lifetime," he says. "The greatest is seeing theater people up before 12 o'clock and trying to do things."
Dyer is standing on the stage, inspecting the lights he has to work with. Bad lighting can ruin a show, leaving actors invisible on the stage or turning a dramatic moment into a farce.Half the lights are blown out, and there are no spare lamps. There are no front lights. He is incredulous at seeing how the system is set up."What were they using that light for? I guess to show the pipes," Dyer says. "And the colors, someone was on a bad acid trip. It's going to be an interesting day."
The final script arrives, and the directors read it quickly. They immediately begin wrangling among themselves about who gets what.A game of rock, paper, scissors determines who gets to direct play called "Tryin' to Get That Holy Feelin.'"
Each director has a play. Now they need casts. The writers were told to remember that parts are needed for all the actors. They have done this all too well, leaving the show short on actors. Kellerman begins calling actors from the waiting list, telling them to get to the theater as soon as possible.Carol Rice picks actors she has never worked with before.
"To me this is what this is all about: making contacts and having a good time," she says.
Brendan Ahearn, a member of the same comedy troupe as Jones and Elandis, does not choose their play. He says he wanted to avoid a few of the plays, which have long monologues that the actors have little time to memorize."I think we'll be one of the best plays in the whole show, because it's simple," Ahearn says.
Carol Rice sits down with her six cast members for a first read-through in the courtyard in front of the theater. A couple are professional actors, or have acted professional. A few are theater students or have been performing in community theater for a long time. One makes it clear he has relatively little experience.
"I love the whole first-come, first-served nature of it," Carol White says later. "You have people who were picked regardless of experience."
Roberts has turned "five strange people trapped in a box" into a farcical tale about superheroes stopping a typhoon in Sri Lanka. But that's only part of the story.
It's clear from the beginning that the actors have lots of dialogue to learn, but there is general agreement after the first reading that the script is funny.Carol Rice says she plans to keep the staging simple. They'll use towels for the superhero capes. They need to find a teapot and some cups.More difficult to coordinate will be the cell phone rings for which the script calls. There are plenty of phones, but the timing may be tricky.There is much to do, and only eight hours before the final tech rehearsal.
The lobby is crowded with actors and directors enjoying their payment for the show: free pizza. The writers are still presumably sleeping at home.Technical rehearsals have been under way for more than one hour. Each show gets a half-hour to work out its lighting cues and any necessary music or sound effects. It's not unusual for a full-length production to spend a week or more on just rehearsing the show's technical aspects. These are being thrown together in less than an hour.
Dyer sits in the lighting booth, coordinating cues with director Jamison, whose play is about a board meeting in Hell. Jason Rice wrote the script, inspired by "incest and alcoholism."Jamison has just told the actors that their scripts will be sitting on the table onstage, in case they forget a line.
Then suddenly, a scary moment: someone announces that a woman has passed out backstage.
Dyer, a paramedic, rushes down from the lighting booth. The woman was slated to play the devil in Jamison's play. She was waiting for her cue when she got dizzy backstage and laid down.Dyer sends someone to retrieve a medical kit from his car. He is concerned when he learns she has been taking medication for high blood pressure. A fan and wet cloth are brought in to cool her down, but Dyer decides an ambulance should be called.
"Call 9-1-1 and tell them it's a possible cardiac," he instructs the nearest person with a cell phone.
The emergency medical team has come and gone. The woman is fine, but she will be resting, not performing, tonight. Jamison's cast scrambles to finish their rehearsal. Jamison must take over the part of Lucifer.The other rehearsals are delayed.
After a day of drama, the dramatics will now be limited to the stage. The show has begun.Some of the plays work beautifully; the last-minute casting seems magical. Others, particularly those with lots of dialogue, get slowed up by actors forgetting lines.
From nothing yesterday, seven plays have been produced. The audience sees outrageous behavior from zoo animals, the ghost of Johnny Cash offering advice on love, an over-achiever in a whorehouse, a plot for incest to infest the world, a raunchy parent-child discussion of sex and Wonder Woman stealing the show.There were grumbling writers, stalling printers, ridiculous light filters, dirty windows, a towed car and a fainting actress. But now there is laughter, and there is applause.
The show went on. Granted, about 20 minutes late.
Contact staff writer Jason Heid at 972-538-2116 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Lewisville Leader 2002
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