BWW Features: Art from Chaos at the CTC's 24-HOUR PLAY FESTIVAL
The 24-Hour Play Festival is an annual tradition at South Kingstown's Contemporary Theatre Company, where for 9 years, 6 plays are written, cast, staged, teched, and put in front of a live audience in a 24 hour span. I tagged along with one of the productions during this year's festival on January 11th, 2014, to see how it's done.
I've already hit snooze once, and if I hit it again, I'm definitely not going to make it to the 7am first meeting between Writers and Directors. I hit Dunkin' Donuts, and it strikes me that for artists, 5:39 AM is an ungodly hour. It's the "Tree falls in a forest" hour: none of us are awake to see it, therefore there's no proof it exists. For these folks at Dunkin', though, it's part of their daily life.
On the dot. I swore I'd be late. I arrive at Phil's Restaurant in Wakefield, a wood-paneled breakfast joint a short walk away from the CTC's newish space in downtown Wakefield. The room is full of directors and writers: you can tell which is which by how awake they are. The writers have been working since before midnight the night before, feverishly turning out as engaging a script as they could in the 6-7 hours they had before directors reported. Maggie Cady, the CTC's Communications Director and this festival's Production Manager, is having the directors choose prompts out of a hat. The Directors will have to incorporate these prompts into the play, no matter how nonsensical they are. The playwrights had to do the same the night before.
I'm sitting with the production team I'll be observing. The playwright is Andy Hoover, a current resident of Brooklyn and an accomplished playwright who's been produced multiple times by the CTC. The director is Rae Mancini, recently of the CTC's production of Assassins and steady face of the RI theatre scene. Andy starts discussing the play he wrote, entitled "The Governor Will Now Answer Questions Regarding Iowa's Surrender to the Alien Forces." It's a "nesting doll" format, he says: a play within a play within a play.
Andy is very energetic for this time of morning.
He discusses some of the problems with the play: transitions could be difficult, and we need extras.
The first words out of Rae's mouth are "fantastic" and "kismet." She works press conferences in her day, job, so staging one should be no problem. She introduces her prompts: we have to have a jam band on stage, and we have to make the audience do something important. A couple of suggestions are made, including having the audience ask questions during the presser and having the audience choose an ending.
They're already reading the script. A waitress asks us if we want anything. Rae declines, pointing at her Poland Spring; Andy politely requests coffee. So do I.
"It's probably bad to have your protagonist appear this late in the play," admits Andy with a smile. It's fine, though, they'll solve it in casting.
Stage directions in the script ask for the "coolest special effect we can muster" for the entrance of the Alien Overlord. Suggestions are fired.
"We need lights."
"Or a Jam Band!"
"I brought lots of scarves! I knew we could use pashmina."
I find myself laughing at this script, at an hour when I have no business laughing. It dawns on me: this is a smart, funny script. A one-act I would personally be very excited to act in. Transition problems aside, these jokes will land. It's like a particularly zany episode of "Futurama."
The script is long, the plot a bit difficult to follow, and the transitions will no doubt be a problem, but this is as good a script as you could possibly hope for; especially as it started from nothing 8 hours earlier.
We've got 10 minutes left before actors begin arriving at the South Kingstown high school for auditions. The Director and playwright discuss casting choices and role importance. They've got their favorites, it's just a matter of how the draft goes. After auditioning, the actors are chosen like a fantasy football draft. Director 1, randomly chosen, selects an actor, then Director 2, then 3 - when Director 6's turn comes up, he or she gets to choose twice, and snakes the draft back up towards number 1.
After a quick break at CVS for a soda, my third caffeinated drink of the day, auditioners pile into the empty auditorium. There's an interesting cross-section here. A ton of URI actors, both current and recent grads. There's actors who have worked at Wilbury Group, 2nd Story, Barker Playhouse, Mixed Magic, Epic Theatre. There's actors from down the street, there's actors from far away: Nevan Richard, a CTC veteran, has come from his new home in Portland, Oregon.
Actors are set to do some of a monologue written the night before by the King of the Monologue, Kevin Broccoli. The Epic Theatre Company's Artistic Director is part of the Rhode Island Theatre Alliance, of which Chris Simpson's CTC is also a member.
It's one of Kevin's, alright. A scathingly funny piece about Arbor Day, that has an underlying sadness. Could be played big for laughs, could be played subtly for tears.
Directors take turns stopping the actors to give them direction. "Play it as a film noir," says one director. "Everything you say has a sexual innuendo," says another. The actors are great improvisers, they just go with it.
Some actors are making subtle choices, but some are being as big as possible. Lots of audience-pleasing going on. Each director wants something different, so it works. One actor says nothing at all during his monologue. He receives raucous applause.
There's lots of appreciated, supportive, but tired laughter.
Jim Foley takes the stage. Rae nods at Andy. He makes subtle, cute choices with a big smile. Tammy Brown goes subtle as well. Nevan Richard heads on stage and it's Rae's turn again. She asks him to give an official address to the crowd, and he transforms into a politician. It's spot-on for our show.
About halfway through the auditions and most folks have gone with camp. It's not a criticism, it's truth - in this festival, high camp and slapstick comedy lands very well - subtlety less so. I'm betting there's not a drama in the group of 6 plays written tonight.
I think our play should do very well.
I just noticed for the first time, two excellent lines in Kevin's monologue: a flawless "Equus" joke that goes right over the head of the actor reading it but lands well with the directors, and a line about realizing "where I was, what I was doing," lifted directly from "Something Just Broke," a song from Sondheim's "Assassins" which was just performed here this fall. Brilliant work.
The whole festival has a very young energy. Some of the directors are over 30. I'd be everyone else is not.
There are some first timers and second-timers, but mostly this is a group of veterans: folks who look forward to this festival every year. That's truly a testament to how fun the CTC makes this day.
An hour later, and we're casting. The picks come fast. Nevan Richard is Rae's first choice, and she lands him for the titular Governor role. Quickly, she also lands Steph Rodger, Sam Gauss, and a 16-year old actor with tons of stage presence named Witt Tarantino.
COMPLETE AND UTTER CHAOS. We've lost an actress. Our rehearsal space is dark and locked. No one knows what's going on. We have to walk through what looks like 20 JV girls basketball players sitting cross-legged on the ground, then back through them awkwardly.
After stalling for ten minutes, we have our missing actress - she went out for coffee, and I don't blame her - and we have our space..
Only three hours after I arrived, the play's first reading occurs.
The actors pepper the playwright with questions. They come up with ways of getting a script on stage. The governor's got his podium, the cable news pundits can have scripts on stage.
12 hours after Andy started writing, and the play is on its feet.
Rae gives little corrective directions: Don't take too many folksy pauses; reporters need to be confident and jump on those questions. Very little blocking so far is helping with the jokes, but there's some kind of a problem. The jokes aren't landing the same way they did at the first reading this morning at 7. This worries me a bit, and maybe there's a nervous laugh or two out of the playwright.
We've breaked. We're talking about costumes, but the lack of sleep is hitting me hard. I don't know how Andy is still standing - he's at the 12 hour working mark. The tech discussion has a very seat-of-your-pants feel to it: "Let's go get 'em and see what happens." No panic. It's awesome.
The Director/Playwright dynamic on this show is so easy. Rae says, in direction to the pundit characters, "Be confident, be smart. This is why you're here." Andy nods in approval.
I have a free moment to interview some of the actors, so I do. Nevan Richard has travelled across the whole country to be here today. A Cheshire, CT native, Richard graduated URI in 2010 and now works as a performer professionally for a company called Imago Mask and Clown, which originates touring productions out of Portland, Oregon. Richard says his next tour will take him to Egypt and Canada. He came back specifically for the 24-Hour fest. "It's unlike anything I've ever done," the thesp admits, "and this is where I got my start, so I wanted to come back. It's just so much fun."
Samantha Gauss thinks so too. "I've been really eager to work at the CTC," says Gauss, who's about to graduate from Improv Asylum's 2-year program. When asked what her favorite thing about the festival was, she replied that "being forced to be that creative for that many hours in a row is good for the mind."
I'm losing steam. After a second run on their feet, it's back to chaos. Rae and Andy are discussing lighting. Witt, Jeff, and Steph are rehearsing the alien hive mind scene. Sam and Nevan rehearse another scene. One room over, a very loud Michael Puppi can be heard. Brynne Sawyer, the production SM, is dutifully listening, taking notes and running errands, whatever this play needs.
A play is coming together. It's swirling around me. I stand in the middle of the room and soak it all in. Bits and Pieces of three conversations, all about the same topic, shoot past me. "Hive Mind," "Death Ray," "That was the one thing I was better at than anyone else," "That's just because we needed that damn line," "The aliens are taking over shit," "You're fast at learning these lines!" and my favorite, "The Haruspex we can use the general pool lighting, then it's time for the political pundits."
I walk over to chat with Witt, Steph, and Jeff, three of the other actors in the show. They're rehearsing off-book only two hours after the first read-through. They self-correct, they stumble through, their eyes search for the words on the tiled ceilings of the yoga room we rehearse in. In general though, they have it. Steph's a bit worried about her lines, but she'll get it, she says. She's just finished playing Liesl in "The Sound of Music" at the Granite Theatre in Westerly. "It's unlike any other theatrical experience," she says, "stressful, hilarious, but memorable."
At 16, Witt Tarantino might have the least experience in the group, but he doesn't show it. He does theatre at Rocky Hill School, and he's been on the mainstage at CTC as Camille in "A Flea in Her Ear" last summer. "It's a lot calmer than I expected," says the impressive youngster, "but it was hard to sleep last night." Jeff Blanchette's just going with the flow too. He's a student at Castleton State College in Vermont, and he's about to play Bobby Strong in their production of "Urinetown," the heroic leading role. But here, he's playing an alien extra, and he's loving it. He saw the poster for the 24-hour fest a few years back, and came to see it with his family. Now here he is with the rest of the group, trying desperately to get off-book, and sharing his time with two other productions he's acting as an "extra" in.
I've built in a break for myself, both to step away from the grueling pace of the day and sleep deprivation, as well as to purposefully step back. I've seen the play on its feet. I've heard the design concepts. I know the problems still left to solve. Tonight, I'll see the finished Product. On my way out, I tell Rae that I'll ask her some questions online for comment. I asked her what drew her to the festival, and she told me that Chris Simpson had asked her, and she initially declined. "But as directing is one of my goals for the new year," she added, "I decided baptism by fire was the way to go."
I'm back. I can't imagine how the directors and playwrights make it through the whole day without the nice little break I had myself.
I've seen lots of controlled chaos today, but inside the theatre, it's serene. There's some last minue tech, but in general, everyone seems ready to go.
Back in the Yoga room, it's bit tense. I'm not sure what the actors' confidence level is, but I tell them that it should be high. It's a great script, they'll do fine. After less than excited answers in response, I decide to hang out in the theatre and wait for the show to begin.
I can't tell you what time the show began. Like any good audience member, my phone is off. I can tell you that when the lights came up on our show, I felt a surge of excitement. It was infectious. "Watching our cast take the stage, sink their teeth into that sucker, commit to it and run it like they'd done it a hundred times," added Rae, "I was literally giddy."
The show goes well. It's somewhere between the greatness I thought it was at 7 A.M. and the shaky play I saw around 11 A.M. The jokes are really smart, maybe sailing above the crowd's heads a bit, but the actors are well liked. Nevan's a real crowd-pleaser; the actors from the other show are watching from house right. Witt is just adorable, which is in no way meant as diminutive. He's got a bright future. Sam and Steph get their laughs, and most of the jokes containing topical references hit really well.
The transitions are, in fact, tough. One of them takes a solid, uncomfortable 30 seconds. The actors can be hard to hear. The plot's a bit rough still. But none of that really matters, and all of the problems are solved: we even got a jam band in the form of a short kazoo solo. It's mission accomplished here at the CTC. Other shows might have gotten more laughs, but all of the shows had such heart to them, it's not hard to see why the 24-Hour Play Festival is the CTC's Signature event: A unique experience where art is formed from chaos, in less than a day.