24-Hour Playwriting People

Some folks say it’s good to break routines, get out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself to do something new.

These people, obviously, do not know much about anxiety, especially the variety that afflicts certain writers.

24 hourBut for my last theatrical hurrah in Chicago, I thought I would do something different and enter a 24-hour play festival. They’ve become popular in recent years, and though the details might differ, the basics formula is the same: Throw a bunch of writers, actors, and directors into a room, give them 24 hours to create a number of short plays, then stage them the next day.

Ours works a little differently. The writers have 8 hours to write a play after meeting with the actors and choosing a few they would like for their show. We picked numbers to determine the order, then drafted our talent, a sort of fantasy playwrights’ league. The next day, (today, actually) the five directors choose the play they want to do, which makes me wonder how enthusiastic some of them might be if they all really want to do one or two and think the rest are dogs. I assume they soldier on and do the best they can. Over most of Sunday and a bit of Monday, the actors and director do all that they would normally do over weeks of rehearsal: a read-through, blocking, memorization, intra-cast affairs, prima donna-ish pouting, etc. Meantime, production folks work on sound/music cues. The show goes up Monday at 8 pm, after roughly 24 hours of work by everyone involved. I went to last week’s show and had fun; we’ll see what this week brings.

So, comfort zones and challenges: I am very particular about my surroundings and tools when I start to write a play. Certain chair, cup of tea, pen and pad for writing in longhand, absolute quiet and isolation. Well. The scene Saturday was a little different: Five writers and the producer hanging out in the basement of the theatre, mostly hunched around laptops. The occasional query randomly thrown out, the scratching of chairs as another of us scrounges for caffeine and/or sugar. I was not sure how I would do in this setting, and though I survived, I’m still not sure about what came out.

The idea of the fest for the writers, the real challenge, is to go into it with a completely open mind. Use the actors’ strengths and interests as the creative starting point, or the props everyone brought, even a random phrase tossed out in the informal meet-and-greet before the draft. I took a little of all three: a line I wrote down in my notebook based on what someone else said: “Quiet crowds scare me.” My female actor’s confessed penchant for spastic acting. And three props I was drawn to for no particular reason — a tiny, pointed plastic hand attached to a stick, an orb that looks like a crystal ball but is actually a rubber ball filled with glitter, and a small gun that is actually a laser pointer. With a trigger that shocks you when you touch it.

I won’t go into the details of the play. Maybe I’ll post it when this is all over. All I know is, even stepping outside of my comfort zone, the words flowed pretty easily. They usually do. Give me an idea and I can crank on it, even plays. I can’t guarantee the quality, but the words will spew. It’s the essence of being a freelancing whore. But the ease of this experience worried me; it can’t be good if it came out so quickly. I can’t turn this in. This play sucks.

I left the basement, went to a nearby café, and wrote another 10-minute play. Even faster this time, because I eschewed doing the first draft in longhand and put it right into the computer. I used different props and had a more serious tone (as serious as you can be when the opening scene has a couple indulging in sexual role-playing: ace WWII pilot taking a break from fighting the Nazis for his weekly “exam” with a rubber-gloved nurse).

I went back to the basement. The other guys were still hard at work. I felt like a fraud.  How could I think I could write two plays of any value while they were still working on what I assumed was their first. They were craftsmen, trying to get every word just right. I, as always, was a hack. I had the producer read both. He did not laugh derisively or throw up. He subtly  indicated he had a slight preference for the first one. He said it would be the first work in the multi-week festival that featured a gay couple, which I guess was a good thing. We’ll see tomorrow night. Of course, the acting and directing will play a big part in the final product. We will see.

Uh oh - entering the Discomfort Zone

Uh oh - entering the Discomfort Zone

Postscript: I googled one of the other writers today, on a whim. Still an undergrad and has won several contests and had two pretty big productions in LA. Followed by my reading about another theatrical wunderkind, a woman in grad school at Iowa who has had many prominent productions and dazzles with her multicultural content and experimentation with dramatic form. And me? A pushing-50 hack mired in middle-brow naturalism, who did not achieve the theatrical goals he set for himself before heading to Chicago, and who now returns to CT wondering why he still does it. Maybe a good crowd reaction tomorrow night will help remind me. But overall, it’s harder to keep thinking I’ll ever realize those dreams. Did I learn here? Yes. Did I enter a theatrical community? Less so. Do I think I can keep going with this, especially while battling all the qualms/regrets I have about leaving Chicago? Dunno. I guess it’s all just another plunge into the discomfort zone.

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~ by mburgan on June 15, 2009.

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