Twenty-four hours to make a work of art

Character looks longingly into his bellybutton, exits, pursued by rabid hamsters.

Such was the inspirational stage direction provided by and required for the teams of writers, directors and actors who took part in the first-ever Williams 24-Hour Play Festival. One of Immediate Theatre’s recent contributions to the College’s field of performing arts (alongside last semester’s Petri Dish), the event began at 9 p.m. Friday evening and concluded around 9 p.m. the following night.

The culminating mix of nerves and anticipation that marked Goodrich Hall on Friday was shared among every one of the 30 participants, all of whom were randomly selected to enter into one of five groups. Led by a director, each team was expected to write, perfect and perform a 10 to 15-minute play during the 24-hour time limit to be performed on Saturday evening. For those involved, the experience was an exhaustive foray into the processes of production, as one of the founders of Immediate Theatre and a chief organizer of the event, Casey York ’10, said: “It was really exhausting, trying to push through the whole day. I’m used to a much longer rehearsal period, so it was a challenge as a director to constantly remind myself of the time constraints and re-evaluate my ideas to make them feasible in the minimal rehearsal time and technical simplicity.”

The eight team writers nestled down around 10 p.m. on Friday to prepare themselves for their allotted 12-hour block of writing time. Some worked alone while others decided to share the task, but all began from scratch. In line with the frenzied nature of the night, Noah Schechter ’12 and Michaela Morton ’12 decided 30 minutes into the event to combine their talents. “While working together, we had to have a strategy,” Morton said. “You can’t wait for the muse – you simply have to ask yourself, ‘How can I make this work?’ and go.”

The only specifics given to the writers before they set their pens to paper were three required prompts: one prop (an oversized butcher knife), a spoken line (“There were teardrops in my eyes and a spring in my step”) and the aforementioned stage direction. As the connecting theme between each of the five final productions, these prompts were exposed to various interpretations. One play, InVitro, written by Jesse Gordon ’10 and directed by Julian Mesri ’09, chose to incorporate the knife by placing it in the hands of the last female on earth while she defended herself against two sexually driven males. Another, Flesh and the Fantasy, written by Cary Choy ’09 and directed by Tarra Martin ’11, encouraged audience participation by calling for rabid hamster squeals towards the climax of the play.

After the weary-eyed writers finally handed off their completed work to the willing hands of the director/actor teams early Saturday morning, the rush to memorize, rehearse and finalize technical directions began. The eclectic mix of talents worked hard to achieve the firm group dynamic most productions have weeks, if not months, to develop. Actors and directors of varying experience levels were thrown together as scripts had to be reworked and props materialized. The random assignment of teams was, according to Martin, who helped organize the event, one of the festival’s intentions. “Because we’re randomly working on teams with people we don’t know, we’re seeing a lot of new faces, particularly freshmen,” she said.

As the actors, directors and writers alike finally congregated in Goodrich at 8 p.m. on Saturday, tension was thick, and the bustling excitement of the night before only slightly muted after the exertion of the previous 24 hours. As the crowd started to pour in, filling every seat and crowding the floor before the stage, the energy picked right back up. The pieces that ensued, from House and All Its Contents (written by Schechter and Morton and directed by John Dingee ’10) to Darwin’s Finch’s Flu (written by Dave Phillips ’12 and directed by Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11), provided curious insights into both the participants’ compressed creativity as well as the fluid status of each play. “Each play isn’t exactly improv, but it also isn’t the kind of normal, polished performance you might expect,” Ralph Morrison ’10 said.

The quirky inclusions of the prompts, mixed with common, subtle themes (several, for example, embraced metafictional ploys – from the protagonists’ authorship of a faked memoir in House and All Its Contents to a character’s outright acknowledgment of the depth of “meta” in InVitro) finally culminated in the last performance of the night, The Hudson. Written by Michelle Rodriguez ’12, Thomas Calvo ’12 and Phillips, and directed by York, The Hudson’s status as a musical demanded respect. The numbers were choreographed around the recent plane crash in the Hudson River, with fact and fiction intermingled in the various individual accounts of crash survivors, and all loosely based on actual stories.

The 24-Hour Play Festival offered the perfect Winter Study opportunity for tested thespians and curious amateurs alike. Each of the final performances, while more than stream-of-consciousness and less than perfected theater, welcomed a kind of creative and whimsical honesty that is often edited out in final productions, and ultimately all five made room for the input of people from various experience backgrounds to the delight of all in attendance.