Contemporary Plays Around for 24 Hours

24hr1“Sooner or later at every 24-Hour Play Festival, there arrives a moment where everyone comes together for the common cause of ripping up tiny bits of paper.” – Andy Hoover, playwright (one of six) for CTC’s 24-Hour Play Festival.

In February, 1920, a group of Princeton student thespians staged their first production. Their theater was a dorm room and a blanket hung over a string that served as a curtain. What started as an exercise in parody and improvisation became a tradition for Princeton’s Theatre Intime. Their 24-Hour Play Festival is still billed as a “wacky, caffeine-fueled tradition [where] everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown into some wild productions, all written and staged in just 24 hours! Written by various authors. Directed by various directors.” Princeton alum and CTC Artistic Director, Christopher Simpson, brought the tradition to South County in 2006 and now Contemporary Theater Company is poised to present their version of the festival for the ninth year running.

The premise seems simple enough until you break down the elements that make this unique offering possible. This is not improvisation, which CTC covers excellently with their late Friday evening Micetro series, but there is still very little time for structure, forcing the writers, directors and performers to think fast, think once and commit to those choices, however bizarre. Much like Christopher Guest’s loosely structured mockumentaries (Best in Show, Spinal Tap, etc.), there are a few guidelines, but the artists are left to their own devices in connecting the dots. At the start of the day, writers are given a short list of prompts and challenges and a few set lines that they must include in their pieces. Examples of guidelines include: “Two people speak the exact same line at the exact same time for very different reasons,” “include an ‘unstageable’ event” (which, in a past festival, resulted in a whale exploding onstage), and “someone has a gun that they didn’t know they had.” In addition, there are six lines that all of the writers must include in each play, giving audiences a chance to anticipate their usage in each piece. Directors are prompted to include elements such as: “Make the audience do something,” or “A musical number, sung sincerely” (an official composer is on standby, ready for such a prompt).

Although all of the action takes place on January 11, the social media campaign is well under way to hype the event. Statuses from various participants betray a level of anxiety that would seem to indicate that work is already underway, although nothing can really be done in advance. On the big day, potential audiences can go to the Contemporary Theater Company Facebook page to see a play-by-play of the festival’s progress, from initial writing sessions at midnight, to actor auditions at 9 am, to frenzied, on-the-fly technical preparations as crews scramble to create costumes and props based on little more than a Red Bull-fueled fever dream.

Other than showing off the talents and versatility of the assembled artists involved, why produce such an insane event? The resulting plays are not only untested, but are still dripping wet. Anything can happen here, and as exciting as that may be to watch, there is no shortage of suffering going on behind the scenes leading up to the 8 pm curtain time. The answer lies in the process, not necessarily the final product. Much like CTC’s work with South Kingstown High School in the Testing 1,2,3,4 series, the idea is to bring together the community for an immersive, collaborative happening. Trust is the watchword here as there is simply no time to take on individual points of view or take too much time to protect any one person’s vision. The festival is a distillation of the sweat of many to create something new, ephemeral and, as the previous eight events have proven, something brilliantly compelling and hilarious.

And that brings us back to Andy Hoover’s quote from above. At one point during the festival in 2010, barely 15 minutes before showtime as the audience filtered in and took their seats in anticipation, the festival’s writers, actors and directors gathered together. This assemblage was not a moment of unity before presenting the big event. This was not a last minute tweaking of details. All available bodies were gathered in order to furiously rip up colored pieces of paper and pour them into an urn. This one moment symbolized the frantically collaborative ethos that defines the 24-Hour Play Festival. No one person is less valuable, no need lesser than any other. And if an urn of construction paper is still required minutes before opening, then everyone is ready to jump in and make it happen. This is not a rarity in theater, but nowhere else do roles and responsibilities become so blurred in the service of a finished series of fully blown plays ready to present to a paying audience.

So, to fully experience the 24-Hour Play Festival, tune in to their Facebook page and then head over to South Kingstown High School auditorium on January 11 to witness the results of CTC’s signature event – 24 actors, six writers, and six directors working midnight-to-midnight to conceive, rehearse and perform six original 15-minute plays. The process may stand alone, but the work can only truly come to fruition with an audience. Think of yourself as just one piece of colored paper ready to join hundreds of others in the spirit of collaboration. No matter what happens, you’ve never seen anything like it before.

CTC presents the 9th Annual 24-Hour Play Festival at SK High School Auditorium. 8 to 10:30 pm, January 11. Visit contemporarytheatercompany.com/box-office/ for tickets or call 401-218-0282. All tickets, $12. 

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