When the 24-Hour Play Festival comes around, I get a mix of excitement and welcome dread. Yes, dread. Because I know that as an actor, it was one of the most challenging experiences to take on. You have to memorize lines in 6-8 hours; you have to be adaptable and flexible to things like line cutting and new edits; and you have to learn quickly how to listen and trust and work off of the other actor, perhaps someone whom you've never met before. And on top of it all, you are performing in front of a sold-out audience!
All of the activity somehow produces a powerhouse evening of new and exciting theatre, produced by Jennifer Roberts of Playwrights Center of San Francisco. This year's edition was no slouch, as the evening included 8 scenes; one of them being a solo monologue. So, wanting to give myself a new challenge, I asked Jennifer several months back if I might have a shot at directing a scene.
What I got to direct was a scene not only written by her, but also included two new actors to the Festival: Daniel Solomon and Drew Reitz. They had boundless enthusiasm and patience as we worked together throughout the day. Jennifer wrote a 5-page scene entitled "Pablum." - based off of the Festival's topic: "Why Does Vanilla Get Such a Bad Wrap?"
I admit the topic was a head-scratcher, and I was curious to see what she would come up with, as well as the other writers. I knew that if anything, the scene would have an emotional intensity that I've seen in her other work. I wasn't disappointed, either. Though around 2am my phone buzzed with a new message:
[box] I'm writing about 2 guys in a band. One of them wants to leave the band right when they're on the verge of signing a big contract, but he also wants to keep his friendship with his bandmate and childhood friend. Problem is I don't know why they guy wants out.[/box]
Mind you, I had been asleep, but it wasn't unusual to get an email in the middle of the night like this - and I had expected it. I was peering through a haze as I typed out my reply:
[box] The guy wants out because: (a few scenarios): • He thinks he sucks and isn't good enough (I'm too vanilla) • he loves his cat "vanilla" too much to go on the road. Maybe it's about cats.[/box]
I fell back asleep after hitting 'send.'
Another email came an hour or so later that she had found the story. By 6am, I had the script in my inbox. With some promises to improve on it. But I knew it didn't need much improvement at all; myself and the actors could fill this thing out. All I needed to know was that she knew she had a good scene.
We almost went with another scene that she wanted me to consider doing, since she was feeling that her scene was not 'good enough.' I had the actors read the scene, a well-done one, too. But I knew that Jennifer had written something great, and I knew the actors dug the scene just as much - there was a lot they'd be able to get from it. We decided to go with hers. And I'm glad we did.
The actors got off book quickly, it seemed. They both had great ideas, and I let them take their character development where they wanted to. My goal was to give them as much space as possible, but to be in the room with them as a participant, not an outsider. We rehearsed the scene again and again, and every time, I saw something new coming out. A bonus was the space; Jennifer had a hotel room we could rehearse in, away from the noise of the venue, and the other groups getting their work together. So we spent about half the day between her room and the space.
I was having so much fun that I wasn't worried about the evening's performance. The actors would be fine, and I knew they would pull it off. I got to do fun things like have the actors and playwright do a check-in; had the actors do a physical warm-up; ask the actors over and over what they were feeling or thinking after each run-through. And I found my rhythm. By the time we had done the cue-to-cue in the Tides Theatre space, I knew we were done. And I know Jennifer was pleased with the work she was seeing done. I was very happy she made herself available throughout the day to make suggestions, or offer line revisions, and such. I could tell the actors felt very supported, too.
By the time the house opened and the lights went down, all I had to do was sit back and watch all of the work reveal itself. Every scene that came out onto that stage was something new and exciting. The actors ate it up. And when the lights went down on "Pablum," - there was a muffled gasp from someone in the audience. I loved hearing the reaction from the audience.
I think the scene that Jennifer wrote was only the beginning of something bigger. I heard her say she would try to develop it further. I hope she does. For those five pages, a very compelling and earnest story came out, and Daniel and Drew really did beautiful work.
You can also read Jennifer's take on this year's 24-Hour Festival at her blog: JenBlogPrettyOneDay