Just add water...and a script, a director, a castmate, copious amounts of coffee.... a couple of slices of pizza won’t hurt.
Walking into the kickoff meeting of the 2014 24 Hour Play Festival, I really had no idea what to expect, but I thought I did. I knew there would be about 30 people there. I knew that five playwrights and five directors would be paired up by the luck of the draw and that the rest of us would be assigned to a cast by lottery. But I did not know the sweet moments of kismet, or the confidence in my ability to work fast….really fast, and pretty well. I’m hooked.
I knew two people in the room, Debera Lund and Olivia Dodd, a director and an actor with whom I’d just worked for a week last month. I secretly hoped I’d work with Deb, because I liked her process and didn’t get to work with her nearly long enough. The first playwright, Patrick Cleary got to pick a card from the “director” group. He drew Debera. After the other playwrights randomly chose their directors, they got to pick their cast size. Patrick drew a cast of two.Then, Debera was the first director to “cast” the show by blindly picking cards with the actors’ pictures on them. Suddenly, the picking-teams-in-gym-class feeling washed over me. I thought, “Please don’t let me be the last kid picked. Please don’t let me be the last kid picked”, until I realized that having a card with your face on it picked at random is more like being part of a card trick than being chosen (or not) for a dodgeball team. Debera picked my card first. Hooray! First kismet moment. By the end of the evening, our team included Patrick, Deb, myself, and a young actress named Jasmine Roth, who also happened to be one of the playwrights for the Festival.
The playwrights then chose a prompt in the form of an image or a quote. Our prompt was a picture of the M. C. Escher elephant. He chose a genre: Drama. There were a few minutes for the four of us to get together. When I meet new people, I fight an urge to talk. It is my job to make everyone in the group comfortable. Or uncomfortable, as the case may be. Even when it’s not. Somehow, I blurted out something about having a wicker table in the shape of an elephant. Because, you know, elephant is sort of random. It seemed like a team-building statement. Well, guess what? It kind of was. Because Patrick said he sometimes likes to approach things literally, and what did the elephant table look like, exactly? So I described it. Second kismet moment.
After the kickoff, the actors and directors got to go home to re-convene in the morning. The playwrights were challenged to write a play before 7:00 AM, while the rest of us slept. Although, I am not sure sleep is an accurate description. My mind was “on” all night. Would I get there in time? Would I be able to get my son to his cross-country team breakfast at approximately the same time I had to be at the theatre? Who was going to braid my daughter’s hair for her own theatrical performance that night? Would John, my husband, encounter any crazy theatre-dad issues he was unprepared for? Would everyone have enough to eat? (That last question is always there...I am probably the reincarnation of somebody’s zaftig ethnic grandmother….but I digress).
8:00 AM. On time. And Deb is already here. And there are scripts on the table for us to read. And there’s coffee! And a wifi password! Oh, this has already surpassed my expectations. Jasmine arrives. Patrick is having some well-earned sleep. To me he has become an elusive fairy-godfather who worked through the night to deliver us an incredibly crafted play to bring to life. The script is entitled “Possession”. And, yes, it does involve an elephant-shaped wicker table. And the conflict between two women, a hoarder and her well-intentioned family member, at odds over the inherent value of stuff. And whether the table is, in fact, a table, or an elephant sculpture. I read it. I love it. It’s 10 pages (not, 17, thank you Patrick!). It’s about people I’m related to. You see, I have the I-break-at-yard-sales gene. (That’s a thing, right?) I fight that gene tooth and nail, but I have it. Third kismet moment.
In the script there’s a squabble over an opal ring. An opal ring, really? Fourth kismet moment.
And we began. In spite of having Debera Lund as our director, I was certain this would have to be a day of blocking and memorizing. How can you possibly find the depth and soul of a character whose ink is barely dry in 10 hours? How can you create a backstory and undercurrents to the character relationships before lunch with a story that has just been read for the first time. Well, you can. You SO can! And, all of a sudden, I recalled days of working summer theatre twenty years ago….when ten days seemed more than sufficient to work on a full-length musical and fill a 1,300 seat house for two weekends. It’s called total immersion. We had a day. But we had that WHOLE day. There was no world outside to attend to. Yes, we took breaks. Yes, we ate lunch. But those were the moments when the things we worked on took the time to seep into our limbic centers. There were no distractions. No one needed us to make their lunches. No one needed a ride to a friend’s house. No one needed to take over the kitchen with three friends to make cupcake sans recipe. And not a single person brought mud potion into the rehearsal room and accidentally spilled it.
We blocked. We formed relationships between the characters beyond the story at hand. We got to know these two women Patrick created literally overnight out of a prompt and a commitment. Debera was there to share her metaphors, to guide us, to push us to change up our approach, and change it back, and find the sweet spot. She calls it “whiplash” directing. I call it brilliant.
Jasmine and I got to know each other pretty well, in an “I’m-sorry-I-have-to-grab-you-and-throw-you-on-this-pile-of-hoarded-stuff” sort of a way. (The director made me do it.) In spite of the fact that she was up most of the night writing a play for another team, she was good. She was quick. She was a lot of fun to work with. My character was sort of obviously nuts. Her character was more difficult, I thought, walking a fine line between being a supportive and loving family member and just having-it-up-to-HERE already!
We teched at five. Our show opened at 7:30. First up. And we did it. We formed characters out of Patrick’s well-placed words on a page and adrenalin and coffee and water and trust and thought and repetition. Fifth kismet moment. And I want to do it again.
~ Deirdre Hickok Bridge