24 hours to write, rehearse, direct, and perform a play. Could you do it?
I’ve always loved creative challenges.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I dove headfirst into National Novel Writing Month and wrote 100,000 words of a novel during the month of November (I’ve completed that challenge twice since, but with the recommended length of 50,000 words). My short story in The Secrets We Keep was written after I found a “first sentence challenge” online. I’ve even challenged myself when it comes to reading, setting a goal of 40 books a year.
Why do I like these challenges so much? I think this Calvin & Hobbes comic sums it up:
These challenges leave no room for me to get too into my head. If I have to write a certain amount of words in a month, or have to create a piece of work to perform in front of a crowd within 24 hours, I’m going to have to start writing. Self-doubt and critics are not welcome here.
When Town and Country Players, a local theatre near me, announced that they were doing a 24 Hour Play Festival for the first time, I signed up immediately. With balancing work and grad school the last two years, 24 hours is about the max I can commit to theatre at this time. So I was not only excited because this would be the first time on stage since 2019, but it was a new creative challenge for me. On the drive to the theatre that Friday night, I was ridden with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I had no idea how the next 24 hours would go.
I recognized a few people participating, but not many. When the producer of the event announced the groups, I was paired with four strangers. The good news was that it was four women in their twenties, all pretty new to this theatre. The bad news was one of the woman was deemed the “composer,” and our group got tasked with the added challenge of creating a musical instead of a play. This was big problem as I was slated to be one of the two actors, and I… don’t sing.
The five of us staked out a quiet place in the theatre to start creating our show, settling on the men’s dressing room on the top level. I told them immediately that I don’t sing, but they were resolved to work through it. We explored a few different ideas.
“I like to write Twilight Zone-esque plays,” the writer said.
“I like to write comedy musicals,” the composer said.
Twilight Zone-esque comedy musical with a star who doesn’t sing… Maybe this isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
As we began to brainstorm ideas, we got into an amazing groove. For anyone who knows improv, it was the perfect “yes, and” situation. The director grabbed a notebook to jot down notes, and the ideas were bouncing around the dressing room faster than she could write. Within 30 minutes, we had a full story that was absolutely absurd and perfect. The writer left to find a different area of the theatre, so she could play around with the idea and see if it would work on the page.
We had a few hiccups. 4 of the 5 of us were in all-in on this idea, but that leaves 1 out. The composer began asking deep questions and poking holes in our plot. (Which, to be fair, had been dreamt up in a mad rush brainstorming session and was not fully fleshed out.) While at the time this was difficult, it is extremely helpful to have someone who can look at an idea through a different lens. Because she wrote music, the composer needed a stronger motivation for the characters. We had added our director in as a small role so she could be the villain and sing a villain song, but she didn’t have an interesting backstory. Together, we worked through these bumps, throwing around more ideas. We landed on a motivation to the villain that the composer was happy with, and away she went to start working on songs.
I left the theatre by 11:15pm that night. The writer and composer shut themselves away in the theatre to create for the night. When I would return at 8:00 am the next morning, a full version of our short musical was to be drafted.
When I returned at 8:00 am the next morning, this wasn’t quite the case.
The composer had a family emergency during the night and had to leave. The writer was still there, reworking the script to be a play instead of a musical. She seemed tired but content with the final version, and when my director and fellow actor showed up, rehearsals began immediately.
12 hours in, 12 hours to go.
12 hours feels like a long time, but when you add in things like blocking it out on the stage, adding in tech (lighting and sound cues), figuring out costumes and props, and trying to memorize your lines… you realized 12 hours is nothing at all. There were four groups and using a rotating scheduling, each group had three separate rehearsal times on the stage: One hour for blocking, one hour for tech, and one hour for dress rehearsal. It was crazy. The dress rehearsal was my favorite part, because I got to watch everyone else’s shows. I couldn’t believe none of these shows existed the night before.
As we changed into our costume and put on our makeup, my group decided that we needed to have our scripts with us. I had probably 80% of the script memorized, but wanted it with me in case I got disoriented and messed up the flow. Still, we ran the show a few times as we got ready, and I could feel myself growing nervous. What if our show was too weird? What if the audience didn’t get it, and our goofy jokes were met with silence? I had so little experience with comedy, and the self-doubt was creeping in.
“Listen,” the producer said to all of us, before the first play was about to start, “the bar is low. All the people who came to this show tonight expect nothing. They just want to see what you’ve done.” She paused. “And you all are going to blow them away.”
Once the first play started, we knew we were going to be juuuuuuuust fine. The audience was cracking up at every. single. joke. The producer was right: the audience just wanted to see what we had created, but they also were acting as our biggest supporter. We were the third play (out of four) and were slated to go right after a short intermission, so we watched as the first two were riding that post-performance high. They were glowing. One actor got off the stage and said, “Where is Gary [co-star]? I have to go hug that son-of-a-bitch.”
When I say this one of the most fun performances of my life, I mean it. I have to say it again. THIS WAS ONE OF THE MOST FUN PERFORMANCES OF MY LIFE. It was so low stakes, and our script was just so ridiculous you couldn’t NOT have fun performing it. The audience seriously laughed above and beyond at each joke, which just gave a great energy to the room. They loved the twist of the villain (shout out to the composer who pushed us to create that character and that motivation the night before!) For the end of our play, we were debating whether to have it be a scary ending or a sad ending. I advocated hard for the sadder ending, because I felt it packed a bigger punch and makes the audience connect more with the characters. When the last line was said and the lighting faded to black, a few audience members verbally said, “AWWWWWW”
Yes, it worked!!!!! We made them sad!!!!!!!!
I came off stage with a rush of energy. Our group ran to one another and the writer came backstage, over the moon with what we had done with her script. She was so appreciative. We snapped a quick picture, right at the height of our adrenaline.
It was an amazing weekend. I would absolutely do this challenge again. I loved connecting with other creatives and seeing what we can do when pushed to our limits.
When I left that stage, I had such a deep, deep love and appreciate for live theatre. When done right, with heart and authenticity, it is the best thing in the whole world. ❤