Productions Made Quickly Are Generally Bad

I realize I’ve been a little bit obsessed lately with the whole play-in-a-day (or 24-hour play) phenomenon. I first wrote about it here on the blog, in advance of my participation in one such event, and then on TheatreFace I suggested that participating in speed-writing events could be good exercise. What I feel I need to say now is this: almost all of the play-in-a-day plays I’ve ever seen (including those I’ve been a part of) have been bad… some of them catastrophically so.

Someone had to say it.

Let me start with a description of one of my own experiences, so that we can all be clear that I’m not saying I’m exempt from this rule. The event in question was a few years ago: long enough in the past that I assume no one involved will recognize themselves in this story.

When I pulled the prop, line of dialogue, and theme out of whatever hat they were in that night — I can’t remember how the details worked, exactly, but I know they were  fairly standard — my heart immediately sank. I had zero inspiration. And then a more terrifying thought occurred to me: I had zero inspiration and a looming deadline. I was in trouble.

I wrote all night, working through many drafts, and made a go of it, emailing the play I managed to muster with about a half hour to go. The director was a woman whose skill and friendship I value quite a bit, so my accompanying note was just this side of an admission of defeat, mixed with a healthy dollop of apology. I knew it wasn’t dreadful, but I knew she had her work cut out for her, too.

What I didn’t know is that she had randomly been assigned a crew of actors that could most charitably have been described as underwhelming. As I recall, one of them had a modicum of both experience and talent; two others had resumes and earnestness going for them… but nothing else. The fourth, however, was literally going to be making her first appearance on stage anywhere. At all. At any level. In my play.

(Why in the hell has Actors Equity not found a way to allow performers of skill to participate in these things? Somebody, please tell me… or correct me if I’m mis-informed.)

When I popped into a late-hour rehearsal — having made up for my lack of sleep with a restless four daytime hours of slumber and a lot of coffee — I could tell something wasn’t going well. The actors still had scripts in their hands, and my director friend looked a bit like a deer in the headlights. It was not going well, and I knew that my presence was only going to be a distraction. I did not stay long.

Fast forward to the actual production. A mere sixty seconds into the ten-minute play, the first-time actor completely gave up. She simply wasn’t saying any of her lines: not one. The two earnest-but-raw actors had no idea how to compensate on the fly, and it was only through the absolutely Herculean efforts of the one semi-pro that the story managed to keep rolling forward — like a square wheel, but  forward — albeit without more than a hint of the lines I had written. A phrase here and there at most. I am not exaggerating. And let me tell y0u: my play wasn’t great, but what was there on stage was abominable.

By about the eight-minute mark, the whole horrifying thing just collapsed under its own awkward weight, like a baby elephant on its wobbly newborn legs. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the three actors who were still managing to make sounds come out of their mouths actually dissolved into… wait for it… wait for it… an a cappella rendition of Don’t Stop Believin’ to cover what  should have been their exit.

I say “should have been,” of course, because they had so completely abandoned the script by then that the light board op didn’t actually know to go to black. The stage manager sat beside him madly flipping through the pages trying to figure out where the hell they were. They walked off stage in full light.

I have never felt a more awkward, halting round of applause in my entire life.

So, okay, most of the play-in-a-day plays I’ve seen haven’t been THAT bad… but a great many of them have come close. And I have never once in my play-in-a-day life ever seen a new play written, directed, costumed, etc. in that amount of time turn out any better than, say, middling.

Why, then, do we do them? (And why do people keep buying tickets to them? My theory: the first time, they’re attracted to derring-do of it… and there is no second time.) Why do we suffer through so many sloppy plays performed by barely-off-book actors in rushed-together costumes? And why do we make it even harder by requiring ourselves to use bizarre lines of dialogue and odd props?

I have no idea.

But I do have a plan for making all play-in-a-day festivals so much better. You knew I’d have a plan, didn’t you? Well, these are actually options, not a plan; they’d all make a difference independently of one another.

  1. Make sure that only people who know each other well and work frequently together get to participate. Rather than enlisting artists one by one, enlist them in groups. Make sure the members of each group have all worked together before, on the assumption that a shared creative vocabulary will make them more efficient.
  2. Use the entire 24-hour period for the production, not for the play. In other words, let the playwrights have as long as they need to write whatever they want to write. Keep the plays secret until the last minute, of course, but give the cast and crew a full 24 hours to rehearse. Ten pages deserves ten hours of rehearsal time anyway. Make it happen.
  3. Stop insisting that crazy props and bizarre lines of dialogue be part of the whole affair. They don’t make for good theater; they make for stunts and gags. The world has enough stunts and gags already. (Just look at Congress.) And if you must use them, make them as ordinary as possible.

I can’t say I’m not going to participate unless at least one or two of my demands are met — as I’ve already written elsewhere, I do like the “creative exercise” I get out of it — but I might not be so easy to win over any more. (If the excellent Rorschach Theatre calls again, I’ll gladly answer, because the way they do it — stretching it out over a week, and building the whole event around a theatrical theme, like creation myths or Grimm’s fairy tales — pleases me to no end.) But I will still keep pushing to take this genre in a new direction, because I think it’s ready to move.

7 thoughts on “Productions Made Quickly Are Generally Bad”

  1. Re: using AEA actors. That’s on the theatres, not Equity. Equity has general use contracts available for small projects. They get used by places like the KC for narration at the symphony, and I’ve been signed to them for Young Playwright’s events, and things like that. They could use AEA actors, they just choose not to.

    1. Seriously? So what you’re saying is that it’s a money issue — they can’t afford it? Or won’t afford it? I’m thinking here of, say, the Source Festival… which really ought to step up its game.

      Thanks for the (irksome) clarification, Tonya.

  2. I agree with the idea of using actors who have worked with each other, or at least gather a group of folks who the producer KNOWS will be able to do the work in that compressed amount of time. The idea of throwing everyone and their grandma up there for shits and giggles is kinda thoughtless, IMHO. The idea of me–along with all the other Riot Grrls getting together to put a play on in 10 hours, on the other hand….

    1. That’s exactly what I mean: an experienced troupe. The Bethesda play-in-a-day project SUPPOSEDLY does that, but not in practice. I wish they took their own idea more seriously.

  3. Ruben Carbajal

    I agree: most often you end up with train wrecks. The best you can hope for is passable. It’s always a great exercise for myself– I benefit from the push and the challenge of it– I wish I could say the audience got as much out of it.

    I think theatre companies like them because they can raise money and/or they are relatively simple to put up. But I don’t think much would be lost if they were never done again.

  4. We have a 24 Hour Theatre Project as a fundraiser every year; part of the process is getting an Equity Waiver so that the actors can donate their time. It’s always been with the best actors in our community and as time goes on, actors beg to be a part of the process.

    Some of my better short plays were conceived in that time frame. (Don’t believe me? Check out the blog of our local critic: )

    As an evening of theatre, its always going to be uneven, even with Equity actors. Sometimes you have the right title, the right actors, the right idea…and you can create a beautiful piece. Sometimes you struggle until 5AM when you say screw it and hand in crap. The odds of everyone hitting their stride at the same time are slim. But as an evening of creating community goodwill and cooperation, it’s one of the best events in my year.

    1. That’s actually nice/reassuring to hear, that a) Equity actors can be involved, and that b) It’s become such a goodwill event for you. That’s what I wish more of them would be…

      I wonder if putting the whole thing in service to some charity might help.

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