Live Arts hosts ‘world’s fastest’ fest

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"I knew I could stay up,” said Denise Stewart, a playwright who’ll be featured in 24/7: The World’s Fastest Theater Festival. “I have insomnia, so I just didn’t take my Ambien.”

Blink and you’ll miss it! Live Arts presents 24/7 Saturday, January 28 at 7:30pm and 10pm. (Photo by Martyn Kyle)

Stewart has participated in the event, which condenses the process of staging a play to 24 hours, for the past three years. On January 27, seven playwrights will gather at the DownStage at Live Arts, receive an audience-generated theme, and hammer out a 10-minute play that will be performed the following night. It’s an absurd idea considering it usually takes years for a play to move from conception to production, but it makes for good, um, theater.

“It reverses the paradigm of typical theater programming. Usually, there is a lot of thought put into the process. 24/7 offers the opportunity to get that adrenaline rush of making quick decisions,” said Ray Nedzel, founder of Whole Theatre and organizer of the 24/7 project. Nedzel has performed in similarly time-constrained theater events in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles and felt that the theater community in Charlottesville could also feel the need for speed. He was right. 24/7 has sold out each year it’s run, and as Nedzel said, it “opens the world of theater to people who may only have one day they can commit to the process.” 

One of those participants this year is Dannika Lewis, nightside reporter for local NBC affiliate Channel 29. Her job obligations preclude her from the time commitments required in regular theater productions, so she is excited about walking the boards during 24/7.  

“I actually covered it last year for work and fell in love with the event,” she said. “The whole 24-hour thing is utterly insane. It should be a wild ride.” 

Here’s how the festival works. On Friday night, after the theme is decided [last year’s was “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”], the audience submits suggestions for a key phrase that must be incorporated into the script. Then the playwrights draw a character breakdown out of a hat—i.e. two men, one woman—at which point they have 11 hours to write a play. Once the playwrights are gone, the directors and designers meet to tour the performance space, check all the electronic equipment, and set the basic stage lighting. 

Saturday’s action is as follows:

7:30am: Sleep-deprived playwrights turn in their work. Directors are randomly assigned a play and actors. Then it’s off to a designated rehearsal space to get cracking. Local businesses—like Speak! Language Center, Light House Studio, Marty Moore Photography, the Omni, and Mudhouse—have supported 24/7 by donating rehearsal space in past years.

9:30am to 2:30pm: Mayhem ensues as seven plays rotate production meetings and rehearsals while the crew scrambles to build set pieces, collect costumes and props, and hang additional lights. The playwrights, who are rendered fairly useless at this point, are sent home to catch some much-needed sleep.

2:30 to 6pm: Each play gets a three-pronged technical rehearsal involving setting cues for lighting and sound, a cue to cue (which is basically practice for the technical people), then a full run through. In snail (read: normal) theater, this process takes weeks, but in 24/7 each play gets 25 minutes.

6pm: The order of the plays is set and the actors scramble to memorize their lines.

7:30pm: Showtime! Once an actor is finished on stage, he or she is allowed to go to the gallery for the remaining shows. 

10pm: The plays are staged in reverse order.

Nedzel said 24/7 is not just about getting something on stage in a limited timeframe.

“The goal is to do something damn good in 24 hours.” 

In 2009, playwright Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell created Chapter 11: Indians in the House, in which middle-aged male twins struggled with one twin’s delusion that he was Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. Live Arts was so impressed with the quality of the piece that it was performed at the annual Gala as a showcase. There’s a rule that more than half of the people in each category (playwright, director, actor) must be new to the project. “We want to keep it fresh and challenging,” says Nedzel. “It is best if it represents what the community of artists can do.”     

By the end of 24/7 2012, the festival will have created 28 new plays, featuring the talents of 23 playwrights, 24 directors, and 73 actors. But let’s face it, the real draw is to witness what creative people can do under pressure. As Lewis said, “It’s live theater, anything could happen.” And it probably will.

24/7: The World’s Fastest Theater Festival starts Friday January 27 at 7:30pm at Live Arts and continues with performances on Saturday, January 28 at 7:30pm and 10pm. Admission for the kickoff on Friday night is free. Saturday shows are $10. For tickets contact Live Arts at www.livearts.org or call the box office at 977-4177. For more information go to wholetheatre.org.

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