“My third year, when I was directing, I ate nothing but M&Ms and drank nothing but apple cider,” said Jigsaw Jones, raising his eyebrows. “Between twelve hours of directing and drinking during both performances—well, I got kidney stones.”
The playwright and actor laughs. Sleeplessness, sweat, and the odd kidney stone sound par for the course during 24/7, a 24-hour theater festival in which seven ten-minute plays are written, rehearsed, and performed twice for live audiences in Charlottesville. Hosted by Whole Theater and benefitting Live Arts, this year’s show opens on January 19, and closes the same night. Fifty-eight volunteers have committed their talents to the artistic unknown, bound to create fearlessly—or at least fast.
“I was somewhat terrified,” said Ed Warwick, an actor who, prior to his 2012 role as a 24/7 playwright, had never written a play before. ”My fiancé told me, ‘Ray [Nedzel, the show’s founder and artistic director] wouldn’t ask you to do this if he didn’t think you could do this very well. You’re being set up for success, not for failure.’ And he was right.”
As Warwick discovered, Nedzel and his behind-the-scenes team are experts. “We have everything down to a science,” said Kristen Wegner, stage manager since the festival’s inception five years ago. “Every fifteen minutes of the day is scheduled.”
Writers clock in at 7pm on Friday, a theme for the festival is randomly selected, and each playwright pulls unique cast requirements and one inspirational word out of a hat. These parameters—and a 6am deadline—give structure to the hours that follow.
24/7 writer and actor Mendy St. Ours gets it. “Your rhythms get out of whack and you have a firm deadline: two elements that can actually push a writer to get something done. At some point you just surrender and become a delirious cypher.”
At 8am, directors arrive and choose a freshly printed script from a hat. “When I have 6-8 weeks to open a show, I spend time up front collaborating with actors and designers on staging and story,” said Marianne Kubrik, a 24/7 director and Associate Professor of Drama at UVA. “With 24/7 we’ve got 8 hours, so I’ve got to make smart directing decisions fast.”
Actors arrive at 8:30am to be randomly assigned to directors. As they race to learn lines, a whirlwind crew conjures lighting, costumes, sound, and props. “I have 25 minutes to get the play cued up,” explained Heather Hutton, a four-time lighting designer. “I keep the plot simple, but with enough color to vary the look quickly.”
Like most participants, Hutton said 24/7 is her favorite theater event of the year. (Audiences agree; tickets tend to sell out quickly.) Of all her favorite moments, a singing six-year-old beauty queen, a nun in a trunk, and “Chris Baumer in girl clothes, every year.” Hutton said she loves the risk of it most. “No one is allowed to get too precious, everyone is expected to deliver, and the audience is included in this nearly impossible task. It’s a steamroller of fun and mayhem.”
Warwick agreed. Along with fiancé Gary White, he will lead a new group for 2013: the House Band. In 24 hours, this group of musicians will choose instruments and write new songs to perform at curtain call and intermission. “I remember being amazed as an audience member that what I was hearing was written last night,” Warwick said. “But now that I’ve written a piece, I’m amazed by all of it.”
Jones echoed his amazement. “I wrote the first musical in 24/7 history, and when I showed up bleary-eyed for the random casting, two of the four people drawn from the hat were musicians. And actors. And the right gender. That’s the thing about 24/7—for the last four years I’ve watched improbable shows get cast perfectly.”
St. Ours felt it too. “There’s something magic about a body of work writing itself, manifesting itself, and then disappearing within 24 hours. It’s a wacky sand mandala.”
After five years, Nedzel has an idea of where such magic comes from. “24/7 flips the paradigm,” he said, noting that actors and writers typically audition and submit works to critical producers. 24/7 guarantees that new work will be produced, that actors will land their roles. The artists, in turn, commit completely, “and they do it with conviction, guts and expertise each time.”
“Trusting the artist is a winning idea,” he said. “Given the opportunity to shine, people will always go the extra mile.”
The result is ephemeral, incredible theater. Rarely kidney stones.
24/7 2013 Live Arts January 19