I wrote a play last night. Not what I always do with my Friday nights, but at least I can say I did that once on a Friday night in my life. I’m participating in a 24 Hour Theatre project at the Long Beach Playhouse, in which five playwrights are given identical instructions at 8pm on a Friday night, and then are left to wrangle all night with their muses and deliver a 10-15 page script by 7am Saturday morning. Directors are then randomly assigned, actors arrive at 8am, and a marathon of rehearsal begins leading up to the 8pm premiere.
I have participated in several of these spectacles at various theatres, sometimes as an actor, sometimes as a director, sometimes as a writer. From my perspective, acting is the most fun, directing is the biggest headache, and writing is the biggest challenge, but the one I feel most comfortable in.
You really can’t know how it’s going to go. My last time out as a writer, I feel like I missed the mark, committing to a flawed idea that didn’t mesh as a story and didn’t tonally meet the audience’s expectations.
After dinner, I took a half-hour nap just to prepare. A half-hour is a good length for a refresher. Then, at 8, I received an e-mail with my instructions. I was writing for two women, one teenaged, the other teenage or early 20’s; and two men, one 40’s, one 40’s or 50’s. I had to include a drum as a prop, and the line of dialogue “It seemed like a good idea at the time“. All the playwrights had different cast demographics, but we all have the same prop and prompt line.
I picked up a pen and notepad and drove to a cafe that was open late. I thought I might spend as much as an hour just generating story concepts, but in one of those serendipitous flukes, I had an idea that sounded fun before I was even in the car. There’s no predicting that sort of thing, but when it happens, you go with it.
So I ordered a cappuccino and started brainstorming on how to fill in the idea and outlining to make it play for the right length of time. I guess not every writer would commit to outlining under suuch extreme time constraints, but I find its advantages are crystallized under these circumstances. If you’re writing, you’re getting caught up in the flow of moments, discovering character curlicues, etc. You can easily end up losing the plot. When you outline, you can move as fast as your decision-making allows, and decisiveness is crucial when your deadline is sunrise.
By 9:30, I had a solid outline, and some gags and lines worked out. I drove home and took a 20-30 minute walk around the neighborhood. Again, that might seem like an extravagant expenditure of time, but things like walks are crucial for shifting things around in your brain; letting the hard work of the previous hour sink in and freeing up the consciousness for the writing process. Brainhacking is one of those writing skills that I think is sorely undertaught.
By about 10 I was typing away, taking breaks every 30-40 minutes to stretch, get a beverage, or do some chore like folding laundry. Much in the way that they recommend you rest for 10 minutes during an hour of exercise, I think a mental refresh is valuable when you have to pace your way through a big assignment like this.
A little after midnight, I finished the draft. Normally, reflection and separation is important before rewriting; here, I was only away long enough to make a title page and print out enough copies to assemble scripts for everyone who would need them. Then I went back in, made a couple of corrections, filled in a moment, and that was it. At 12:45, the 11-page script was done.
I printed and assembled 10 copies, and then got right in bed at about 1:30. From what I gather, I slept more than any of the other writers – as much as four hours.
I was at the theatre before 7, and by 8 the whole company was assembled for the day’s work. I watched the first few read throughs, offered a couple of clarifications, and then left so the director could get to work without me breathing down his neck. I’m going to take it relatively easy today, have a nice long nap, and then rejoin them just before dinner time to see how it’s come together. I was already laughing from the first reading, but given my mental state that’s not exactly predictive for how the audience will react.
That I wrote 11 pages in only a few hours does beg the question of why I couldn’t do that every day, and thus have a new screenplay every two weeks. The truth is that these tend to be a lot more sloppy and shallow than work you’d really want to present professionally. Every so often a piece rises to the occasion, but part of the experience is the desperate concentration of creativity and energy that this format generates, which is unique unto itself and offers many surprises.
I’ve done my job, though. The talent will do their part to elevate it. For the record, the script is called “Jessica and Judy Bother a Hobo”.
Serious theatre right there. It seemed like a good idea at the time.