Saturday night, John Kean ’16 — a six feet, four inch former cattle farmer who owns nine pairs of suspenders and has what he calls “big, gangly arms you can do anything with” — became a first-time playwright.
The next day, history enthusiast Emma Bresnan ’17, clad in full eighteenth-century garb and carrying a mandolin, asked: “Why don’t we do naked yoga on the front porch?”
Who are these people?
They were participants in this year’s 24-Hour Play Festival, a theatrical charity event that involves little preparation and even less sleep.
The festival is the frenetic byproduct of exhaustion and creative rush, a sprint-style theatrical hodge-podge that falls somewhere between improvisational comedy and scripted drama. Put on by the Alpha Psi Omega National Theater Honor Society, the event began Saturday at 8 p.m. and culminated in a series of eight plays put on 24 hours later.
In voluntary ticket sales, it raised $230 for Clowns Without Borders, a non-profit founded by alumnus Tim Cunningham ’00 and dedicated to bringing comedy to those suffering in conflict zones and refugee camps across the world.
“24-Hour is about so much more than the plays,” said Cris Ruthenberg-Marshall ’14, the vice president of APO.
Instead, the so-called “guerilla theater” festival is about its characters: both those it creates and those who create it.
This year, the group comprised eight playwrights, eight directors, and 33 actors, who met for the first time Saturday night for an onerous two-hour tryout session. Based primarily on fast-paced improvisational games, the intensity of tryouts belies one of the key tenets of the show: Everybody who tries out is cast.
This meant that, instead of deciding whom to cut, directors and playwrights were left to an intense bidding war arbitrated by APO president Kevin Place ’14. After each team submitted its top four picks, Place used a white board to assign actors and manage trades.
The later rounds of bidding were known to prompt a few outbursts, particularly from the directors.
“He’s our main character,” Director Hilary Adams ’14 said, after one of her prospective leads was snapped up.
Place calmly maintained order throughout the casting melee and Adams hastily returned to flipping through her notes on the actors’ performances.
After 30 minutes, most actors and playwrights seemed satisfied. The teams were set. Directors said goodbye and left for the night; their jobs wouldn’t start for another ten hours. For playwrights, however, the night had just begun.
“I just need to let ideas bounce around my head,” returning playwright Sara Rock ’14 said, before beginning her manuscript.
Kevin Xu ’17, writing for the first time, explained that he expected his play to be about an embarrassing incident from his sophomore year of high school.
Others took a more cosmic approach. Playwright Shaan Sharma ’15 — who eventually finished his play despite falling asleep at his keyboard — said that he went home “to go ask the universe for inspiration.”
The next day, participants could be heard in every nook of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. Actors and directors had arrived early — most by 9 a.m. — to receive the scripts that had been written for them.
“We had only a couple of hours to memorize our lines,” Kean said. “It’s not fair.”
Director John Ponder White ’15 had a simple reply for the actor.
“A lot’s not fair in theatre,” Ponder White said. By 2 p.m., Kean and the rest of Ponder White’s group were rehearsing sans scripts.
At the same time, the group performing “Penny Man” by Lucy Fiol ’14 was coping with having lost a cast member thirty minutes earlier. Director Eliot Bacon ’17 opened his inbox at 1:30 p.m. to find an email informing him that one of his actors had too much work to do that day.
“It’s a testament to 24-Hour that we didn’t burn down the building,” Bacon said.
Instead, Fiol was called back in — on no sleep — to adapt her comedy for a three-member cast. Among all the words spoken at the festival, “crisis” was probably the most common, closely followed by “resolved.”
Things were brighter in another part of PBK. On the balcony, Isabel DoCampo ’16 could be heard singing. Her group, performing “An Elegy for Charmington DeRue” by Coleen Herbert ’14, was practicing next to a table that served as a sort of theatrical campground, similar to the seven other colonies springing up around the building. On the table lay Altoids, scripts, chopsticks, tape, an empty dry cleaning bag and copious amounts of trail mix.
While discussing Herbert’s play, which includes imagined references to The Great Rat Fire of 1947 (wherein “a herd of rats self-immolated”) and the origins of Pubic Wine (from the apocryphal Pubic region of Virginia; to be served with Cheez-It crackers), director Joseph Biagini ’16 explained to his actors that the fundamental principles of directing theory still held, even under the strict time constraints.
“Try to be normal in some crazy world, not crazy in this world,” Biagini said.
On the bottom floor, a group directed by Tyler Bell ’16 was working through what it meant to be human. In a comedy by Ryan Warsing ’14 called “Table for 2.0,” Nelson, an anti-social robot played by Scott Vierick ’15, goes speed dating with three eccentric women who teach him about religion, art and love.
“The three things that humans have opposed to statues, animals and robots,” Warsing said, referring to religion, art and love. “It’s a Pinocchio story.”
As Nelson learns what it means to be human, he touches on many of the themes that surround the philanthropic side of 24-Hour.
“People need food and water, but they also have psychosocial needs, and we can’t forget that,” said Ruthenberg-Marshall, explaining why the group chose to donate to Clowns Without Borders.
On his third date, Nelson is asked why he would risk “disobeying [his] protocol” and getting caught just to meet people he doesn’t know and learn about subjects that he, as a robot, cannot possibly ever hope to understand.
“That’s what living is,” he said. “That’s what we do. That’s what humans do.”
Later that night, the smiles flashing onstage and the uproarious laughter bellowing throughout the auditorium proved that, in addition to religion, art and love, humans may also do comedy.