Friday, May 4, 2007

24, Sans Jack Bauer


Last night at 6:30pm, I started in Columbia's The 24 Hour New Plays Festival. Stephanie Shaw, who did a great job directing Urinetown for the Columbia mainstage this year, organizes this event. She will also be directing one of the pieces, stepping in for an ill director.

Here's how the whole thing works: There are six playwrights, six directors and 18 actors. The six directors were chosen by Stephanie a month or two ago. It's an even split of faculty members and student directing majors. Actors wishing to participate "wooed" the directors, mostly by hounding them or baking them cookies. Stephanie also sent out an invitation to faculty to see if anyone would like to participate. I offered up my services as a crackerjack writer and was immediately asked to be an actor. An acting slot is actually more challenging. As an actor, it's your ass on stage in the heat of the moment. You're at the mercy of the playwright and director and scene partners. There's a big roll of the dice in hoping that everything works out.

This is my first time doing this, so last night was all new to me. I've never been much of a fan of the "let's see what I can pull out of my butt" type of events. I'm all about nurturing and process. I never quite saw the point of taking years of experience and smashing them into limited number of hours and resources and, more than likely, putting up a piece of crap. I was never sure who it was for and why would anyone other than friends and people who enjoy watching NASCAR crashes want to see it? I felt this way until a few years ago when I was asked to direct an Octa-Sketch show for Sketchfest. The deal there, is that you were randomly teamed with five improvisers and had eight hours to put together a thirty minute sketch comedy revue. It was a blast. When you have such a short period of time, there's not a lot of room for mulling things over or exploring multiple options. There's a lot of making bold choices and working really hard to make them successful. It was very liberating to work that way and I enjoyed the show we put together. The whole experience was exhilarating. I've been looking to do something similar since then, so when the opportunity to do this came up, I jumped on it.

So, last night we all gathered in a room. I knew all the teachers in the mix and a few of the students. First, the playwright's pulled names of directors out of a bucket. Then the directors pulled the names of three actors out of a bucket. Totally random. My director is Scott Olson, another part-timer, like me. Our playwright is Sam Park and my fellow actors are Jess Elfring and Pat Babbitt. Scott's great. I've seen a few of his student productions at Columbia and we always seem to find ourselves in the teachers lounge around the same time. He's an enthusiastic guy who's not afraid to tell it like it is. Sam and Pat are new to me, although Pat and I know a lot of the same people through improv (he does a Friday midnight show at iO) and we share the same birth date - Cinco de Mayo (write it down). I have seen Jess perform in an Improvisation 2 class. She has a nice deadpan delivery.

We got into our groups and Brea, the stage manager, facilitated us through a "get to know you" process, mainly for the playwright's benefit. Each of the actors had to answer a specific question and spend five minutes answering it. I went first and my task was to complete the phrase "When I get caught doing something wrong, I..."

Well, when I get caught doing something wrong, I become a little kid busted. It's like an envelope of shame rises up around me. I'm embarrassed. Especially if I see absolutely no hope in convincingly lying my way out it. Everyone kept asking me for examples, and I didn't have any recent ones. Not that I don't do anything wrong, I just don't get caught. I had to reach back to what I called "The Big Stinky" when I got caught embezzling money in college. I'll save the details for another article in the future. Suffice it to say, it was a huge setback for me, emotionally and financially, and took me about five years to work it out and move on. No jail time, in case you were wondering.

Then we were asked to just tell the playwright our strengths, what we love to do on stage and what's the one thing that scares us the most - for me, it's singing. I am not a natural. I have to be spoon fed melodies. What really strikes fear in my heart is improvisational singing. I've done it. I'll do it. But I suck at it and would much rather prefer you didn't pimp me into singing. Of course, that's like having a sunburn and hoping no one pats you on the back. Your fear is a magnet for what you don't want. Consequently, I have bit large wheels of cheese singing on Chicago's finest improv stages.

Sam was asked to pick a prop from a table to use in our piece. He chose a small trophy of a man holding a star with "Best Director" written on the base in magic marker. Turns out it belonged to Scott. So, some nice kismet going on there.

Then we called it a night.
Sam was up all night working on a script for us that we'll see this morning. He e-mailed it out to everyone at 1:30am. Unfortunately, he sent it in a Final Draft format, which I'm unable to open. Argh! I want to read it so bad! It was entitled Justice. I wonder if it has anything to do with embezzlement. We reconvene at 9am when we will be given hard copies of the script and work all day getting ready for tonight. If you're interested, it's at 8pm at the Classic Studio in the Columbia Theater Building on 11th Street between Michigan and Wabash. It's free, no reservations accepted, and, apparently, it's very popular. Get there early to get a seat.

And if you're doing the math, you're right. We started at 6:30pm last night and won't finish until roughly 10pm tonight. But The 27 and a Half Hour New Plays Festival doesn't have the same ring to it. So, not quite like 24. Hopefully, it won't have any bombs, either.