Several weeknds ago, I flew without a net, theatre-wise.
I was asked to be a director for one of the six short plays presented as part of 24-Hour Theatre Project at Theatre Charlotte. This is a special theatre boot camp event where, in the course of one 24 hour period, a play is written, cast and fully produced on stage. Typically, the rehearsal process alone takes a full 3-4 weeks or more for a non-musical, just as a point of comparison.
Anyone that is familiar with theatre knows that one of the most thrilling things about it is that it is live, so there is always an element of excitement connected to the performance. And because it is live, any number of things can happen during the course of a performance that are COMPLETELY UNPLANNED, adding an element of unknown for everyone involved, including the audience. It is, technically, acting without a net. But, those of us that participate on a regular basis have many different rituals and tricks that we utilize in attempt to control the chaos that eventually becomes the art. So a theatre project where all of the existing givens are now variable unknowns is pretty darn unnerving. And somewhat intimidating. Included in these unknowns, by the way, was the overall theme of the plays. The writers themselves didn’t even get that piece of info until 8pm on the night they were to start writing against their 12 hour deadline.
Anyone that has ever worked with me on any project knows that I work to conquer and control the variable unknowns that live and lurk in my theatre world.
As an actor, I check and double-check props and costume pieces prior to a show, even though there are typically additional people tasked with doing this. I create lists of my clothing changes and props needed between my scenes, print out copies and post at all stage entrances and exits. I figure out my ‘plan B’ for the times that the prop phone doesn’t ring, an actor doesn’t enter or drops a line, or drops a glass, etc. I do love rehearsal, and have been known to schedule extra time for work outside of the original set schedule. When I step on stage I forget all that planning and let it go, but these organizational items provide structure for my process.
As an independent theatre producer, my planning takes on a whole other level. Typically, I pick my pieces over 2 years in advance, and secure any producing partners, funding and sponsors. I cast and hire tech personnel as much as a year in advance of the project. I even pre-purchase costume pieces, props, and opening night gifts if I see something that I think will work within the confines and themes of the show. I work from tabbed and divided notebooks, keeping track of it all as I go. I have been told, repeatedly, in my producing career that I set deadlines for things “too early”. But I start early and consider myself a practical realist; something inevitably will happen that is unexpected and if everything else is already tied up, decided upon and generally done, then there is time to deal with the unknown surprise issue(s). Yes, I know: this means I plan for the surprise. But, it is how I prefer to work and it feels practical to me.
So you can understand why being a part of something like the 24-Hour Theatre Project should send me into override. And I am guessing Ron Law, Executive Director at Theatre Charlotte and a project partner of mine for three years running considered this about me as well, but asked me to be a part of this project anyway- for which I am very grateful. I was surprised, to say the least, at my personal reaction to all of this. Instead of feeling nervous, I found it all absolutely exhilarating. The whole thing became about quickly identifying and utilizing the opportunities that were immediately presenting themselves. I got lucky, and was gifted with an incredibly witty, well written and workable piece which I later found out was written by Charlotte Magazine writer Jenn Grabenstetter. Bonus: It had a well placed twist of a punchline about a timely topic. The actors were game to ‘mine the funny’ into comedy bits that really worked well with the structure; and here I learned something. As a director, there is nothing better than coming up with what you perceive as a funny bit, watching actors execute it perfectly and then having it kill in front of an audience. The entire process felt like it was somehow on organic fast forward! When the actors got up to do their one and only performance that evening, they took it to the next level, and as I sat on the back row in the dark of the theatre with my fellow directors at the jumping off point, I felt really proud of all the unbelievable work that everyone had done in that one 24 hour period.
I am currently working on development of several brand new theatre projects about all of which I am very excited. The collaborations are ones that I have been thinking about and working toward for some time now. The juggling should prove to be interesting because they are all very unique pieces at different stages of development. I certainly don’t have it all figured out yet-but strangely, that’s not bothering me this time around. I am now flying without a net… and I think I like it.