GOT: Guaranteed Overnight Theater

(This started as a tangent to today’s Left Behind post, but since it quickly grew too long and too tangential, I’m cutting it there and posting it here.)

I don’t know if the idea for Guaranteed Overnight Theater originated with the late, great Brick Playhouse on South Street or if the folks who ran the Brick got it from somewhere else. I also don’t know if any theater anywhere is still doing such a thing (some quick Googling finds a few groups experimenting with it, and rumor has it Philly’s Actor’s Center has picked up the torch, but I’m out of that loop nowadays).

I’ll try to explain it here in a bit more detail because it was pretty awesome and because the idea deserves to be continued, revived, attempted and duplicated elsewhere. It’s fun. I think it’s a terrific model for high school, college or community theater groups to play with — or even for church youth groups who want to try something a little different for their next mission-trip fundraiser.

Here, roughly, is how it sometimes worked: Everybody meets at the theater (or coffee house, or church basement) on Friday night at 9. Nothing has yet been written, cast or rehearsed, but 24 hours later — on Saturday night at 9 — you’ll be staging a series of short plays as a full production for a paying audience.

There’s a table on the stage with six hats. Each is labeled with some broad topic — something like Prop, Setting, Genre, Phrase, Song, Costume, Incident, etc. This part works a bit like the set-up for a game of charades. Everybody writes ideas for each of the various categories on little slips of paper and puts them into the various hats. “Blue carnation,” “Paris, 1943,” “romantic comedy,” “This is all your fault, Mr. Donovan,” “Gonna Make You Sweat,” “stovepipe hat,” “a betrayal,” etc.

OK, so — writers sit over there, actors over there, directors over there. These categories will need to be a bit flexible, since you’ll need one director for every writer and enough actors to go around.

Right then, how many writers have you got? Let’s say six. Actors count off into casts, please. One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two, three … Now each writer knows the shape and size of their designated cast and each cast is assigned a director.

At this point, each writer takes a turn drawing little slips of paper out of anywhere from two to six of the hats. No peeking. These elements will have to be included in the short — 10-15 minute — plays they will be writing overnight.

Now each writer knows how they will be spending the next 12 hours. One will be writing a short play for three women and two men, set on a spaceship in a distant galaxy and including the phrase, “These cookies are almost as good as the ones Mom made.” Another will be writing a short play for one woman and three men and it will have to feature a picnic basket, a platinum-blonde wig, and a case of mistaken identity. Another will be writing a murder mystery for five women somehow incorporating a skateboard, a calico dress, and the phrase “I should have remembered that before I ordered the salmon.” Et cetera.

The writers have until 9 a.m. on Saturday, when everyone again assembles at the theater. The writers hand over their completed scripts to the directors and then go home to sleep. The actors of the various casts spend the next 12 hours memorizing lines, blocking and rehearsing the plays as their directors scramble to figure out some way to bring them to the stage by 9 o’clock. The box office opens at 8:30.

The whole experience tended to be a glorious illustration of what Stoppard/Rush/Henslowe described so well in Shakespeare in Love:

HENSLOWE: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

FENNYMAN: So what do we do?

HENSLOWE: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.


HENSLOWE: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Like improv, it didn’t always work, exactly. Maybe it didn’t even usually work. Many of the short plays created overnight seemed more like hit-or-miss comedy sketches or discarded pages from Christopher Durang’s notebooks.

But when it did somehow mysteriously all come together it could be magical. And even when that didn’t quite happen, the evening had the energy and adrenaline of its without-a-net audacity. The audience paid its 10 buck a head and went away happy because even if they hadn’t witnessed the creation of enduring art, they’d gotten to see a bunch of people swinging for the fences and just watching that attempt is kind of inspiring. And taking the risk of making that attempt is even more so.

I you hear of anyone doing anything like this near you, be sure not to miss it. Try it out from the audience first, then take the plunge and sign up as an actor, a writer or director. Dare to eat a peach. At several points during that hectic 26 hours, you’ll probably hate me for having suggested such a thing, but you’ll change your mind by final curtain — at which point you may be thinking about how to do this even better next time.

"Well, that's a common one. You have to mix it up every now and then."

Unspoken testimony
"Sheesh, the entire right is fan-theorying their way around reality.In the first Star Wars movie, ..."

Unspoken testimony
"I decided to check the law on this; looks like illegal crossing is a civil ..."

Unspoken testimony
"Ah, animation hiatuses. Only one I've seen that bad was the God Eater anime, which ..."

Unspoken testimony

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • hidden_urchin

    I am so suggesting this to my acting prof.

  • SisterCoyote

    …I’ll bet the D&D group would know some people interested in this.

  • Eric Boersma

    I really, really want to do this.

  • hidden_urchin

    I gotta say that this post was well timed. I’m in a film workshop and we’re making shorts. The final draft of the script is due Tuesday. We start filming Saturday. In that time I have to find a location and actors. And it has to be cheap or free.

    I have no idea how I’m going to pull it off.

  • David S.
  • oliviacw

    I was reading a list of summer events in my area, and apparently we have a group in town that does something like the opposite of this. It’s called Anonymous Theatre. It’s a regular play, and they have a director and casting board. But for the production, each actor only knows who the director is – the actors never meet until opening night. They practice on their own, and meet with the director individually for stage directions and a few rehearsals. Then on the production night – one night only – the actors come to the show just like audience members. Only when it is time for their entrance do they stand up, deliver their first line, then go up on stage. Sounds crazy. Apparently this summer they are doing The Skin of Our Teeth, which could either work wonderfully this way or fall totally flat.

  • Dan P

    I used to do something very similar to this in college. We called it Combat Theater, and the only major difference is that the writers had complete autonomy, outside of being told simply the number and gender of the actors assigned to them (the actors themselves were meant to be a mystery). It was always fun, although the quality of the individual shows may vary, in the end most people would leave entertained.

    I had always been an actor, and sometimes director, but combat let me try out my writing. The short nature of each individual show allows a good idea to stand up for itself without wearing too thin. Man I miss those days.

  • Matt in PDX

    Local theatre companies in Portland, OR, have been doing something like this for years. Here’s an old review of one:

  • tatortotcassie

    Hey, I did this in my first month as a college freshman! Except we called “24 Hour Theatre” and the pool of volunteers was so small that pretty much everyone pulled double and triple duty (which made for some rather epic caffeine demands.) But it was a lot of fun and I met people who would become friends for the next four years.
    I swear, every community should be doing this at least once a year.

  • ReverendRef

    HENSLOWE: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
    FENNYMAN: How?
    HENSLOWE: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

    Huh . . . that sounds an awful lot like part of a catechism class.

  • Makes me think of the free-form role-playing in which I used to be big.

  • Merwyn Haskett

    Now THAT is a production I would’ve loved to be part of.

  • Jamoche

    I recently discovered that years of D&D has given me an aptitude for the improv version of this that I didn’t have back in high school when it would be sprung on non-volunteers in an attempt at forced team-building.

  • Ben English

    I’d meant to link this on the latest Left Behind post, but that didn’t happen.

    (Chapter 4 of my Left Behind mockery-crossover with DC’s Teen Titans)

  • ohiolibrarian

    Anybpdy think of doing this WITHOUT specifying the gender of the actors? Might be interesting.

  • Does this sound like a circle of hell to anyone else, or is it just me?

  • themunck

    Each to their own, as always. I’d certainly not enjoy being in the cast, but I can see why someone might.

  • Alicia

    It’s actually the double-secret 10th circle of Hell, reserved only for damned souls who commit unspeakable atrocities while already imprisoned in Hell.

    It also doubles as a layer of Heaven for others. The intriguing part is that if you’re there, you don’t necessarily know which of the other castmembers thinks that it’s paradise and which of them are being tortured.

  • Yes, I don’t mean to suggest that no one could or should enjoy it. It’s just all the comments saying how great it sounded, and I was wondering if anyone else felt they’d run away screaming if asked to participate.

  • Jamoche

    It’s definitely something you do with volunteers. Unfortunately there will always be people who seem to think that the improv version is just an awesome way to inspire team building.

  • hidden_urchin

    Is it just me or are most team building exercises somewhat sadistic?

    Anyway, I think the main reason this idea would fail as a team building exercise is because it relies on esprit de corps already existing in the group. Team building exercises, on the other hand, start from the premise that people are a bunch of individuals who need to be coerced into unity.

    Furthermore, the people who do GOT or related projects have to be 100% comfortable with the possibility that they might fail spectacularly, otherwise they will never take the creative risk. You have to feel safe in your group to take those risks, either because you are comfortable with the people or because all of you are excited about the experience. These are, once again, not usually characteristics found in groups needing team building exercises.

  • Jamoche

    I’d say all of them. I haven’t seen a team building exercise yet that wouldn’t be out of place in that Addams’ Family movie summer camp.

  • Moustache De Plume

    They have to work around who shows up. Personally I’d prefer most things to be written without gender in mind, but that’s another issue.

  • Moustache De Plume

    “24/48-Hour [Theatre/Film] Festival” is an annual event at a lot of Midwest colleges, at least enough to be a familiar concept to everyone who hears about one popping up.

  • reynard61

    Kinda makes sense. Isn’t there a saying that goes something like “God is a director, and we are all actors on his stage*”?

    *Note: This is just something I dimly remember hearing at some point. Don’t ascribe it to mean that I’m Christian. My spiritual/religious loyalties lay firmly with the Goddesses Luna and Celestia.

  • reynard61

    My own writing and acting talents are pretty limited, but I’d gladly descend into this particular circle of Hell if given the opportunity.

    Remember: “(…)Hell for the company.”

  • reynard61

    “Who wants to be the victim volunteer?”

  • ReverendRef

    “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.” Wm. Shakespeare, As You Like It

    That’s the best I can do. I don’t know where the “and God is the director” bit got tossed in, but there’s plenty of versions of that saying floating around.

  • TAG

    Working Title Playwrights sponsor a 24-Hour Plays event every year in Atlanta, GA

  • Fanraeth

    I don’t know that I would want to act in it, but I’d love to write for one of these.

  • reynard61

    I know about the Shakespeare line. The version that I remember — vaguely — was used in a specifically religious context. I don’t remember the *exact* context though. (Hell, I’m not even sure that what I quoted above is actually verbatim.) I *think*/*suspect* that it may have come from a discussion about predestination that I heard on the radio when I was in my teens, but I’m just not absolutely sure.

  • Ash Walter


  • hidden_urchin

    It comes up in Macbeth too. I think Shakespeare was fond of the image.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Gee, whyever would a playwright be fond of theatrical figurative language…