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.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
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  • David Evans

    That is, indeed, a useful expression. I hope it spreads.

    I can’t help thinking, though, that when Marianne Talbot writes:

    “Now, here’s the thing about self-sealing arguments: You can’t disprove ‘em. They could, in theory, be true. But because there’s no evidence that could ever disprove them, they could equally be false, and the believer would have no way of knowing.”

    she is saying no more or less than what Dawkins and others have long been saying about theological propositions in general.

  • Saratogan

    Quoting from above “The worst insult a fundamentalist can ever throw at you is
    ‘unbeliever’…In other words, we’re entirely happy to accept criticism,
    but it can only come from people who agree with us. And when they apply
    this criterion, fundamentalists magically find that everybody agrees with them!” Since Mr. McGarth is a New Testament scholar, I am sure that he will find the no less than 13 New Testament references to the problem of unbelief including one by a man who in exasperation cries out “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” Further the writer of Hebrews expresses “See, brethren, lest there be in any one of you a wicked heart of unbelief, in turning away from the living God.” The context is with respect to the children of Israel and the unbelief in the Sinai for 40 years but it applies just as well to our journey on this earth today.

    • James F. McGrath

      The New Testament also has warnings about our tendency to seek out teachers who say what we want to hear. And the point of this post is about precisely that. It is very easy to dismiss someone as an unbeliever. It is much more challenging – but necessary – to listen to what they say, recognizing that what they disbelieve may be something that we ought to disbelieve too, because we have been deceived into believing it.

      • cyclops

        Circular reasoning, using the book to prove the book. What’s wrong with simply using plain common sense? I’m a Jedi, I believe in the force, my beliefs are true for me. Christians do not share my beliefs therefore to me, Christians are unbelievers.
        As you say it is terribly easy and fun to play in group out group morality games. Repetitive reinforcement of mantra’s, creeds and dogmas and special interpretations of scripture eventually become engraved in the soft tissue of the brain, (remember Pavlov’s dogs). This is commonly known as indoctrination, the method is used quite successfully in controlling large herds of unquestioning humans.

        • James F. McGrath

          The danger of relying on common sense is that it is shaped by our own experience and culture. That slavery was acceptable was once considered “common sense” and of course one can never get to the idea that physical matter is mostly empty space or the rotation of the Earth while relying primarily on common sense. We need to be open to having our common sense challenged.

          • Cyclops

            I don’t think slaves themselves considered slavery common sense, their slave owners might have regarded the practice as a god given right due to hierarchical structures in previous less egalitarian social orders. All men at all times have rebelled against being controlled against their will by the ruthless and powerful. Common sense and curiosity are valuable human traits, although not everyone possesses these in equal measure.
            My common sense, though sorely limited as you say, through the circumstance of my birth in a particular geographical location, tells me that Christianity was shaped through the experience of a particular European culture and history.
            But as we all should know today, there are many other competing cultural beliefs in the world, thus one is more or less obliged to conclude that all religions must be anthropological or tribal in origin and all gods are created in the image of the men who imagined them. All gods are not equal though, some are more equal than others, again common sense informs us that the god with the most potent weaponry and technology wins hands down.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    There is one big problem with this position: it’s self-defeating. The belief ‘Unless a belief is testable there’s no point holding it’ is untestable, and therefore there’s no point holding to it!

    This raises the question of how exactly we know things. Ultimately we have to have some sort of faith that our senses tell us something about the world and that the logic we use to connect it all is more or less coherent. So whilst this position mightn’t be as internally consistent as we’d like, it gives a pretty good starting point.

    The only sort of testing available is to simply live with the belief for a while and see if it holds up. Unfortunately this is also the only sort of testing available to fundamentalism. Whilst this is a test for self-sealing statements, I would suggest that there is a rather large blind spot which both admits and assimilates them.

    This is why a charge of scientism is probably well-founded. Her position has exactly the same weaknesses as fundamentalism.

    All of that said, I do agree with the thrust of her argument. As long as questions are allowed and we are permitted to try to imagine cases in which our beliefs don’t hold up, I think we’re good.

    • James F. McGrath

      Yes, there certainly are some criticisms that can be made. But I really appreciate the point about how some insulate their their worldview from criticism by defining certain critiques and challenges as by definition illegitimate.

      • cameronhorsburgh

        Oh, for sure! Sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘I can’t hear you!’ may be popular in some circles but it isn’t the most efficient mode of discourse.

    • David Evans

      “As long as questions are allowed and we are permitted to try to imagine cases in which our beliefs don’t hold up, I think we’re good.”

      That’s not quite good enough. It’s too easy to think that we have tried to imagine contrary cases, when in fact we haven’t tried hard enough. It’s uncomfortable to change one’s beliefs; most people will avoid finding reasons to do it.

      That’s why in science so much emphasis is placed on getting other people to replicate one’s experiments and criticise one’s arguments.

      • cameronhorsburgh

        That’s a pretty good point that I hadn’t considered! The social forces which tend to seal questions in religion ideally have the opposite effect in science.

  • Jonny Scaramanga

    Dr. McGrath, you’ve now linked to blog several times. Thank you. I’m honoured enough that someone of your calibre takes the time to read my writing, and even more so that you would point your readers to it.

    I also appreciate the thread below with Cameron Horsburgh. I often have people tell me there are weaknesses in my argument; much less often do they tell me specifically what those weaknesses are. I always welcome criticism of my arguments.