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.

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