Speed theater

Adversity may be the mother of invention, but a looming deadline also does wonders for the creative juices, as participants in this year’s 29 1/2 Hour Playwriting Festival discovered.

Actor Paj Crank as El Baz sings about his puppy, Ducktangled, and the origins of evil wizards.

Actor Paj Crank as El Baz sings about his puppy, Ducktangled, and the origins of evil wizards.

Photo By Jill Wagner

There’s an old saying that goes, more or less, “Nothing sharpens the senses like the prospect of a hanging at dawn.” It’s a morbid cliché, one that journalists understand well, as do chefs, comedians and just about anybody who has had to improvise or create something on the fly under a tight deadline. Put another way—nothing stokes the creative fire like a heavy dose of panic.

Consider the act of putting on a play. You might have six weeks for the director to interpret the script, for the actors to explore their characters and learn their lines, for the sets to be designed and built, and for all the other myriad details that go into a typical production. It can be an exhilarating and exhausting process.

Now imagine compressing that process into just a few hours. That’s the principle behind the 29 1/2 Hour Playwriting Festival—an annual marathon of near-instant theater. This event is all about pressure and igniting the creative process in its barest, most adrenaline-fueled form.

Every fall, several teams consisting of a playwright, director, and two to four actors are each given a little more than a day to write, rehearse and then perform a one-act play in front of a live audience.

“It’s kind of miraculous that they get it done at all,” explains Luther Hanson, a drama teacher at Sacramento City College and one of the festival’s main organizers. “But they do.”

The process is as simple as it is difficult. On Saturday afternoon, playwrights are given a theme cooked up by Hanson and his wife, co-organizer and actress Christine Nicholson (who also teaches theater at the college and acts in plays produced during the festival). The writers have until 9:30 p.m. that night to turn their scripts over to the directors. The directors and actors have until 7 p.m. Sunday to learn the scripts and be ready to perform them.

Hanson got the idea from a similar theater event held every year in San Francisco. He says he was intrigued by the intense pace and the utterly stripped-down creative process. “I was just fascinated that a play that didn’t exist at all on Saturday would be completely realized the next day,” he explains.

Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

The whole hectic process starts with a single phrase.

On the first weekend in September, 10 writers have gathered inside the Art Court Theater building at City College to receive the topic from Hanson—one that hopefully will inspire a great story but might just as easily cause them to become very confused. The themes are always diabolical little riddles, like “Five and a Half Pairs of Shoes and an Accordion That Can’t Come on Stage,” “Not Clowns, 3/4 Grumpy,” or “You Were Funnier in My Dreams.” This year, festival organizers have come up with their most evil yet: “Duck Tangled.”

One or two scripts will actually work the idea “duck tangled” into their stories in very subtle and sophisticated ways. But for most of the writers, the topic is merely a first idea and reference point, a polestar to navigate the unlikely ordeal of writing a dramatic script in eight hours.

After Hanson reveals the topic, writers will mill around the performance space for a few moments. The handful of props that have been brought in will spark some ideas. And some writers will be lucky enough to meet the director and some of the actors who will be bringing the scripts to life, and the scribes will do their best to draw more ideas from these brief encounters.

One actress says she can play clarinet. An actor reveals that he’s a poor dancer but is good with accents. Another owns a hat with green fur that looks like moss. There’s a giant foam boulder on the stage as well as a tiny, blue-and-white-painted boat on coasters, just big enough for an actor to sit inside. There’s a flock of yellow rubber ducks.

With these raw materials and its members’ skills, each group will try to make something out of nothing.

Harry Potter vs. John Ashcroft: Alan Tollefsoncrafts a story about taking it to the man, with magic!

Photo By Jill Wagner

The event, sponsored by Sacramento City College and theater group Synergy Stage, has grown every year. This year, a record 10 plays were produced, giving the audience two solid hours of theater from a wide cross section of Sacramento’s theater community—students and professionals, edgy and conventional.

“You may do this scary thing however you wish,” Hanson warns the writers. There are just a few ground rules: The play itself can’t run more than 10 minutes. And there are to be no major rewrites after the play has been turned in.

Also, Hanson suggests that writers avoid lengthy monologues. “They are very difficult to learn,” he says, “and the actors will kill you!” And the actors will remember you if you torture them with long blocks of lines or make them do anything too weird.

As the writers return to their computers at home, many of the actors and directors linger around the campus, comparing notes. In the parking lot, one young actress says to her companion, “I told Luther, ‘Look, I paid my dues. Please do not put me in another Tollefson.’” He didn’t.

Saturday, 4 p.m.

Tollefson is Alan Tollefson, a regular participant in the festival who has built a reputation for himself as a talented but eclectic writer who creates “out-there” plays, challenging to audiences and actors alike.

Last year, he left Sacramento to take a job as master carpenter for the theater department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In order to participate in the festival this year, Tollefson is camping out in Alkali Flats, at the apartment of a friend, Scott Bailey, who also has entered the festival for the first time this year as a writer.

Tollefson is 38 years old and tall, with a baseball cap backward on his head and a wry half-smile on his face as if he’s laughing at some private joke. He studied performance art and painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and while sitting at a computer he has set up on a kitchen counter, he says that he tries not to “pre-conceptualize” anything before receiving the topic. Though the temptation is surely there, it seems that none of the writers attempted to pass off already-written material as spontaneous, instead keeping with the spirit of the event.

So, nearly three hours after receiving the topic, Tollefson has only a couple of pages and a vague idea of where he’s going. All he knows is that it’s going to be about “three goofball junior wizards in the lair of an evil wizard.”

The play opens with some fantastically embroidered lines for an absurdist gang of Harry Potter sound-alikes.

Billy: “Boo Boo, What is this place?”

Boo Boo: “It is the cavern of El Baz, Billy.”

Bobby: “The lair of the Pink Worm.”

Boo Boo: “Whoa, Bobby! Looks like we’re in some deep entanglement of fate’s flambé.”

Luther Hanson, the man behind Sacramento’s 29 1/2 Hour Playwriting Festival.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Billy: “The House of Chagrin, as told of in the Book of Mysteries, Boo Boo. It belongs to the invisible doubter of god’s friendly advice. The slayer of buttery Christmas cookies and low-carb snacks.”

Tollefson admits that he likes to be “a little mischievous” with his scripts, and these gymnastic lines are sure to challenge any actor. But this is only the beginning.

He says that this year, more than any other year in the past, he wants to make a very big point. He wants the play to be about something.

“I really want it to be a big rant about how everything in this country is upside-down right now,” he says. “I’d like to turn this stupid little fairy tale into a rant against John Ashcroft.” But how he’ll shoehorn the polemic into his script isn’t clear. He doesn’t have much time. “You can follow these threads and then find that they just don’t go anywhere,” he explains. When that happens, panic can set in.

Last year, in a fit of disgust, Tollefson threw out an entire play and started over with just two hours left before the deadline. “It actually worked out pretty well,” he says. “It can get pretty hairy. But it’s great for me to battle those demons. Is it good enough? Can I top myself?” he asks.

Saturday, 5 p.m.

All over the city, nine other writers are battling their own demons, trying to come up with a workable script before the deadline. But in an apartment near Southside Park, writer Mike Pollack appears to have his demons pretty much beat. The compact, bespectacled Pollack is about the nicest, most polite person you could meet. He doesn’t hesitate to let a reporter in to look over his shoulder and interrupt with questions while he works. Pollack has only about four hours in total to write his piece because he has to report by 6 p.m. to his job as the stage manager for the Delta King Theatre.

Luckily, he has already made good progress. He says ideas instantly presented themselves to him as he looked over the theater space and the props. One particularly inspiring prop was an 8-foot-tall pillar that looks at once like a giant cat-scratching post and the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I just thought, ‘It’s all so alien,’” Pollack says. “'Yeah, alien …’”

As Pollack talks, an alien baby floats in a jar of green liquid on the bookshelf behind him. An oversized alien skull rests, jaw gaping, on a shelf in the living room. The books, videos and decorations in his home, which he shares with two other roommates, all suggest a love of science fiction and fantasy: from the William Shatner novel Tek Lords to the Lord of the Rings poster in the hallway.

The rough draft of Pollack’s play, Abducktion, is a light science-fiction fantasy about three characters who are “borrowed” for research purposes by the alien race of Duckians.

Although Tollefson and Pollack both have settled on fantastic settings and subjects, the two are very different writers. Where Tollefson makes sweeping statements about what his writing is about, Pollack is all about brass tacks and structure.

Pollack explains as he types that he has incorporated the common device of naming his characters in alphabetical order: Arianna Fife, Ben O’Brien, Christy Underhill. A-B-C, U-F-O. He giggles while explaining that there is a fourth character, Donald the disembodied ambassador from the world of Ducktangled, who inhabits the bodies of the other characters and speaks through them. You can see his thoughtful mind at work when he explains that he wants Arianna, the mean, self-centered businesswoman, to take off one of her high-heeled shoes and threaten her abductor with it. It’s funny. It shows the conflict in a dramatic way. And it’s practical. “I want to get her out of those heels as quickly as possible,” Pollack explains. “Those things are really murder on your feet.”

Saturday, 9 p.m.

Back in Alkali Flats a few hours later, Tollefson’s host and friend Scott Bailey is in a sour mood. He struggled with writer’s block from the beginning, and then had to slap the script together and turn it in just before the deadline. He comes up with a short, very dark piece about the devil in the form of a homeless crackhead, whom he calls “the hungry ghost,” out to steal the soul of a goody-two-shoes protagonist. Bailey admits the play is a bit of a mess. “I’m just glad to have it done,” he says.

But the script is only one part of the play. A promising script can fall flat in performance. A rough script may only need good direction and acting to make it shine.

Writer Mike Pollack bangs out a one-act play with time to spare.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“A lot of times, you can look at a play and think, ‘Well, this might just be a piece of crap,’” says Martha Kite, one of this year’s directors. “But then the actors get a hold of it, you get a chemistry going, and the ideas start coming. Suddenly the play’s up on its feet.”

And though there’s a lot of anxiety that goes along with participating in the 29 1/2 Hour Playwriting Festival, the reward is in getting to put on something completely new in a town that tends to stick to standard plays and sure things.

“There’s some risk here,” says Tollefson. “But it challenges audiences to accept new work. It’s just more alive and more fresh.”

Saturday, 10 p.m.

Pollack’s script is in the hands of director Aram Kouyoumdjian, who is participating in the festival for the first time. Kouyoumdjian is the director of the Sacramento theater group Vista Players, which he co-founded four years ago. This year, he was nominated for an Elly, the local theater award, for his direction of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby. Pairing Pollack and Kouyoumdjian is interesting because the director has tended to prefer serious dramas and has no experience directing comedies, much less ones about alien abduction. But that’s just the sort of cross-pollination that the festival is designed to encourage in the theater community.

Kouyoumdjian is an advocate of thoroughly “blocking” the play—providing the actors line-by-line directions for their movements onstage—an often-overlooked art, he says, that can help bring the words to life.

It’s an auspicious beginning for Pollack’s Abducktion script. He has an experienced, meticulous director, and the cast is bolstered by Christine Nicholson—the drama teacher and festival co-organizer—playing the part of Arianna Fife. “She’s phenomenal,” Pollack says. “I’ve always wanted to work with her.”

Sunday, 9 a.m.

Rehearsals begin in the theater department classrooms. By mid-morning, Kouyoumdjian is running his actors through the paces beat by beat. Ideas are flowing freely, with the actors and director building on top of the foundation laid by Pollack’s script.

The team has figured out how to use one of the rubber ducks as a prop to show which character is being inhabited by the ethereal Donald. And the two younger actors have come up with a lascivious tango, during which the duck mind passes between their bodies. They find it difficult not to laugh while entangled in each other’s limbs.

Nicholson has another idea. “I want to get in that boat. Is there some way I can get in the boat?” she pleads, jumping up and down like a little girl. Kouyoumdjian puts his finger on his chin and arches an eyebrow, thinking, then looks at Pollack who is sitting in the back of the classroom. He smiles and shrugs. “We’ll figure something out,” Kouyoumdjian says.

But the cast is falling behind schedule. One of the actors arrived late, and by noon, Kouyoumdjian is just finishing up the blocking. Normally, the director insists that actors come to rehearsal with their lines already memorized, something that’s not practical here. If the actors don’t learn their lines quickly today, it could be a rough night.

Sunday, 11 a.m.

At the rehearsal for Tollefson’s play, Evil is as Evil Does, actor Geoff Bardot is standing bent over with his hands on his knees, sucking in air. Bardot, who is at least 6 feet 2 inches tall with shaggy hair that suggests a medieval adventurer, is plainly exhausted. The script calls for some intensely physical acting, as the junior wizards spend much of their time pantomiming magical warfare with the evil sorcerer El Baz. This involves a lot of running around and spasmodic flailing to show the effects of El Baz’s fireballs and telekinetic chokeholds.

Actress Megan O’Laughlin is struggling with a difficult passage in which her character, Boo Boo, condemns the brain-rotting properties of Diet Coke:The phenylanaline in Diet Coke turns into formaldehyde when heated over 90 degrees.” But O’Laughlin is having a hell of a time pronouncing phenylanaline. She will no doubt remember Tollefson for the line.

Megan O’Laughlin and Aryeh Krause-Nadler cram to learn their lines in the last moments before taking the stage.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“We’re in the discovery process right now,” says director Ed Gyles Jr., whose own credits include directing for Main Street Theatre Works and acting for the Sacramento Theater Company, most recently as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night. Gyles also has a lot of experience in musicals, which is helpful since Tollefson decided last night to include long passages of singing for his characters.

“It’s very eclectic, but in a good way,” says Gyles of the play’s dramatic steeplechase—intensely physical slapstick and magical warfare, punctuated by machine-gun fusillades of convoluted political rhetoric and mystical gobbledygook, and, of course, singing. He insists the actors were prepared. “All I had to say was Alan Tollefson, and they all said, ‘Oh shit.’”

Sunday, 1 p.m.

After lunch on Sunday afternoon, the casts begin to “tech” their plays. It’s basically a dress rehearsal and the first chance for the actors and directors to see how the play will actually work in performance space. For many Sacramento theater companies, tech can take up the entire fifth week of rehearsals. Today, each team has a half-hour to adapt to the space, decide on the appropriate lighting, adjust their blocking to real stage conditions and figure out where the set pieces (just a few props in this case) should be placed.

One of the first plays to be teched is The Big Idea by 25-year-old playwright Morgan Boyd. He has written a very funny piece about a socially awkward would-be inventor trying to come up with a way to sell Lewis and Clark dolls that drive around in little sport-utility vehicles. It’s a difficult role, with great big blocks of lines, and scores of little tics and other weirdness to remember. But the actor, Cary Babka, already has his lines down pat, along with some very nuanced movements and facial expressions.

The only problem is that the play turns out to be 18 minutes long, eight minutes too many. When Boyd hears this, he just shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “I have no idea what we’re going to do,” he says.

Sunday, 5 p.m.

Back in the Abducktion rehearsals, things have taken a turn for the worse. Pollack has mostly avoided long or overly complicated lines in his script, but some of the science-fiction jargon he uses is throwing off the actors. The actor who plays Ben is finding it difficult to go more than a few beats without calling “line!” At one point, Kouyoumdjian pleads with the whole cast, “Please! You’re killing me!”

At the dinner break, actors are wandering around the halls, muttering lines to themselves. Many are tired and are getting a little bit giddy. Scott Bailey, who has been watching the transformation of his own play all day and whose mood has improved greatly from the night before, sums it up like this: “You are starting to see that kind of 3 a.m. senility humor. People are just milking every last drop of muppet juice from the old brain stem.”

Geoff Bardot, the tall wizard, still panting it seems, is telling another actor, “Dude, I’m the lead in a Tollefson! And it’s a musical!”

Asked whether he wishes he had drawn another writer, Bardot says, “No way! I had heard horror stories, but this is great.”

Bardot goes on to say, “This is the most intense pressure I’ve been under as an actor. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”

Sunday, 7 p.m.

Kouyoumdjian is telling his actors, “No more calling for lines. Improvise, make it up, whatever.”

The actor playing Ben starts: “It has a lovely ring to it, even in your …” Pause.

Director Ed Gyles Jr. coaches his actors through slapstick, political rhetoric and song.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“No lines. Make it up,” Kouyoumdjian warns.

After the cast struggles to the end of one last tortured read-through, Kouyoumdjian says, “OK, there were some nice saves that time.”

Mike Pollack is worried; the actors are worried. Kouyoumdjian is worried, too, but his job is to bolster the actors’ confidence, not to undermine it.

“It’s only 20 lines that are giving us the problem,” he says. “I’ll be damned if we let those lines trip us up.” Kouyoumdjian makes a few more suggestions, then declares rehearsal over. “You’ve worked very hard,” he says. “Michael, thank you for your wonderful script. And thank you all for giving his words life.”

Sunday, 8 p.m.

When showtime comes, it’s like the finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display. Each of the plays blooms to life, seemingly from nowhere, one after the other, fully realized in brilliant color. It’s a little mind-boggling that these nearly two hours of theater were created in a little over one day.

All are comedies, some very conventional but most quite odd, and all wildly different from one another. Going Down South is a sweet and funny play about two middle-aged women, one who asks the other to have a baby for her.

Morgan Boyd’s play, The Big Idea, has a stepped-up pace and is mostly a one-man show. Later that evening, people are talking about the impressive performance of the young Cary Babka, who, it turns out, has only ever acted in three plays, all at Cosumnes River College.

Evan Johnson, who is only 17 years old, turns in a clever, sexually charged piece called Yes, Peter Loves Me about three women in a Peter Pan cult. When the women break into a slightly twisted version of a Sunday-school song—Yes, We Love Peter!—the audience explodes into laughter.

Pollack’s Abducktion starts off well. In the opening scene, characters Arianna and Christy are in animated conversation with invisible others, in the moment just before they are transported to the cargo hold of the alien ship.

When Christy’s first line, “I like my women like I like my coffee—hot, black and sweet,” suddenly bursts into the silent air of the theater, the audience is hooked.

When the rough spots come, and they do come, the audience seems forgiving. It’s part of the appeal of working in the 29 1/2 Hour Playwriting Festival. The experience is nerve-wracking, but the audience is on the participants’ side to a degree that other audiences wouldn’t be.

There are some prompts, some saves and some dropped lines. But by the time Arianna undergoes her transformation and climbs in the little blue boat bound for the peaceful planet of Ducktangled, the audience is solidly along for the ride.

Bailey’s piece, Drops For Everyone, a messy bit of LSD-laced voodoo, might have been a disaster. But he’s lucked out because Chenelle Doutherd imbues her role as the hungry ghost with such creepiness and ferocity, the audience can’t help but laugh—the way people in a haunted house laugh—through the whole piece. Kouyoumdjian says afterward that he was impressed by the play, not just by the actresses’ performances but by Bailey’s unusual use of language. “I thought it was tremendously creative,” the director says. “People this year really stretched their writing.”

Alan Tollefson says that in the end the plays themselves don’t really matter: “The end result is just a part of the bigger picture,” meaning the process of collaboration and creating something completely new. He adds, “It’s too big a job for one person. It’s all the people who play a part along the way that really give a play its strength.”

The cast of <i>Abducktion</i> races to learn its lines before taking the stage.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The plays performed here tonight may not be great works of art, “but that doesn’t devalue it in terms of the overall effort that went into it,” says Tollefson.

It’s about the process, but it’s also at least a little bit about being known, about notoriety. It’s not an accident that Tollefson’s play is scheduled last. Hanson knows that whatever Tollefson and company have to offer, it is sure to be a spectacle.

Midway through Tollefson’s Evil is as Evil Does, Billy stands over the prone body of El Baz and mutters “Duck-tangled,” to which companions inquire, “What? Duck-tangled?”

Billy: “Oh, I was just thinking about the way things have been going lately. With the war-pig politicians bilking the country’s coffers. Creating invisible enemies, perpetuating fear. … Ashcroft pursuing the erosion of individual rights. … Billions literally stolen from this country’s citizenry. I feel raped.”

During this, Billy is prowling along the front of the stage, making eye contact with the audience members in the front row. He’s deadly serious, but then:

Bobby: “Yeah, kinda sucks.”

Boo Boo: “Sure does.

Tollefson believes the sentiment in those lines, but he throws it out there for laughs, as when all the wizards stop mid-battle to exhort the audience:

Billy: “Don’t drink Diet Coke!”

Bobby: “War is bad.”

El Baz: “Like the evil wizard, he wants to control your mind.”

Boo Boo: “And always give something back to the community!”

With this, Billy clobbers El Baz over the head with the Necromancer’s stone (a ridiculously large foam boulder).

“Quest over, motherfucker!” Billy sneers, and the three junior wizards exit. The lights go down, and audience starts to applaud. But it’s a false ending. In the darkness, El Baz begins to sing again, in the tune of Für Elise:

“Now I’m dead and gone, and they can’t poke me with their sticks. Being dead is not so bad. But still I miss the chicks.”

The audience is laughing and scratching their heads at the same time. It is, after all, a Tollefson.